Posts tagged ‘Serah Villifree’

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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August 22, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter VI

by Mallard

Summer’s finicky luck was on our side as we ran, for the pirates seemed in no particular hurry to ascend the stairs. Laden as they were with their carefully-packed crates of loot, in good cheer and with no reason to think that anyone had escaped the ballroom, they could take their time up the stairs.

Serah and I, on the other hand, ran like fugitives.

The mayor’s mansion stood a full five stories high, each of which must have contained high vaulted ceilings, for there were far more steps between floors than there strictly should have been. The lanterns glowed every half dozen or so steps, lending a cheery yellow glow to the staircase that in no way matched my mood.

I like to think I keep myself in decent shape, but I also don’t sprint up five over-long flights of stairs on a regular basis, and certainly not in a full suit. I can only wonder how Serah managed, with her gown flapping around her feet. At least she had left her heels in the ballroom. We were both panting with exertion as we neared the roof, and when I saw Serah slow to a stop by the door to the fifth floor hallway, I assumed she was just too tired to continue. I stopped beside her, just as she opened the door and walked through, into the darkened hallway behind.

“What are you doing?” I hissed. I knew the pirates were likely still ascending the first flight of stairs, but I couldn’t help but feel that, at any moment, I would hear shouts of alarm and the cocking of guns.

“Shh,” she whispered back, and advanced several steps down the hallway. I hesitated, but she hadn’t left me much choice. I followed her and closed the door behind me, leaving us in complete darkness. It occurred to me then that the mayor lived with only his wife and his staff. Most of the latter were downstairs, so the entire upper four stories of the house must be empty. No wonder all the doors had been closed, the halls dark.

I couldn’t see anything, except for Kristopher’s faint red glow, which hardly illuminates anything. With a quick glance behind to make sure the door was firmly shut, I summoned an image of blue fire, an old and easy favorite of mine, and held it in my palm. The pseudoflame cast a pale blue light that turned the maroon carpet black, and lent an eerie cast to Serah’s skin.

Serah had her wrench in her hand once again–where did she store the damned thing?–and was advancing toward one of the cast iron wall scones, identical to the dozens we had passed on the run up. Up close, it was something of a piece of art. Planes of frosted glass settled in a delicate iron framework that formed decorative, curling vine and leaf patterns. A stiffer vine mounted the scones to the wall, blending into the leafy wallpaper. The support hid the gas line, branching out from a larger pipe within the walls. It was the fashion among the rich to run their utilities in the walls and floors, out of the way of visitors’ eyes. It made for an emptier, cleaner-looking hallway, but it was also more expensive and difficult to maintain.

Serah attacked the scone it with a vigor, loosening several cleverly disguised fasteners and pulling the lamp clean off the wall.

“Hold this,” she said, and shoved it to my hands, pushing it through my illusory flame so that the light scattered and caught in the glass, sending blue sparkles across the walls.

“And a little brighter, please,” Serah whispered, feeling with her hands along the leaf-patterned wallpaper.

“We don’t have time,” I whispered back in exasperation, still clinging to the lamp she had thrust at me. I complied, though, shifting the light to a more comfortable yellow, and hoping it would not show through the crack under the door. The mayor’s mansion was probably built well enough so that no such cracks would exist, I figured.

“What are you doing? We can vandalize the mayor’s house another time. Just name the day and I promise I’ll be there.”

Serah glared at me, then dug into the wallpaper with her wrench, tearing a jagged vertical gash.

I stared. That wallpaper, and the wood she had scarred below it, likely cost more than most of the furnishings in my tiny studio above Annabella’s. Not that I was particularly upset; if I wasn’t afraid of repercussions both political and military, I’d be all about taking Joel Downing down a notch. But Serah hadn’t my reasons for disliking the man, and she was hardly the sort given to wanton destruction. She’d take her own property apart in an eyeblink, but never someone else’s without permission.

Without any of her usual care, Serah reached out and ripped the wallpaper open further, revealing the wood paneling underneath…and a metal access panel, planted flush into the wall.

A cluster of valves and gauges, pipes and tubing filled the wall, a confusing mess to most, but Serah waded in without hesitation. She turned several valves, and corresponding needles shifted meaninglessly. A few seconds of work with her wrench, a quiet curse, and then she simply ripped out a section of rubber tubing several feet long, with complex brass fasteners at either end.

“Okay,” she said, grinning and retrieving the lamp from my arms. “Let’s go.”

I shook my head and doused my light, leaving the mess of the wall to fade into darkness. “What was that about?” I hissed, then listened against the door for footsteps. The other side sounded as empty as when we had left it, and holding my breath, I cracked it open slightly, ready to slam it shut and run at a moment’s notice.

Needless worry, it turned out, as once the door was open I could hear the faint sound of singing from below. I couldn’t make out the words, but they sounded not unlike old army marching songs. Pirate shanties, no doubt, celebrating their richness and cleverness. Which was fine by me; the longer they took in their celebrations, the better for Serah and I.

“No time to explain,” she whispered back, and pushed past me to run up the final steps to the roof. I ground my teeth and followed.

The steps ended at a plain metal door, closed but unlocked. On the near side, a heavy steel bar hung from an equally hefty chain, clearly designed to fit into a matching set of slots in door and frame such that the door could not be opened from without. No key would dislodge that sort of latch, which meant that either the mayor had been uncharacteristically lax in security tonight, or the pirates had planned this rather more thoroughly than I was comfortable thinking about. They must have placed someone–or multiple someones–in the mayor’s house staff well before this night, perhaps as early as a month ago, when the ball had been officially announced to the city. It disturbed me that something this big could have gone unnoticed for so long by anyone.

The door, though heavy steel, was balanced well and opened smoothly, without creak or protest. I let it close gently behind us, and we found ourselves on the roof of the mayor’s mansion.

The roof of Downing’s mansion was large and flat, tiled in hard white ceramic and walled in on all sides by a low ridge of stone. At the four corners, towers rose another two stories above the rooftop, housing bedrooms, attics, clock towers, or anything else the mayor deemed them useful for.

Under normal circumstances, much of this would have been dark and invisible, the only indication of the walls and towers being the dark silhouettes they made before the orange glow of the low cloud cover, the glow of a city that never sleeps.

But on this night, the entire rooftop was lit up like a carnival.

The mayor’s mansion is enormous. Not the largest building in the city, but a respectable size for a private dwelling. There was easily enough room for a decent game of football, provided shots did not go very far out of bounds. The airship was a small sort, dwarfed by the roof it occupied. The balloon was held in place by great steel cables, supporting an almost ludicrously small gondola beneath, painted midnight blue with a dark red underneath, as if it had been dipped in blood. Lights glowed from within, mostly drowned in the much larger guide lights that had been used to dock the airship.

Ladders and rigging roughened the smooth surface of the envelope, climbing ropes battling rungs and pulleys for space, tiny catwalks ringing the structure and providing a precarious mount for a brave or foolish crew member.

Shapes moved behind the lit windows of the gondola, but no one seemed to take notice of two fugitives skulking in the shadows. Black tubes snaked from the rear of the gondola, slithering to a corner of the roof where a rat’s nest of pipes and tubes marred the otherwise perfect smoothness of the architecture.

I made for this at once, hoping I could simply cut off or reverse the petrol flow without the pirates noticing. I doubted I could drain the tanks enough to prevent launch, but at the least I could create a little chaos, delay things just enough for Hattie or someone to get help.

It was only after I slowed to a stop before the snarl of pipes that I realized Serah was no longer by my side.

Neither was Kristopher, for that matter, but only because I had repeatedly warned him to stay well back from flammable fluids. He was floating serenely in the air several yards away, his soft red glow all but swallowed up by the great floodlights that still shone on the airship.

I whirled around, the pipes forgotten, and scanned the rooftop frantically for Serah. My eyes complained as they adjusted from nighttime black to the bright floodlights, and I was unable to spot Serah’s form anywhere on the roof.

(She is fine,) Kristopher said. (Remember yourself).

“Fine. Right,” I muttered, and spent several more precious seconds looking, before letting out a growl and turning back to my objective. She could take care of herself. I knew this. But knowing didn’t stop me from worrying.

None of the valves before me were labeled with anything more than the colors and symbols that any chemist might understand, but were alien to me. The mechanical connections themselves were easy enough to follow, however. This wheel opened a path through the tubes, that lever controlled a directional valve, this gauge displayed hose pressure. Familiarity with Serah’s shop helped me here, and I closed one valve, flipped a lever, and opened another, and was gratified with the sudden gurgling sound of arrested fluid, followed by a rise in pressure as the fuel began to flow the opposite direction along the tube. Soon enough, someone in the airship might notice the drainage and shut off the connection, but until then, every gallon lost was distance the airship could not travel.

I turned to look for Serah once more, worried despite Kristopher’s assurances. As my eyes passed over the airship once again, a sudden red glow lit up the night sky as a brilliant light shot upward, drowning out the orange city-light. The light rose high into the sky and seemed to hover, twinkling, before falling back down, fading out as it went.

A shout went up from the pirates in the gondola, and from the rooftop door, and I whirled in surprise. The pirates crowded out of the doorway, all sounds of singing and revel gone, and they hauled the crates across the smooth tiles of the rooftop. The light had been a signal, a call for help that I was well acquainted with, and that the pirates must have recognized as well. There was only one person who could have set that off. But why would Hattie bring a flare gun to a ball?

I was so fixated on this thought, and on the pirates running toward the airship, that it took me several seconds to realize what the afterimages imposed on my retina were trying to tell me.

In the red glare, a figure had shown against the night sky, standing high on the top of the envelope. A figure whose lower half blew in a stiff wind, just as might a woman’s gown.

“What the hells is she doing?” I muttered angrily, and at that moment, a light blinked on and off atop the airship. It was a faint light, dim and barely visible next to the rooftop floodlights. But were all the other lights quenched, it could be visible for quite some distance.

And I understood.

“Oh, Serah, you brilliant, clever, reckless and idiotic woman,” I whispered, half in admiration, half exasperation. “How in Winter’s hells are you going to get down?”

The beacon flickered on once more, and stayed that way. Of course, given the limited time and tools, Serah could hardly rig a remote or time-lagged trigger. Which meant that all any pirate had to do would be to look up, and the game would be blown.

It was a simple matter to reach across the distance between Serah and myself and throw up a darkness to hide her lantern. Darkness is the easiest illusion in the world, requiring no features, no skill, hardly any power.

Simple. But too late by just a second.

A shout and a crash sounded as one of the men holding the crates suddenly straightened and pointed, dropping his corner with a sound that made me wince.

“Idiot!” one of the others roared, and for a moment I thought it might all blow over in a chaos of blame and worry over the loot. But this crew wasn’t formed from trigger-quick hotheads, and after a few rounds of shouts and insults, they quieted and listened to the man.

Would that the Kestral government could function so effectively.

The man picked up his corner, and the group picked up the pace. Those not carrying the boxes sprinted toward the airship and began to swarm up the ropes and ladders, hanging off the enormous balloon like bizarre, thieving spiders. The others reached the gondola in short order and raced up the ramp, which then fell to the tiles with a clatter as it was unhooked from within.

“Shit,” I said and started to run, not sure what I was going to do, but damned if I was going to leave Serah to the pirates. Maybe I could cause some confusion, delay the launch enough for Serah to get down and hide with me…

In addition to communicating well, the pirates were apparently efficient pilots as well. Before I had covered half the distance to the airship, the ropes holding it down suddenly snapped free, whipping out, and the airship leapt skyward as the gases in its envelope strained for the clouds.

I sprinted forward, grabbing at flailing ends of rope, leaping uselessly into the air, shouting in vain for the airship to Stop!, but I could do nothing and the airship was already twenty feet or more above my head, and still rising.

“Stop, gods damn you!” I roared, and stamped my foot like a child throwing a tantrum.

Joel Downing, I could let them take. Even Martha I could live with, because I knew we would get both of them back alive, if perhaps not unharmed. But they had no reason to keep Serah alive. And she had nowhere to run. The airship was big, but once in the air, it was a tiny island, and one without a safe harbor.

I was hyperventilating, unable to focus, unable think about anything but her face, bloodied and bruised, her body dropping from the airship like a limp rag doll. These pirates would have no qualms about killing her. I knew that. They had shot Hattie without thinking twice. They would–

Kristopher whistled, louder than I had heard him before, and I clapped my hands to my ears. His song still reached me, loud and unforgiving. (Are you going to do nothing?) he said, and had he been human, a heavy note of scorn would have tainted his words.

I gulped, my mind suddenly clear, and I dug into my memories for something, anything. Darkness was easy; I blinded the airship, casting a cloud of black over every window. But they were flying in night anyway, flying by instrument; added darkness would hardly give them pause. I dug deeper, remembering stories I had heard of old sky sailors, the ones who claimed to have flown impossible distances to the east, across the mountains, across the vast desert, to lands unknown by any in Cest-Weldersheen.

In those lands far across the desert, it is said, live birds of impossible size, creatures that dwarf ships, that can swallow buildings whole. Creatures to which we are nothing but fleas. Brilliantly white, so bright that they are difficult to look upon, these rocs have been said to destroy airships by careless accident, the wind of their passing enough to knock the ship out of the sky.

This is what I threw at the pirates’ airship, an enormous white bird of prey, diving out of the sky to tear the airship to pieces. Every aeronaut’s worst impossible nightmare, a creature that would give even a man who’s never flown pause.

And it did nothing. The bird dove and on the streets below I heard shouts of horror and the screams of frightened horses, but in the sky, the airship did not so much as twitch, and when it struck the deadly razor beak of the roc, able to swallow elephants whole, it simply sailed through.

As if blind.

I screamed then, a wordless scream of rage and frustration. Anger that they had gotten away, anger that they had been too fast, and I too slow, anger at Joel Downing for throwing this cursed ball, and anger at Hattie for forcing me to attend. But most of all, anger at myself, at my own stupidity, my own snare that had caught me as neatly as if I had planned it.

I collapsed on the smooth tile of the mayor’s roof, my legs no longer willing to support me. I sat there, shivering in the cold autumn night as the airship rose slowly upward into the dark sky, growing dimmer and smaller by the second.

I hardly had time to mope, for a squadron of armed men burst onto the roof seconds later, weapons held at ready. A dozen safeties on a dozen rifles clicked off, surrounding me in a half circle. I didn’t acknowledge them; I didn’t care what they did now. I simply sat there, staring up at the shrinking speck of light that glowed atop the airship, the tiny beacon that was a testament to Serah’s brilliance and ingenuity, and my failure to keep her safe.

* * * * * * * *
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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–”


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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July 25, 2010

Masque Ball: Chapter II

by Mallard

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

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

I coughed and blinked. “Right. Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head quickly. “No, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masque Ball: Chapter I

by Mallard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t mean–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boy is doing fine, by the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * * * *

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

“Are you all right?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait, this Saturday? Four days away?”

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

* * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serah and the Tank

by Mallard

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

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

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

Serah and the Tank

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

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

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

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

Illusion 1, Chapter IX

by Mallard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’ll do for now. So talk.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the moment though, it didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

 * * * * * * * *

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

I said nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I just said I would, didn’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

Hattie spoke slowly. “So, this bill…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 * * * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

I laughed. “I’m glad to hear that.”

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

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

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

At least for an evening.

* * * * * * * *
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