alliance [uh-lahy-uh ns]
1. a formal agreement between parties to cooperate towards common goals.
2. marriage or a relationship of families of the bride and groom.
One world, eternally at war.
Management would've loved that. They'd have played the sides against each other, scheming and plotting, making sure the body count was high and karma levels were low. Within seven days, Earth would be knee deep in the blood of the slain, and they'd be relishing in the piles and piles of souls they'd led towards oblivion.
In fact, according to the sneaky bastards who caused it, that was very much the design goal of the Pandora Event -- mutually assured destruction, pitting side against side, drowning the world in chaos. To everyone's surprise, that didn't happen. There were wars, there were still wars, war would be forever... but it would be forever. Two hundred years and no mutually assured destruction. Stalemate.
Those who pulled the strings in the Bad Place, like his former employer, they'd have hated that. Sure, it was fun to relish in apocalyptic conditions, but an apocalypse is supposed to eventually END, and end with no man left standing. This would've been torture for them. Always teasing with no payoff.
For Benny the Broker, it was paradise.
Oh, he played sides against each other, but not to lead their souls astray -- he did it purely for profit. He played fair, bartering weapons for services for favors for currency for supplies for weapons and so on. In the end, everybody got what they wanted, and walked away happy. They usually walked away en route to killing someone, but hey, happy was happy. Benny didn't relish in the sins. He relished in the transaction, and the feeling of a job well done.
In another time, in another place, his job was to ruin everything. A foul little imp named the Mister pulled his strings, put him to task. But since then... Benny had found he enjoyed being a broker more than a bastard. It paid off, when he allowed himself one little moment of bastardry to stick a knife in the Mister's back. That betrayal won his freedom... and saved the world he'd grown to appreciate. Now, Benny the Broker was his own man, on his own timetable, with his own goals. Beholden to nothing but the purity of the deal.
To the rest of the world, like the warlords he was dealing with today, Benny was business as usual. He kept his smile on the inside, after all. Even when baking in the burning breath of a two hundred foot long serpentine beast.
Benny stood his ground, the spear held forward before him. A vague outline of the Broker could be seen within the roaring inferno that scorched earth and jacked the ambient temperature up twenty degrees. The fact that anything COULD be seen after the first 0.2 seconds was testament to the quality of his merchandise. It was a testament he was willing to stand behind, with this demonstration as proof.
When the fire died out... the Broker was still standing, and completely unsinged. His ragged brown overcoat and well tailored business suit should've gone up in a whiff, even if he had some sort of unholy protection... but the spear had completely parted the flames. It'd even nullified the convection factor, leaving him uncooked.
The crowd didn't applaud. They were more about the gladiator brawls than the bread and circuses. Still, the warlord nodded once in satisfaction, a supremely gracious gesture from one of his standing... which did not go unnoticed by the hundred plus soldiers and lackeys standing in formation behind him. Their looks became looks of awe only after that point.
Benny stepped away from the still-smoking patch of earth, to approach. He held the spear out, gently holding it in outstretched palms.
"Faerie steel," he reiterated. "Forged in the merciless cold of Canada, using techniques handed down by Lady Winter, specifically to combat the blazing heat of summer. An army equipped with these spears could stand against the dragons of any of the Three Kingdoms. Your clan could once again conquer all of the land under heaven, King Wu."
The warlord stroked his flowing gray beard, as he accepted the offered spear. He turned it in his hands, studying the frost blade, considering. "Your price is reasonable. Too reasonable, my court strategist says," he pointed out. "How could copies of a few scrolls be equivalent to the weaponry of the gods?"
"Even the worthless can be priceless to someone in this world, esteemed king," Benny spoke, stepping away as the offering was taken. "I specialize in finding what one wants. Your society's teachings are needed elsewhere."
"I would require many more than the six spears you have brought me, you understand. I have an army to equip. I have a nation to unite. This land has been fractured since my grandfather's time. I will see it whole before I am put to ground."
Ah. This was the hard part, Benny recognized. Still, he showed no signs of nervousness... no nibbling his lip, no shifting from foot to foot.
"There are not enough spears in all the wildlands of Canada to equip an army, my lord," he spoke -- before following it up quickly with the good news. "What I can get you is the raw faerie steel, and the process through which any weapon you crave can be forged. That will, of course, be more valuable than a few scrolls... but we can negotiate price when =-the time comes. I believe we have a long and prosperous future ahead of us--"
"I want the steel by the end of this season," the king declared.
"...most esteemed one, that would be... difficult," Benny chose to say. "It will be done, of course, but time is a factor. Much negotiation, carried on in secret within the Faerie Court, lies ahead of me to obtain the resources for your glorious war--"
"I tire of endless war. No more delay. No more negotiation. Either I have what I need in short order, or there is no deal to make here," he stated. "You are one who gets what one needs. You will make this happen, Benny the Smuggler."
"Broker. Benny the Broker," he clarified. (It was a similar word in the Chinese dialect being spoken, but Benny always felt the distinction was critical.) "I will, of course, put forward my best efforts. Anything for such a valuable client."
Unspoken was: There's no way in hell I can sneak that much metal out of the Faerie Court in that amount of time. If anything other than tentative agreement crossed his lips, if he pleaded or protested, he'd lose his client and quite possibly his head. Lord Wu actively disliked being told he couldn't have something he desired.
With both their positions more or less stated, the two exchanged basic pleasantries, before the army marched off to leave Benny the Broker alone in a fire-blasted field in the middle of China.
Only once they were out of eyeshot and earshot did Benny address the peeping tom.
"I don't appreciate being spied on," he said aloud, without looking behind him.
The crackling sparks of the still-burning draconic fires rustled slightly, as the observer emerged from the simmering flames.
The cough and clearing of the throat was equal parts politeness and nervousness.
"Sorry, I... I didn't want to interrupt you, or cause a scene," the young girl spoke. "Um. Hi. Benny the Broker, right...?"
Benny let out an exasperated sigh. He hated other people seeing honest reactions from him... but he couldn't keep his guard up around the girl. He rarely could, really, not in front of walking hard luck cases like her. Damsels who, if not in distress, were likely distressed at one point or another. A little weakness. A bad weakness.
"Yeah, that's me," he confirmed, tucking his hands in the warm pockets of his overcoat. "I've felt you moving around inside the channels of flame before. Salem, right?"
The Elemental Witch of Fire shuddered, once. "N-no. No. I'm Sarah, now," she clarified. "Look, normally I give you your space, I mean, you're not really a people person, or, um, a person, I guess, but, but--"
"Hey... hey. It's okay," Benny insisted, pulling one hand out of his pocket for a pacifying gesture. "Deep breaths. It's okay. What's up? You need something? Benny specializes in helping people who need something..."
"Ah, no, I'm actually here to give you something," Sarah the Witch spoke, fumbling through the fireproofed pockets on her modern witch's dress... and coming up with an elegant green envelope, with twirly bits of golden trim. "On the behest of Queen Emily of the Faerie Court. She wishes an audience with you in four days time, on the eve of... um. Well. It's all right there..."
He carefully stroked one finger along the gold-leaf edges of the card... as the letters began to form, magical ink displaying them like a real-time video of someone's elegant handwriting.
YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED TO WITNESS
THE MARRIAGE OF JESSE RUNEBLADE OF THE SUMMER COURT
AND GILBERT GEARHAUS OF THE HOUSE OF GEARS
TO BE HELD AT THE AMERICAN PEACE CONFERENCE
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA
Being the first time someone ever actually wanted a subcreature of the pits of Hell to attend a blessed union... this gave the Broker a few moments of absolute puzzlement.
"Soo... um... can I have your RSVP, please, sir?" the witch asked.
by stefan gagne
This was not the Broker's scene. And in some ways, it was completely perfect.
The American Peace Conference was a historic meeting of Who's Who in the Americas. (There were a few straggling survivor colonies from South America not represented, but they were a secret to everyone who was not the Broker.) Eastusa would have representatives. Faeusa would have representatives, of course, being the hosts of the event. Even the burgeoning settler culture that had started popping up in Westusa in the last three years was represented. If there was a deal to be made, a face to be introduced to, this was the place to be.
Unfortunately, there were too many people here who may already have known Benny. He'd dealt with Fae nobles before, and done secret under the table deals with corporations up and down the east coast. Not that he'd ever dealt unfairly with them -- the Broker was consummately fair -- but he was fair to everyone, including those who would not be fair with each other. It would be like wandering through a mine field, attending such a wide reaching public gathering...
And then there was the media.
They had formed a siege wall around the Fae's impromptu event campus. Truck after truck of broadcast equipment lined up in neat little rows, like a series of white metal lumps bristling with antennae. Pretty people standing in front of cameras with microphones. Not a single coming or going to the conference was missed; whenever a notable military general or Fae noble passed by, researchers were on hand with Elfstar internet hookups to immediately relate whatever information they could dig up to the viewers at home.
If the only ones present were the big Eastusa media outlets, it wouldn't be much of a blockade. Unfortunately, every little podunk affiliate and independent online media outlet had also sent someone to cover the event... and on top of that, the bloggers were out in force, those little bastards beholden to no one but their own inquisitive natures. The kids were more than willing to publish any crackpot rumor as news... and in a world like this, crackpot rumors were right more often than not. They'd almost reported on Benny, a few times. He'd been lucky to avoid them so far.
The only way to avoid dealing with the blockade was to sit patiently in a men's restroom at a truck stop five hundred miles away, and focus on heat sources. Sit on some crappy toilet in his nice tuxedo and battered old duster, eyes closed, senses projected far and focused tightly, minute by minute...
Eventually there was a nice grease fire in one of the many kitchens at the peace conference, and Benny made his entrance that way. The cooks were too busy trying to put out a roast wyvern to pay any attention to the Broker making his way into the edge of the scene, having completely bypassed media and security and anyone and anything that could've taken affront to his presence.
Benny could only pray someone was having a more stressful day than he was. But being a cursed beast from the pits of what presumably was Hell, that would be some feat indeed.
Elves cowered underneath the iron glare of the wrathful witch. The horror in white loomed over them, casting her abject anger downward, its fury thick enough to displace the breathable air in the room.
"Left and right are not difficult concepts!" she growled. "Left! This side. Right! This side. I specifically and politely requested my formal dress saber sheathe and belt be crafted from the finest leathers from a rare white wyvern, woven and folded in the traditional manner, lined with sparkstone gems. And, because it seems I have to point this out, it is to be on my LEFT SIDE. You there! You! Who are you, what is your name?"
The elves cowered like frightened elves, shoving the designated victim forward to be addressed (and to take the brunt of the lady's wrath so they didn't have to).
"M-Me?" the handmaiden stammered. "I'm... I'm Aeoli, ma'am--"
"This belt I'm wearing, which clearly has taken weeks to craft. On which side is the sheath placed? Quickly, now."
"It's on the r-right, ma'am, but--"
"Right. Correct. Right side. Which is WRONG! You will arrange to have this matter rectified, whoever you are."
What color remained in the girl's face drained away instantly. "But, but like you said, it takes weeks to craft a traditional saber belt, and, and your wedding is in a matter of hours, and--"
Lady Jesse Runeblade of the Summer Court would have incinerated her on the spot, if her gaze could translate rage directly into infrared energy.
Fortunately, before spontaneous elven combustion would be proven or disproven, a quiet observed opted to break his silence.
"It looks fine, love. Don't be a spoilsport, now," the groom chided, adding a minor stroke of disapproval to his normally unflappable tone... while making a slight gesture to the cowering handmaidens.
It was a well known signal, to those who came with them from New Orleans. A flick of two fingers, gesturing towards the nearest exit. The Lady's consort often used to it communicate the idea of "Everybody out of the room, I'm here to save you all from the wrath of my beloved." He always did it just out of his Lady's eyesight, and it allowed many a stammering servant to exit swiftly while he absorbed her wrath.
Thus, the handmaidens made a silent exit, as Lady Runeblade's anger redirected itself to a familiar target. And just as had happened countless times before... the target soaked it up like a sponge, with vast determination and unshakable confidence. Without another word said, she was calmed within a minute. Calmer, at any rate.
"I know why you're upset, love -- this is your big day, and you want it to be perfect," Gilbert Gearhaus spoke, soothing words, as he stepped into the changing room, to take his betrothed's hand. "You've waited three years for this. Your perfect, dream wedding, in the finest Fae traditions. But you know it's not the fault of those poor girls that someone jumbled up a sewing kit..."
"It's... meant to be on the left, is all," Jesse said, unable to work up a proper head of anger anymore. "It's supposed to be to the left. Makes a bold and dramatic show as I draw with my right hand, in a nice sweeping arc."
"Mhmm. And do you plan on eviscerating anyone today, dear?"
"Well, no, of course not. I mean, I suppose if there are any suitors who wish to duel for your hand, tradition dictates that I strike them down on the spot or risk losing you, but... no chance of that, correct?"
"What, betray the apple of my eye? Perish the thought!" Gilbert spoke, pressing a hand to his chest in mock shock. "Listen. It's going to be a glorious day, a wedding they'll talk about for ages. If all the little details aren't quite there... well, so what? I mean, think about it. You're a human, having a Fae ceremony! If anyone's going to complain, that's where they'd start. And do you care...?"
"Of course not," Jesse said... turning away, to adjust her belt in the long mirror, shifting her shoulders within the formal battle dress. "This is the Second Age. We are the perfect blend of tradition and progressive thinking. This is what is, and what will be. All those who dare to say I do not belong in the position I have won through my own prowess and cunning, well... I suppose we could see eviscerations, after all."
"Yes, well, let's not spoil all the delicate niceties of the decorations with blood and guts, love. Would you kindly stick to cutting words for the time being?"
The puffy, sparkly shoulders of the bride's battle dress drooped slightly, as she half-frowned at herself in the mirror.
"I am taking this a bit far, aren't I?" she asked. "I insisted on a proper courtship, and a full ceremony... I've put a lot of pressure on you and everyone around me, just to satisfy my little dreams of self-importance. ...and the fact that I can admit this in front of you shows how strange my life has become, since the day we met."
Gilbert offered a reassuring smile, and laid a gentle kiss on one of those ridiculous shoulder pads.
"I don't mind in the slightest, love," he said. "I approach it all with a mix of amusement and curiosity. It's a policy that's gotten me far in life. I want to enjoy the things you enjoy. I want to see them the way you see them. And I'm right with you every inch of the way on this dream of yours. As long as you can handle the little bumps along the way, I'll handle them with you. For as long as we both have."
"...you know, you're not supposed to see me before the ceremony," Jesse reminded him. "It's tradition."
"Mhmm. That wasn't a complaint, I'll point out."
"I am doing my best to handle the little bumps along the way. Hm. I suppose I'd best apologize to those poor girls. In private, of course. In due time. So long as no larger bumps than this one come along, I should be able to enjoy my close-enough-to-perfect day in the--"
Rumbling is never non-ominous. When the ground around you shakes, unless it's because a cargo jet carrying ice cream and puppies just landed, odds are you're not going to enjoy finding out the source of the rumbling. Jesse's hand immediately went to her sword hilt (just in case) as she cast a quick look around...
Right as a panicked elven woman in a bridesmaid dress ran into the room to join them.
"Problem! BIG problem!!" Nelliwyn shouted, half out of breath. "Where's Emily? Have you seen her? We've got to find Emily!"
"I haven't seen her since this morning. What's wrong?"
"Una told Susie she could be the flower girl," Nel said, horror infusing those two words with a sense of inevitable doom and disaster.
As the two girls exchanged terrified looks, Gilbert remained puzzled, glancing between them. "Err. Pardon? What's so bad about that? The little dear would love being flower girl for the wedding."
Jesse spoke slowly, as if explaining to a brain damaged child. "Gilbert. Susie is going to be the flower girl. That means flowers. LOTS of flowers. Susie is going to be distributing lots of flowers..."
The equation of realization solved itself in his mind soon after that.
"Oh dear," he agreed.
While the bride's saber was on the wrong side, every other polite request / terrifying commandment she'd made was fulfilled with Fae perfection.
The wedding was to be held in a living gazebo, coaxed to shape by the finest Dryad woodspeakers of the Summer Court. Row after row of seats, made of ivory and crystal and trimmed with iridescent Fae steel, were arranged in a spiraling pattern around the central dais. The betrothed couple would be seen from all sides, surrounded by those they love. Or at least those who owed her respect as a high noble in the Faerie Court, which was equally satisfying.
Weather shamans, including the more science-minded meteorologists from NASA, put forward a combined effort to ensure the clouds spiraled around the central stage in a delightful pattern. The ceremony would be timed so that the couple would be wed at the exact instant the sun reached its zenith, traditionally the height of Summer Court power. All the elements of nature would be smiling down upon them, as their blessed union flowered beneath the heavens.
Which was an appropriate adjective. Too appropriate, and growing so appropriate as to be inappropriate by the minute.
Flowers had begun to burst from the wood of the gazebo, coating it in a rainbow array of delicate petals. Even the wood of the chairs began to sprout plantlife, blooming, blossoming... winding and twisting around, the earth heaving as more and more plants burst forth from the soil. The delicately arranged rows of chairs began to topple and shift as the enthusiastic power of youth and nature did its darndest to make this the most flower-iffic wedding imaginable...
At the heart of it all, or at least slightly off center as the gazebo was quickly becoming so stuffed with plantlife as to be unoccupiable, was a tiny figure in an adorable little white dress and shiny black maryjanes.
As the flawless symmetry of the wedding chapel became choked with pollen and vines and thorns and petals swarming everywhere, her giggle was barely audible over the groans of the earth desperately trying to bend itself to satisfy her colorful imagination.
At the edge of this crawling chaos and approaching with all speed was the core of the wedding party, desperately waving their arms and shouting, trying to get her attention.
"Susie! SUSIE! Come on, please, that's enough flowers!" Nel protested, as she tried to pick her way through the increasingly complex undergrowth while wearing high heels. "--can she even hear us? Someone get Emily! Or Scout! Or anyone...!"
Gilbert had already taken out his multitool to vainly try and carve a path through the mess -- his strange brass contraption which hid away various knives and screwdrivers and strange implements was hardly up to the task, however. "Scout's tending to the security for our visitors, afraid," he noted, as he chiseled away at a vine that had just snapped up, blocking his path. "Jesse? Dear? You seem quiet. TOO quiet..."
"I am... containing... my reaction," she noted, through teeth that would not unclench. "Little bumps. I can handle them. Must. Not. Unleash pure and utter rage upon the royal heir. A lady... is... DIGNIFIED... --WHERE is the one who unleashed Susie upon my wedding!?"
"She's right here, but I've got an illusion spell on her, thank you," Nel spoke. "I know you too well to let you have unfettered access to Una right now, Jesse. But she assures me that she's very, very sorry for the mess."
"You know, this reminds me of the time I told her that the bread for her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches came from wheat," Gilbert spoke, a little smile of remembrance on his lips. "We woke up and the mansion was shoulder-high in vast fields of wheat. Hah. Little scamp. Had a good harvest of it, mind..."
Jesse turned purplish-red. "Funny, is it? FUNNY, IS IT? Then YOU can be the one to go out there and cut each and every flower down, and put all the chairs back into place, and... and...! AGH! Where is our beloved monarch when we need her?!"
You don't have to yell, okay? Sheesh. I'm here. Just hang on a minute, I got this.
From behind, a warm breeze like sunlight flowed past them... curving and weaving around the ruined chair arrangements, deftly dodging through the mess. As it drew closer to the center, a bright shape took form -- and snap, like one frame of a film to another, the Queen of Faerie stood there looking very solid and real.
(No swirling leaves and aetheric forms. She wasn't far gone enough to dip that deeply into the well.)
"Ahem. Susan Lynne Moonthistle," the queen addressed.
...slowly, the flowers stopped bursting forth, stillness settling in. The royal toddler turned around around slowly... the metaphorical crown of sunlight and flowers that always hovered over her head wobbling along as she did.
"Um," the youth mumbled, already realizing on some level that she was in trouble.
Emily tapped her foot, arms crossed. It was a known pose to the child; with it came the unspoken order of You Have Some Explaining To Do, Young Lady.
"Una said I c'n make pretty flowers," Susie insisted.
"Mhmm. And did Una say how many you could make?"
The girl fidgeted, hands behind her back. "Nnnnoooo," she admitted.
"And when we let you make the plants grow, how many do we usually let you grow?" Emily reminded her.
Susie raised one hand, spreading her fingers slightly apart. "A little..."
"And why is that?"
"'cause if I make too much it's... it's... a-boosin' powers. 'an makes people mad. Or scared."
"Thaaat's right," Emily reminded... crouching down low, to be more eye level with her daughter. "So, we're going to work together to put things back to normal. You can add SOME flowers, just some. ...and Susie?"
Mother gave her daughter a little peck of a kiss on the forehead.
"Your flowers are getting prettier every day," she said, with a smile. "Now, come on. Let's get Auntie Jesse's chapel looking super clean and neat again. We'll add a few flowers to the trim of the gazebo. I think she'll like that a lot."
"C'n they be yellows? I like yellows!"
And so, very gradually, the plantlife receded back where it came; grateful for the restoration of the natural order, as the unnatural order had strained it terribly. Vines snaked their way back to earth, becoming fresh compost for next year's blooming plantlife. Even the wood in the chairs creaked slightly, as it worked its way back into place, spiraling rows reasserting their proper order... all while the living goddess and her demiurgic daughter tidied up.
A long held breath was exhaled, as Nel watched the magic being woven and unwoven before her eyes... enrapt. The now unhidden Una stood at her side, hand in hand.
"It's... it's a wonderful sight," Nel half-whispered. "The Faerie Queen, the embodiment of Summer and Winter... and her child, the embodiment of Spring! ...I know to you, she's simply Emily, and she's my friend Emily too, but... as a Fae... moments like these are truly inspiring. They make me proud of my goddess."
Jesse held some of that reverence, having lived the Fae life for so long, taken in with its customs and values... until an unpleasant thought interrupted that stream of adopted belief.
"When was the last time she did the voice?" she wondered.
"What?" Nel asked.
"The voice of Summer. Or manifesting in light and wind, moving around like that. Emily's been trying very hard NOT to tap into the power of the crowns the last five years, yes?" Jesse asked. "But when things go askew, she's been reaching for that power more and more, lately..."
"It is hers by right," Nel reminded. "She is the highest of the Fae."
"Hmhmm. Yes, of course. But as you noted, she's our friend Emily, too. And I'm told when she was first crowned... our friend Emily actively loathed the godhead. Subtle and slow, but there has been a shift, I would say..."
Gilbert shook his head. "Worry and worry, with none of it in its proper place," he dismissed. "Enough of that, now. Take heart that your wedding's little bumps were just smoothed over. We've more important things to attend to today!"
"Mmm. More important things indeed, husband to be... even beyond the wedding."
"What, are we trying for an heir of our own tonight?" Gilbert asked. "I know we said we'd get cracking on that early, what with our little shared medical condition, but I think it's still a tad soonish--"
"Gilbert Gearhaus!" Jesse scolded. "I meant... the other thing we have to attend to. After the wedding."
"Oh, that," he said, crestfallen. His crest fell quite visibly, in fact. "I'd almost forgotten about the war council. Rather wish I had, in fact."
By the time the guests were seated, the whole incident was over and done with. The only sign that anything had gone sideways was the faint whiff of pollen in the air.
The clouds circled overhead. The guests circled around them. Mixed together were human and Fae... one half, visiting dignitaries from Eastusa, military and government types, as well as corporate leaders. The other half, Lords and Ladies of the noble houses, Dukes and Barons, the entire who's who of the High Fae. (Uncomfortably seated with them were lower Fae and even lowly elves from Florida, who were recognized for their services to Emily's court, much to the disgust of the nobles.)
Archmagus Elriel tended to bride and groom, as the bridesmaids and groomsmaids watched and smiled. Una and Nel looked lovely in their Orbital-designed bridesmaids dresses... the best man, or rather best automaton, gleamed brightly from his recent polishing. Everything was perfect, or rather, looked perfect enough to feel perfect.
After two hours of readings and chanting and prayers to the spirits of nature, Lady Jesse Runeblade and Lord Gilbert Gearhaus, of the newly formed House of Gears, had been joined as one soul.
(That was a last minute addition to the proceedings. Gilbert insisted she not adopt the Gearhaus name, as he was technically an adoptee of the Gearhaus family -- and to a degree, their math-slave that they poured steam poison into. A new Fae house of nobility was made up on the spot, the historians feverishly working to find a proper and unique gear-themed family crest they could be married under the next day.)
A beautiful reception followed the beautiful ceremony. Tables lavishly decorated with lace and flowers and dancing magical flames, dinner plates that filled themselves with whatever fine cuisine the guest could desire. A band of the finest minstrels performed, playing light and pleasant music that wafted through the air, carried through amplification gourds lining the great hall of the House of the Rising Sun...
Naturally, the most important of the guests sat at the head of the table, along with the bride, the groom, the bridal party, and the Faerie Queen. And you simply didn't approach a table like that; it didn't matter how high you were on the ladder, it wasn't thinkable to waltz on up and go 'Hey, how's it going, great party, hope you kids have a good honeymoon.'
"And that's why this will work perfectly," Emily explained. "Nel's got the illusion spell rolling already. As far as anybody in the room knows, we're up here chatting and drinking spring wine and so on. And if anybody starts up that silly thing where you bang your wineglass with a spoon to make the bride and groom kiss, well, the spell will satisfy 'em. Trust me. We're totally incognito now."
The visiting guests at the table remained unconvinced. Well, the five star generals and military strategists from the Frontliners were unconvinced; for his part, President Petersen, now on his second term and getting grayer around the edges, took the magical shroud of secrecy entirely in stride.
"You can relax, boys, she's demonstrated this trick before," he explained. "Remember when Queen Emily visited for the photo op at the Easter Egg Hunt on the White House lawn? We were actually discussing the upcoming Welcome Wagon strategy at the same time. Nobody knew. We'll be able to talk in privacy."
With that, the bridal party / war council could begin. On one side of the table, the Queen of Fae and her husband, Scout of the Summerlions. Flanking them, Nel (focused on her spellwork) and Una of the Orbitals. In the center, of course, the bride and groom.
On the other side, one president constantly running hot and cold with his voting population depending on how they felt about the Fae that day, and many, many stuffed suits, stuffed with doubts.
Una tried to ignore the funny looks she was getting from the generals, as she pulled a datapad from her handbag and slid it to the center of the table. Two taps later... and a photorealistic 3-D map popped into view, hovering over the table.
"Jolly old England," Gilbert recognized, mumbling under his breath. "Home sweet home..."
"As you know from the briefing we sent to Philadelphia," Emily began, "While we're announcing the start of the Welcome Wagon program today to send unmanned probes with recorded messages of peace to various nations across the globe... we secretly sent one to England over a year ago. We made no mention of the intelligence Gilbert gave us, or even that we knew he existed. The recording was a simple outreach, hello there neighbor, how are you, we would like to communicate and be friends. And we never got a reply until now."
Una brushed a finger along the screen... as the holographic image zoomed in and slid southward, to settle on France. Another brush, and the zoom became impossibly detailed, shifting from a low earth orbit height right down to see buildings... warehouses... people.
"That, gentlemen, is the war fleet that Gilbert warned us about," Emily explained. "He stole the prototype he'd developed for them, the one that would let their ships cross the Atlantic without being taken out by the Kraken. We'd hoped that would shut down their efforts completely, as no other copies of the device existed, and the math involved is insanely complicated. And from our Elfstar monitoring, it had worked. The warfleet that was under construction, the one which Gilbert found out about shortly before he decided to defect with the prototype, had been mothballed. As you can see... it's out of mothballs now."
A man with entirely too many stars and bars leaned forward, peering into the projection of light. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but... all they've got are these weird balloon-ship things?" he asked. "And primitive artillery. According to Mr. Gearhaus's reports--"
"Call me Gilbert. Please," he insisted, and not in a casual/polite way.
"--according to Mr. Gilbert's reports, electronics of any kind are banned in the 'Britannian Empire'," the general continued. "Ma'am, I'm just not seeing much of a threat here. We're talking about an armada that went out of style in the 18th century. America's had four hundred years of weapon technology on these people. It'd be a fish in a barrel situation."
Scout made his presence known. "Underestimating the enemy is the first step towards defeat," he spoke. "Fae use bow and arrow, spell and sword. They held stalemate against Eastusa for generations."
"Magic is magic, son. It's cheating physics. Wooden ships carried by balloon and armed with cannons are not in the same league, hell, they aren't even in the same sport--"
"They'll beat you. Unquestionably."
The general shifted his glare to the groom of the day. Who was not anywhere near his usual unflappable, smiling self.
"Britain has something you don't; numbers," Gilbert Gearhaus pointed out. "More men. More resources. More land. They've conquered all of Europe, and have all of Europe to draw upon to expand their empire. They can cross the sea, when you cannot -- the prototype can't be reproduced in enough numbers for your needs. They'll come in waves, wave after wave, crashing on your shores. It doesn't matter how long it takes or how many of their men they sacrifice. Eastusa is contained and resource limited. You've been burning and re-burning the same midnight oil for two centuries, finding ways to do much with little, but that's what you have: little. They have lots. Even if it takes a hundred years, they WILL beat you. Sir."
"...can't we just... I don't know, get the Kraken to spot these ships and destroy them on sight?" the general asked, unsure. "You have an emissary with the fish, right?"
"Ophelia says we're years away from a full on peace treaty. Too many factions in the undersea world oppose any peace with the surface. I'm very, very lucky I could convince their king to allow this mission without our crossing being seen as an insult," Emily said. "And even with that, they've no way around the prototype's friend-or-foe frequency generator. The Kraken simply cannot see any ship using one, even if goaded to fight by their best riders. They'd be fighting blind. If England wants to cross the ocean, they will."
"So, what are you proposing, then?" the general asked. "We form our own army and cross over to make a first strike? Thought you folks said the frequency generator couldn't be duplicated fast enough..."
"It can't. So, we load up the one ship we have that can make the journey, and send it off. That one ship will have to put an end to the war before it starts," Emily said, with confidence.
It wasn't a confidence shared around the table. Even on her side of the table.
"Look. I know this feels like a longshot, but you've got to trust me when I say it's not," Emily added. "Five years ago, three teenagers managed to stop the former Faerie Queens from destroying the world. Three years ago, a few twentysomethings liberated Westusa from the forces of hell, crazed robots, and the Elder Gods. We do the impossible. It is what we do. This is the whole reason why I formed the anachronauts -- they're specialists in applying a wide variety of skills to solving impossible problems. We send them out, one ship of them, to sabotage England's war efforts... it will happen. I've got faith."
"...I hope you'll excuse me when I point out that while I am a man of faith... I don't have faith in you, even if you are some kind of pagan goddess," the general said. "This plan is utterly ridiculous. We should be getting to work on mass producing your Mr. Gearhaus's device, and getting ready for war. And I think the President would agree with me."
Emily gave up trying to be polite, and went right for fierce. "Alright, look here, bub, you don't speak for Petersen--"
"I agree with him, actually," the American President said, while buttering a dinner roll.
He chewed thoughtfully, as that sunk in.
"Mm. Emily. We've been through a lot, trying to get this peace process going," President Petersen said. "And I know of the adventures your friends have had. You're a hell of a capable group, well beyond your years. And I agree with your plan. You should send your team out there, to take a shot at crippling the war machine. It's the right call."
"...well... yeah. Of course. But...?" Emily asked, prompting him.
"But we also need to get ready for war, in case your luck has finally run out," Petersen added. "If your task force can't get the job done, if they fail or if the conditions on the ground are not what you expected and it cannot be done, we need to be on the move already. So. In the spirit of partnership, in the interest of furthering relations between Eastusa and Faeusa, you will grant us two requests."
Emily sat back in her chair, not liking this. "And one of them is a copy of the schematics for Gilbert's beacon, isn't it."
"I think it's only fair that allies share weapons technologies. And if we're going to trust you... you have to trust us not to abuse them," he spoke, honestly. "I give you my word, Emily, that we will use them only for defensive purposes. The only way forward for our nations is to not assume the worst of each other. While you make efforts at staving off war, we'll make efforts at fighting war should war come to our shores. I think that's the only responsible path to take."
Gilbert rocked slightly in his own chair, his traditional smile now clearly a frown. "I got away from England to keep a dangerous tool out of the hands of those in power, and now those in power want my formulae. Hmmh. I can't say I like this, Emily. Very well. ...I'll leave the call -- and the consequences -- in your hands. Do you trust the colonies enough to give them this power...?"
The hinge of history gave a little creak, as it pivoted on the moment.
Confident Emily, the one who had to wear three hats, the one who took on the burden that was shoved in her lap (and more specifically on her head) when she had no other choice, paused. Eyes closed.
Slowly, she mumbled a spell under her breath. The Queen was very, very careful to make sure none of them could hear it, even if nobody at the table beyond Nel and Jesse understood the sound of a spell word.
Half a minute passed, before anybody dared to make a sound or consider prodding her. Before they could, her eyes opened while another eye closed.
"We'll give you the technology," she spoke, confidence returning. "I get why you're nervous, Gilbert. But frankly, of all the things that could go horribly wrong in the years to come, this isn't even a speed bump. ...question. You said you had two requests. What's the other one, Mr. President?"
"Simple enough," Petersen said, smiling anew. "I have a member to add to your team."
Convincing a panel of generals and politicos to agree to the mission, that was a dodgy prospect. Still, she'd managed to pull it off, as Emily knew she was going to. It was destined, after all.
Foresight was like that; you could see outcomes, even if you couldn't see exactly how you got from A to B. At first, Emily dreaded using the lidless eye of Foresight. Every single work of literature since classical Greek times (good 'ol reliably horrible Cassandra) said that peering into the future was the worst possible thing you could ever do, and nothing good could ever come of it. All it would do is doom you to a living hell, knowing what will come, unable to do anything about it.
The one time Emily accidentally opened the lidless eye, when she was still a neophyte at the whole goddess thing, she stumbled across one of those nightmare scenarios. Ever since then she'd been desperately trying to find a way to avoid the destiny she witnessed, and avoiding Foresight to keep from learning any other terrible truths.
However, as the years went on, she realized two things.
So, she'd been using it a bit more lately, since at worst it was confusing, and at best it just told her what she already knew. For instance, she already knew she'd be talking to Benny after sunset, after all the guests had wandered off to chat about issues of the day. And here he was, in her royal chambers, standing in front of the fireplace while Emily rocked her sleepy daughter in the royal rocking chair. All according to plan.
What she didn't know was whether or not he'd agree to the ACTUAL plan, the one that really mattered. Foresight didn't bother including that bit.
"You're completely insane," Benny apparently was going to decide.
"I take it that's a no?" Emily asked, speaking softly, so as not to wake her daughter.
"Of course it's a no," the man said, shoving his hands deep in the pockets of his coat. (A gesture Emily had quickly realized was meant to reassure him.) "You're going to send a handful of kids overseas to disable an entire empire's war machine. That's utterly stupid. Doomed to failure. Why exactly would I want to tag along on a suicide mission? Besides, a Broker's place isn't in a battlefield. It's supplying the weapons and waving goodbye when people run off to the slaughter."
"You know England. You've visited it quite a bit, from what Gilbert's told me," Emily explained. "You have connections there which my team can use to move around safely, to shake the right hands, to get the right tools for the job ahead of them. You blend in perfectly, because you speak every language on Earth, every dialect, with every accent. You're perfect for the job."
"Yes, except for the part about inevitable doom."
"You're a demon. Aren't you immortal?"
"You're a goddess. Aren't you omniscient?" Benny asked. "Of course I'm not immortal. I wasn't in the high choir before the fall and I wasn't in the low circle after. I'm a nobody. Sure, I don't age a day, but mash me into paste and you'll get some very nasty paste. I'm not in the mood to die, so, no. Not going."
"I'm surprised, Benny," Emily said, stroking snoozy Susie's hair with one hand. "I thought everything was possible for a Broker, with the right negotiation. You're saying there's no price point possible? Your reputation says otherwise."
That made the demon twitch.
"Fine. There's a price. And you can't afford it," he decided. "So no sense belaboring the point."
"I could argue you owe me considerable favor. My team is the reason why you were able to get out from under the thumb of management," Emily pointed out. "They gave you means and opportunity, AND saved your bacon when the Elder Gods were going to gut you for the key."
"And I could argue that without my help, your team would've been screwed right there and then," Benny countered. "The whole world would've been screwed if the Mister was able to run wild. My good deed trumps your good deed."
"I could argue that you're responsible for this entire mess. You're known, Benny the Broker, and as much as you prefer only being known by a select clientele, you do leave a trail," Emily continued. "You've made deals with the nobles of Britannia. You sold Gilbert electronics and tokens of American culture. The reason they know we're over here and thriving is because of the contamination you've been spreading for two centuries. You could make amends for that by helping put this war down before it starts."
"I'm sorry, are you trying to play off a demon's sense of ethics?" Benny asked, with genuine surprise. "Lady, all sales are final. Human nature is a design problem you need to take up with a higher office than mine. Have anything else to say, or can I go now?"
"I could offer you Faerie steel."
Another twitch. Hands deeper in his pockets. The Broker was clearly not happy here... eyeing the fireplace, considering a quick exit. Which is why Emily's rocking chair had been positioned in front of it, to act as an obstacle. (Again, Foresight told her how to arrange the room. Not why. Although it said nothing about the steel; she got that from Taamusi and his reports on Benny's movements through Canada.)
"I'd ask how you knew my needs, but I'd guess that's your parlor tricks at play," Benny incorrectly guessed. Not that Emily felt like correcting him. "And... that is tempting. I'd love to close that deal... especially given if I don't close it, China is closed to me in the future. But given your team is probably going to die at some point, that hinders my future marketing, doesn't it?"
"Not if you're with them. Not if you're protecting them, with your knowledge and your skill. I'll be frank, Benny... we need you on this one. You're right, that it's risky. But if you're with them, this will work out."
"Still not enough, ma'am. So. Any more leverage up your sleeve?" Benny asked, peering a bit lower. "I don't take the souls of first borns, if you were pondering that..."
No Foresight told her what to say next. This was a gamble. One based on talking to Scout about his encounter with Benny, based on talking with Petersen about his addition to her team... and based on a gut feeling. It would work, or it wouldn't work. The future didn't care, as long as Emily figured out some way to make it happen...
"There's nothing tangible I can offer you beyond that," she admitted. "But I thought you might like to know who's going on this little suicide mission that you've no interest in. You might want to know who's going to die because you couldn't put your neck out."
At this, Benny the Broker smirked. "I already know Gilbert's headed home. Sorry, lady, we're associates, not friends. If you're going to play off my sentimentality--"
"Actually, I asked her to drop by a few minutes into our meeting, but I think she's been hiding in the doorway listening in this entire time," Emily said, leaning a bit to the left, to peer around the man in the coat. "Come on in, come on in. Fire's warm and we're all friends here... aren't we?"
A surprise guest wasn't a new gambit. The Broker was familiar with ambush tactics, with attempts to throw him off balance with some dramatic reveal. He hadn't fallen for it once and didn't plan to start tonight.
Of course, best laid plans, yadda yadda.
He couldn't keep his hardass attitude up after that one carefully stepped in from the shadows. Not happening. It was a long running problem for him.. walking hard luck cases. Damsels who, if not in distress, were likely distressed at one point or another.
A little weakness. A bad weakness.
Not one he wanted laid bare in front of the Faerie Queen.
"Excuse me for a minute," he said, with a very short and quick bow. "This won't take long."
Marching from the room, he snagged the guest's arm on his way out, avoiding so much as a look at her until they were clear.
For her part, the Queen of the Faerie rocked gently, humming to her child, and waiting for the future to resolve itself.
While not as grandiose as the great foyer of the House of the Rising Sun, the temporary building they'd erected for the peace conference certainly went above and beyond. It was a vast chamber, littered with couches and conversation pits, plenty of room for the movers and shakers to move and shake. Benny's natural habitat. If not for the centerpiece, an eerily realistic sandstone statue of a witch, he'd find it quite comfortable.
With the wedding over and done with and today's business finished, and more specifically Queen Emily having the place cleared out for the evening so she could have some peace and quiet, no movers and shakers were around. Perfect for the conversation Benny the Broker needed to have with his companion.
He finally let go of her arm when they were under the protective yet creepy gaze of the statue.
For her part, she didn't seem at all pleased to be dragged her by the Designated Female Upper Arm Grab Area. She yanked her arm away the instant his grip went slack, making a big show of massaging some life back into it while she glared him down. Or rather, tried to glare him down. Honestly, both of them were doing their best to come off as stern and cold and failing miserably.
"What in the blue hell are you doing here?" Benny asked. "Shouldn't you be enjoying a nice peaceful suburban life somewhere far, far away?"
"And hello again to you, too," Chloe grumbled. "Why yes, I'm doing fine, thanks so much for asking. You git."
Their history remained unspoken, past that. Which was a shame, because although brief, it was quite an interesting history.
Chloe was an ordinary suburbanite twentysomething, the sort that wore too much eye makeup and lusted after hot vampires and werewolves. They'd met while attending a media conference, where Benny accidentally let down his guard and ended up having to tell her he was a demon from the pits of hell. Much to his surprise, she took it in stride, and wanted to know more. He declined and bailed out, to avoid a bad situation... and to avoid the familiarly unfamiliar feeling she stirred in him.
The woman standing before him now was hardly a media convention reject. She was still wearing a bit too much eye makeup, but had exchanged the stylish black gothy clothes for stylish black business attire. Chloe wasn't here to play groupie to the Faerie Court, wasn't a member of the press. Every inch of her outfit screamed out one word to Benny's instincts: AGENT.
"You're kidding me," he said, putting a few things together in his head. "You joined the men in black?!"
"Well, what else could I do?" Chloe protested, crossing her arms in defiance. "You opened up my eyes to the world around us! The REAL world around us. It just kept coming out, after that. Weird memories. Weird thoughts. He sought ME out, thanks to reading my blog. Petersen, I mean. He wanted me to join the ATF."
"...uh. Alcohol, Tobacco, and--"
"No, no, it's the Anachronism Task Force. Formerly the FBI's old faerie artifact team. ...it's just a working title," Chloe insisted. "We're the Eastusa counterpart to Emily's anachronauts. We investigate... well, weird things. And ever since Westusa opened for business we've been working overtime, believe me..."
Benny felt the immediate need to palm his face, and proceeded to do so. "You. You're a government agent looking for weirdness. This is too rich. ...so. Was she telling the truth? Are you going to England to die horribly?"
"I requested the assignment, thanks," Chloe said, narrowing her eyes. "I can do the accent. My ancestors were from across the pond. And... I have to go there. Eastusa needs help, as it's feeling like I'm the one to lend a hand."
"Looking like, you mean?"
"Feeling like. ...I get... look, it's hard to explain. Feelings. Weird little instincts that say where I'm needed, what has to be done to avoid suffering. It's how I've been able to keep the toys your old boss left behind from blowing us all up, out west. Now those feelings are telling me I should be heading out east. FAR out east. Petersen's agreed that I need to be there."
"Right. Well, first thing you're going to do is turn around and go home," Benny ordered, pointing to the foyer entrance doors. "Forget your president, forget Heaven, forget Hell, and enjoy your peaceful and meaningless little life without fear. Just like I suggested first time we met. All you had to do was toss a key in the ocean and go home, you know, and that could've been the end of that--"
"No, it couldn't. You don't... you're not even trying to hear me, here," Chloe said, trying to bottle her rage. Trying to get serious. "Look. Benny. I need to go to England. I told you I felt different... connected, somehow, to something I couldn't grasp, couldn't identify. Well, I can grasp it a little now, and it feels like jolly old England. --you're not my dad, you're not my keeper, you're nobody, and you can't order me around! I'm going whether you like it or not!"
"Well, if you're going to go there and get yourself killed, I guess I'm going to have to go too!" Benny shouted before realizing exactly what he just said. "Otherwise, who's going to keep you from stumbling into your doom when you could've enjoyed a nice, long, ordinary life?"
"Fine! Go with us. Whatever."
"I will, then!"
"I'm so glad that's settled," Queen Emily said, putting an arm around their shoulders. "Now then, the Clockwork Mermaid ships out tomorrow, and we'll be using an illusion to make it look like the happy couple is headed down to the Temples of the Mouse for their honeymoon, when really you'll be going straight out into the Atlantic. Make sure you pack well, 'cause they aren't turning around so you can fetch your favorite hat. ...Benny? Everything okay?"
The Broker is never taken by surprise. Never ambushed. He controls the deal, always.
"Fine," he said, using every skill at this disposal to make the lie convincing. "I'm fine. Can't wait to go."
The very next day, the mass media covered the launch of the newlywed's honeymoon journey. As they hadn't been allowed to shoot the wedding itself, they'd come out in full force now, a wall of flashbulbs and microphones pressing hard against the natural wall of tangled vines that had been grown to keep them from swarming the Clockwork Mermaid.
Not that anybody back home in Eastusa really knew who Jesse and Gilbert were. Oh, they knew the two were involved in liberating Westusa from the dark forces that gripped it, allowing resettlement. They'd seen footage of Gilbert's spectacular and physically improbable airship, parked in drydock at New Orleans, only taken out for the occasional pleasure cruise or publicity jaunt.
Details on their origins, however, were scant... supposedly Jesse and Queen Emily were childhood friends, and maybe Gilbert was an ambassador from overseas...? But that couldn't be possible, what with the Kraken that target and destroy any craft straying too far from the mainland. The bloggers had a thousand and one rumors, 3.4% of which were true and thus ignored in favor of some of the more colorful ones. In the end, nobody could really say much, except that the two were important, and their wedding certainly had been a spectacle.
Spectacle alone was enough to sell media, though. Enough to feed those hungry for information on Faeusa, now that it wasn't entirely looked down upon to learn more about your neighbors. And spectacle was thus provided, as the happy couple smiled and waved to cameras and talked up their trip to the Temples of the Mouse.
Not long after, the airship untethered, and floated off towards a sojourn of wedded bliss. The media waited until the ship was out of sight, then moved on to trying to pin people down for interviews, before the peace conference would wrap the next day.
Nobody noticed an extra two passengers embarking. Nobody noticed the way the ship ACTUALLY was sailing. Outside of a select few, nobody would ever know how a simple elf from Florida had woven one of the finest illusions in Fae history... fooling hundreds of onlookers as the Clockwork Mermaid set out across the waves.
(True, it wasn't a particularly splashy illusion, but the fact that it was a 100% success said much to the caster's skill. Not that any of the High Fae nobility would admit that a mere elf could accomplish a task worthy of an Archmagus, even if they knew. Fortunately, Queen Emily knew, and that was enough to make Nel feel quite proud indeed.)
As the illusion faded, the Mermaid was already silently coasting along at a leisurely sixty miles per hour, over the deep waters of the Atlantic. The only reason they hadn't been smashed to bits by the Kraken was the aura of silence that soaked the ship... the engines normally were quite quiet thanks to heavy soundproofing on the engine room walls, but if not for the feeling of momentum, Benny would've had no idea any machinery was in play. Gilbert's magic box of acoustic receptors, gears, and tightly woven springs was seeing to that.
The silence, unfortunately, left the Broker alone with his thoughts. One demon alone in a posh ship's guest cabin, with nothing to do except ponder. Idle hands were, after all, the devil's playthings.
He'd decided to stay in his cabin for the duration of the journey. They had no need of his skills at the moment, after all -- they'd need him once they arrived at Morocco, the destination he personally recommended this morning. (The fools were going to fly straight to France. Surefire way to get killed on the spot, honestly...) After that decision, he had no further need to talk to them. He didn't need to eat. Honestly, he didn't need to sleep.
So, he'd stay in his cabin for the entire three day flight, and would simply wait for this nightmare to be over.
After the first day of lying around doing absolutely nothing, watching the ocean silently slip past his cabin window, Benny the Broker began to go a little bonkers.
Mundane transportation was not his style. (If the Mermaid could be considered mundane, mind you.) Benny walked the path of the damned, burning holes in reality to instantly travel anywhere he wanted in the world. Being ferried from one point to another, especially such a distant point, was... weird. Surreal. Annoying.
Annoying. Yes, that was the word. This whole affair was annoying. Being forced to travel in non-style, being forced to work with others. The Broker was not a team player; he worked for people, not with them. While he tried to contextualize this mess as one extended business relationship, he couldn't... he was lying in a bed. He had quarters of his own. He was along for the ride.
For some insane reason, he'd agreed to take the ride. Because of her.
Her. Chloe... Chloe Somebodyorother. He didn't even know her last name. Still didn't.
She was the girl he'd met for all of an hour or so, in the middle of a nerd festival in Baltimore. Just someone to kill some time with, albeit not in the usual way he killed time with women. He'd screwed up then, too, letting slip too much information about Down Below and Up Above. It just... happened. Like this entire disaster just happening.
And why? Because she refused to listen to his perfectly reasonable advice, to turn around and go home instead of throwing her life away? Why would he, a fallen one, a demon, give two craps whether some human lived or died? He'd pulled her bacon out of the fire in Baltimore, too. Even trusted her with an important mission (which she failed miserably) to dispose of the key to his master's freedom. A mess. A disaster. That. This. All of it.
A day of isolation had made him jumpy. So, jump. Go with it. Why not? Confront her about it. March out there right now, find Chloe, and confront her. Not that he had any clue what he'd say, since he barely understood how he got from A to B in the first place, but it beat the hell out of lying in his little cabin thinking in circles.
The Broker's door opened for the first time since closing it, as he wandered off to make a complete idiot of himself.
Silence filled the great hall of the Clockwork Mermaid. Even the ticking of the grandfather clock, even the crackle from the fireplace, all of it had a certain muted quality thanks to Gilbert's friend-or-foe beacon.
On the plus side, that meant Chloe Manchester (Civilian Contractor for the ATF) (which stood for Anachronism Task Force) (Not Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) couldn't really hear what was going on in the Honeymoon Suite. Gilbert had affixed a makeshift sign to the captain's cabin door reading "Honeymoon Suite, Be A Gentlefolk And Do Not Enter, Thank You Kindly" and then the two ensconced themselves, with Jeeves bringing them their meals.
Wandering by the door on the way to her own cabin, Chloe had picked up a few... sounds... which made her turn vaguely red. The happy couple was keen on enjoying the small amount of time they had before things exploded around them, after all.
So, the captain and his first mate were persona non grata... and so was the man she'd met for all of a few hours in the middle of a nerd festival in Baltimore. The one she had trouble thinking about, despite the constant urging to seek him out she'd had to deal with for the last three years.
All alone. Just her, the great hall, and the robot butler.
Chloe was used to being alone, of course. She'd typically been a moody and sullen little girl, as if something about this world was perpetually depressing. Melancholy kids didn't make a lot of friends, except with other melancholy kids, and without any of her tiny social circle around at the moment, a mechanical manservant would have to do.
Granted, his presence WAS comforting. Jeeves had done his finest to make her feel at home... preparing tea and biscuits for her, helping her find books in Gilbert's massively unorganized personal library, making sure she had pillows and cushions and plenty of creature comforts. His gentleman's needs were being tended to, and with nothing else to do, he'd been lavishing Chloe with attention. At least, presumably it was simply a need to keep busy...
Chloe certainly felt the need to keep busy. Sitting around all day as the ship crossed the Atlantic left her feeling useless. ...more useless than usual, that is.
She wasn't really some Man in Black. Wasn't a spook, an agent, a soldier. She didn't have a badge, she had a laminated photo card in a faux leather billfold. Her role in the federal government was to "have weird feelings about things" and relay them to her superiors. Not a particularly glamorous job, akin to being a psychic medium advising the police... a person nobody really took seriously, and were only contractually obligated to listen to due to someone higher on the food chain being a superstitious type.
And yet... her weird feelings had prevented a few near miss disasters, as the ATF secured Westusa for resettlement. The junk left behind by powers weird and mysterious hadn't gone away, after all. Just last week, she'd managed to stop Agent Smithers from opening the wooden box with the skull on the lid. (Not that she knew what would happen if he had, but knew it would've been... unwise. For everybody in a ten mile radius.)
Chloe was no stranger to community service, mind. She was the gloomiest Girl Scout ever, quietly collecting merit badges for helping the elderly and the homeless. But even back then, she was largely an anonymous guardian angel; just another moody and sullen basement dweller worrying her parents with the dark makeup and the spooky music and the tendency to make preachers at church nervous.
ATF work was a step up in intensity, but to in the end, it was the same thing as being a scout. Lend a hand where you can. Whatever needed to be done to make the harsh world a bit less harsh. Even if it meant going overseas on a mission to save the nation from an enemy far stronger than they.
Her. The gated community suburbanite. The basement dweller. Can't shoot lasers, can't cast a spell, can't swing a sword, can't do anything except work in a soup kitchen. Oh, and have weeeeeird feeeeeelings. Canary-in-a-coal-mine Chloe.
Sinking deeper into the extremely comfy chair by the fireplace, Chloe hid her nose in the crappy romance book she was reading, and hoped the world wouldn't notice her and go "Wait, what're you doing here? Beat it, kid."
...which, to think of it, was exactly what Benny the Broker, demon from the pits of hell, had told her to do. That's what irritated her so much, that's what kicked off the back and forth yelling match back in Florida, and... then he... agreed to go anyway? Despite her uselessness? Weird. Very weird feeling about that, yes...
"You. I want to talk to you."
Frozen. For a moment, anyway. Slowly, she peeked over the covers of her novella, unhiding her face... to see the one who she'd been yelling at the last time they spoke.
It wouldn't do to cower and shrink in her plush armchair, not in front of him. He'd just push her back and make her feel smaller if she tried. She had to be... larger, more formidable. Tall order.
A clanking sound, accompanied by a tiny hiss of escaping steam, broke her nerves. Jeeves had stepped forward slightly, holding the silver tea-tray of rainbow sprinkled cookies out, as if defensively blocking the Broker from approaching. And that was enough of a tension breaker, enough of a mental reset button for Chloe to get herself together.
"Good, because I wanted to talk to you," Chloe said, putting her book aside for the moment. "Jeeves, it's okay. It's okay."
The autobutler's brass moustache twitched slightly... as he shifted his weight back, leaning away. "Acquiesced," he decided, to follow her wishes.
(...did Benny just breathe out? Was he nervous when Jeeves stepped forward? Huh...)
Chloe did not immediately launch into a tirade about wanting to be taken seriously, about how he should stop trying to protect her from the naughty little secrets he had, that she wanted to know more about him and his world, and... so on, and so forth. She did not say any of that.
For his part, Benny did not immediately scowl and demand to know why Chloe had agreed to this crazy mission, what she thought she was doing, why she couldn't just go home and be happy and not have to be subjected to the kind of world he lived in, that it was the last thing he wanted for her, and if she kept at this she'd get hurt and he might not be able to save her, and so forth. He did not say any of that.
Nobody said much of anything. Whatever head of steam had driven them forward oozed away to hide under the carpet.
Instead, Benny glanced askew, towards the cabins. And found a new topic.
"Are they still going at it in there?" he asked. "Marriage, honestly. If they keep this up they're going to burn the candle down to nothing in no time at all. Then it's all sitting on the couch watching television and eating reheated prepackaged dinners and arguing about who takes out the trash..."
"Young love. It's like that, nothing wrong with it," Chloe defended, sliding her book into her lap, so she could have something to grip nervously. "Obviously, you've never had a boyfriend. --a girlfriend, I mean. I mean. Unless you, uh--"
"What use do I have for some kind of continuing relationship? I'm mobile. Business suffers when my freedom is curtailed. Besides, there's the whole buy the cow / milk for free analogy. Well. Not FREE. But it can be negotiated for, in my experience. And that's plenty for me."
"--wait, what? You mean--"
"Yes, I am in fact a whoremongering, greedy, vicious little bastard. Hello? Hello in there? Demon standing in front of you," Benny said, pointing to himself for emphasis. "De-Mon. We're bad. And from that viewpoint, no, I don't get young love, or marriage. Sorry. It's like expecting a zebra to understand the national lottery, or a wheelbarrow to parse calculus. Incompatible concepts."
"What, so demons can't comprehend the human condition at all?" Chloe asked, instinctively digging for some information, not phrasing it as an accusation. "I don't buy that. How could you make deals with people, how could you tempt them, if you didn't understand their feelings and needs in life?"
Benny shrugged in his familiar jacket. (It was warm already in the great hall thanks to the fireplace, true, but that mattered not to him in that favorite old duster.) "Being able to read your stereo instructions doesn't mean you empathize with the wires and capacitors. Humans are just this thing I work with. I've got no connection to them at all beyond that. None at all."
"Then why did you bother saving us all?"
That made the broker wince.
"I read the ATF reports on the incident in Alaska," Chloe continued. "You turned your back on your demonic master and saved the human race. If I'm quoting it right, you even said you LIKED humanity..."
"You like kittens, right? Same thing," Benny suggested. "Adorable and amusing little creatures, nothing more to me than that."
"Obviously not a real cat lover," Chloe said, shaking her head and raising her book. "Look, are you here to grumble at me, or did you have something else to sKREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEKREEEEKREEEEEEEEEEEE
Hands were clapped over ears. Not that the sound of it could be heard, over the infernal screeching that had suddenly filled the air. The air of the great hall, of the hallways, of the entire ship. The entire ship, vibrating and screaming like a violin out of tune, a ragged bow dragged across its strings over and over...
Huh. This shouldn't be possible, Chloe thought, some rational part of her that hadn't given in to panic trying to figure out the situation. Gilbert said his device cancelled noise, so the Kraken couldn't find us. All noise. So the Kraken couldn't...
The crew of the Clockwork Mermaid tuned into that realization simultaneously.
Still doubled over in pain from the eardrum-shattering wail, she barely registered a panicked Gilbert Gearhaus, hurriedly pulling on a pair of pants as he skipped / hopped / sprinted from the crew quarters. He crossed the room with purpose, practically leaping down the spiral staircase towards the engine room, skidding his way along the brass railing as he sank out of sight...
When disaster strikes, there are two forms of responses that emerge immediately.
One, which is quite common and perfectly understandable, is to escape the disaster. Run away from the scary sound, avoid the growling thing in the shadows, walk away from the pillar of smoke starting to rise on the horizon. Fear is, after all, a survival trait rather than purely a negative experience. It tells you when you want to avoid trouble.
The other reaction is to run pell-mell towards the disaster. Some do this simply to know what happened, out of a twisted sense of curiosity. But the best and brightest of those with this reaction... they want to see where they fit in with the solution. They understand that whatever just happened affects not only them but those around them, and if it's not dealt with, there will be consequences on both a personal and societal level.
It says much to the recruitment policies of the Fae anachronauts and the human Anachronism Task Force that when Gilbert made a mad dash for the engine room, the others were hot on his heels. First Chloe, knocking over her tea in the process. Next was Jesse, carrying her combat saber and bearing an impromptu gown made from a bedsheet. Jeeves allowed the ladies to proceed past him, as he was a gentlebot, before proceeding downstairs himself.
Last to go was Benny. He was delayed by a sideways glance to the fireplace... his means of possible escape, while there was still time to escape. But after seeing the girls head towards the danger, he shoved escape aside and joined them. Much to his own disgust.
The engine room of the Clockwork Mermaid was a modern miracle.
Of course, 'modern' is a relative term. To Eastusa, it probably looked quite primitive, an industrial affair of gears and cogs and hydraulics. It allegedly used steam power, something they'd given up on centuries ago, to turn the vast propellers that allowed the dirigible to attain forward momentum.
(If those same Eastusa scientists were to take the Mermaid apart, however, they'd be baffled as to how to put it back together again. Some would likely claim the device was impossible in the first place under the laws of physics and therefore had to be a sham of some kind. This would in part be because they didn't want to admit to more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your et cetera et cetera.)
But for British technology, it was state of the art. The efficiency of the engine was paramount; a clunky machinist's engine wouldn't do for a tourist craft. The nobles wanted peace and quiet; they had the engine compartment isolated and soundproofed to ensure that. Of course, "peace and quiet" was as relative as "modern," and without the hypermathematical construct that muffled their engine noise to avoid alerting the Krakens, it would've still been loud enough to echo through the ship -- and at ground zero, within the engine room itself, your outside voice would be mandatory.
For the engine room with the anti-beacon of silence malfunctioning, your outside voice wouldn't do. In fact, you could scream at the top of your lungs and not be heard over the ear-piercing wail that was now blasting throughout and beyond the confines of the ship. If they were very lucky, nobody would be rupturing an eardrum.
The madcap band of adventurers who had moved with such purpose towards the disaster now were paralyzed by it, which was probably for the best. Gilbert was tuning the noise out with great personal effort, as he applied a very large lump of metal to the problem... the act of which made the screech worse and worse, until--
No gear turned. No cog meshed. The hydraulics had stopped... hydrating. The Clockwork Mermaid was dead in the sky, floating along without control, its master failsafe switch having been coaxed into operation by careful application of a couple whacks of a crowbar.
Not that the airship stopped moving. Even with the propellers no longer whirling away in a blur, momentum was momentum. Out of control momentum, granted, starting to spin lazily in a circle as it floated by lighter than air aetheric steam mixture. And, if they were very lucky, it would also remain level rather than floating down into the water...
Perhaps thankful for the silence, the collected persons said nothing for a few good moments.
One ugly moment followed.
It only took a modicum of knowledge of the world to know what that huge splashing sound, followed by the ship being pushed sideways, meant.
"Kraken," Jesse spoke, gripping the hilt of her sword tighter, as she pulled her bedsheet even tighter. "There's no way they couldn't have heard that. Now they're trying to figure out where we've gone to..."
The mechanic tossed his crowbar aside -- and immediately regretted it, when it made a loud metallic CLANG that echoed through the room.
"We're running quiet, but I don't like our chances," he spoke. "The box muffled even our voices, our footsteps. The creak of the ship itself, the sound of the gas bag rippling... everything. We don't have long before those blind sea beasties predict where we are. From the sailor's tales, it just takes one good attack to cripple even the largest of ships..."
Chloe stepped in next, perplexed. "Wait, wait, but... but they won't really attack you, right?" she asked, trying to keep some hope alive. "I mean, Queen Emily sent an ambassador to Atlantis. It's in our files. You've got peace negotiations on the table! They wouldn't let the Kraken kill us..."
"Just because Faeusa is at peace with Eastusa doesn't mean a Wendigo won't kill some human explorer wandering around Canada," Jesse explained, mildly irritated at having to point out the obvious. She did, however, keep her voice as low as possible. "Kraken are wild animals of the seas. Anything that disturbs their peace and tranquility, they react to instinct. Politics do not apply. --now. Everyone, hush. Husband, dear? Can you fix your little toy ship?"
Carefully moving random piles of equipment aside -- careful to avoid any more clanging or banging -- Gilbert exposed a simple looking, unimportant instrument panel. Flipping open some metal clasps, he was able to slowly remove the sheet of dials and knobs and switches... revealing the true device underneath that camouflage.
Inside, an impossibly complicated nest of interlocking gears and glass tubes was visible. You could look at it, and look into it, and look INTO it past the point of looking into it... and likely still feel you could see forever. If the Mermaid's engines were modern miracles, this was something on the level of an incomprehensibly complicated work of the gods.
It had only taken a year and a half of constant work for Gilbert to craft it for his benefactors, and a day and half for him to decide to steal it.
"Oh, simple enough, I suspect," he said, ignoring any sagging jaws. "Give me a tick, love, and I'll have us up and going again. Meanwhile, if you'd kindly return to the hall, so I can work in peace...? Much obliged."
Benny had tried pacing for a while. Pacing was a good way to spend your nervous energy. Pacing while the surface you were pacing on was listing and spinning aimlessly was a good way to get horribly sick. Demons had all the advantages of an ageless and unchanging entity of sin, all the disadvantages of a biological shell to pour it into.
Despite their initial urge to dogpile on top of the problem, if only to keep themselves alive, right now the only one who could take meaningful action was Gilbert Gearhaus. The rest of them would only get in the way. So... nothing left to do but wait, and try not to go crazy.
Jesse had dealt with this by returning to her quarters, to arm herself to the teeth. She now was wearing a full Fae battle dress, a clever affair of fashion which embedded ultrathin plates of armor within an elegant formal garment. A spell display monocle had been affixed in front of one eye, a strange invention from Emily's problem solving workshop. Of course, if they WERE snatched out of the sky by a Kraken, no amount of spellcraft or saber would help them. She'd have no time to read a single rune before the crunch of broken wood and sudden squelching noise put a stop to that.
Benny had considered pointing this out, but you don't point things out to the woman with the pointy metal stick and a pointedly brash attitude.
"I brought a satellite phone," Chloe suggested. She'd kept trying to come up with ideas, ways to counter Krakens, ways to escape. "We could call for help..."
"Right now, Gilbert's the only one capable of traveling this far into deep waters without being killed," Jesse pointed out (without the sword). "It's not like you can get a tow truck out here."
"But we've got to do SOMETHING! I mean... something other than just sitting here..."
"We've no need to do anything else but sit here," Jesse spoke. "This will resolve itself, one way or another. Preferably one way than the other..."
Benny leaned against the grand dining table in the center of the hall. "The other being settling nicely into the upper intestine of a Kraken, you mean...?"
"No. The other meaning we abort the mission and go home. ...it's always been an option. We're close enough to the Americas that we can still contact Esrever by the mirror in the ship's washroom. With that, we can abandon the Mermaid, and set foot right back in New Orleans within minutes. But if we do that, even assuming we can salvage the beacon and bring it with us... we'll likely have set this mission back so far that we'll be at war before we can make another attempt. And that is unacceptable. Therefore, we will simply have to repair the ship--"
"Can't be done, love. Apologies."
He was busy mopping sweat and oil off his half-naked body, as he emerged from below decks. Which would have been very appealing to his wife, if not for the factor of their impending doom.
"I hate to be the bearer of grim news, but I've grim news to bear," Gilbert explained. "The beacon isn't broken. Every bit of it is working properly -- shutting the works down prevented any real damage, in fact. But it won't work properly. Not without a 3/18 Stovington Squaretooth. A very, very specific and reasonably rare gear, one which I know for a fact we've no duplicate of on board."
"We don't need a replacement," Jesse declared. "Give me the broken gear. One Mending spell later and we'll be on our way. If you're worried about banging a bit of metal and drawing the ire of the sea--"
"No, no... it's not broken. It's flat out gone. There's nothing to mend, love."
"Gone? Impossible. Gears do not evaporate!"
"Which means it was purposefully removed by someone who knew exactly how to cripple my beacon in a way that wouldn't be noticeable until we were too far at sea to do anything about it," Gilbert spoke. "I hate to say it, but... we're looking at an act of sabotage."
Despite the occasional thunderous splash from a Kraken emerging from the water to nearly eat the ship, tensions in the room immediately refocused. Internal threats versus external ones; no matter how demanding one was over the other, internal threats always won out.
The first stone was cast by the one most likely to cast the first stone.
"Well, obviously you and I had nothing to do with it, so it had to be one of those two," Jesse spoke, gesturing towards the newcomers to the team. "And of the two, the demon's the most likely candidate. No doubt someone brokered a deal with him to foil our efforts."
"Wrong," Benny declared, even in tone. "Completely and utterly. I have a binding contract with Emily. I do not backstab. That's not my style, contrary to what you may think. Given you were in my position, once upon a time, I'd think you'd have a bit more sympathy for that, 'Jesse Runeblade'..."
"If not you, then her," Jesse declared, pointing to the surprised looking young girl in the armchair. "Those generals hate the idea of the Fae leading the way to world expansion. They're itching for war. If we fail in our efforts, that lets them take Gilbert's invention schematics and build an army to save the day. She's likely a plant, working for them, to promote human interests."
"Excuse me, aren't you human, missy?" Benny asked. "Oh, right -- you're the race traitor, I forgot. The one so wrapped up in Fae affairs that she forgot she came from a little dirt farm in the middle of human turf. I heard you burned your village to the ground with Lilith, yeah? Makes sense that you'd want this effort to fail, once Eastusa got on board. If it's not a Fae only solution, the court loses its mystique as the champions of the Second Age--"
Arms waving, Gilbert tried to step into the middle of the two-way fray. "Excuse me! Pardon! A moment, please?!" he protested. "This is really NOT important compared to--"
"President Petersen mentioned Gilbert didn't even want to go to England in the first place," Chloe piped in with. "...um. Sorry. Just trying to, you know, help--"
"This is the opposite of helping!" the young engineer felt the urge to stress. "We could benefit from a lack of your contribution at the moment, if you don't mind--"
"Hey! Lay off her, wrenchmonkey," Benny warned. "She's over in over her head, okay?"
"I am not in over my head! I'm an agent of the United States of America, dammit!" Chloe shouted, getting to her feet. "Quit acting like I don't belong here, will you?!"
"I'm just saying--"
"--why are you so defensive? Unless you were the one who--"
"--I think this isn't really--"
This time, the noise didn't come from the engine room. It was right there with them, on the edge of the fray... the noise of high pressure steam venting from one of the twin valves mounted on the back of the autobutler.
It was enough to break the debate in an instant. That, and the feel of the entire ship rocking beneath them, as a monstrous vision filled the windows -- emerging mere feet away from the ship, before sinking beneath the waves...
"Kraken?" Jeeves reminded them, with a tone that his programming normally reserved for petulant little children who didn't want to eat their veggies.
Benny jammed his hands into the pockets of his coat.
"That's it. I'm done with this crap," he declared.
With purpose, he marched straight across the room -- and was engulfed in a small burst of flame from the fireplace. Gone, and to parts unknown.
"Rats off the sinking ship, it seems," Jesse said. "Very well. I am loathe to do it, but... I suppose we've no choice. Everyone, to the ship's washroom. We'll call Esrever, and abandon the mission."
Chloe stepped up, trying to block her path... although not completely, as given Jesse's anger, that could've had some consequences. "W-Wait, we can't do that, there are people counting on us, we've got to go to... I mean... there has to be SOMETHING we can do here!"
"It's over, miss... whoever you are, again," Jesse declared. "We're going home. You're going home. No doubt the powers that be will think up some other approach to the problem..."
The autobutler led the way, pushing open the door to the cabins and the washroom, for the ladies to enter first. After all, he was a gentlebot. "Departure," he emphasized, waving them through.
They nearly missed the flash of light. Only Chloe, who had lingered behind as long as possible, caught it from the corner of her eye.
He emerged from the fireplace, wisps of smoke and soot curling around him, as he marched towards them with intense purpose. One hand extended... holding a circular, many-toothed metal disc.
"3/18 Stovington Squaretooth," Benny the Broker declared. "Now go fix your goddamn ship."
Dumbfounded... Gilbert accepted the metal gear, nodding a quick gesture of thanks, before slipping away to the engine room.
Benny tugged on his coat, shaking out the last of the ashes, before addressing his confused audience.
"You weren't even listening to what he said," the Broker spoke. "Gilbert said that whoever did this knew exactly how to cripple the beacon in a way that wouldn't be noticeable until we were too far at sea to do anything about it. That means it was probably sabotaged back in Florida. That means it didn't have to be one of us. That means all our idiotic finger pointing was even more of a waste of time than it already was. Now. Are we done playing Clue? I'd like to go back to my room and try to relax before we hit Morocco."
Before they could respond, Benny pushed past the girls, ignored the strange robot, entered his cabin, and slammed the door behind him.
Unlike sailing ships of yore, the Mermaid didn't entirely chart its course by starlight. But the starlight certainly helped. It also certainly helped Benny the Broker unwind.
Demons always did better at night. Arguably it was because of the connection between darkness and the scary unknown and the silent machinations of evil, but Benny felt it was simply because humans went to sleep at night, and humans were annoying. They were the bane and benefit of demonic existence, for better or worse. The ones that were tempted to evil just so the Down Below could spite their creators, the ones that fought evil at every turn, and so on. Plus, things were usually quiet at night. Sometimes, Benny liked the quiet.
So calm was he that when a soft knocking came at his door, he didn't get angry about it. He didn't even get angry when she slipped quietly into his room.
"Um," Chloe began.
Benny, reclined on his bed and staring out the windows, waved her in. So, in she came.
"I don't think she's ready to admit it, but Jesse feels bad about what happened before," Chloe said. "I could tell. I think you hit a little harder than she wanted to show when you said she's been where you are now. ...I've read the files from the Westusa expedition. She wasn't trusted either, was she?"
"Humans have a hard time trusting anyone, including themselves," Benny suggested. "The easiest targets for mistrust get it the worst. I know this from my learnings."
"Sorry, old slang," he said. "Alright. While we're talking it... I'm sorry, too."
"Huh? For what?"
"For treating you like a kid, I guess," he admitted. "Constantly telling you off, saying you should beat it. And the sick of it is, I don't even know why I keep doing it. It's just... instinct. Like I've got any right to be lecturing you about risk; the Broker isn't exactly a conservative guy. I know about risk and reward. ...you think the reward here is worth the risk, then?"
"Absolutely," Chloe said, sitting at the end of his bed.
"Why do you believe it?" he asked, leaning up a bit. "Your generals didn't believe this was the way to go. A couple strangers headed off to parts unknown with no real plan, trying to stop a war machine. Your president was all for it, but he's a flake. Why do YOU believe in it? Some desire to protect Eastusa? Some need to prove yourself? What's the score here, kid?"
"Yes. No. I mean, both. I mean..." she began... before letting out an exasperated little sigh. "It's a lot of things. I told you I had a feeling this is where I need to be. But it's not like I wouldn't have come if not for that thing tugging me here. If this doesn't work... if we screw it up... that means war. A stupid war, a horrible war, that really had no business happening in the first place."
"Take it from someone who habitually arms both sides. Stupid, horrible wars happen all the time, and not much you can do to stop that."
"Yeah, well... maybe I can help stop this one," Chloe suggested. "One less war, one less terrible thing in this world for people to suffer through. I'll admit... I'm not much in a fight, like Jesse. I'm not a genius like Gilbert. I'm not made of metal. And I can't track down and obtain a 3/18 Stovington Squaretooth in under a minute. ...I'm useless. By any sane definition, I don't belong here."
Benny frowned. "Hey. No, you're not... look, you're not useless..."
"Boxing up old clothes for homeless Fae war veterans isn't a valued skill for an insurgency group," she said. "But... I'm here, now, for what that's worth. I'm supposed to be here. You've just got to... I don't know... take it on faith."
The demon gave her a flat look, at that.
"Oh, come on, you know what I mean," Chloe said, giving him a playful light smack to the ribs, before getting off the bed. "Sheesh. ...alright, I think I'm gonna go to bed before I humiliate myself more. We're going to land in Morocco tomorrow afternoon, Gilbert says. You know who we need to talk to, right?"
The Broker settled back down onto his bed, to look out the window again. "I know some guys," he said. "They'll have what we need, and I can arrange for what they need. Don't worry. ...take it on faith, kiddo."
She was gone with a smile.
This was the kind of night when Benny the Broker could really use a call girl and a satisfyingly complicated cocktail, to cap off a crap-day turned fine-evening. Unfortunately, the ship lacked any noteworthy booze, and the only cooze onboard was either taken or... well. Just didn't seem right, to him. Didn't back then, didn't now.
With no booze or cooze, he'd have to settle for taking a well deserved snooze. Not that demons needed sleep. But demons didn't really need a lot of things they enjoyed.
In the deep and the dark, there was not silence. There was the soft song of the seas.
It was the music of the Kraken, the eternal sonata of oceanic currents. It was the tranquility that their people had enforced for generations now, upon a once troubled and turbulent seascape. Now, this was a kingdom of peace, a peace hard won and hard enforced.
Any element that did not belong would be spotted and dealt with immediately. But this one escaped notice for a full day, until a hunting party chasing down game with a pack of trained anglerfish came upon the tiny, glinting object.
A figure comprised of swirling waters, something that took shape of both liquid and solid, was the first upon it. She pried it loose with her fingers... holding the little circular thing up to the light of the anglers, studying the finely machined teeth...
One of the hunters swarm up to her, trident in hand, looking at the object with equal curiosity.
"Lady Ambassador?" he 'spoke', for lack of a better term. "Is something wrong...? What is that? It doesn't look like a shell, nor coral, nor rock..."
"A wrong thing... possibly, possibly," Ophelia the Water Witch said, turning the 3/18 Stovington Squaretooth in her hand. "Very possibly. I think I recognize what this is..."
"An artifact from the shores of mankind, then? And one this far out into the deep?" the hunter asked. "The Sovereign must be notified."
The water witch let the cog slip from her fingers... slowly falling to the sand below, burying itself neatly in a cloud of settling dust.
"No, no need," she dismissed. "It's just some cast off trash from the ones the Sovereign allowed passage recently. Apologies for that, good sir. You know men and their tendency to pollute the sacred waters. I'm certain it won't happen again."
The merfellow rolled his eyes, before kicking away with a flick of his tail, to rejoin the hunting party. The living liquid joined him soon after, swimming ahead, to return to her no doubt worrysome bodyguards.
I could tell Emily, Ophelia considered. But there's little she can do for her explorers, now. The river flows one way -- they will ride it to the end. For better or worse.
to be continued
copyright 2010 stefan gagne