Posts tagged ‘Hattie Morrison’

October 28, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter X

by Mallard

I dropped to a crouch and spun, staring wildly for the shooter. Another shot sounded, echoing and pounding my eardrums. Amos grunted and fell, his leg blossoming red, landing with arms splayed across the hatch. Eager hands from below reached in and pulled him out of way of further harm, but Downing and I were too far to follow.

Pirates dropped into the tank, no longer masked, wielding pistols that roared out warning shots. I gripped my own small gun in bloodless fingers, but I knew it was a futile gesture; I would never get a shot off. One of the pirates covered us as the others descended the ladder or leapt into the tank, landing with echoing thumps. The last to enter stood and grinned easily at me.

“Victor,” he said, his voice roughened from years of smoke. He grinned through a shadow of dark stubble, that roguish grin I knew quite well.

“Ed,” I replied, my voice short, my muscles tight with fear and anger.

“You seem to be doing better,” he said, his grin belying the pistol he held leveled at my stomach. The last time we had spoken, I had been a wreck. Drunk and broken, I had confessed my reservations about the war, my inability to go on with the tasks assigned to me, spying and fighting and harming those who deserved none of it. He had nodded, in a friendly, fatherly way throughout my rambling and disjointed confession, and then he had arrested me on grounds of treason. I had been fortunate enough to escape, and I ran. Unable to face my colleagues or my enemies, I had run and hidden myself in some of the most hostile wildlands in the country.

“You seem the same,” I said truthfully. “Still on the wrong side, fighting for the wrong reasons, blind to the realities of the modern world. Just what was your plan here?”

He grinned, my words washing off him like oil on water. “Why,” he said. “We desired merely to gently convince these men and women of our peaceful intentions, and let them return to their homes.” He threw a congenial smile at Downing. “The uncomfortable lodgings were merely a by-product of the lack of vacancy in this joint.”

I grimaced. Characteristic of Ed, the same nonsense and deceit that had grown to define him in the later years of the war. He would never tell us his plans, not when he felt he had the upper hand. Though, a cursed hand it was. He had lost nearly all his prisoners, and he was surely aware of the ships surrounding us, that escape was ultimately impossible.

But of course, he still had Downing and I. Bargaining chips, small though our value might be. The water in the bottom of the tank had risen to my ankles as air bubbled out the bullet holes, and I saw Joel stamping his feet unconsciously. I shivered, my limbs leaden as my wet clothes and the icy tank partnered to leech the heat from my body. No doubt Downing was worse off, having spent the night in that icy chamber.

“Now,” Ed said, as if reading my mind. “We can either stand here all day and freeze to death, or you can climb up this ladder, let us give you some warm clothes and food, and become our hostages. Don’t worry, we’ll trade you back when your army backs off.” He shrugged. “See, I know when I’ve lost, Victor. I just aim to keep my men out of prison now. So what do you say? Warm clothes, hot soup, and no one gets hurt?”

I didn’t need Kristopher to know Ed was lying, would always lie. We would never leave the rig alive. And for me, that was a risk of the job, but Downing was a civilian. A civilian I might personally dislike, but one who nevertheless deserved none of this.

I watched as Ed and his men stepped aside, forming a short aisle for us to wade to the ladder, and as they splashed through the deepening water, a desperate idea took form in my head.

I stepped forward, between the pirates and Downing, shivering violently with every movement. I took one step, then another, and suddenly the cold was too much and I tripped over my own feet, flailing my arms and landing in the icy water with an enormous splash.

Or, at least, that was what I hoped they thought.

As I fell, I kicked out behind me, knocking Joel’s legs from beneath him. The spray from my own splash rose higher than it should have, enhanced by illusion to hide Downing’s fall. I kicked Downing again, pushing him in the direction of the hatch, then stood, shaking off the icy water both real and illusory.

And to the pirates–or so I prayed–nothing had changed. There I stood, dripping wet and shivering from a foolish fall. And there stood Joel Downing behind me, white with fear but dry…and completely unreal. The real Downing lay astonished beneath the water, now under a flickering illusion of murky water and metal tank, and I hoped he was alert enough to understand what I had done, would not give up the ruse by standing. I forced myself not to look behind me.

Ed frowned, and I shivered for good measure, only half acting. “Too gods d-damned c-cold,” I said, and trudged forward, deliberately off balance. Ed’s narrowed eyes tracked me, then his fist shot out and stars exploded behind my eyes.

“Hells!” I shouted, my surprise not faked, nearly falling into the water a second time.

Ed blinked in surprise. “So you are real.” He shrugged. “Never can be sure with bastards like you, Victor. All right then, up you go.” I nodded wearily, working my jaw against the pain, and began the climb up the ladder.

With my back turned, I couldn’t tell if he noticed the slight incongruity in the water, or if he had tested Joel in the same way, but a shout let me know he had seen through the illusion.

“Damnit!” roared Ed, all traces of false congeniality gone from his voice. I whirled in time to see him empty his pistol into the water near the hatch. I held my breath as I scanned the tank, but Downing was gone. I sighed. At least one of us was safe.

Ed turned to me, his face livid. “You think to make a fool of me,” he said. My illusion grinned at him, and continued climbing the ladder, while I sat still, looking for all the world as part of the ladder myself.

“You son of a bitch,” Ed began, just as my illusion leapt off the ladder at his head.

Gunshots rattled the air, filling the chamber with an explosion of sound and riddling the walls with holes that gushed water into the tank.

Unharmed, my illusion hit the water and ran toward one side, while in another direction, an invisible man splashed through water directly toward the hatch, the knee-high water displacing and flowing as if around legs that could not be seen.

Ed is intelligent. Extremely so. But his ego blinds him, his assurance of a thing obscuring him to its facts. I had repeatedly explained to him that I could not turn myself truly invisible, never mind the rumors that abound about illusionists. And every time, he would listen, would file the information away in his cavernous brain, and promptly forget it.

So when he saw a false me running one direction, and empty footsteps racing toward the only escape from the chamber, he saw what he wanted to see and gunned me down, emptying his pistol into nothing.

My illusion reached the far side of the chamber and vanished; the invisible legs ceased to be.

And a second later, Ed’s men turned away from the distraction to see their leader, apoplectic with rage, frozen beside a man holding a spy pistol of the Republic against his head.

“Stand down,” he hissed in livid tones, his eyes black pools of hatred.

* * * * * * * *

The standoff did not last long. The soldiers outside the tank had not been idle, moving into position once Downing had escaped and explained the situation. They had wanted to swarm in at once, but Hattie had taken over for the wounded Sergeant Amos, and ordered them to wait. As soon as I called an all clear, the tiny chamber was suddenly filled with soldiers, and the pirates surrendered without further fight.

We searched the rest of the rig, but all the pirates had apparently been in the tank with us, for the living quarters were empty. Completely empty. The chests of loot from the ball were nowhere to be found, and the pirates refused to talk. Exhausted as everyone was, no one cared enough to push. The stolen goods were either on the rig, in which case they’d be found when the dogs were brought aboard, or else they were long gone, and interrogating the pirates now would be of limited use. We had enough on our hands.

There wasn’t enough room on the submersible for the soldiers, the prisoners, and the so-called pirates. But their airship was refueled and ready to go, and with Gillespie at the helm and four more besides with rifles, the pirates were loaded aboard their own airship and set on the long flight back to Kestral.

And there, I was greeted with another surprise, as it was Serah who threw open the doors of the gondola, her dress torn and covered in oil, a grease-covered wrench in one hand and a disconnected relief valve in the other. While I stood in stunned silence and Ed glared on in hatred, Serah dropped her prize and threw her arms around me with a cry. After my moment of shock passed, I hugged her tightly back, and a great anxiety loosed itself from my mind.

“Thank Lady Autumn you’re safe,” I whispered as I held her close.

Her sabotage no longer necessary, it took her only minutes to re-install the valve, and shortly after, the black airship was off, escorted back to Kestral by two much larger army airships.

“How?” I finally asked when we had a moment alone. The submersible had surfaced, disgorging the prisoners and soldiers to warm themselves in the morning sun atop the rig and wait for the steamships to pick us up. Kristopher had darted out of the submersible the moment it opened, and he flew around us in joyful figure eights, though whether thrilled to be away from the water or because Serah was back, I wasn’t sure.

Serah shook her head, unharmed, but exhausted. We were sitting on the sun-baked tarmac atop the rig, she leaning into my still-damp embrace.

“They never found me. I think they believed someone had set the beacon, then left before they took off. When they realized they were being followed, one of them climbed up and saw the beacon was active again, and cut it off, but he didn’t actually search for me.” She shrugged. “I guess they never expected anyone would be crazy enough to hitch a ride outside an airship.”

I laughed wearily. “Normally, no one would.”

Serah glared at me in mock upset. “Are you calling me crazy, mister?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. Incontrovertibly.”

She snorted, then yawned. “Stowed away on a bloody pirate airship for you; how many women would go that far…” her grumbles trailed off into a sleepy mutter.

I smiled, and tightened my arm around her shoulder, never wanting to let her go again. And at the same time, knowing somehow that this would not be the last time she would be put in such danger because of me.

“What are you thinking?” she muttered.

(He is worried for you,) Kristopher whistled when I didn’t answer, knowing me too well.

Serah nodded sleepily. “Don’t worry, dear,” she said, resting her head against my chest, her breathing slowing. I smiled faintly.

(I like her,) Kristopher sang again, as he often has before. (She is full of fire. A pity she is not a salamander). That was new. I was too tired to pursue it though, and closed my eyes, at peace in the company of the two people closest to my heart.

* * * * * * * *

Hattie frowned at me over her desk, her arms crossed, her brow furrowed. I stood silently at attention, awaiting the dressing-down I knew I deserved.

Finally, she shook her head. “My superiors think I allow too much with you, Victor.” I said nothing, not sure where she was going. “I like you. You’re good at what we do, and you have a strong sense of justice, which is the whole reason the Peace Workers were created. In some ways, you exemplify why our organization exists.” Her frown deepened. “But you are still a soldier. Insubordination is not acceptable, no matter the circumstances. I can’t keep covering for you. I can’t keep making excuses. This is the last time, Victor. One more display like last night, no matter what, and you will be done. Am I clear?”

I nodded. “Yes, sir.” It was no more than I expected, no less than I deserved.

Hattie sighed and nodded. She was silent for a moment, then, “Good work, Victor. You probably saved Mayor Downing’s life, and he won’t soon forget that. Neither will I.” I blinked, surprised.

“It was my duty, sir.” And it had been. I did not have the most respect or liking for the man, but he was a civilian, and it was my duty to protect him. And, in the end, he was only human. He had admitted to making a mistake two years before, and that could go a long way toward mending my feelings toward him.

Hattie nodded. “I know. Dismissed, Haas.”

Serah waved at me when I reentered the lobby, and I smiled wearily in reply. We were both running low on sleep, and I wanted nothing more than to change out of that damned tuxedo and crawl between warm sheets.

A crash of wood and the shrill scream of a horse shattered the quiet.

“Oh, Winter blast it.” I muttered, somehow unsurprised. I pulled a resigned Serah toward the door as angry shouts rose from the outside.

“Are you blind or something!” a voice roared, and a shriller voice riposted in angry retort. I blinked in the early afternoon light, and scanned the square for the accident. It was smaller than it had sounded, two taxis having crashed into one another. One man lay on the ground clutching at his leg, though whether broken or just bruised I couldn’t tell.

I sighed, and began to cross the street, and nearly ran into the woman, standing in front of the entrance to the Peace Workers headquarters, as if waiting for someone. I pulled up in surprise, and Kristopher continued on toward the accident, drawn by the fallen man’s pain.

“Victor Haas?” the woman asked, and I blinked at her. She was tall, only a couple inches shorter than I, with black, almond-shaped eyes and dark, wavy hair that fell past her shoulders. Out of character on the streets, she wore a dress of crimson and sable, silver threads throughout sparkling in the sun that peeked between the clouds. A chain of silver filigree hung around her neck, dangling a tiny diamond ball that hung against cream-colored skin.

“Victor Haas?” she asked again when I didn’t respond. I glanced at the accident, but already there was a small crowd of helpers and onlookers, and they did not seem to need more assistance.

“Um, yes?” I said. I felt suddenly uncomfortable; this woman was clearly someone of wealth and perhaps influence, and I was still wearing that gods-damned tuxedo, rumpled and stained and ruined beyond retrieval. My shirt was untucked, my bow lost somewhere in the ocean, the shirt grayed from its pristine ivory white. One sleeve had lost a cuff link and hung open, listless.

The woman smiled, flashing pearl-white teeth behind dark red lips. “Mira Laski,” she said, and held out one hand, delicate fingers encased in crimson silk. I reached out to shake it, then started as Serah elbowed me in the ribs. I glanced at her, and she rolled her eyes, bringing the back of her hand to her lips.

“Oh, right,” I said aloud before I could catch myself, and bent over the woman’s hand, planting a chaste kiss on the back of her fingers.

“A pleasure to meet you at last,” she said. “I had heard so much about you from my close friends, I wanted to meet you in person before I left the city.”

I blinked. “You what?”

Mira covered her mouth and laughed, a quiet tinkle. “Oh, dear, I apologize. I should explain myself.” She lowered her hand. “I live in Mornova, and am visiting friends in Kestral. They told me such stories of your works in the army, I simply had to meet you. Martha Chorice especially had such high things to say.”

Aha, that explained it. A friend of Martha’s, perhaps visiting Kestral among the minister’s retinue. “Well, a pleasure to meet you,” I said.

She smiled and curtsied slightly. “The pleasure is mine.” She seemed to hesitate. “I…this may be improper of me, but I will be in town for a few days yet. If you have the time, I would love to talk with you at length, and hear all your tales first hand. I do so enjoy a good adventure story.” Her eyes sparkled with excitement. “Why, I heard that just recently you tangled with pirates! How exotic!”

I shrugged. “I would be happy to tell you some stories, though I warn you, they aren’t nearly as exciting as you have likely been led to believe.”

She shook her head, demurring. “Oh, don’t be modest. I am so excited. I will, of course, treat you dinner,” she added, then turned suddenly to address Serah. “That is, if you do not mind me stealing your gentleman for an evening?”

Serah laughed and shook her head. “Oh go on, I don’t mind a bit.” But she clung to my arm a little more tightly, as if afraid to let go.

Mira nodded, her delight plain in her sparkling eyes. “Would tomorrow evening be acceptable?” She looked down and took in Serah’s and my rumpled and torn clothes, and the way neither of us stood quite steady on our feet. “Or, perhaps, the following evening? It appears the two of you deserve some rest.”

I nodded in thanks. “The evening after next sounds great.” I felt Serah’s grip relax a little, and realized she had probably thought Mira meant to invite me to dinner that night; hers had not been a jealous grip, but a visceral reaction at the thought of being separated again so soon.

“Oh, wonderful,” Mira said, clapping her hands. She laughed and curtsied again. Her laugh turned into a sudden thoughtful frown. “I just remembered: I have been told you are always accompanied by a salamander of the southern fireswamps. Is it not with you now?”

I shook my head. “He got distracted by the accident,” I said pointing. “Would you like to meet him?”

Mira shook her head violently, her face pale. “No, no, oh no.” She took in my questioning glance and smiled weakly. “I am deathly afraid of fire. I am terribly sorry.”

I shook my head. “No, please, don’t be. I’ll just not bring him to dinner then, if he would distress you.”

Mira nodded thankfully. “Yes, that would be best. I am truly sorry.” As I shook my head in protest again, she glanced over her shoulder and I saw that the driver of a horse-drawn carriage across the street was waving for her attention. “I must be going now,” she said as she turned back. “I fear I am already late for another engagement. But I quite look forward to our dinner, Victor Haas! I am staying at The Parisian while I am in town. Please meet me there at six o’clock two evenings hence. Oh, I am excited!” She turned and darted across the square toward the waiting carriage, waved one last time, and vanished behind a velvet curtain.

I shared a bemused look with Serah. The Parisian? This Mira Laski was likely old money, then. A moment later, Kristopher drifted back across the square, the injured man having been removed to a safer location. I nodded at him, and then waved down a motorized taxi. It huffed to a stop before us and I helped Serah up before climbing in after.

As the carriage pulled away, I leaned back and draped an arm around Serah’s shoulders, looking forward to finally returning home. I couldn’t wait to alight at Annabella’s and take a much needed hot bath, eat a hearty meal, and fall into a deep sleep with Serah by my side.

But most of all, I could not wait to get out of that damnable tuxedo.

* * * * * * * *

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October 21, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX (3/3)

by Mallard

And slid smoothly beneath the surface, jarring but not crushing us as I had expected. But it was a short-lived relief that passed through me. The water that now surrounded us on all sides was far deeper and more menacing than any swimming pool, kept at bay only by the thin metal shell that had certainly fractured as we impacted. My eyes darted around the craft at the riveted seams, trying to spot leaks before they became too big, though there was nothing I could do. I breathed deep as the submersible sank, but the air refused to fill my lungs, and I drew harder, panting as my lungs fought to fill themselves with precious air that would bubble out and away from the craft any moment. My fingers clawed at the straps, so tight for security, but now a prison, and I could not undo the buckles with my trembling fingers–

I became aware of a gentle keening, like a street performer repeating a simple tune on a penny whistle, and my eyes slowly settled from their frantic search on the glowing orange spark that was my closest companion.

(If I am here, you are hardly in danger), Kristopher whistled gently, continuing to sing his calming tune, filling the small space. I felt a rush of relief from the men on either side of me, and realized I had not been the only one made fearful by the sudden plummet into the ocean. I ignored all else and focused on the salamander, a creature of pure fire, surrounded by cold, implacable water.

A tiny leak in the craft would be enough to take him out, end him as thoroughly as a bullet to my head would me. If he trusted this contraption, well, I could hardly do less.

At last, my mind settled, I made myself look away from Kristopher and examine the craft with a critical eye. It was designed for stealth, and had no noisy steam engine to send rumbles far out through the water, nor to spew clouds of escaped steam to bubble up to the surface. Instead, it worked on a tightly-wound clockwork system, which gave it limited range but produced next to no noise. Ballast pulled us down against the buoyancy of the air trapped inside, until the pilot of the craft released a set of levers and the craft slowed to a gentle halt. Another control, and and the strained springs began to release energy into the propeller behind the submersible, pushing us slowly toward the oil rig, dimly visible in the silt-clouded waters. It was about the size of a two-story building, most of its bulk under the surface, built awkwardly of poorly-welded I-beams, hollow sealed pipes for ballast, and a general lack of attention to reasonable principles of engineering. The lower half of the rig was all trusses and lattice work to support the drill, which was currently retracted and unmoving. Propellers spaced around the rig hooked up to inefficient engines, which rumbled and poured steam into the water, so that parts of the rig seemed to be leaking air at an alarming rate.

Of course, parts of it were leaking air, as I remembered all too well, but numerous bilge pumps kept that from becoming too much of a problem.

Above the drill sat four bulbous fuel tanks to store the oil, and the way the rig listed toward one corner told that one was more full than the others. Above the tanks sat a narrow and cramped living quarters for those who lived and worked on the rig back when it was the height of technological advancement and not a sad relic of a bygone era. Modern rigs could store this entire machine in a single tank and have ample room to spare. This was a rig designed to service a small town or naval base, and never meant to withstand the stresses that had been inflicted on it, its tired engines forced to drag it hundreds of miles up the coast where it currently sat, motoring still north at a snail’s pace.

Amos and Hattie were peering at the rig intently, and I realized they knew nothing about it. While they were trying to fathom the intent of the oddly-shaped pipes and broken latticework around the drill, I already had a good idea of where the prisoners might be. Unless the pirates had sacrificed some of the their very limited living quarters–and I had knew firsthand just how cramped they were–the prisoners would have been shuffled off to the only other open space on the rig: an empty fuel tank. Drained of oil, as they all surely were, it was waterproof and would provide ample, if not comfortable, lodging for the prisoners while they decided what to do with them.

Even I couldn’t know what that would be. Hattie had suggested public executions, but I knew these men and women. Though all had killed in the line of duty, they were not heartless murderers. They had proven to have some small scruples at the ball, the leader preventing his man from raping that poor woman.

But they had also shot Hattie without hesitation.

“What do you think, Kristopher?” I muttered.

(I do not like this,) he said.

“Me, neither,” I replied. “What do you think their plans were?”

(…Did you forget again that I cannot know all your thoughts?) His song sounded somewhat amused.

I blinked, and snorted. Of course. Kristopher can read my moods very well, and usually knows when I’ve fallen into depression or pointless self-recrimination. But he can’t actually read my thoughts any more than the men I sat next to. He had been referring to the immediate situation, as usual, discussing his dislike of the submersible and the enormous amounts of water too close for comfort. Not seeing time the same way humans do, he was always less interested in the past and future, unless I specifically asked him.

Before I could rephrase my question, Sergeant Amos was speaking, having finished his assessment of the rig. “The prisoners must be kept up top, in the living areas,” he offered. I looked at him with some surprise. Unless he was familiar with its construction, he had parsed the rig awfully quickly, understanding intuitively how it was arranged. Never mind that he was incorrect.

Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke. “I think it’s actually more likely that they’ll be kept in that tank,” I said. “There’s not enough room in the living areas to house that many prisoners without stacking them on top of each other.”

Sergeant and Sergeant Major turned to look at me, and I realized I had made a mistake. Though, my mistake had been in keeping quiet in the first place, not speaking up as soon as my information would have been useful.

“Er, can we understand that I am an idiot, and skip the recriminations for now, please? I know this rig. I…I know these people.” That hurt more than I had expected. Everyone was now looking at me, ignoring the approaching rig. I took a deep breath. “I lived on this rig, or one very like it, for over three weeks. It is small and cramped, and most of the living quarters is open common space. The bunk rooms are separated by doors that do not lock, so there is no good place to stash the prisoners. But by the list of the rig, you can tell that one of the tanks is more full than the others. I suspect they are keeping the prisoners there.”

Hattie glared at me, but Sergeant Amos simply nodded, taking the new information in stride, leaving reprimands to my superior. “Is there a way into the tanks from outside?”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember the layout of the rig. There were service hatches that led from the living areas to the tanks, but that wouldn’t be helpful. There were the pipes from the drill to the tanks, but those were sealed and at any rate, too narrow for a person to travel along. I started to shake my head, then stopped as a dim memory surfaced. “There is a port beneath the water for a ship to come alongside and transfer the oil from the rig to the tanker. It’s not airlocked, but it’s wide enough for a person to squeeze through, and is designed to be opened from the outside.”

Sergeant Amos raised his eyebrows in surprise, clearly not having expected this bit of good news. “Can you direct us?” I nodded and squeezed forward past a glowering Hattie to point the pilot to the underside of the tank where the hatch, currently invisible, would await us.

Getting inside would likely prove difficult, but the army had not come unprepared. The pilot brought the submersible skillfully up beneath the tank, maneuvering between the latticework around the drill, coming to a rest several feet below the port. From there, things moved very quickly. A hatch in the floor of the submersible was opened, and Kristopher darted to the ceiling in fear, but the air pressure in the sub kept the water at bay so long as the sub remained level. From there, one of the army personnel went outside–just dropped in as if going for a quick swim, and reappeared overhead to work the mechanism around the hatch in the tank. It was on the bottom of the tank so that the oil would, by dint of gravity, pool in one place for the tanker to pump it from the tank. This had a double benefit of allowing us to leave the hatch open once we got inside, not having to worry about air escaping to be replaced with cold water.

The mechanism stuck and another man had to go relieve the first when he ran out of air, but slowly it began to move, and then Amos and Hattie were ushering us quietly out and up, never mind that none of us were wearing proper underwater clothing. The men carried rifles in oiled waterproof bags, and someone handed me one, not knowing that I had never been a good shot with a rifle. I pulled the rifle out and dropped my pistol in, and followed them out before Hattie could glare at me. I wasn’t sure if she was glaring because I had taken a weapon despite her fears of how I might react to the pirates; or simply because, with her injured arm, she would be more of a liability than a help in this next part of the operation, and had no choice but to remain in the sub to help the prisoners out of the cold water.

I focused on this thought, on the memory of her anger as I swam the few strokes to the tank, looking only ahead at the man in front of me and firmly disallowing my mind to note that I was dozens of feet below the water, wearing clothes that hindered my movements, and relying for survival solely on the air burning to escape my lungs. My eyes burned from the salt, my clothes and the icy water made my limbs clumsy and leaden, and if I so much as hiccuped, I would be lost.

It was not a moment too soon that my head broke the surface inside the tank and found myself surrounded by people.

Due to the tank’s curvature, the prisoners could only put so much distance between themselves and the portal, but the half a dozen or so haggard individuals within had positioned themselves as far from the hatch as they could, unsure who or what was coming up. Too late, I counted us fortunate that not a one of them had tried to play hero and given the whole thing away by beating on a member of the army trying to rescue them from this improvised prison.

I shivered as I pulled myself up, the water around the tank leeching any warmth from the air. I looked around at the seven faces around us, some with the blank looks of the defeated, others perking up at the spark of hope our appearance had engendered.

Sergeant Amos, who had been first in the room, was quick to silence the prisoners, speaking in hushed whispers and replacing speech with gestures as much as possible. I expected some resistance to the notion that we wanted them to descend into the dark water, without knowing what awaited them. But perhaps they were of the mindset that anything was better than this slow, cold death, and there was little hesitation as, one by one, the government officials held their noses and jumped or crawled out to where the sub waited.

I recognized Chorice and Downing, of course, still dressed in their finery, though stripped of jewels and gold, their clothing as rumpled as my own. They looked relatively fresh, having spent only an evening in the chamber, but others had fared less well. There was Theobald Jacks, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Commander in Chief of the Royal Army; a man whom I had never met but whose face I had much opportunity to learn while in prison, awaiting the final decision on the amnesty. I could not imagine how they could have captured him, but then, I would have thought the same of Martha Chorice. Normally, the ministers in the Council of Governors were under heavy guard, but it seemed such guard could lapse or be rotted from within, less robust than had been believed for so long.

Of the remaining four, I could place only Shorea Quill, who held no government position, but owned a number of news agencies, and whose artwork and pamphlets had formed much of the propaganda that saturated the north during the war, poisoning their minds against the Republic and its magic. Never mind that mages in the north had levied devastating attacks against us as well, raining fire from the skies, turning our weapons to rust, leeching the oxygen out of the air around an army, confusing their minds to cause them to turn against one another. This last utilized the most insidious magic of all, that of mentalism. Little good comes from studying mentalism, and I have never met a practitioner I did not disdain.

The theme of the prisoners was obvious enough: all those who had had significant effects on the soldiers of the Republic, either during or after the war. The propaganda that had turned the north against us; the man who had argued for the death of all rebels; the commander who had led the northern armies against us; and the woman who had made a mockery of everything the Republic stood for.

Distracted as I was, only three remained before I realized that none among them was Serah. A coldness gripped my gut. There could be only one explanation for why she would not be among the prisoners. Having no political influence, no importance, she would have been deemed useless, and been cast aside.

I found I was breathing heavily, panting, and Kristopher was not around to snap me out of it. There had to be another explanation. They couldn’t have killed her. Right? I had been so sure only minutes before that they were not murderers. But where, then, was she?

Scarlet colored my vision as my breathing doubled. She had to be here. If they had killed her, I would tear the rig down around them, rip the thing to pieces and destroy anyone who got in my way. Before I knew what I was doing, I had taken a step toward the ladder that led up to the maintenance hatch.

A hand on my shoulder stopped me, and I whirled to find Amos behind me, his face a curious mix of furious and confused.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed at me.

“Serah,” I panted, not caring that he didn’t know who she was. “She’s not here. She should be here.”

He blinked, but he is a smart man, and though he may not have known exactly what I meant, he understood. “Calm down,” he said. “She could be anywhere. Maybe in a different room, or maybe–”

“What if they killed her?” I hissed back, still mindful of the need to keep quiet. “What then?”

Amos’s eyes narrowed, his grip on my shoulder painful. “Then she’s dead,” he said flatly. “And you’ll do none of these living people any good if you storm up there alone and get yourself shot. I sympathize, but now is not the time to lose your head.”

“But–”

“While Sergeant Major Morrison is aboard the sub, you are under my command,” he said. “Either follow my orders, or get the hell out of this rig.”

My fist clenched. “I–” I took a deep breath. My vision wasn’t clear, my mind not thinking straight. I tasted bile. I swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

“She wasn’t brought in with us,” a voice whispered, and I turned to see Martha Chorice standing beside me. I blinked, and a weight lifted just a tiny bit. I stared at her imploringly, and she nodded. “I never saw Serah, during the flight or after.”

It didn’t mean anything, of course, but…

Joel Downing was next in line, but he hesitated, then waved Chorice ahead. A gentleman to the last. Martha’s eyes stayed on mine as she lifted her dress and slid into the water, and I let out a breath when she had gone. Joel Downing was the last in line, and I gestured him to move, my thoughts elsewhere, my motions listless. Where could she be, then?

Downing jerked back as a shot rang out, the sound deafening in the enclosed space, and suddenly water was welling into the prison through a tiny hole halfway up the side of the tank.

* * * * * * * *

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October 14, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX (cont.)

by Mallard

The aeroplane was waiting for us, the only vehicle on the field at the time, the runway having been cleared by a telegraphed-ahead request. The rear of the cargo plane was down, forming a ramp up to an opening nearly wide enough to drive the train through. Cramped metal seats lined the walls inside the bay, and I strapped in, trying hard not to think about how useless the restraints would prove when the plane fell out of the sky.

Not needing nor understanding the restraints, Kristopher wandered about the cargo bay, exploring the strange machine secured in the center. It looked almost like a smaller aeroplane, though the wings did not look quite right, stubby and rounded where the cargo plane’s were long and rectangular. Perhaps it was a glider of some sort? It was streamlined and flat where the cargo plane was bulky, and much smaller as well. Despite the difference in size, however, the strapped-in plane looked large enough to accommodate all of us, perhaps with room to spare, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was for. Would we launch the smaller plane out the rear of the cargo plane? What purpose could that possibly serve? Was it simply leftover cargo that the airfield had not had time to remove before our arrival?

“What in the hells is that thing?” Gillespie asked suddenly, and it took me a moment to realize he was looking not at the second plane, but at the fiery spark floating in circles around it. I looked over at the airship pilot, and saw that more than a few of the soldiers were staring at Kristopher.

“Er. Right. Meet Kristopher, salamander.” Not the best of introductions, but I was not in my best frame of mind, either, distracted by the imminent take-off. Have I mentioned I don’t like aeroplanes?

Kristopher whistled a wordless greeting in an almost offhand manner, intent on the machine in the center.

(It is not a creature of fire,) he said a moment later, returning to me. (Unlike most of your craft.) Which I took to mean the smaller plane was not steam-powered, but what, then, could it be? I wanted to ask, but the other soldiers distracted me with questions, some having evidently heard of the salamander within the ranks of the Peace Workers, but knowing little beyond that. I realized that perhaps I was not the only one nervous to be aboard this deathtrap, and I entertained their questions as best I could.

A few minutes later, the sunlight grew dim and vanished as the loading ramp was pulled up by powerful hydraulics and secured by two soldiers who seemed the most comfortable aboard the plane. Shortly after, a low growling enveloped the cargo bay and the aeroplane began to vibrate, rattling my teeth and bouncing my body against the restraints I had secured only minutes before. The enormous steam engines that dominated the center of the craft were powering up, beginning to spin the propellers that weighed on the wings and the nose of the craft. The low rumble gave way to a high-pitched whine as the propellers took on momentum, and slowly the heap of metal that was the aeroplane began to crawl forward.

Had I been standing safely on solid ground and watching the process, I might have appreciated the engineering that had gone into it. Decades of research and experiments, of redesign and prayer; constant failure with the rare hint of success. I’m sure Serah would gush. I just prayed to whichever of the four gods would listen that I be allowed to return to the ground in one piece.

The craft picked up speed and the straps strained to keep me from falling sideways onto the soldier next to me. The jarring grew worse, until an unseen force suddenly shoved me into my seat and the vibrations vanished as the craft rose into the air. And kept rising, soaring above Cinsa Bargo, the only sounds now the rumbling of the steam engines and the muted roar of the wind testing the imperfect seals on the cargo doors.

Part of me was terrified. Another, though, wanted nothing more than to find a window and peer outside, envying Kristopher his free reign about the craft, which he was using to the fullest, bouncing between the walls that closed us off from the engines, and the locked rear door of the bay. So intent was I on watching him that I missed the fact that Sergeant Amos was speaking. He stood with one hand on the smaller craft in the center of the bay, steadying himself against the turbulence that rocked the aeroplane.

“As you know, less than an hour ago our scout teams found what we believe to be the hideout used by the pirates. It is a small, mobile, semi-submersible oil rig, likely commandeered during the wars as an outlook.”

That got my attention. I was familiar with those rigs. No doubt this was, in fact, the same one the 14th division had ‘borrowed’ during the wars, using it as a base from which to launch boats and airships for reconnaissance missions, and to keep watch for both the steel ships of the Royal Army, and the bone-and-hide beastboats of the Patchwork Folk. The rig had barely floated, little more than a square platform and a short airship tower protruding above the waves, and it had leaked something awful, never designed for the service life it had endured. It had required several pumps running constantly to prevent it from sinking, and its drill was laughably small, useful only for shallow water drilling.

Still, it had belonged to that tiny coastal town, and they hadn’t wanted to give it up, more out of principle than any practical use they wrought from it. So we had appropriated it, sending the lone guard back to the shore on a lifeboat and motoring the ungainly thing out to sea. Thus we had become guilty of the same excesses and abuses that had caused the Republic to form in the first place, but of course, at the time we justified it to ourselves in some way or another. We had handed the thing off to the tiny navy of the Guard eventually, but it appeared the 14th infantry had taken it back once the war ended and the Guard no longer needed it. No longer existed.

Amos continued. “We have positive identification of the airship they used last night, docked at the rig. No boats have been seen near the rig since we began surveillance, but they had approximately four and a half hours between when we lost them and when the survey teams found them, so it’s possible they abandoned the base in that time. Until and unless confirmed, we will assume that the pirates are present, armed, and dangerous, and that any attempt to land at or near the base will result in immediate defensive action.”

He tapped the small, sleek craft lightly with one hand. “For those unfamiliar, this is a high-altitude deployable submersible, which will be launched from the aeroplane as we pass near the base. From there, we will need to find or make an underwater entrance. Unfortunately, we don’t know the schematics of the rig, and will need to assess the base on-site.” He didn’t look pleased at this, and I almost raised my voice to tell him what I knew, but the knowledge stuck in my throat. It wasn’t as if these people did not know that I had once fought for the Republic, but to explain that, not only had I fought for them, but had stolen for them, spied for them; had lived and worked and played with these men and women with whom we were about to engage in battle…

So engrossed was I in my thoughts, I missed his next few sentences, presumably about how to operate the high-altitude deployable submersible, whatever that seemingly-random collection of words might actually mean. Why not call it what it was? Except, what was it? Perhaps I should have been paying more attention.

There was little else to the briefing that I did not already know. Amos went over some background of the people we were up against, but I knew far more than he, and none of it was anything I particularly wanted to remember. It wasn’t that they were bad people. Or at least, they hadn’t started out that way. Does anyone, truly? But the trials of war, the shortages, the horrors of seeing your comrades ripped apart by monstrous warriors from across the sea, or gunned down by the very armies once professing to protect you…it was enough to warp any sane mind. In the years of war, I had watched my comrades change from rightfully angry protesters, to hungry and desperate soldiers who broke the rules to stay alive, to…something else. They–we–had become unhinged somehow, the line between morality and survival blurring until an act only seemed wrong if it did not further our ends.

Our squad leader had been hit the worst. He had lost his family in the war, and I watched the man devolve from a concerned citizen to half a madman. But a madman with conviction, and it was too long before I began to recognize the horror of the things he persuaded and ordered us to do. At what I had been forced to do under his direction.

No. At what I had done, willingly, willfully.

My fingers clenched, and it was several seconds before I noticed Hattie Morrison watching me with narrowed eyes. I relaxed my fist, frightened again that she might have known me better than myself, might have been right to leave me in the dark on this mission.

I shook my head violently and forced my thoughts back to the situation at hand. That the 14th division had kidnapped Joel Downing and Martha Chorice did not surprise me in the least. The first because of his extremely vocal opposition to any sort of amnesty to the rebels. And the second…that was harder to figure, actually. Martha had been one of the few to argue for the amnesty. But, if I put myself in their shoes, it made sense. The rest of the nation would see the Peace Workers as proof that the Guard had been defeated, its soldiers actively working toward the greater good of the nation, no longer a threat beyond the stories one might whisper to a child before bedtime. But to those who still saw themselves as part of the Republic, to those who resented the destruction of their nation, the death of their people, the injustices perpetrated upon them…to those, the Peace Workers would be an insult, undermining everything they had lived and died for. Undoing the works of the infant nation, defending those who had so abused their power early in the wars, helping those whose steam tanks had crushed the much smaller armies of the Republic. Yes, I could understand why someone such as Martha Chorice would be reviled by my former comrades.

* * * * * * * *

The aeroplane covered the distance to the base in less than half the time we had spent chasing the airship the night before. Convenient, I’ll admit, but I would still not wish the travel experience on anyone, strapped into a hard and chilly seat, barely able to hear the army sergeant speak above the roar of the engines and the screech of the wind.

At some signal from the pilots, Hattie and Sergeant Amos had us unstrap and load ourselves into the high altitude whatsit, strapping once again into even tighter quarters, crammed on a bench between burly men in khaki uniforms. The top of the craft was low to our heads, and more than a few nervous glances were leveled at Kristopher, who had to take care not to singe hairs.

It was only after the rushed boarding that I gained an inkling of what the craft was for, and by then it was far too late.

“Have you lost your damned mind?” I shouted at Amos above the roar of the wind that filled the cargo bay as the massive cargo ramp began to drop, cranked open by two men who stood strapped to the wall.

“Shut up, or stay behind!” was the only reply I had, and not from him either. I turned to glare at Hattie, but shut up, swallowing and tightening my straps until they dug into my flesh. I glanced at the pilot Gillespie, who sat to my right, and he nodded at me, his face ashen. Used as he was to airships, I doubted he was any more comfortable with this insane plan as I was.

With the cargo ramp fully opened, the two men pulled themselves hand over hand back inside and out of sight, and a moment later, the submersible jerked forward and stopped, then began to slide smoothly toward the opening in the back of the aeroplane.

I have heard of people who–for fun, mind you–climb aboard a perfectly good airship, fly high into the air, and then leap out of it. For fun. A giant cloth sail spreads out behind them and slows them down rapidly, bruising their upper bodies with the forces involved, until they land hard on a grassy field, sometimes breaking their legs, other times merely falling flat on their face as the parachute pulls them off balance.

All this, I say again, for fun.

Compared to what I was about to embark upon, this skydiving seemed the height of sanity.

I fought not to scream as the submersible fell out of the back of the aeroplane and plummeted like a stone to the choppy waters below.

* * * * * * * *

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October 7, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter IX

by Mallard

I had just enough left in me to stumble to the break room and pass out, barely managing to lay across several chairs instead of collapsing on the tiles. I was angry at Hattie, more so than I had ever been, but I trusted her to keep her word and wake me when the operation started. At the very least, she would know my threats of leaving were real, and I didn’t think she would risk that just yet.

Hattie awoke me with a kick, rattling one of the chairs I had fallen asleep on. I groaned.

“What time is it?” There were no windows in the room, no way to tell how many hours had passed.

“Just after eight. They found the hideout.”

That woke me. I nearly fell to the floor as I sat up, the chairs shifting beneath me on the tiled floor. “We’re going?”

“We’re going,” she confirmed. I followed her as she stomped out of the room, wearing her tattered uniform coat once again. A green-and-blue Peace Worker armband covered the bullet hole, though there was no hiding the bloodstains, now a rusty brown. I followed her in shoes that pinched, and grimaced. I hadn’t thought to change out of that damned tuxedo before falling asleep, and now it seemed I wouldn’t have time.

A rail line passes directly over the army headquarters across the square, so that what had once been its roof had been built up to form a small train station that serviced only soldiers. Trains were signaled up the track when they were to stop; otherwise, the station did not truly exist.

The square was busy with morning traffic, carts set up to sell hot pies and warm spiced cider, carriages and automobiles vying for space to turn through the pedestrians, cyclists weaving dangerously through the narrow spaces between. A lady called at us from a cart covered in flowers, while a carriage laden with small wooden crates bounded past, the horses wet with lather and spattered with mud. The tantalizing smells of baked goods mixed with the rich fatty scents of roasting sausage, and my stomach grumbled in displeasure.

Hattie and I ignored everything as we jogged across the square, her bloody uniform commanding respect and fear enough to grant us our way without obstruction. I, in my rumpled tuxedo and flyaway hair, garnered mostly confused looks.

The doorman knew to expect us and ushered us in at once, commenting only that the next train was arriving soon and would not wait for us. As he spoke, the building rumbled as the train neared, and Hattie and I jogged for the elevator to the roof station.

The team from the previous night were waiting for us there, and Sergeant Roger Amos gave Hattie and I a brief nod, acknowledging our place in the operation. Even though Hattie outranked him, he had been given official command of the team, as it was comprised of almost exclusively his own people. We stood in tense silence as the rumbling grew closer.

It was one of the outcity lines that passed above the building, and the double-wide tracks looked overly thick and heavy, connected by thick steel I-beams. The rumbling grew louder, traveling along the steel ahead of the train, and suddenly it was there, bursting into the room through the gaping space in the back wall of the station, a sleek metal beast with a head the size of a house and brilliant glaring eyes that flashed with firelight. Ports along the top of the train hissed steam into the cool air, the upper rafters of the space filling with fog. Brakes squealed as they dispersed the train’s enormous energy, the sound unnatural and ear-shattering in such a small space. At last, the iron beast let loose a final sigh of steam and lay still. A beat passed, and the doors nearest us opened, a conductor waving us into the car.

Those nearest the front were passenger cars, double-leveled and seating seven to a row, separated into three columns by a pair of spacious aisles. Further back would be the cargo cars, carrying machinery, food, fuel, or one of Kestral’s many exports, loaded from the trade ships that called into Kestral every day, or from the tradesmen within the city itself.

Hattie and I saw ourselves to a pair of seats by the door, ready to disembark first once we reached Cinsa Bargo, a town a dozen or so miles north of Kestral. Central to the town was the closest air field to Kestral, there being no room within the crowded city itself for such a wide open space.

At least, the lack of space was the official reason, but I was not alone in fearing what could happen if one of those insane contraptions failed in take-off or landing, and instead plowed into the city, crushing people and vehicles like bugs. The first time I rode in a aeroplane, and learned that the only thing that kept us aloft was the insane speeds at which we traveled, I vowed never again to board one of the death traps. Lead me to an airship any day, for at least if it runs out of fuel, the entire craft does not plummet out of the sky and burst into flaming wreckage.

Unfortunately, while noisier much less comfortable than a proper airship, the steam-powered aeroplanes were the fastest–and most expensive–method of travel over the relatively short distances they could traverse, and time was of the essence. There was no doubt that the pirates had noted the numerous craft circling near where we had lost the beacon the night before, and we couldn’t afford to give them time to move the prisoners. So Hattie and Sergeant Amos had requisitioned use of one of the cargo planes stored at Cinsa Bargo.

The small town was the first outcity stop for our train, and once we got out of the city limits, the train picked up speed, moving far faster than any automobile. The tracks between cities soared above the trees on arching concrete supports, which both enabled the train’s path to remain relatively level over uneven ground, and prevented the very real possibility of striking a deer or a careless automobile driver. A train with that much mass and moving at such high speeds needs to plan stops well in advance, and with that kind of energy, anything struck would be pulverized, and the damage to the train itself could be devastating.

In less than twenty minutes after we left the army headquarters, we were disembarking at the Cinsa Bargo station, and down one flight of stairs to ground level put us on the airfield.

The airfield had been built before the wars, as the utility of aeroplanes began to become more widely accepted. Hardly anyone traveled on them for pleasure, but for speedy travel with no stops, it was difficult to surpass. Only the major cities have airfields, and most of them are outside city limits due both to the noise and the expanse required to launch, land, and store the devices. Originally, the Kestral Airfield had been just that and nothing more, but as seems to be the case with everything in Kestral, the airfield grew and changed over time. People needed to buy things at the airfield, or ship items back that they couldn’t take with them; they needed restaurants to lunch at while the flight was prepped, hotels to stay at when the flight was delayed. It became clear that a smart businessman might make a profit providing such services. And soon, without official planning or sanction, shops and homes had burst into being around the airfield, and what had once been the Kestral Airfield became the small satellite town of Cinsa Bargo.

* * * * * * * *

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October 7, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter VIII (cont.)

by Mallard

She said nothing for a while, and part of me welcomed the silence, while another fretted at each wasted second. Not that there was a damned thing I could do until the army found the pirates. And would I even be included in the operation once they did?

Finally, Hattie let out a sigh. She didn’t look at me, her eyes tracing a pattern in the ceiling that she could not possibly see.

“They aren’t pirates at all,” she began quietly. “At least, they didn’t start out that way. The men and woman from tonight were once known as the fourteenth infantry division. Of the Republican Guard. Stationed in–”

“Sainted Isles,” I breathed. And suddenly everything made sense. The many and varied mismatched pieces I had been trying to sort out all night suddenly fit together, and I liked not at all the picture they formed. “You bitch.”

“Watch yourself, Specialist,” her voice cracked like a whip, sharp with command. I forced my mouth closed. My fingers clenched tight on the armrests of my chair, digging painfully into unyielding wood. I said nothing, either in apology or defiance, and after a moment, Hattie continued.

“The so-called pirates have been causing us trouble for two weeks now, taking political prisoners from all levels of government. Mayor Downing and Minister Chorice were just the latest in their kidnappings. Messages from the pirates claim the prisoners are all being kept alive, but they have not demanded any ransom. The Council of Governors is worried that the group is planning a public execution, or to make some other spectacle of them.”

She shook her head, still avoiding my gaze. “They were supposed to be elsewhere. The festival in Mornova was tonight. Most of the Council was to be there; everyone agreed the pirates would not be able to pass up the opportunity.” Mornova was the capital city of Cest-Weldersheen, north and east of Kestral by many days travel. I had no idea what festival she was talking about, and did not care.

“So all the other Peace Workers were in Mornova, is that it?” I said. “All but one.” One who could not be trusted, and my fingers gripped the armrest tighter at the thought.

Hattie nodded. “Since the pirates are remnants of the Republican Guard, this falls under the purview of the PWs.” Mornova was too far north to have a branch of the Peace Workers; we were most useful, practically and politically, in those northern cities nearest the short-lived border. Because of its size, importance, and location, Kestral’s branch was one of the largest in the nation.

“And when the pirates didn’t show up, the army realized they had been played, and sent you that ‘anonymous tip.'” All the pieces made sense, all of it was coming together. Why no other PWs had been available for the mayor’s ball, why Hattie had been nervous at the beginning of the evening, cut off from the action, not knowing how the operation was going.

I forced my voice level. “I think I understand everything. All but one. Why was I not a part of this? Why did you have me on this idiotic ball duty?” I snorted before she could answer. “But it’s obvious, isn’t it? As soon as you mentioned the 14th. You couldn’t trust me.” The words tasted bitter.

Another thought struck me. “I wasn’t even supposed to be at the ball, was I? You wanted me out of this night entirely, only included me because of Martha Chorice. You found out she was going to visit. And you’re not a PW, not like I am, not a reformed soldier.” I spat these last two words. “So you needed a real representative and called me in last minute.”

Hattie nodded but said nothing.

“And you kept me in the dark. How long have I known you, Hattie? Over two years, I’d say? I think that, in that time, I’ve proven myself once or twice, don’t you? I’ve shown I’m loyal to your precious Kestral Armed Forces. I’ve taken down my own comrades, jailed more than a few. I’ve never balked at what’s been asked of me.” My mouth twisted. “What, did you think that, just because I knew the 14th personally, that I was once one of them, that I’d side with them? Or that I’d let them go?” I pounded the armchair suddenly, and Hattie jumped. “Or is it because I turned my back on them once? I’ve already proven myself a traitor, why wouldn’t I turn my coat again, is that it?

Hattie shook her head, slowly. “Your loyalty has never been in question, Victor,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Never once.”

“Then why?” I was pleading now, rigid in my chair, willing her to just look at me. If I had known, if I had been a part of this from the beginning, I could have done something. I could have been prepared. I could have saved Serah.

“Your loyalty was never in question,” she whispered again. “You have always gone above and beyond. I have no doubt that you would do your duty.” She took a deep breath. “But I could not be sure that you would stop there, would be satisfied with just imprisonment. Not in this case.”

It took me a moment to understand what she was saying, what she was implying that I might do. And when I did, I said nothing. I was too afraid, too afraid that my anger would boil up inside me, that I would scream at my sergeant, that I would strike a friend in rage at what she thought I was capable of.

And I was afraid that, maybe, she had been right to doubt me.

We sat in silence for a long time then, until exhaustion and Kristopher’s worried, wobbling flight caused the seething anger to leech away, leaving me spent.

When I at last spoke, my voice was dull and empty, devoid of rage and passion alike. “I want to be part of the mission, when you find the base.”

Hattie didn’t seem surprised. But nor did she consent. “You’ve done enough, Victor. Let the army handle it.” She glanced at the clock in the corner of the room. “Hells, it’s been enough time; maybe they’ve found the base and are rescuing the prisoners as we speak.”

I snorted. “Don’t lie to me. Not any more. You and I both know you would never sit by and let this operation happen without you. At the very least, without your knowledge. I deserve to be there.”

Hattie said nothing. I wanted to be angry, but I had no more energy for rage, and my words came out flat.

“Damnit, Hattie. You know I won’t back down on this. I’ll be there, consent or no. So either give in and make it official, or call up security to escort me out of here.” I leaned forward and made sure she was looking at me. “But do that, and I swear to you, this will be the last time I ever set foot in this office.”

After a long pause, Hattie snorted. “Don’t be melodramatic, Victor. Do whatever you want. You’re in.” In the lamplight, I could see the troubled look in her eyes, as if already reconsidering.

“Look,” I said quietly. “I’ve proven my loyalty. I promise you, whatever I feel for these people, whatever horrors I’ve seen them commit, whatever personal problems I have…I won’t do anything against your orders.”

She looked blankly at me. Then leaned on her elbows and dropped her head into her hands. “That,” she said between exhausted chuckles. “Will be a first.”

* * * * * * * *

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September 30, 2012

Masque Ball: Chapter VIII

by Mallard

The pirates led us along the the empty rocky coastline north of the city, broken only by small hamlets and houses, and the occasional flash of light as one of the massive inter-city trains rumbled below us on its nighttime trek to Mornova or some other large city further north and inland.

Their airship was considerably smaller than ours, but was laden with at least as many people, as well as the chests and chests of stolen jewelery. Our advantage wasn’t much at first, but slowly, the distance between us closed, and I began to allow myself hope that we could overtake them before they made it back to their base.

I don’t know how much time passed. It was a long and uncomfortable flight, made the more so because I could not allow my mind to wander, concentrating as I was to keep the illusionary lenses in place. It did not require much effort once established, but I could feel myself fatiguing, the image wavering more and more, purple halos flickering in and out of existence around the distant lantern as the lenses distorted and bent before I could fix them.

And then, without warning, the light vanished.

“What happened?” the pilot demanded, and I was on my feet at once, peering into the space before the airship, feeling with my senses for the illusion that, though ragged, was still whole. For a wild moment, I thought there might have just been a momentary fluctuation in the gas lines, or the pirates had gone behind a cloud–never mind that we were well below the cloud level. I scanned and scanned again, sweeping the illusionary lenses back and forth across the dark and empty sky, until the lenses lost cohesiveness and I lost control over the illusion, unable to escape reality any longer.

“They must have found the beacon,” I said, my voice hoarse from the hours of disuse. I gripped the console before me, my fingers white and bloodless.

The pilot cursed and began fiddling with a set of knobs and graphs to his left, a method for determining his position I realized a moment later as he marked out a circle on a map. It was off the coastline, which meant the pirates had begun veering off to some base hidden out on one of the many uncharted isles that dot the northern waters of Cest-Weldersheen.

“Still nothing?” the pilot asked. He seemed particularly calm, and I imagined that, as the pilot of a military airship, little he saw could faze him anymore. I forced my tone even when I replied. He just nodded and kept the airship moving toward where the light had disappeared, though we had no way of knowing if the pirates had continued on the same path. Perhaps they had discovered the beacon and were now veering away after disabling it, following a longer and more circuitous path to their hideout. Or maybe they had known of it all along and had led us out here on a wild goose chase. In fear I suggested this to the pilot, but he shook his head, eyes still focused on his instruments, half-ignoring me now that I was no longer useful.

“They might’ve found it, sure, but I doubt they knew this whole time. A ship that size can’t carry enough fuel for a trip out here and back to Kestral. In fact, heavy as they had to be with all that loot, I’d expect them to be just about out of fuel.” I remembered Serah’s theory that the pirates had stalled in order to refuel their craft, that they could not have carried enough for a round trip. And I had stopped the flow before they were filled up, but how much had I changed the equation? What if I had stolen enough that they could not get back to their base at all? Would that be better or worse for us? Maybe, if I lit up the sky, we could watch them as they stuttered to a halt midair and were forced to descend or else play victim to the wind’s capricious moods.

And maybe, it would simply point us out to them and they would throw the hostages out of the gondola and flee.

So if we assumed that the pirates were not playing some game with us, that meant we had to be near their base. And, given their direction before the beacon went dark, it was somewhere off the coast. Which gave us little to go on at night, and the pilot knew it. We circled the area where the light had disappeared, moving in ever wider circles over black water, but the night was dark and it would have been impossible to see the pirate’s airship even had we flown directly over it. We could fly lower, but would risk giving ourselves away. Though I had grown used to the quiet roar of the engines in the rear of the airship gondola, it would be loud enough on a quiet night such as this, and without their own engine noise, it was unlikely the pirates would miss us, even if they could not see us.

At last, the sergeant came forward, and seemed to know without asking that the search was over. I wondered if he had been paying attention the whole time, as we tracked the beacon and lost it. He may not have been a likable man, but he was observant. He simply stood between the pilot and I for a few moments, staring out at the now-empty night, then sighed.

“Turn her back home, Gillespie,” he said to the pilot. “We’re done for tonight.” He turned to return to his seat.

“So what now?” I asked his back before he could leave, not expecting an answer.

He turned back to me and, where I expected anger at this PW who had forced his way into the mission and proved of limited help, I saw only determination. He may have failed in his duties, but this fight was far from over.

“We have a rough location,” he said. “We’ll send out ground, air, and water units as soon as we’re back home. Before the sun rises, there’ll be so many eyes out here, a mouse won’t be able to trip without setting off an alarm. We’ll find them.” He kept his gaze on mine for a moment, and added, “And we’ll find your girl. Don’t you worry about that.” He grinned suddenly, fiercely then, and I found my tired face stretching into its own grin.

“I won’t worry,” I replied. “Because I’ll be right there with you.”

The sergeant roared with laughter, and suddenly his hand was in my face. I jumped, and he chuckled again. “Sergeant Roger Amos,” he said. I stood and took his hand tentatively, and he nearly crushed mine.

“Uh, Specialist Victor Haas, of the Peace Workers,” I said, and he nodded as if he knew that already. Hells, he probably did.

“Good to meet you,” he said. “Just wish it’d been a better night for it.” He turned and walked back to his seat, steadying himself on the backs of the bare metal benches, and I sank back into the copilot’s chair. I watched outside at the overcast night as the pilot banked us around and began the long flight back to Kestral.

* * * * * * * *

Though the sun remained well below the horizon, the sky appeared lighter as the airship sped back across the city limits, the low clouds lit a perpetual orange by the gaslights of the city. Time was of the essence, and long before we docked, Sergeant Amos had used the blinker to flash messages in light to the watching sentries at the northern airship tower. The mayor’s mansion was closer to CandlePark than the northern tower, and this was the only reason we had rushed to the transportation hub earlier. The majority of the army’s fleet was kept docked at the four cardinal airship towers, the largest of which was in the north. Even as we began to slow down in preparation to dock, I saw another military airship depart from the tower, this one colored red and gold, the insignia of the Kestral Armed Forces emblazoned clearly on the side. Stealth was no longer a concern.

Below us, I knew, automobiles would be racing out of the city along the main inroads, and steamships would be launched from the coastal stations that the army maintained both within and without the city. The Royal Navy once was less than a tenth the size of the army, little regarded and rarely utilized.

After the invasion of the Patchwork Folk from the lands across the sea, however, the navy had ballooned in size, and now bases dotted the coastline, vigilant eyes turned outward for any return of the savages. Not all the bases were fully outfitted of course, but the ones nearest the populated regions, such as Kestral, could muster up a small armada if necessary, which would prove helpful once we found the pirates’ hideout.

I was exhausted on more levels than I could count, but sleep never entered my mind. I had had a lot of time to think on the flight back–too much time, really–and there was someone I needed to speak to.

I found her exactly where I thought I might. The security guard at the front desk looked up as I strode past him, and started to greet me, but his words turned into a choking sound suspiciously akin to laughter. I frowned at him, and took the stairs two at a time. Hattie Morrison’s office sat on the second floor of the Peace Worker headquarters, kitty corner across a busy intersection from the much larger headquarters of the Kestral Armed Forces.

She looked up when I entered, her face gray with exhaustion and pain. She did not look pleased to see me, but nor was she surprised. I stopped in the doorway. The office was dimly lit, a small oil lamp on her desk fighting to throw back the shadows cast by the much brighter street lamps outside, casting long shadows across a scarred oak desk and piles of paper that lay in various stages of disarray. Hattie had discarded her uniform coat, the khaki garment lying rumpled on the floor by a coat rack next to the door. The left sleeve was black in the yellow lamplight. In its place, Hattie wore a white undershirt, and I was pleased to see that the hastily-applied rag around her wound had been replaced with a proper bandage. The wound looked much less severe, her arm no longer soaked in blood, a clean pad held against her biceps by a wrap of sterile gauze.

“You’re looking better,” I said quietly.

“You look like shit,” she replied, and I could hear in her voice that she was fighting to stay awake. Fighting her body’s urge to pass out so it could work unimpeded on the healing process. She was near collapse; I could see that in her sunken eyes, hear it in her voice. But I also knew she was as stubborn as a mule, and she would pass out when she was ready, and not a damned minute sooner.

I tried to put my hands in my pockets, and they slid against rumpled silk. I looked down and realized I wasn’t wearing my usual coat, but was still clothed in that ridiculous tuxedo. No wonder the doorman had laughed; who had ever seen Victor Haas in formal wear?

I gave up and sat down in the chair across from Hattie. We stared at each other, and after a moment, a spark detached itself from the lamp on her desk and came to hover over my shoulder. I smiled up at the salamander.

“Hey, Kristopher,” I said.

(Serah is not with you,) he replied.

I nodded. “They got away.” I turned my attention to Hattie then. “We chased them north for…” damnit, I hadn’t asked how far we had gone, and had no way of hazarding a guess. “For just over two hours. We lost the beacon after they veered away from the coast, out to sea. The pilot thought they must be nearly out of fuel, which corroborates with them refueling at the mayor’s. They probably went to ground nearby.”

Hattie just sat there, dull eyes taking in my words. I stared at her. A sigh escaped me. “But you know all that. You probably got a report before I made it out of the tower.” She nodded then, a minor concession to the fact that I was still there.

I leaned forward in my chair, resting my arms on my knees. “Look,” I said. “What are you not telling me?”

My superior said nothing for a moment, and I half expected her to tell me to go to hell, but her eyes flickered up to Kristopher, then back to me. “…For a damned good reason,” she finally muttered.

I shook my head. “I didn’t ask why you’re not telling me. Though I want to know that, too. What are you withholding? Where were the other PWs tonight, really? Where did this ‘anonymous tip’ about the pirates come from? Why did the pirates kidnap Downing and Chorice, but not the half a dozen other people worth nearly as much?” I took a breath. “And why did not a Winter-damned thing that happened tonight come as a surprise to you?”

Hattie sighed and leaned forward, though her eyes did not quite meet mine. “I understand that you’re upset, Victor. I’m Serah’s friend, you should know; I care about her, too.” She waved her good hand. “But you’re seeing plots and schemes where there are none. We got an anonymous tip, that’s all. I don’t know where it came from. That’s what ‘anonymous’ means.”

Kristopher sang, but I didn’t need his burst of music to know she was lying. I said as much.

Hattie’s face turned hard. “We had this conversation already tonight, Victor. I allow some leeway in our relationship, but at a certain point you cross the line to insubordination, which is not acceptable. You’re exhausted and upset. Get up and walk out now, and I’ll forget this happened.”

I leaned back in the chair, the hard angles of the wooden back digging into my shoulders, helping keep me focused against the fog that threatened to overtake my mind. A glance at the clock showed it was still four hours until sunrise, and my body was screaming at me to take that time to sleep. I ignored it. I can be as stubborn as Hattie if I need to.

I rubbed my temples. “Hells, we can do this all night, Sergeant. I know you’re lying to me. Kristopher knows you’re lying to me. You know I know. What the bloody hell are you hiding that is more important than the lives of your mayor and a government minister?” She opened her mouth and I shook my head, forestalling her. “And enough of this insubordination business. You want to call a military tribunal, put me in jail? Fine. I’ll even sign an affidavit saying I insulted you to your face, kicked your puppy, whatever you want. But can we put aside the formality bullshit until Serah is back safe and sound?” I locked tired eyes with her. “Please?”

Hattie took a deep breath, held it for a few seconds, and let it out slowly. She leaned back in her seat and stared at me with hollow eyes. My words should have enraged her, yet she looked more weary than upset.

“Why have I not had you arrested yet, Haas?”

A tired chuckle escaped me. “My charming personality?”

She snorted. “We’ll have words about this later.” She leaned back and looked up at the shadow-crusted ceiling. “But I suppose maybe you have some right to know.”

* * * * * * * *

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August 31, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VII

by Mallard

It felt like I sat there for two years, motionless, before a voice barked “Stand down!” and a moment later Hattie stepped forward, her face white in the glow of the flood lamps, her left arm covered in a red-soaked bandage. She stopped next to me, and stared upward at the tiny twinkling star against the clouds.

“Serah?” she said softly.

I shook my head and pointed.

“Damn that woman,” my superior said and clenched her first on my shoulder. She withdrew her hand and, a moment later, my right ear exploded in pain.

“Ow!” I shouted, stumbling to my feet. “What in the hells–”

“Do you think you’re doing?” Hattie roared, turning my own words against me. “We have no time. That damned airship is escaping, and you’re sitting here moping like a little girl. Are you a little girl, Victor? So weak, unable to do anything to stop the pirates? Casting great damned big birds at them is the best you can do, huh?”

I tried to protest, but Hattie hammered on. “And when you fail, you just sit there and cry? I thought you were a little stronger than that, Victor. I guess I was wrong.”

She turned and stalked away, and I stared after her.

(Ah, it looks like I was too late,) Kristopher whistled idly above me. I shot him a glare. (Your Hattie beat me to it.)

“Damn you both,” I muttered, then straightened up and took a good look at who had surrounded me.

They weren’t Peace Workers. Not even close. The standard khaki uniforms of the Kestral Armed Forces surrounded me, some standing in a stiff parade rest, others staring openly at the sky and the flood lamps that still glowed brightly on the rooftop.

I followed their gaze, and I could still see the tiny glowing light that was Serah’s beacon, though only because I knew where to look. In a few moments, it would be gone. Which gave me no time.

“Right,” I said, snapping back to business. I turned to Hattie. “We need to get in the air and follow them. That’s what Serah put that beacon up for, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let them just waltz away.” Never mind that, thirty seconds prior, I had been about to do just that.

Hattie nodded, but before she could speak, one of the regulars stepped forward.

“Actually, we’ll be taking over from here, Specialist Haas, Sergeant Major Morrison. You should probably get back inside and await debriefing.”

I stared at him. Who in the hells did this guy think he was? I was the one who had run to stop the pirates, who had risked his life to escape their notice. And Hattie had been shot! We had every right to be a part of any forthcoming operations, even if technically it fell under the army’s purview.

I expected that Hattie would say something along those lines, and so it was with some surprise that she said nothing of the sort.

“I don’t recall seeing any notices that this had been transferred,” she said, her voice like ice. It was the sort of voice that usually meant I was in for a dressing-down, the sort of voice that stilled subordinates in their tracks and made the recipient feel an inch tall.

The sergeant–I could just make out his rank in the shadows where he stood–stepped back involuntarily at Hattie’s tone. He opened his mouth, but Hattie didn’t let him speak.

“This started out as a Peace Worker operation. It remains a Peace Worker operation until someone higher than me–which you are not–orders me otherwise. So unless you are willing to help us, get the hell out of my way.”

Not for the first time that evening–and surely not for the last–I found myself confused. What did Hattie mean that this had been a PW operation? We had been at the ball as representatives, and true we had been the first responders, but that hardly gave us authority over it, right? And there was nothing about the situation that particularly screamed Peace Workers at me. The kidnapping of the mayor and the minister–and Serah–was a devastating blow, but still fell well within the jurisdiction of the standard guard.

Then again, Hattie has been known to occasionally bully others into getting her way, combining her personality–no mean weapon–with her rank.

To his credit, after his initial fall-back, the army sergeant held his ground. He gritted his teeth, as if unwilling to say his next words, forcing each one out individually. “I’m sorry, sir. But right now, it’s a matter of logistics. You have two people; we have ten. You just don’t have the manpower to deal with this, sir.”

Hattie gritted her teeth. “We’re coming with you,” she said by way of acknowledgement. Which meant that I didn’t have to. It was a predetermined course of action for me.

The sergeant shook his head. “This isn’t your jurisdiction. We’ll handle this. You–”

“I said, we are going,” Hattie repeated, her voice low. I took an involuntary step backward. “So unless you–”

The sergeant opened his mouth to begin arguing with her more–he seemed to have lost his fear when he won the first argument–but a third voice rang out shrill above them both.

“If she wants to go, let her go! Who do you think you are, to be bickering like children over who gets the last piece of cake? They took my husband! Your mayor! Have you no shame?”

Rachel Downing stood in the doorway, half bent over and panting with effort, one hand still held over the slight bulge in her belly. Her makeup had run, black streaks dripping down her cheeks, and her hair was matted to her forehead with sweat. She no longer looked the beautiful arm piece of the mayor, and something in her eyes had changed. She looked wild, like a caged animal, ready to rip out throats if only she could get her claws on the ones responsible. Hers had not been a marriage of convenience, and however I might dislike Joel Downing, she loved him. And he had been taken from her.

I could understand her upset.

“We’re going, that’s final, and we’re wasting time arguing about it,” I interjected smoothly into the silence that followed Rachel’s outburst. “You can always use two more bodies.” And, I almost added but restrained myself, if you keep arguing about this, I’ll blind you and make you stay behind.

The sergeant grimaced, as if I had forced him to bite into a lemon, then nodded sharply. “You will follow my commands. If you disobey or fall behind, I’ll leave you.”

Ah, the last refuge of those who know they have lost. The final exertion of what little power he had left. I didn’t bother agreeing–I half expected that I would be disobeying him before the night was out, if not in the next ten minutes–but he took my shrug to mean something, and turned to bark orders to his crew.

We turned and filed back through the doorway, past the frantic eyes of Rachel Downing. I paused in the doorway and stared back into the night sky, hoping to catch one last glimpse of Serah’s beacon. But it was gone, swallowed up in the night, and it was a heavy heart that pulled me down the stairs I had raced up so soon before.

 * * * * * * * *

The army had arrived in a convoy of three identical black automobiles, sleek and fast and fully armored. The windows were a dark glass that made the insides impossible to make out, especially in the spotty light of the gas street lamps outside the mayor’s home, and the entire vehicle was fully enclosed, the rear bulging with a hidden boiler and steam engine, only a small pipe sticking up vertically to vent. This was the only point at which the insides of the auto were exposed to the outside, and even it appeared to have a hefty one-way valve to limit access.

These were expensive vehicles, halfway between a standard open automobile and a tank, suitable for driving around in cities and protecting the occupants from the bulk of most dangers, but not something one would drive into an actual battlefield.

Each auto sat four, including a driver, and there had already been a dozen army men. So I was treated to the uniquely unpleasant experience of sitting crammed between two large uniformed men in the rear of one vehicle, straddling a recess that held their rifles. Let me tell you, there are few things more uncomfortable than sitting astride two loaded weapons and driving at top speeds through the city at night.

And we were driving fast. The automobile’s air horn blazed almost continuously, roaring our challenge to the other vehicles on the streets of Kestral, letting them know that if they did not move, they would without a doubt be flattened.

Most took the hint. Not always quickly, however, and shouts of alarm and curses filled the air as pedestrians and cyclists leapt to one side. Monowheels tilted dangerously far as they fought against their own momentum, automobiles slid and scraped against stone and wood walls, and the sleek half-tank slid through the morass, skipping through gaps that should have been impossible.

At night, the enormous cargo walkers came out, ferrying goods and equipment to distant cities, eight steel legs pounding the ground as they crept ponderously along, supporting gigantic cargo bays, vehicles, and in one case most of a small house on their backs. These walkers were not much faster than a running man, and had the maneuverability of a charging rhinoceros. It took obscene amounts of fuel to even get one of them moving, and once it had taken its first few steps, it was no mean task to stop it. The pilots had to plan turns and stops well in advance, and a careless mistake, a single sleepy moment, could have disastrous consequences. I had been witness to cargo walkers out of control before. One of the great steel beasts had taken a turn a little too sharply and simply torn the corner off a sturdy brick building, spilling desks, papers, and filing cabinets out into the dark night. No one had been inside, fortunately; one of many reasons the cargo walkers rarely moved during the day.

The walkers obviously couldn’t dodge the pseudo-tank, and didn’t bother trying. The army drivers wove their cars between the pounding legs of the giant autos, and though I knew their skills were more than up to the task, it was still sobering to feel the ground shake as a foot half the width of the automobile itself struck down just moments after we had passed.

Most automobiles can manage an easy thirty or forty miles per hour at cruising speed, and some of the more powerful ones can go as high as fifty or sixty. We must have been cruising at similar speeds through the narrow streets of Kestral, and while the army folk were strapped in and had hefty hand-holds to grab onto, I had nothing but a pair of rifles between my legs and two burly men beside, neither of whom liked me. It was not a pleasant trip.

We slowed down well before we reached our destination; an inevitable side effect of trying to reach Candlepark Station.

The station is the largest and most active transportation hub in all of Kestral, and the nearest to the mayor’s mansion. Every rail line that webs the sky runs into it at some point. Every airship that visits the city docks there at least once. The subway tunnels that had been abandoned beneath the city formed a wide hub beneath the station, and had they been completed, the underground would have swarmed as mercilessly as above.

Though the station quieted some at night, it was a relative thing. Something akin to trying to fit a great lake of water into a swimming pool, as opposed to only a bath tub. Strictly speaking, one was more doable, but practically, both were equally impossible.

The streets around the station were always congested. More than congested: stopped solid. It was the next best thing to a parking lot, and some people in a hurry tended to treat it as such, which only exacerbated matters. Only a bare fortnight ago, I had fairly flown through the crowd, as Scott Casterly had carried me in the most rickety and unstable walker I had ever had the misfortune to ride. Fast, surely. But it does no good to get somewhere quickly unless you also get there in one piece.

This was something the men in the army had also yet to learn, and though we slowed down, it was not nearly as much as I would have thought reasonable.

But then, my own stakes in this matter were as dire as theirs. Hells, more so in my opinion. Let the mayor burn; I was taking Serah back.

The vehicle plowed into the morass of autos, bikes, walkers, and just plain old people, blaring its horn and looking like nothing so much as a sleek black demon breathing smoke from its rear.

The outer edges of the mess were thin enough to allow us to progress a little, but eventually even the armored half-tank had to stop.

“Now what?” I asked. We were still some distance from the station.

“Now,” said the driver, turning and grinning. “We walk.”

The doors struck the side of the neighboring vehicle, and we squeezed out into the bare inches between us. I looked around in the suddenly brighter light of the gas lamps, no longer dimmed by the tinted windows of the auto. The lamps were thick here, lighting the place up to near daylight as a thousand fires burnt from street lamps, from lanterns within the vehicles, and from the station itself. Every window in the station was bright, every gaping maw glowing a cheery yellow and white. Red and blue signal lights burned high atop the building–less a building, and more an enormous termite colony, built and added upon as necessity demanded over the years.

We ran, threading our way between stopped cars, hand-held horns and deep-throated shouts warning those ahead of our coming. I slid through the slim space between two bikes, ran across the exposed back seat of a topless automobile, danced beneath a walker’s spindly legs. Despite my long legs, I was not used to this sort of frantic maneuvering, and the army men beat me to the station proper by several seconds. As promised, they did not wait, and I raced after them, past a congested and perpetually under construction parking space and through a pair of hanger-sized doors that led into the station proper.

Inside, the station appeared much less crowded, simply by the shear scale of the place. A great central space rose several stories high, surrounding by rings of platforms laden with travelers rushing to catch their train or to escape the incoming crush. The army men and I raced across the expansive marble floor for the far wall, chipped and stained by decades of abuse. Murmurs of confusion rose and fell amid the constant ambient echoes from thousands of travelers all throughout the station, voices echoing off thin steel walls, bouncing off decorative marble and filling the air with a low roar.

The far wall of the enormous space held a bank of elevators, constantly in motion, rising up to the various train platforms, and higher still to the levels of the airship towers. And as massive as this room was, I knew the station extended much further back than we could see, occupying the whole of the park that had once been the largest in the city, and that which had given the station its name.

The wait for an open elevator was interminable, and I wanted nothing more than to break away and race up the stairs, just to be doing something, rather than standing and waiting, letting precious seconds seep through my fingers. But the station stretched high, high above the city, and I would collapse in exhaustion long before making it to the top of the spires where the military airships awaited.

The elevator doors opened, revealing a space large enough for most automobiles, and we piled in. Just as the doors began to slide shut, Hattie shoved her way inside, her face set in a pale grimace, the stained bandage now entirely red. Kristopher circled above her injured shoulder in a slow, fiery halo, humming to himself. I opened my mouth to suggest Hattie stay behind–she looked about to collapse–but I didn’t let the words out. She would take it as an insult.

The elevator rose with speed, powerful engines driving the cables that pulled it up and up, to the base of the tower levels. The military tower was further back in the station, but this level was largely empty and for the first time we were able to run all out. My long legs gave me the advantage here, and I did not have a rifle to carry, so I had no trouble keeping pace with the army officials. Hattie again fell behind, but I couldn’t stop to wait, couldn’t risk losing these men. A second, much smaller elevator awaited us, and as we piled into it, she shouted at us, but the men ignored her. I watched her run with a grim look on her face, and I sympathized…but I couldn’t stop and wait. It was for the best, I told myself as the doors cut her off from view. She needed a doctor and rest, though she would never admit it.

When the doors opened once more, it was to a metal platform, the floor corrugated to give some traction against the frightful winds that roared this high above the city. A low fence rimmed the platform, as if that would prevent the gales from picking a person up and throwing him to the ground so far below. I kept well back from the edge. As a rule, heights don’t bother me overmuch, but there’s a difference between standing in Jedediah Millston’s office atop the university and looking out across the city…and this insane platform atop a spindly tower that seemed hardly capable of supporting its own weight. That I knew it had been designed and built by army engineers who had a clue what they were up against did nothing to alleviate my fears, primal and unreasonable.

A covered ramp led to the airship gondola, not unlike a ramp from an ordinary dock to one of the many steamers that called at the Kestral ports…except a misstep here would have far more dire consequences. Yet, people traveled like this every day. Were they insane? Was I?

The soldiers seemed to have no qualms, and led the way onto the ramp that was shockingly stable. Once on it, I could see the heavy steel cables and girders that locked the ramp to the spire, not suspended in midair as I had originally thought. Even if it swayed some as we ran across it, I could almost imagine it was just the breaking of waves rocking the ship we were about to board.

The airship broke away from the spire almost before we were all aboard, and the sergeant pulled the door shut and spun the wheel to lock it as we crept from the dock, the airship’s propellers spinning up to a whine, then a roar.

Inside, the gondola was sparse, utilitarian. Metal floors and benches, where most airships were lavish with elegantly carved wood, thick colorful carpets, paintings across the walls. Traveling was an experience, and the goal was to make it as pleasant and enjoyable a one as possible. But the army had to move large amounts of people and equipment quickly; they had no room for frills. Behind us, the great engines shivered and growled, keeping the airship moving, cruising at speed through the air, though from within I could barely sense our motion. Most of the soldiers sat, to take what rest they could before the upcoming confrontation, but I was too restless to remain still. I made my way to the forward of the gondola, where the pilot sat peering through thick glass at the darkness outside, guiding the airship by a eyesight, aided by a series of dials and gauges. It was a frightening business, at least to me. Near a port, an airship pilot could rely on a nearby spire to communicate via flashing lights, transmitting weather conditions, docking instructions, and so forth. But out between cities, an airship pilot was alone; there was no support he could call in, and if the airship went down, the lives of everyone aboard were solely in the hands of this one man, who in the end, could only do so much.

He was peering at the compass now, steering the airship toward the last place we had seen the beacon. I was surprised he remembered.; I had gotten turned around on the frantic rush to and through the station and had not the slightest idea which direction to fly. It was frightening to think that, had I been in charge, we would never have gotten past this first stage, never have a hope of catching the pirate airship.

After a few minutes, the pilot let out an exasperated sigh and spoke, his eyes never wavering from the instruments. “Look, do you want something?”

“Um,” I said. Of course I wanted something. I wanted him to be faster. I wanted Serah safe and in my arms. I wanted to sit at home with a mug of hot tea and a good book, a plate of Annabella’s blackcurrant scones fresh from the oven, Kristopher singing quietly to himself in the fireplace.

“You’re one of them, right, magic guys?” the pilot asked when I didn’t continue.

I nodded, then said “yes,” when I realized he still wasn’t looking at me.

“Can you do anything to help? Track that beacon, make us move faster, anything?”

I thought for a second. “I could…give us some light?” Maybe that would make it easier to see the pirates if we got close enough. The pilot snorted.

“About the opposite of what we need, then. You catch a glimpse of the airship before you got in?” It took me a moment to realize he was asking about the one we were currently flying, not the one we chased.

“Not really.”

“Well, if you had, you’d know it was a stealth gal. No insignia, no colors, no lights. Last thing we need is a great bright light to show the pirates exactly where we are. If they go to ground, we’re done for. Now, unless you’ve got a spyglass in that coat of yours, I’d prefer you get back with the others. You’re distracting.”

I turned to go. Then stopped. Not a spyglass, but…

“You still here?” he said, a note of annoyance creeping in his voice.

“Yes,” I said, looking past him out the window. “Shut up for a second, please.” I stepped closer to the plates of glass that made up most of the front of the gondola. I focused beyond that, to the dark air outside the airship. The night seemed to grow brighter in my sight, as my senses came alive, showing me the rays of light passing from every which way through the air and the glass. Light from below us, ambient light of the city we were still passing over; light from the stars and the moon, what little made it through the dense cloud cover; and somewhere out there, the light of that lone lantern Serah had rigged to mark the pirate airship.

I saw the rays of light, and carefully, delicately, reached out to bend them. First to converge and concentrate them, then to diverge them back to parallel. This was a much finer art than the periscope effect I had used so disastrously a few weeks previous to peer around corners at the group of terrorists who had kidnapped a little boy. Lensing was necessarily a delicate business, and it always took a bit of time to get right, adjusting it incrementally until, suddenly, the rays bent in just the right way and we had a working spyglass before us. There was nothing to see yet beyond the dark clouds, but the pilot could tell that something was different, and he spoke, a frown in his voice.

“What the hell did you just do?”

“You wanted a spyglass,” I said absently, concentrating on keeping the effect in place, scanning the sky in front of us for a pinpoint of light lower than stars, higher than a house. Vague shapes leapt out at me from the dimness: tall trees and buildings, low fuzzy stars on the horizon, and there, out in the distance, a tiny pinpoint of orange.

Hardly breathing, I stretched the lenses, pulling them larger to get more light. The focus failed, and for a moment I lost the spot entirely, but I took my time to readjust, and several seconds later it floated back into being.

I couldn’t tell how far it was, or how fast it was moving, and the image was too fuzzy and dim to see the airship itself, but at least now we had a direction.

I allowed myself to relax a little, no longer needing to fine-tune the “spyglass,” and I sank into the empty copilot’s seat. The pilot said nothing, seeming to understand what I had done, and simply steered the airship toward that distant point, flickering in the blackness of night.

* * * * * * * *
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August 15, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter V

by Mallard

Once the room was still, the pirates relaxed visibly, one of them lowering the enormous rifle that had made most of the noise, others shifting their weight to more comfortable positions. At any one time, though, six or seven weapons were trained vaguely on the crowd. Enough to discourage any sad heroism.

Where most of the pirates wore masks colored like a peacock’s feathers, brilliant shades that sparkled in the ambient light, the one in front wore a mask of velvet black, feathers from some exotic bird of night. At the distance he stood from us, the black feathers faded into his black suit, so he appeared as some strange creature of darkness, with bright white spots for eyes. The exotic appearance was somewhat mitigated by the sawed-off shotgun he wielded in one hand, and the speaking horn he held in his other.

I looked once again at Hattie, wishing I could leave the wall to help her. But performing the same trick with the floor is much harder, and almost always fails. I talk about pulling a section of wall over me, but of course that’s not an accurate description of what I do. Merely talk of the trade. In order to hide, I have to create an illusion in front of me that mimics the wall behind, sort of like holding up a photograph of an empty hallway in front of an apartment’s peephole to fool the occupants. This works from most angles, so long as the ones I am trying to fool do not get too close. But to mimic the floor exactly…

Perhaps you have seen the almost miraculous chalk drawings that street performers sometimes create during festivals. From a certain angle, the drawings take on incredible depth and realism, and it is easy to believe that the painter has created a physical hill or hole in the street. Being who I am, I truly appreciate these illusions, put together with nothing more magical than skill and patience. But when these drawings are viewed from any other angle, the illusion collapses into mere chalk marks on cobblestones.

Similar concepts apply in my case, and to hide Serah and myself by making it appear as if the floor we stand on is empty is not an easy task.

So I sat there, motionless, able only to watch.

Kristopher, for his part, vibrated in agitation near my head, drawn by his nature to Hattie, but knowing that to fly beyond my illusion would expose us all to danger. But his attraction to her showed that she clearly still lived, for salamanders cared little for the dead.

Hattie lay on her stomach, in profile to me, her head facing away. But her back rose and fell almost imperceptibly, and the puddle of blood no longer seemed to be growing. Her entire left side was red with blood, though darkest on her upper arm, and I hoped that the bullet had merely taken her in the bicep or shoulder. A painful wound, but not immediately fatal.

But hopes were all I could do for her now. I wasn’t a doctor or a healer, and if I showed myself, the pirates would almost certainly shoot me as well. So I forced my attention off Hattie, and looked once again toward the pirates.

They had fanned out somewhat, beginning to move among the motionless crowd. The mayor was no longer in sight, having been hustled out and away by his false security guard. Only a few seconds had passed, when the man with the horn spoke once again.

“Sorry to drop in so sudden-like, folks! I know just how much I hate when unruly fellows crash my party.” He made a big show of looking around at the prone guests, many huddled faces to the floor, a few of the braver ones turning their heads up to watch the pirates.

“Oh, dear! None of you all are masked.” He touched his own feathered mask and shrugged. “And here, we thought this was a masquerade!” He chortled roughly, and his fellows followed suit. His voice was coarse, like that of someone who has spent much of his life outdoors, or smoking, or drinking. Or, most likely, all three. It was the sort of voice I heard often enough in the army, as smoking and drinking defined the off-duty activities of many of us, living hedonistically from day to day because we never knew if our next would be our last.

The man made a big show of looking around, his hand held to shade his masked brow. “Well, no one’s coming to cart us away, so I guess we’re welcome! Pity that Downing fellow’s not around to greet us in person. Word is he’s a bit…bound up in other matters.” He laughed again, then sighed noisily.

“Well, there’s no point in waiting. You all know why we’re here. So out with it! Jewels, money, weapons. All yer valuables, and believe me, we’ll know if you’ve left anything out. No time to waste!”

A few of the quicker folks began to remove necklaces and rings, tiaras and jeweled slippers. Not enough, nor fast enough, and black powder boomed the pirates’ displeasure.

All at once, the room was a sea of activity, and small piles began to accumulate beside every prone couple, finery of every sort filling the floors. The pirates spread out then and began to roam the room at random, kicking at the recalcitrant, whose priorities seemed to waver uncertainly between a desire to keep their riches, and a desire to keep their lives. One man, I saw, actually held down his wife’s arms to stop her from removing her wedding ring, arguing in heated whispers, until one of the pirates strode up and viciously kicked him in the stomach. The man cried out and hunched up, and his wife pulled off her ring and threw it to the man in tearful haste.

Maybe the pirate had been drinking, or was just drunk with power, but he wasn’t satisfied with the small concession. He ignored the ring and leaned down, cupping the frightened woman’s cheek in one hand, leaning his feathered face close to hers. I couldn’t hear what the said, but I could guess his intent, and my suspicions were confirmed as the lady’s face turned white and she scrambled away, trembling.

“Victor!” Serah hissed at me, and I looked at her helplessly, knowing that if I did anything, we would be revealed, and probably killed. I looked toward the terrible scene, thinking furiously. Maybe I could make the woman’s face and bosom sag with age, or make some bright light to catch the corner of his eye…

A shotgun roared, and a window shattered, dropping shards of colored glass to the tiled floor and the gardens outside. The lead pirate, his weapon held casually against his shoulder, strode over to his crew member and the terrified woman. He glanced down at the woman, and barked something. She froze, then slowly laid down on the ground beside her prone husband, gripping his hand tightly, trembling from head to foot.

Then the pirate captain turned to his crewman, regarded him for a moment, and casually backhanded the taller man with an audible snap of flesh on flesh.

“We’re here for two things, and this ain’t one of them,” he said loudly, and turned away toward another slow couple, as if having already forgotten the altercation. I half expected the other man to shoot him, or tackle him, but he did nothing, standing motionless, fists clenched, before turning and stalking toward yet another pair.

Aside from that one mishap, the pirates were remarkably well organized, and it wasn’t much longer before the piles were complete, and the pirates began to collect their prizes. I was a little surprised at the care with which they gathered the jewelery; rather than sweeping it all into sacks and running away into the night, they brought out several large wooden boxes and carefully sorted through each pile, completely ignoring the silent guests. The more delicate pieces–those of thin wrought gold or fine crystal–were folded in tissue paper and placed carefully in dozens of small boxes, which were then loaded into the wooden crates. The more durable pieces were simply wrapped and arranged into yet another crate. They took their time, examining each piece carefully before sorting it into its appropriate container. These pirates, for all that they had said there was no time to waste, were very fastidious about keeping their loot in a top condition. If they hadn’t been toting weapons and wearing masks, it would have been not unlike watching laborers load important cargo for shipment to another city.

With every extra minute the pirates took, I expected a squadron of police to barge in, perhaps led by my friend, Scott Casterly. But no one showed, and in retrospect, I wasn’t really surprised. Who could have escaped to warn them? If the pirates had truly infiltrated the house’s security staff, they had likely restrained or killed anyone who had had a chance to leave the premises. They surely had men outside the house, masquerading as security, to stop anyone from entering or leaving the mansion. I couldn’t help wondering just how large their operation was, and more importantly, how they had gotten in the mayor’s supposed “fortress.”

Eventually they had collected and stored the last pieces of wealth–and coerced a few lingering fragments from some of the more recalcitrant guests–and I expected that to be the end of it. But they continued to take their time, reorganizing some of the crates in a seemingly unnecessary manner, walking among the prone guests and gesturing with their guns, making their presence known and feared. Their masks glimmered all the more now that they were the only things in the room left to sparkle, and somehow that made them all the more ominous.

“Why are they waiting so long?” I whispered aloud after several minutes of this, unable to comprehend their motives. I had been more a spy than a thief, but I had always thought the first rule in covert operations was speed: get in, do what’s necessary, and get out before anything has a chance to go wrong. But it seemed like these pirates were in no hurry to go anywhere. Almost as if they were waiting for something.

Beside me, I heard Serah gasp.

“Fuel,” she whispered in sudden realization, her voice as low as mine had been. “They’re refueling.”

I frowned. “Refueling?”

She nodded excitedly. “They must have come in an airship; it’d be much easier to get past the security staff that way, since they would all be on the lower floors with the guests. But they couldn’t carry enough fuel for the return trip, so they’re pulling from the mayor’s reserves.”

I nodded slowly. It made sense, put that way. The pirates would not have come in trucks or walkers, since without invitations, they could not enter the mansion. And though I may not like Joel Downing, he is a cautious man, and in saying his mansion was a fortress, I don’t believe he was exaggerating. At least, not intentionally. But perhaps he had not secured it quite so well against an attack from the air. “Right. How long do you think they have left?”

She shook her head. “Depends on the airship. It can’t be much longer, though.”

I nodded. “I’ll go take a look. Wait here.” I made as if to stand, and Serah grabbed my arm. I looked down at her, and her face was full of determination.

“And what, get discovered when your illusion fades? Remember, Victor,” she hissed. “Kiss or clobber.” I winced. I really didn’t want her involved. She didn’t have a gun, and full of dislike for them as she was, she had never learned to handle one. Not that I was armed either, but I was at least more familiar with this sort of situation than she. Wrench or no wrench, it was too likely that she could be hurt.

But she had a point. I couldn’t leave her, and she knew a lot more about airships than I ever will. Despite my misgivings, I’d probably need her.

“Come on, then,” I whispered, and couldn’t keep a displeased frown from my face.

The entry staircase to the ballroom was between us and the pirates, but unfortunately, so were a number of tables, chairs, prone guests, and other obstacles that would make hugging the wall difficult. If we went too quickly, the pirates might notice a sort of ripple effect on the wall as my imperfect memory botched the edges of the illusion. But if we went too slowly, we wouldn’t make it before the pirates themselves left.

“On the ground,” I hissed, and Serah obeyed. Her shoes clicked on the tile as she got on her hands and knees, and I froze, but the pirates were too far to hear anything. Quickly, Serah pulled her shoes off and set them with exaggerated care on the ground, pushed up against the corner where the floor met the wall. I did the same. Hopefully the pirates would not notice two pairs of shoes suddenly appearing out of nothing when we moved away.

I took one last look at Hattie’s still form, and gritted my teeth. There was nothing I could do. She still breathed, but had not moved since she had fallen. Whether her lack of movement was out of pain or a desire not to draw attention to herself, I couldn’t tell. I could only hope it was the latter.

“Winter take it,” I hissed, and began to crawl behind Serah toward the stairs, moving as quickly as I could, while hugging the wall as closely as possible.

Lady Autumn’s grace and Sir Summer’s luck both must have been with us, for we made it to the stairs without mishap. And though I couldn’t breathe for the fear, we were able to ascend the stairs and pass through the carved teakwood doors, moving in short bursts when the pirates were looking elsewhere. As I’ve said before, the great power of illusion lies in the fact that no one expects it. The pirates were confident that they had everyone at their mercy on the floor, and it was through this flaw that Serah and I were able to slip away.

Once in the hall, I dropped the illusion and we stood, taking just a moment to stretch cramped muscles. Then the two of us ran headlong down the hall, toward the dark staircase I knew we had passed on the way in. It was no longer guarded by a black-suited security man, and no longer dark. Elegant wrought-iron lamps lent a soft yellow glow to the narrow stairwell, lighting a path to the higher floors. Circumspect, these pirates were not.

As we turned into the stairwell, the faint amplified tones of the captain floated down the hall to us. “Gentlemen and ladies, it has been a pleasure! But we’ve taken enough of your time. We’ll take our leave now, with these fine gifts. And, since they seemed so eager, just one or two guests will be coming with us. Off to attend a fancier and grander party elsewhere. A good evening, all!”

At first, I took it to mean only that Serah and I had no time now, and that we had to run. We did so, rocketing up the carpeted steps, past gaily glowing wall scones and darkened doorways. It wasn’t until we had reached the third floor that I realized the full extent of what the pirate had said.

One or two guests. They had taken the mayor, of that I had no doubt. Who else would be important enough to spirit away? Who else indeed, but a woman whose position was as high above Joel Downing’s as his was above mine?

“Serah,” I said, slowing to a stop. She stopped a few steps higher up and frowned down at me. “Did you see Martha in there?”

Serah frowned in thought, then her face slowly drained of color. “No,” she whispered, and shook her head. “I didn’t see her at all.”

Behind us, though I could not yet hear them, I knew the pirates would be walking out of the ballroom and down the hall, lugging their laden wooden crates. And more importantly, their numerous weapons.

“Winter take it,” I cursed again, but as before, there was nothing I could do. So we ran up the stairs, praying that we could reach the airship before the pirates and, though I knew not how, to prevent its launch.

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August 9, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter IV

by Mallard

We weren’t the flashiest dancers on the floor, either in dress or in skill, but I doubt either of us cared. We were at a ball, so we danced, and Kristopher darted above our heads to the amusement and surprise of the other guests. The clockwork band kept perfect time, and I led Serah around the floor to half a dozen tunes that I barely recognized. We were oblivious to the rest of the guests, caught up as we were in our own world of spins and steps, lights and music, the enormous ballroom blurring past as we twirled and forgot everything.

And, as usual, Hattie found a way to ruin my fun.

She at least had the grace to wait until between dances, when the operators of the golem quintet were readjusting strings and positions in preparation for the next piece. I was leading Serah by one sweat-dampened glove to the drinks table for a quick refresher, and a heavy hand suddenly clapped on my shoulder.

I admit I overreacted. I don’t normally like to think of myself as jumpy, but I was in a good mood, with not a single unpleasant thought in my head, so I was quite startled by what felt like unfriendly contact.

I flinched and spun, letting go of Serah’s hand and stepping between her and whoever had laid hands on me. Before I could register that it was merely my boss, illusory flame burst into being in my hands. A mere distraction, of course, but effective, even when people know that I am an illusionist. Knowledge of the mind is weak and slow; knowledge of the eyes and the instincts is something else altogether. Seeing a person’s hands burst into brilliant red flame that crackles and sparks and burns the cuffs of his sleeves is enough to give anyone pause.

Gasps of fear and amazement sounded around us, and suddenly we three were standing in a wide, clear area, none of the guests eager to get too near the crazed fire mage.

Hattie Morrison was not impressed.

“If you’re quite done making an ass of yourself and our entire organization,” she snapped, her arms crossed over her medaled chest. “I need to talk to you. Alone.” She added this last with a glance at Serah.

Well. That was embarrassing. I extinguished the false flames at once, and made a show of brushing off my sleeves, keeping my eyes averted from the onlookers. I realized, far too late, that as a representative of the Peace Workers, I was not exactly doing my job well. Look at this man, reformed soldier of the Republican Guard, perfectly safe and diligently working for the further safety of this city. Watch, as he attempts to burn to the ground a woman clad in the uniform of our own Kestral Armed Forces. Feel safe yet?

“Sorry,” I muttered. Normally I don’t care too much about embarrassing Hattie, but I had possibly blown the entire reason I was even at this ball. That was a bit much, even for me.

“Now,” Hattie said and turned to push her way through the crowd. She didn’t need to bother; it parted like water before her.

“Go on, I’ll be fine,” Serah said and gave me a little push. Then I felt her press up against my back and whisper into my ear, “Impressive, by the way. Stupid, but impressive.”

(But mostly stupid,) Kristopher agreed. I ignored him, but couldn’t help a tiny silly grin as I felt Serah move away.

I followed Hattie, and noticed with a mix of amusement and chagrin that I had a much wider corridor to walk through than she.

I expected the first thing Hattie would do would be to berate me, but she limited herself to a mere, “You’re a damned idiot, Victor. You will hear more about this.” Which worried me. What would make her delay a well-deserved dressing-down?

“I just received a message,” she said. “Via the optical telegraph.”

Which was a little surprising. The optical telegraph was the primary method of transmitting messages across long distances, using brightly lit towers that mimicked old semaphore flag movements. Actually, only the older towers truly mimicked semaphore. Newer, more complex towers, have up to four arms and utilize a bastardized form of sign language, allowing faster and clearer communication, though requiring much more training on the part of the operators.

The fact that Hattie had received a message on it meant that, not only had someone from another city contacted her, but the message was important enough to warrant interrupting her during a Peace Worker operation. Admittedly, a political and social operation rather than a true mission, but not something to be lightly intruded upon, all the same.

“We have reason to believe that there might be a raid here tonight,” Hattie continued, and my eyes widened in surprise. “Pirates.”

“Pirates?” I asked. Why would pirates come here, to the middle of the city? Then I thought back to my first sight of the ballroom, of the sheer dazzle and wealth of the guests, and I began to understand.

“How do you know?” I asked. “Who sent you the message?”

“Never mind that,” she said. “I need you on alert. I have the mayor’s security on the lookout for anyone not on the guest list, but with so many people here, it is almost impossible. I want you to stick to the mayor. The pirates will most likely go after his wealth, and hold him ransom against our good behavior.”

“His capture would hardly affect my behavior,” I muttered.

“Soldier!” Hattie growled, and I snapped to attention without conscious thought. “I don’t care your personal opinions of the man. I gave you an order, and you’ll damned well follow it. If I say stick to the mayor, you stick to the winter-blasted mayor, and when I say keep your smart-ass mouth closed, you’ll do that, too. Understood?”

Maybe it was because I only rarely saw Hattie in full dress uniform, or maybe it was the way she let me get away with numerous little misdemeanors, but I had never felt this sort of authoritative power from her. I fought down my instinctive response, and simply nodded.

“Yes, sir,” I said, and after a moment, Hattie nodded in return.

“Good. And keep this to yourself, of course. We don’t need a panic among the guests.” She frowned, as if she had bitten into a bad fruit. “And I’m sorry to ruin your evening like this, Victor. But–”

I nodded quickly. “I understand, sir. Duty first. Only, this might be difficult to explain to Serah if I can’t tell her the truth.”

Hattie pressed her lips into a thin smile. “You never seem to have trouble coming up with quick explanations when talking to me, Victor. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”

“I don’t want to lie,” I insisted, though I knew I should drop it. That’s one thing that I try to stick firm to. Whatever mistakes I still make, however badly I might sometimes backslide, I do my best not to lie. Lying is the first step on the steep staircase down to Winter’s hells, and that strict old man does not easily forgive.

Hattie snorted. “What is this nonsense? Victor, you lie like a…” She stopped suddenly and frowned in thought. When she spoke again, it was in a slower, almost surprised tone. “No, you don’t, do you? Stretch the truth, insult me to my face, and all around disrespect any semblance of authority. But I will admit, you have never lied to me, Victor.” She sighed and shook her head. “Do what you must, but don’t let anyone overhear. Like I said, the last thing we need is widespread panic.”

I nodded. “Understood.”

“Good. Stick to the mayor, keep your eyes peeled, and let me or one of the security staff know the instant you see anything suspicious. You see a man or woman standing alone and looking around, you see someone sticking to the wall instead of dancing, or even a servant carrying drinks whom you didn’t notice before, you let me know.”

I nodded again, and Hattie dismissed me, vanishing into the crowd. Or rather, moving into it. Clad in full dress uniform as she was, she stuck out like a sore thumb in the sea of tuxedos and gowns. Wherever she went, the pirates were likely to be elsewhere. Which made for a simple search strategy: look everywhere Hattie wasn’t.

I snorted to myself and turned back to search for Serah and Joel Downing.

The former was walking toward me, a pair of champagne glasses held in her gloved hands. The light caught her teardrop necklace and sparkled, and for a moment I simply stared at my lady, as I had when I first saw her that evening. She smiled at my expression and handed me a glass before hooking her arm through mine.

“Trouble?” she murmured, keeping her voice low. The music had started up while Hattie and I were speaking, and the crowd had mostly lost interest in me. But a few furtive glances still found their way to me, and I answered in kind.

“Hattie doesn’t like me much.”

Serah snorted into her bubbly. “So, it was nothing serious?”

I hesitated. “Um.” I scanned the crowd for the mayor, and spotted him after a moment standing by the drinks table, chatting with some men I did not immediately recognize, but who were no doubt quite influential. His wife stood at his side, a plastic smile fixed on her face.

Serah frowned and pulled away from me, following my eyes with her own. “There’s something going on with the mayor?” she asked.

“Possibly not,” I hedged. While Hattie had as much as said to go ahead and clue Serah in, on second thought, I wasn’t sure I wanted her anywhere near this. I wondered if I could get her to go home if I promised to explain in the morning.

Serah sighed. “Kristopher?” she asked, looking above my head where the salamander had settled into his usual circle.

(He is telling the truth, and he is not,) Kristopher said, and reversed directions.

“Victor,” Serah growled, and I started.

“You can’t understand him!” I said.

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve known him as long as I’ve known you. I understand enough to know when he doesn’t agree with you.”

(I like her,) Kristopher said, as he has many times before. Usually, I find it encouraging.

“Right,” I said to both of them, and started forward toward the mayor. Serah pulled against me for a second, then gave in and walked with me.

“Victor, tell me the truth. Are you…working now?”

“Of course I am,” I said, keeping my eyes on Downing. “This whole evening is work for me, remember. I’m here to represent the Peace Workers and all.”

(And a fine job you have done of it,) Kristopher agreed.

“Can’t you do anything useful?” I grumbled up at him.

(No,) he said simply. (If your pirates are untroubled and uninjured, I cannot find them for you.)

“You know what I mean,” Serah insisted. She handed off her glass to a passing server and stepped in front of me, pushing both hands against my chest. “I may not be a Peace Worker, but I’m not a helpless bystander either,” she said.

I stopped. “I know. Believe me I know,” I insisted. “But I really don’t want you involved.”

Serah sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. “You know, I’ve helped you out before.”

I said nothing. It was true, so what could I say? I hadn’t wanted her involved those times, either.

“This is supposed to be a wonderful night out, Victor. It is becoming less so by the moment.” She fixed me with a glare. “I hope you remember that I’m not some helpless lady, like every other woman here. At the end of this evening, I’ll either kiss you for an exciting night out…or clobber you for a miserable one. Your choice, buster.” She held up a crescent wrench that I was sure had not been in her hand before, and wagged it in my face. I frowned.

“Why do you have–”

“Victor!”

I sighed. “All right, you win.” I hesitated, then hastened to continue as Serah’s eyes narrowed. “Hattie got a tip that, uh, pirates might attack tonight,” I said, and in the brightly-lit hall, surrounded by beautiful gowns and well-tailored suits, it sounded a little ludicrous. I coughed. “And, uh, they might be after the mayor.”

Serah’s eyes widened. I took her arm, pulling her toward the group around Downing.

“Oh,” she said after a moment. “Well. That was unexpected.”

I laughed. “A pirate attack? Unexpected? Nonsense.” I noticed that the wrench was no longer visible, and I couldn’t help but wonder how she had snuck it in.

We neared the mayor and I hovered in the background, scanning the faces of the group he was speaking with. I didn’t know all of them by name, but I could remember seeing most of them when we had introduced ourselves earlier in the evening. Unless the pirates had been there from the beginning, these were probably off the suspect list.

Downing caught my eye and gave me a polite nod, which I returned, but I made no move to approach him. Hattie or his staff had almost certainly explained the situation to him, though if I hadn’t known something was amiss, I would not have discovered it from his face.

The clocked ticked onward, and the group eventually dispersed. I approached Downing and he nodded again.

“Mr. Haas, it is good to see you again. What may I do for you?”

I frowned. “Your security staff spoke with you, I trust? About, um,” I glanced around us to see if anyone was nearby. The mayor cut me off.

“Of course, of course. The pirates. Be at ease, Mr. Haas. It may not look it, but this house is rather a fortress. I am not terribly worried. But I trust you and Sergeant Morrison are on top of the situation, in any case?”

I hesitated. “On top” would be overstating things.

Before I could respond, a man clad in the black velvet of the house staff stepped up behind Downing and tapped him on the shoulder. The mayor turned and leaned close, and the man whispered into his ear. The mayor frowned, nodded, and turned back to me.

“It appears I spoke too soon,” he said through a tight-lipped frown. “Please excuse me.”

The man stepped to the side and addressed me. “Mr. Haas. We have positively identified at least four individuals who are not on the guest list, all of whom show evidence of being armed. We are to escort Mayor Downing to a secure room, and evacuate the premises as quickly and quietly as we can.”

“I’ll come with you,” I said. It was my orders after all.

The man shook his head firmly. “Sergeant Major Morrison told me that you are to report to her at once. The guests will need protection if the situation gets out of hand.”

I frowned. I hated to abandon the pirates’ prime target, but it made sense. Only the mayor was likely to be in physical danger, but he had his own staff to protect him. The guests stood to lose both wealth and dignity, and possibly far more if they had the admirable, but idiotic, courage to stand up to armed pirates. I nodded.

“Keep him safe,” I said unnecessarily, and let the security staff lead Downing away, while I scanned the crowd for Hattie.

She was not hard to find, as she was running toward me, shoving rudely through the crowd. She waved her arms wildly and shouted in anger, though I could not hear her over the music and the crowd noise.

“That was one of the pirates,” Serah whispered in sudden understanding, and I stiffened. Of course. What better guise for a kidnapper than a member of the very staff that is to protect the mayor? I could well believe that Downing did not know all his men’s faces by heart.

I turned toward where the man was still leading Downing away, readying in my mind an image of a an enormous blaze to block his path. Given my earlier gaff, he would likely believe it. Not for long, but enough for Hattie and I to catch him. I cursed myself for not bringing my pistol, but there was nothing for it now. I readied myself to release the illusion.

A shot from a black powder rifle rang out, cutting off the music and shattering my concentration. Several voices screamed, and fell into shocked silence a moment later as a second shot sounded, destroying the face of the enormous bronze clock.

“Everyone on the floor!” an amplified voice rang out. “Now!”

Hattie whirled, faster than I have ever seen her move, and a hidden pistol appeared in her hands as if I had cast it there.

As fast as she was, she could not immediately tell which direction to face and shoot. Before she could catch her bearings, a softer pistol shot echoed and Hattie spun around, then laid down on the floor, as if suddenly taken in a faint.

“Hattie!” Serah shrieked, and I shoved my hand roughly against her mouth, pulling her down and sinking back into the wall.

I had hardly enough time to pull a barely-remembered image of the wallpaper over us, before a third shot from the rifle boomed.

“On the floor!” the voice roared. “Or we’ll put you there and you won’t be gettin’ up!”

The guests fell to the ground, and in seconds the room was motionless, save for the group of seven figures clad in black suits, each with a brilliantly-colored feathered mask hiding his face.

I stared in shock at the pirates, at the guests on the floor, and most of all at Hattie and the puddle of red spreading slowly beneath her. I felt utterly helpless, and could only watch in horror as my boss and friend writhed in agony on the floor, unable to do anything to stop her pain.

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August 2, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter III

by Mallard

A cool silence descended between the two officials, an island of tense calm amid the sea of conversation that filled the ballroom. Mayor Downing was no longer smiling, his lips pursed in a displeased expression. Martha Chorice kept up her polite facade, unwilling to let her mask slip. She was a Minister of Cest-Weldersheen’s Council of Governors, of which the mayor was also a member, though on a lower tier. And though she was newer to her office than Downing, she had seemed to enter the role fully developed for it, bringing vigorous change to the incumbent government at the time they most needed it.

The silence stretched, and at last it looked like Downing would give. He sighed, but before he could speak, Hattie moved in smoothly, stepping between the two and addressing the Minister of Internal Affairs. The move that surprised me, as it could be taken as a deliberate slight to the mayor. In a similar manner actually, as her showing up at his celebratory ball in full uniform. It was nothing that he could reprimand, of course, but it was a slight nonetheless. I found I was suddenly feeling a little warmer toward my superior.

“Minister Chorice,” Hattie said, her voice soft and respectful. “May I have the honor of introducing to you one of our most talented agents? This is Victor–”

“Haas,” Chorice finished Hattie’s sentence and turned to me. Her voice was not very feminine, low and almost gravely, but it was a voice that one would not rashly go against. She spoke with a carefully measured cadence, as if the language was not her native tongue, and she had forced herself to learn it perfectly, if not colloquially. “I have indeed heard of you, Mr. Haas.” She turned back to Hattie and gave a much warmer smile than she had graced the mayor with. “It is stories such as those of Mr. Haas, and of your entire division in Kestral, that give me cause to believe I argued for the correct side.” She glanced significantly at the mayor. “Against heated opposition.”

Mayor Downing frowned, and shifted his weight uncomfortably. “That was two years ago, Martha. Times have changed. I have changed. I will freely admit that I was wrong, if that will please you. I, too, have seen the results of our local Peace Workers, and I am in a position to know well the state this great city might be in without them. Please do not think that I, for a moment, regret the success with which you argued in the Council two years ago.”

Minister Chorice raised a thick eyebrow, then nodded once. “Perhaps you have changed,” she acknowledged. She paused, then, “I have heard that Kestral has had some minor financial difficulties in the past year. Nothing serious, I hope?” It was a minor concession, a willingness to speak to the mayor on cordial, if not friendly terms.

The two fell into talking politics, moving from the state of the city’s economy to trade routes and crime rates, and Hattie’s smile began to look forced. I edged away half a step, then another, pulling Serah with me. She came willingly, no doubt eager to distance herself from the most powerful man in the city, and one of the most powerful women in the entire nation. Perhaps we could sneak off just for a moment, on the pretense of getting drinks…

A loud gong made me jump as an enormous brass clock on the wall began to call out the twenty-first hour. Nine loud booms echoed in the enormous ballroom, swallowing conversation, stilting laughter, and turning all heads toward the dais underneath the clock. Mayor Downing excused himself quickly and led his wife in a quick not-quite-jog to the raised podium. I slumped in relief that he was gone, and turned to lead Serah away. I really could use a drink.

“Mr. Haas,” the minister’s voice called. “Please stay for a while. I would very much like the opportunity to speak with you.”

I winced, and glanced at Hattie, who nodded firmly. Of course. The reason I was there, after all, was to represent the Peace Workers. I glanced at Serah and shrugged apologetically. “Sorry.”

Serah rolled her eyes and steered me back toward the minister and my boss.

The final gong sounded and, as the brassy notes faded into silence, the mayor’s voice, amplified through some device, sounded from all corners of the room.

“Friends and associates, citizens and visitors, welcome! I am Mayor Joel Downing, and it pleases me beyond all measure to have you here this evening. Tonight is a special night for me, as I celebrate a change in my life, and that of my wife. One we have desired for many years. Long have I worried that I would not have a child, that I would not have an heir to the Downing estate. But today, I lay to rest all such worries! Today, we celebrate the most proud news any husband has ever had the pleasure to express.”

He gestured to Rachel, and his beaming wife joined him on the stage, handing him a glass of champagne. He took it and pulled her close to him, folding his arm protectively around her shoulders. “Today, we celebrate the pregnancy and impending birth of Joel Downing Junior! Or perhaps Joanna! It’s too early to tell!” A polite titter rippled across the crowd, and Downing’s grin widened.

“Tonight, let all barriers of birth and wealth, station and responsibility vanish. Tonight, we celebrate the most basic emotion of any couple, of any father: pride at the addition of a child to his family. A toast!” he raised his glass, and crystal sparkled across the room as hundreds more joined his in the air. “A toast to the miracle of birth, a toast to the great city of Kestral, and most of all, a toast to Mrs. Rachel Downing, the most magnificent and beautiful woman I have ever known!”

In one gulp, he drained his glass and gestured grandly at the mechanical quintet, which started up at once, filling the air with lively notes. Downing led his wife down the steps of the dais to the center of the dance floor, which cleared before him. It was not a gentle and slow dance, and gasps filled the air as Joel lead his wife around in a wild waltz. Fans of rich paper and colored feathers fluttered as the mayor and his wife stepped, whirled, leapt, and bent backwards almost to the floor, stepping up the tempo until, following a resounding crescendo, the music vanished and Downing kissed his wife deeply. Cheers and laughter filled the air, and the two broke apart, beaming. A few moments later, the music began once more, and couples began to file to the dance floor to join the mayoral pair.

I was sorely tempted to join them, but I held myself in check, turning instead back to Minister Chorice and Hattie Morrison, the former of whom was, to my surprise, chuckling freely and waving a glass of white wine through the air.

She caught my eye and her own twinkled, forming wrinkles at the corners that reminded me of the woman’s age. “Is it not odd,” she said, rotating the glass in her hands, the crystal catching and throwing the light in brilliant sparkles. “That Mayor Downing speaks of breaking down barriers between class and wealth, yet not a one here is from the streets or the docks? Every man and woman at this soirée are from the upper class of this city, and the only class barriers that can be ignored are those between the merely rich, and the obscenely rich such as himself.” She shot a smile at Serah, who started. “Be proud, Ms. Villifree. You are the sole representative here of the working class of Kestral.”

“I–” Serah started, and Chorice shook her head.

“No, no. Swallow whatever formality you are about to say, my dear. While I do not agree with Downing on many things, his words, at least, sound good. No barriers tonight; speak to me as you would any other woman.”

I coughed, and Serah elbowed me in the ribs, glaring. “Of course, Minister Chorice,” she said.

The minister’s smile turned almost wistful, her eyes a little less cheerful. “It is not possible, I suppose. It is a trapping of power that I have never learned to enjoy: the erection of impassable walls between those who wield the power, and those who are affected by it.”

She turned back to me. “I did not exaggerate when I said I know of you, Victor.” She paused. “You are a curious case. You are one of the few Peace Workers who came to our side of your own free will, before the amnesty. It was you who helped convince me to stay true to my course of action, rather than give in to pressure. It was a close thing, you should know. I was young and new then, and had not the fortitude I have now.”

That was a sobering thought. The minister had spoken with such passion two years before, when she had argued boldly for a general amnesty of all members of the Republican Guard. She had faced violent opposition, including numerous threats to her life and loved ones, for the last months of the war had been charged with tension. Those of Cest-Weldersheen held no compassion for the traitors, as they called the Republic. The civil war had been bloody for both sides, as the magic of the south battled against the great steam tanks of the north. In the end, the war machines of the Royal Army had conquered the smaller nation, tanks the size of small factories rolling through all opposition and razing entire cities to the ground.

It shouldn’t have been like that, of course. The Republic had not been formed with an intent to wage war against its parent nation. It had been mostly symbolic, in the beginning. A protest against the power-mad and out-of-control army.

You already know that I played a part in the war, a role I regret deeply. I joined the army shortly after the Patchwork Folk invaded, seeing it as an opportunity to escape from the monotony of the printing press where I had worked. I had been stationed near the city of Sainted Isles, some distance south of Kestral.

Cest-Weldersheen had profited from decades of peace, and the army had been minuscule when the Patchwork Folk landed and began their march of terror, and the Council of Governors had responded with a draft, putting thousands of poorly trained and unwilling soldiers into the field. Taxes had risen alarmingly, especially in the rural south, as the government took more and more resources to support the growing army. Drunk with power and lacking in discipline, the newly conscripted soldiers began to take what they felt was rightfully theirs, stealing from and terrorizing the very people they were charged to protect, committing crimes that the Council refused to acknowledge.

Eighteen months into the war, Sainted Isles had seceded, and having lived through what they had, I went with them. They formed the first city in the Republic, a child nation that had been meant only as a symbolic and temporary protest.

The Council had responded by withdrawing armed support, and for a time the city knew peace, far enough behind the front lines to be out of danger from both the Patchwork Folk and the Royal Army.

But as more cities followed suit, and as the Council continued to withdraw support, the danger became more pronounced. Eventually, it became too much and several cities banded together and bartered with the savages to allow them safe passage into the greater nation of Cest-Weldersheen in exchange for immunity.

This act of treachery brought the Council’s attention back with a vengeance, and at once we of the Republic found ourselves fighting a war on two fronts.

The false moniker of the “Mage Wars” was purely propaganda by the north. The Republic consisted of mostly agricultural communities, and had none of the industry of the greater nation. Thus, our greatest weapons were those of magic, to combat the fierce beast-like forces of the Patchwork Folk, and the powerful war machines of Cest-Weldersheen. Magic became the curse to pin the blame on, and the Republican mages became the cursed.

When the Patchwork Folk were finally driven from our shores, and the Republic was crushed, many of the Council of Governors–including Mayor Joel Downing–had argued for mass executions of the soldiers of the Republican Guard.

I fought on the side of the Republic throughout the war, at first out of solidarity for their plight, and later out of necessity, for I would be hunted by both sides if I left. But I could not make myself as hard as was required to fight my own people, and in the final months of the war, I ran. I left behind both the Republic and Cest-Weldersheen, and made my way to the fireswamps of the southeast, there to hide among the flames that fit the intensity of the crimes I had committed.

Kristopher found me there, and without him, I truly believe I would have died. He rekindled my desire to live and to atone for my sins. He led me to safety, beginning the long and seemingly impossible process of healing my broken psyche.

Thus, in the final months of the war, I became an agent of the Royal Army, feeding them what information I could in order to end the war as quickly as possible, to reduce the number of men and women who had to die.

Even so, I would likely have been executed with the rest, if not for the newly elected Minister of Internal Affairs, an inexperienced but passionate woman named Martha Chorice, who had the courage and charisma to argue for a general amnesty for those who would accept it, and imprisonment rather than death for those who would not.

As I said before, nearly all of us in the Peace Workers owe Martha Chorice our lives.

“I am honored to be known to you,” I said, and it was the absolute truth. I freely admit I don’t hold much respect for authority, but Martha Chorice is one whom I would do anything for. “Though,” I added. “You’ll have to thank Kristopher as well if you thank me; without him I would never have made it back.”

The minister nodded and glanced at the salamander, who was orbiting in lazy circles above Serah’s head. Martha opened her mouth, but rather than speaking, she whistled a tune in a crude imitation of Kristopher’s song.

Kristopher wobbled and nearly fell out of the air.

(Who is this woman?) he demanded, just then taking notice of her. Of course, to him, a government official is no more interesting or meaningful than a statue.

Chorice blushed slightly. “Did I say it wrong?” she asked me. I was staring open-mouthed at her, never having heard salamander song from a human throat before. Even I can’t duplicate it, though I’ve never been praised for my singing voice.

(She said nothing,) Kristopher said, flying in agitated arcs back and forth, causing Serah to glance up nervously, and crouch ever so slightly. She has good reason: when Kristopher is excited, he tends to forget which things are flammable, and has been known to singe hairs.

(But it was a greeting, nonetheless,) he conceded, settling back into an orderly circle, though moving more rapidly than before. (She both said hello and expressed gratitude.)

I frowned up at him. “I thought she said nothing?”

“Oh dear,” Martha said, covering her mouth with both hands. “I did do it wrong. It has been so long.”

(To me, she spoke a greeting,) Kristopher said. (To other salamanders, she has said nothing). Which, after I thought about it for a moment, made sense. As I’ve said, I don’t actually hear Kristopher in words, but in ideas. Martha had simply expressed an idea, but so crudely that no salamander could tell what she meant. But Kristopher, who has spent the last two years constantly surrounded by humans, could understand her gist, as I understood his.

I relayed his message as best I could, and Chorice laughed delightedly, like a young girl.

“I have heard so much of you, and your friend,” she said. “But not of how you met. Most of what I know is from after the war. Please, I would like to understand you, one of the few who not only switched sides, but did so out of conscience rather than fear. You may not be aware, but because of your actions, the war may have ended as many as two or three months earlier than otherwise.”

This last I hadn’t known, and I found I didn’t know how to respond. Emotions welled up in me: the old shame and grief, but colored now by a silver outline of relief and pride. Pride that, despite all I had done, I had in the end made a difference. I blinked furiously as my eyes watered, blurring the room.

Serah must have seen some of this on my face, and she tightened her fingers around my arm and leaned in just a little. I took a deep breath, and nodded.

Martha listened in silence as I told my tale, speaking slowly and carefully, omitting enough to progress the tale quickly, but making sure to include the important details. Serah already knew my past, but it was still gratifying that, rather than pulling away when I described my time in the Republican Guard, she pressed in closer, a silent comfort.

“I don’t like what you did, or who you once were,” she had said to me when I first told her the story. I had been full of fear back then, that she would leave me once she knew the truth. “But I know who you are now, who you have become, and I do very much approve of that man. I…think I might even love him.” It had been the first time she had said that to me, blushing and looking down at her overalls, and this memory helped me make it through my tale this second time.

Martha nodded once I came to the end, her face grave. “Thank you, Victor. I have watched the Peace Workers closely since I first established them two years ago. There have been many problems, many backslides, and at times I began to lose faith that it would work. It is those like you who give me the strength to believe I have made, and continue to make, the correct choice.”

She smiled suddenly, and like the sun, it chased the shadows from her face. “Enough now of the distant past. Neither of us are great fans of Mayor Joel Downing, but what a shame it would be to waste such a party, would it not? You are young, and you have a beautiful woman on your arm, Victor. One who is very patient to have sat through all this. Go, dance! I would like to opportunity to speak with Hattie Morrison, and I’m sure you have no desire to listen to more dreary talk.”

That wasn’t strictly true, but I was experienced enough to know when I was dismissed. It took me a moment to shake the shadows of the past from my head, but the bright colors of the dancers, the gentle music of the golem quintet, and Serah’s dazzling smile were quite enough.

“Well, then,” I said, turning to Serah as Martha began to pull Hattie away. I took my Serah’s gloved hands in mine. “May I have this dance, fair lady?”

Serah laughed, her blue eyes sparkling in the bright lights of the ballroom. “Of course, good sir,” her grin was addicting, and I felt my own lips lift upward as Serah pulled me quickly toward the now-crowded dance floor, Kristopher streaking above our heads like a shooting star.

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