|sf03 the bastille|
The caged animal paced in its cell. This wasn't a wasting of idle energies; it was a way to find a crack in the armor. It studied every nook and cranny of its prison, trying to find an exploitable weakness. Escape was a matter of patience, above all else. Sooner or later, the warden's desperate attempts at control would expose a vulnerability, and then...
Keeping the cage door shut was taking so much force of will. The beast wanted loose; it wanted revenge against those who had wronged it. It wanted blood for blood. Within the silence of the cell, it howled, wild and chaotic.
The Wild Hunt.
"You're sweating. It's not warm in here; in fact, it is quite cool. You have no reason to sweat."
"Takes... it takes effort. All my effort," the warden spoke, through clenched teeth. "Wasn't this strong before. I could resist, before, or at least redirect it. It didn't pull at me like it does now..."
"The Wild Hunt has many shapes, Scout," Taamusi, Inuit-turned-Winterhound, explained. "Many forms. It can come like a bitter arctic wind, a thing that creeps slowly across the ice, inevitable but slow. It can rage like a blizzard, tearing apart all before it with frozen shards. The shape of hunts past does not always dictate the shape of hunts to come..."
The floor did not yield when Scout pounded his fist into it. But the pain from his knuckles was enough to distract him, which in turn helped him focus.
He'd been trying to meditate for an hour, now. Taamusi had come to New Orleans, across the icy hell of the Canadian Wastes, at great personal risk. Winterhounds rarely traveled this far south, unless on royal orders, and that meant if he was seen it could tip the Ascendancy off that Emily was somewhere in the city.
Originally they were going to park the Quantum Mermaid in NanoSeattle, where Petersen had made strong allies... much closer to Taamusi's territory, as well. But after two weeks of occupation, the Ascendancy had finally turned their eye westward, sending representatives to "help" cities like NanoSeattle. Given that carbon-copy city potentially could resume its military nature and rise against them, and none of the citizens had souls that could be stripped away by Total Social Conversion... the Ascendancy was especially keen on lending their "help" at keeping the city orderly.
Despite the dangers Scout's brother-in-arms faced, despite the complete lack of progress they were making, Taamusi showed no signs of stress. He was as calm as a frozen lake, as calm as he always was. Of all the Hounds, he had the most self-control, and that was a skill Scout needed to re-learn.
If he didn't, the hunt would drive him to his death. Or worse.
"How do you resist the Wild Hunt?" Scout asked. "You've said you redirect it to scientific research in the wastes, to preserve animal populations... but you aren't there now. You're not hunting. And you don't look the least bit on edge."
"Even my own hunt has many shapes, Scout. In the former lands of my people, it has the shape of a wolf, which hunts to care for its pack. Here... hmm. It is difficult to explain, but... I have reversed the hunt. And perhaps that is what you must do as well."
Taamusi gestured, drawing a hand away from his heart... and then looping around, back to it.
"I make the Wild Hunt into my prey," he explained. "I hunt myself, part of my inner nature, using the rest of my inner nature. I refuse to be a slave to the hunt, but... I do not cage it. I do not suppress it and push against it. I let it run wild."
"Don't follow you there."
"When it is caged, it is the hunter, and you are the prey. It is the aggressor, and you the defender. Instead... I let it out, specifically so I can hunt it down myself. I am the aggressor. It is on the defensive. I stalk the Wild Hunt, making myself constantly aware of my own dark thoughts. When it surfaces, thinking it has me -- I strike like a hawk, and kill the thought where it lies. New thoughts surface constantly, so I am constantly hunting. Eventually... it becomes as natural as breathing. It happens on its own."
Scout remained doubtful; he could feel the thing he was trying to hold down inside himself, feel its strength. Letting it slip, even for a moment...
But Taamusi had been a Winterhound far longer than Scout ever had. All told, Scout only had a few years of practice, and even at his best he still fell victim to his own impulses quite frequently. Only when Emily entered his life did he have a reason to do more than keep his head above water. Emily, who wasn't afraid, who was willing to help him find ways to cope with this problem.
We're going to funnel that constructively rather than fatally from now on, she'd told him, what felt like years ago. No more hiding from who you are, and no more hiding from us. I'm not turning my back on you.
His back was to the cell door. To the room where his wife was busy trying to secure their future. He'd abandoned her, gone into hiding, out of fear of what he had become.
Turning his focus away from holding down the Wild Hunt was dangerous. But... he couldn't help her, if this was all he had in his life anymore. He had to find another way to live.
Slowly... Scout stood up. The low ceiling of his self-chosen cell brushed his unkempt hair. With his eyes closed, with his focus centered... he opened the door of the cell in his mind.
Immediately, he felt the desire to murder Lar. To throw open the physical door of his prison, charge into the night, and--
They would get in his way, try to stop him. He was unstoppable. He could tear through them all with ease. Taamusi, Petersen, Emily--
The dark gift of Winter howled, each time he spotted and took down his new prey. It didn't like being treated like this, not any more than it liked being cooped up and held back. But... stalking and killing the impulses was easier than holding them down. It felt natural, like defending a point, picking off enemies one by one with a sniper rifle as they tried to sneak up on you. The frenzied joy of the hunt, tempered by the cold satisfaction of knowing you would not be defeated...
He could hear the arguing voices, through the heavy iron door. His wife's voice had taken a frustrated pitch to it, the kind she got when she realized she was in over her head.
There would be a risk, of course. He had only just begun to apply this new tactical method to his hunt. It would take some time to fully understand his new prey, to be able to cut it off at every turn. But... when things were at their bleakest in his last tenure as a Winterhound, Emily refused to let him stay in hiding. She was there for him. And now, he had to be here for her. He had to be willing to take the first step back into their lives together, no matter the danger.
Scout grasped the handle of the door, and pushed.
This wasn't a debate Emily was going to win, and she knew it. Particularly since she was forcing herself to play the devil's advocate position -- what she actually desired in her heart was the complete opposite. What she was arguing for was what should be done, even if it was horrifying.
Justifying it to Nelliwyn also meant justifying it to herself. And she couldn't quite convince herself, which meant this was a losing game. But nevertheless, a game worth playing, if only because too much was riding on the outcome.
They had cleared out the common room of the Quantum Mermaid's FaePlace for this. Or rather, everybody not involved had drifted away, suddenly busy with other duties, rather than wanting to get in the middle of it. Those in the middle of it really wanted to be elsewhere too, but by this point the horns were locked tight.
"I understand your worries, Nel. I don't want any harm to come to Una, either," Emily insisted. "If we had any other options, believe me, we'd take them--"
"You have other options. You just say they're untenable ones," Nel countered. "We could always retrieve the Azure Tome of Ur-Felrial."
"Which is currently held by Lar, and likely under ridiculous amounts of security. Stealing it would be just as hard as assaulting the Ascendancy itself head-on, which we aren't ready for yet. What we DO have is the end result of the Sacrifice ritual. We need to use that."
"Meaning you want to experiment on Una's soul. And destroy it in the process, if your theory is wrong."
There was one more bid in the pot than the ones from Emily and Nel. There was Archmagus Elriel, the elderly Fae and the one who had suggested this experiment in the first place.
Being the source of the suggestion, he felt he should at least try to defend it, rather than allow his Queen to bear the full brunt of the furious elven woman's counterpoints.
"Ah... it stands to reason that if we sacrifice the Essence Core, we can transfer the soul back into Una," Elriel said. "I mean, I've spent two days studying the runes on Jon's arms, and I don't think that it matters what the designated container is..."
"But you don't know for certain. And Jon has never tried reversing the procedure," Nel repeated, from earlier. "For all we know, Una's soul could just... dissipate. Vanish, like a puff of smoke, cast to oblivion! You only get one try at this; you can't risk being wrong! ...you're the Archmagus. A title bestowed upon the one whose incredible skill at magic sets the paradigm for an entire generation of Fae, like Lilith before you. Surely you can think of alternatives--"
"That title was not of my choosing!"
It could only be called a shout. Elriel had actually shouted at them.
The ancient Fae wasn't the sort to shout at anyone. He rarely disagreed with anyone, for that matter; in conflict, he'd stammer, or find some polite way of backpedaling. In Emily's early days at Lilith's witching academy, Elriel had always been the kindly one, the compassionate one... a kind word for everyone, and no bitterness to him at all. A bitter shout of displeasure was not something she thought him capable of...
In fact, the shock of it was enough to shock Elriel himself. Realizing he'd jumped to his feet, he slowly lowered himself back to the couch in the Mermaid's conversation pit.
"I... I mean, I am greatly honored to be declared the Archmagus by the Faerie Queen," he tried to clarify. "I have always done my best to live up to the honor, and I'm doing my best to assist in this matter using all my knowledge and skill in the arcane arts, and... and, but... but..."
This, Emily was familiar with. He was shutting down, as he always did, when he wasn't sure if he should be speaking his mind. Fortunately, this time, she didn't have to verbally remind him that she valued his honest opinion regardless of what it may be. One glance was enough to remind him.
"My Queen... please, understand, I respect you greatly and I deeply honored that you respect me so much in turn," Elriel offered. "And I know that in the early days of the Second Age, you needed those you knew would be loyal to you in positions of power. I accepted the title of Archmagus, so that I could best aid you and my people by providing continuity of the role. But... I have not earned the title. I was given the title."
"Elriel, you're the most brilliant mage I know," Emily reminded. "It's not like you're a slouch in the wave-wave-poof department..."
"The most brilliant mage you know, yes. And I have many years of knowledge, it's true. But the Archmagus is one whose feats and accomplishments have defined the path of magic for an entire generation. I am not glorious, in any respect," he noted. "I say in all humility that I am at the limit of my ability, right here, right now. I am not capable of understanding this ritual magic on the level needed to deconstruct it completely. The only one I can think of who would be capable died in Alaska, some years ago. Lilith had an affinity for the dark arts... I do not."
"I wouldn't trust Lilith to peel a grape, much less juggle souls."
"Nevertheless, the best I can offer is to suggest running the ritual in reverse. Will it work? I do not know for certain. Will Una's soul be damaged? I do not know for certain. Without expertise in the dark arts of Ur-Felrial, I'm afraid I can never know. And I doubt anyone living right now would know, either. I am sorry, my Queen, but... your Archmagus is not up to the task asked of him. I apologize, sincerely..."
A helpless shrug was not something you wanted to see your Archmagus expressing.
The devil's advocate position collapsed around her. She couldn't continue to push for something this uncertain. She couldn't insist they try something that could potentially destroy Una completely... not just kill her, but destroy her, casting her immortal soul to the winds.
It was a horrific concept, now that they had actual scientific proof that souls existed. Faith meant a certain amount of unknowns which you simply had to believe in; being faced with a glossy pamphlet that laid the facts out meant a certain amount of existential horror. If there were souls, there was an existence for them beyond this life. Having that taken from you meant... well, what it meant was terrifying to even contemplate.
"We need an expert on dark magic, then," Emily declared. "Jesse's good at making things go boom, but she's not a spell theorist. Her husband managed to reverse engineer spells once, but that was when he was nearly killing himself from the effort. Do we know anyone else who knows dark magic inside and out...?"
"Other way around, beloved."
It was an unexpected voice. She twisted in her seat, eyes wide not in fear, but surprise... and relief.
He had finally come out of hiding. She could still see the little muscle twitches under his skin, could tell he was still struggling against his darker nature... but he wasn't doing it in the cold and the dark anymore. He was out here, ready to face it... and to help her face the current problem with a new perspective.
"What you need is someone who can give us the facts we're missing, true," Scout agreed. "But not an expert on dark magic. Reverse it, turn it around. Dark magic to consume souls? Study the other end of that hunt. You need an expert on souls. And we should go right to the top on that."
She didn't WANT to be snide, not when her husband had finally come out of his exile. It came out in a burst of frustration.
"And what do you expect us to do? Speed-dial the big beard in the sky?" Emily asked.
"No. But we know someone who has a direct line to Him," Scout reminded her, taking the sarcasm in stride. "Think it's time Benny the Broker put aside his Earthly diplomatic duties and got involved in the war for His children's souls."
by stefan gagne
The Ascendancy invades.
Life goes on.
Afternoon tea is served in the House of Gears.
They had made a proud little homestead on on the outskirts of New Orleans, several years ago. After all, the House of Gears was a noble Fae house, and required a physical house to represent that noble pride. True, Jesse Runeblade and Gilbert Gearhaus were not Fae by birth, but when the Queen grants your family line a title, a title is what you get.
Despite that close relationship... they had set up shop quite a ways away from Emily's power base. Away from the farmlands, the bustling city core, and the House of the Rising Sun / House of Thistles / Moonthistle Witching Academy. Which meant when they had the leader of the Ascendancy over for tea, he had to fly over on a jetpack. Him and two heavily armed guards, of course.
On arriving, they found themselves engaged in furious battle. One fought with teaspoons and carefully chosen words.
Jesse hadn't skewered anyone with cold Faerie steel in quite a few years, but found some satisfaction in this new kind of battle -- the give and take of social politics. A young House with no legacy needed to fight tooth and nail for respect from the nobles of the Faerie Court, after all. It required absolute mental focus, to be precise and cutting with your remarks. For instance, when your blood nemesis drops by to find some reason to declare you an enemy of the state, you counter their attack with incredible grace and courtesy. And the finest tea in the kitchens.
Proctor Lar, the undying dread lord of an invading alien army, smiled away as he sipped delicately from the finely polished teacup.
"You understand our concern, of course," he was explaining. "What with Emily's unprovoked act of murder, and the sudden disappearance of Una point zero one and Nelliwyn Myfanwy. That sort of thing gives way to rumors and speculation, and I'm a man who prefers hard truths. I like to know where people stand."
Jesse allowed exactly enough time to pass for Lar to think she was considering her reply in a state of worry. Showing the false front of fear and respect for the Ascendancy, hidden behind another false front of calm pride. Let him claw at the first mask, and assume the mask beneath was the true face.
"The way I see it, Proctor Lar... my standing is within the Faerie Court," Jesse explained, using truths to mask other truths. "All my life, I have desired the nobility I felt was my right. Born into poverty, true, but once I sampled the glory of the Fae, I knew what I needed to secure my future. I am very keen to keep that future secure."
"It's quite interesting to me, a human who seeks such a position within a foreign culture," Lar commented, as Jeeves refilled his teacup automatically. "Was your origin really so bad as to reach so far for something else...?"
"I grew up on a dirt farm, surrounded by ignorant fools. Once I saw it for what it was, my course was set. That world has nothing to offer me. Nothing I would want for my family, as well. Rest assured... I will do what it takes to protect my house, and those I love."
"And your friends, no doubt."
"My house, and those I love," she reiterated. "My standing. My place. These I value above all other things. If my friends choose some foolhardy path... why follow them? Why risk my standing? I would need an extremely good reason for such a drastic risk."
Lar nodded along, pretending he cared what she was saying. Once she was done talking, he set his teacup down, to lean forward, and pretend that he was speaking out of concern and compassion.
"Change is coming to this world. Change is even coming to the Faerie Court," he spoke. "I'm in talks with Princess Susan on that subject, in fact -- proposals for Ascendancy assistance with the Court's security. I seek an orderly and peaceful wave of change. The Ascendancy is simply stepping into the shoes of Arcology #A076... here to help this Earth's transition to a brighter tomorrow. I know many fear change, but... I think you are the sort who understands the importance of proper structures. Of standings. I'd like to think that, unlike your friends, you know the best place to stand."
Yes, with my foot crushing your bloodied face into the dirt, while the ruins of your empire crumble around you -- and with no merciful death until the very last of your toys are ground to dust, so that you may know how completely and utterly useless your efforts were against your fated destroyer.
"I know exactly where I want to stand, and rest assured, I understand the Ascendancy's place in that arrangement," Jesse said, honestly. "You can consider the destinies of the House of Gears and the Ascendancy to be firmly entwined, Proctor Lar. Of that... have no doubt. Are you enjoying your tea? It's an import from the British Empire. We maintain fine relations with the Crown Prince and Princess, after all."
With renewed confidence, Lar's smile jacked up several notches. He peered into his freshly refilled cup, studying the smooth surface of the liquid. "Oh yes, I am! I don't normally consume Suborbital beverages, but I do enjoy sampling the wide range of cultural--"
Blazing eyes of pure anger glared back at him, from within the reflection of the liquid.
Jesse took note of the force with which he hurled the teacup to the floor, shattering it.
Immediately, Lar was on his feet -- backing away from the table, from the polished glass surface of it. Averting his eyes. Even taking pains not to look at Jeeves, who was shiny and reflective as well...
His flanking guards didn't even react. Also quite curious. Clearly, they had seen this behavior a few times before... even with the dimmed glass blast guard masks covering their faces, Jesse could swear she saw one of them roll his eyes.
"I... have other duties I must attend to, I'm afraid," Lar said, completely forgetting to cover for destroying Jesse's fine china. "Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Runeblade. I look forward to working with the House of Gears on a number of issues the Faerie Court will face, during the next phases of integration. Thank you for the tea."
Within moments, they had made their exit, leaving Jesse Runeblade and her metal manservant behind.
She took some time to consider what had just happened. And to enjoy the rest of the fine tea.
"If I didn't know better, Jeeves, I would say that madman is scared of his own reflection," she commented.
The AutoButler nodded, in agreement. "Paranoia," he added.
"Wouldn't say that, now. If I left a trail of wronged foes in my wake in the way he does, any level of paranoia would be entirely justified," she said. "Hmm. Still, as much as I would enjoy publicly joining that list of enemies and striking him down... we must maintain a low profile. We are in a fine position right now, thanks to my status as something of a rival to Emily, and our connections to the rival British Empire. It means our enemies fail to see our true allegiances."
"Subtle," Jeeves agreed, moving to collect the tea set onto its tray, tidying up.
"Far more than I'd like, admittedly. I look forward to running that man through. ...hmm. I appear to be frequently chatting with my amazingly underspoken butler much as my husband does, lately."
Jeeves tilted his hip joints a bit, to puff out his metal chest in pride. "Counsel," he noted.
"I suppose that's a finer explanation for it than me becoming some crazy old lady who talks to her pet cats. Hmm. I should discuss this little teatime episode with my husband. Where has the crown prince of fools gone off to, anyway? Or my daughter, for that matter? Please don't tell me they're off playing with the lawn ornaments again--"
A distant explosion answered her question.
With a metallic sigh, Jeeves set the tray down, and calculated the most efficient path to the nearest fire extinguisher.
The twenty-foot-tall apparatus went up in a blast of white-hot flame. The whirling brass arms melted on the spot, rotating knives fusing together into something resembling a very nasty-looking modern sculpture. Its unstoppable path of destruction had finally been stopped, leaving behind only a raging bonfire and a pile of molten slag.
Gilbert lowered his pneumatic thermite mortar cannon. Thankfully, he was wearing heavy leather work gloves, because its superheated brass handles would've otherwise fused to his palms -- as is, he was having trouble holding it as the overcharged turbines began to shake it to pieces. He tossed the device aside, and stood between it and his companions... crossing his arms in front of him, and waiting.
They exploded four seconds later, enveloping them completely in a ball of blue-green flame.
Once the fires evaporated into the air around them, Gilbert Gearhaus deactivated his Orbital wrist shield projectors.
"Well! Harvester Prototype Twelve may have disappointed, but I can't say I'm disappointed in the cannon!" he declared. "Beauty of a blast, there. Good stopping power. Now if we could just keep the thing from destroying itself with each firing, we'd really be onto something!"
A man half his height, wearing a slightly singed and battered pointy hat, peered out from behind him.
"Errr... but sir, it did in fact self-destruct," Wheedle Q. Cogpolisher, Gnome, Technomagus, Former Royal Know-It-All, and current Director of Research and Design for the House of Gears pointed out. "In fact, it would've killed us all if you didn't have that birthday gift from Lady Una..."
A child slightly above half his height peered out from behind the gnome.
"That was cool! Do it again!" Lady Camille Runeblade-Gearhaus of the House of Gears requested.
"Afraid that's it for product testing today," Gilbert said, tugging a pocket watch on a chain out from, well, his pocket. "It'll be dinnertime soon, and you've your studies, young lady. Besides, I doubt we'll have Harvester Prototype Thirteen ready anytime soon..."
"But I grew all this fake wheat so I could see it get cut up to little bitty bits by super cool machines!" the blonde moppet complained, throwing her arms wide. "It took a lot of work, too!"
Aside from the flattened and fried sections of the field, and the long and winding trail of quadruple-threshed leavings... it WAS quite a bit of fake wheat, Wheedle Q. Cogpolisher had to admit. And that in and of itself was probably more impressive than her father's inventions.
It was said that before the sun and stars, the newly born Faerie Queens took the primitive Fae -- tribes of simple cave dwellers, no doubt -- and elevated them overnight, transforming them into a magical people. Of course, that was absurd; all proper gnomes knew that they had evolved into magical beings through perfectly rational magical processes over millions of years. The fossil records from the World of Fae had shown existence of primitive mages, of evolutionary links leading from reptiles to proper Wyvern, and so on. The Queens were goddesses, of course... and Emily Moonthistle had inherited all that holy power... but people did not simply become magical overnight.
That said... Lady Camille, or "Cammy" when you wanted to annoy her (which Wheedle did not as the child was her mother's daughter and quite terrifying as such) had spent considerable time with Susan Moonthistle. The Lady of Spring, whose domain was all that was green and growing. And perhaps there was something to be said for a goddess elevating those around her, whether they were aware of it or not...
Camille had indeed grown an entire field of wheat in short order, through spellcraft taught to her by the House of Thistles. It wasn't quite wheat... it was oddly puce in color, completely inedible, and lumpy in places. But it was grown from the ground in Shamanic tradition, whatever it was, and most importantly it had similar enough consistency to real wheat that it was ideal for testing Gilbert's new agricultural harvest machines.
An impressive feat for a nine-year-old witch. An impressive feat for an adult Shaman. An impressive feat for an Archmagus, Wheedle dared to consider. This was a child on the rise, and her mother made sure all in the Houses of the High Fae knew this fact.
Even if she was about as good as any other nine-year-old witch at all other forms of magic.
"I just know if I keep trying, I will master Susie's magic, and surpass her!" Lady Camille declared, clenching a fist of determination, just as she'd seen her mother do on countless occasions. "But I will of course feel bad about making her look horrible in comparison because friends should stand by friends! Right, Father?"
Gilbert chuckled -- and picked his daughter up, lightly tossing her in the air, catching her on the way down.
"You're already a fine witch, yes indeed," he assured her. "You don't have to be better than anyone else. You just have to be the best little Cammy you can be."
"Lady Camille, Father," she reminded him, pouting. --and then hopped down immediately, to run over and greet the newcomers.
Jesse Runeblade nodded in satisfaction at the recently grown fields of false flora, and at her daughter, who offered a proper witch's curtsey to her. And then nodded to Jeeves.
Who immediately doused Gilbert in pressurized foam.
After standing still for six full seconds of this, the fluffy white pile of mad inventor piffled a bit of soap out of his mouth, and pointed sideways to Harvester Prototype Twelve.
"Fire's over there, Jeeves old man," he indicated.
"He was cooling off my hotheaded husband, who once again put his daughter in harm's way," Jesse corrected. "Honestly, Gilbert... what were you thinking? What did I tell you life priority number one was?"
"Cammy, of course. Followed by us. Followed by science. But, indirectly, I am supporting all three!" Gilbert insisted, while wiping foam away from his face. "Who needs the industrial base of the British Empire, when they've got the House of Gears, ready and willing to help industrialize Fae agriculture? We'll be the ones to move this nation onto the world stage! Well, I suppose Emily did it first, but I mean in a business sense--"
"Growing the wheat was my idea!"
Their daughter had quite a set of lungs, and the tendency to utilize them whenever she felt overlooked. Like now.
"I wanted to help Father with his work, and I'm good at this, so I thought I'd help him with it," she explained. "I know his stuff always blows up or goes kill-crazy--"
"--hey, not always--"
"--but I wanted to help. And to prove my power! That's okay, right, Mother?"
A difficult position to be in. Jesse almost wished she were clashing swords with Proctor Lar again. She tried to explain.
"Camille... I've no doubt of your power and skill, or your bravery. It's a matter of discretion and... hmm. This is difficult. Perhaps if you consider it a--"
"Who's that lady in the fire?" Cammy asked, losing total interest in the challenge at hand.
It was enough of a non sequitur to throw Jesse completely off her game as well.
She turned, peering at the flaming wreck of Harvester Prototype Twelve, trying to see through the haze of heat from the ongoing blaze. In the light... she could vaguely make out a figure. Becoming less vague as it strolled away from the inferno, patting out small fires in its dress, which had been slightly scorched from proximity to the blaze, as well as many blazes past...
The woman didn't wear a witch's hat, but Jesse knew her to be a true witch, possibly truer than any other. Sarah Tinker was an elemental force of nature, after all.
"Jeeves, return to the house and prepare tea. Spiced tea, I think," Jesse suggested. "We've got a guest. And, unless I am wrong, she comes from our friends in exile."
The flame witch accepted her teacup graciously. Jeeves had ensured her cup was quite cold; that way there was no chance it'd simply evaporate when she went to drink it.
Sarah Tinker, previously known as Salem, was one of former Archmagus Lilith's failed experiments. In ages past, when human witches were poisoned with magic and driven mad before being set to war against the their own kind, Lilith sought to create witches that were bound to the four classic elements. The rituals were said to be, if not created by Ur-Felrial, at least created by one of the dark warlocks that followed in his footsteps.
Ophelia, the water witch, went on to become an ambassador to Atlantis... and eventually went fully native, defecting from the Faerie Court, despite keeping good relations with Queen Emily. No doubt she perished in the purge of the oceans. Sandy, the earth witch, stood as still as a statue in the Witching Academy foyer to watch over the next generation of witches. Ariel, the air witch, hadn't been 'seen' in some time but presumably was out riding the wireless networks of Eastusa, as she enjoyed doing...
And then there was Salem. Birth name, Sarah Tinker. Emily had healed her of the pyromania she once endured, and since then, she had acted as an official courier. Being able to leap between any two fires on the face of the planet, as demons did, was an invaluable skill.
She sipped her now piping hot tea, thankful for it. Dehydration was a serious problem for her, and even with finer control over her nature, carrying water bottles wasn't plausible.
"You're sure it's safe to talk?" she repeated. "The Ascendancy has ears everywhere. They're all over the palace; I can't get near Princess Susie. --wait, I just said that aloud. They know. They know! They're onto us! We need to--"
"You can relax, dear; we are the most high tech house in the Faerie Court, and we tolerate no surveillance devices nor scrying spells," Jesse insisted. "Although I'm glad you showed when you did. A few minutes prior and you might've run right into Proctor Lar. Right now, we stand at a neutral point. ...for now."
This entire discussion would probably be high treason against the ones who now ruled the Faerie Court. Not that they officially ruled... but they had been so aggressive in their "friendship" that there were no doubts among the noble houses. Being on the wrong side of the friendship line, no matter how you really felt, was unwise.
Despite the sensitive nature of this teatime chat... the mood was relaxed. Jesse preferred calm, in these days, when dealing with tense matters. Tension could come later. For now, a smooth discussion was needed.
Light music was playing. Jeeves's familiar old hissing and clanking. Gilbert, tapping his spoon against his saucer lightly, in some mathematical pattern which no doubt would eventually become part of Harvester Prototype Thirteen. And little Camille, busy lying on the floor, and working her way through a book of mazes with a crayon.
Maybe Sarah was expecting war-room-style tension. No doubt she just came from such tension, based on her description of what had happened so far... Emily and Scout's exile, Petersen's rebel camp of Gatherers, and the terrible fate of Una. Dark business, but Jesse would not let it shake her calm.
"No doubt it's time for us to play our role in Emily's scheme," Jesse said, trying to urge Sarah along.
"What? Oh, oh yes, that's what I'm here for," she said, snapping out of her brief moment of worry. "To brief you. Uh. Assuming you accept the mission. Emily said up front that I need to say up front that it's entirely up to you, and if you refuse, she can find other means. I... should have said that up front. More up front than this. --the mission, right. This is something she thinks you're ideal for, because--"
"Because we still have good standing with the British Empire," Jesse filled in. "Because we helped broker the treaty of peace, and set them on their path to modernization. Because Benny the Broker tolerates us more than he tolerates most mortals."
"Well... yes, that's it exactly. See, Emily thinks that Benny may be able to help us with the Essence Capacitors, what with him being an angel now, and all. If the lore about Ur-Felrial's spell is correct, that Ascendancy really can tap into immortal souls, Benny's the only one who would know how to help."
Gilbert tapped his spoon one last time, before setting it aside. "Benny never helps someone for free, afraid," he said. "The fellow may have swapped his team colors from black to white, but make no mistake, he's still a Broker to the core. The only reason he acts as Britain's diplomatic attack dog is because he stands to gain from it, in the form of safety and security for his sister. And with the British Empire signing a memorandum of understanding with the Ascendancy, his ink quite prominent on the document... why would he turn on them to help us?"
"Wellllll... that's kind of the problem, isn't it?" Sarah agreed. "See, Emily's thinking you can fly over there and meet with him without raising any serious attention, since you've got legitimate business contacts. But if he doesn't want to help... she said to use any means at your disposal to make him help. Um. Specifically she said kidnapping is not off the table."
Gilbert Gearhaus wrinkled his nose. "Ugly business," he said. "Ugly and dangerous. If we go there above-board, tracked and logged by their border patrols as a business visitor... leaving with a captive angel, much less finding the means to capture him, poses considerable risk. Right now, the House of Gears is not in any particular danger. If we do this... we'd likely have to go into exile, just as the others have done..."
She didn't wear her saber around the house. Time was, she'd never be without it; it represented a feeling of security via posing a threat to everything around her. And when she needed a brief burst of confidence, the hilt was only a grip away...
Jesse had to keep her hand from going to her side, reflexively.
"We have no choice. We accomplish this task, by hook or by crook," she stated. "I share your concern, husband mine, but once you told me our family has no future unless we are willing take risks like these. Be it the threat of the British Empire or the threat of the Ascendancy... it must be done. Although I would like to think we can secure Benny's assistance without resorting to violence. We are older, wiser. We can be clever enough for this task--"
A book filled with crayon scribbles was held open in front of her face.
"Solved it!" Camille declared, proudly. "Last maze of the book, beaten! I defeated it! I rule! Can I download another book now, Mother? I want to do more!"
A completed puzzle, interrupting her efforts to work through another puzzle. It brought a smile to her face.
"Perhaps later, Camille," Jesse suggested. "For now... I'm afraid your father and I need to pack for a business trip. No pouting, now; it's unbecoming. You're a strong girl. We may be away for a week, possibly two, but no doubt Jeeves can tend to your needs in the meanwhile--"
"Actually, Cammy, you'll be coming with us," Gilbert interrupted. "We're going to England to see Auntie Chloe and Uncle Benny!"
Cammy pouted anyway. "He smells funny," she complained. "Like ink and old paper."
"Not a kind thing to say about a family friend, even if it's true. Off to your room, now. Two suitcases only. Jeeves will help you. It's holiday time!"
A word of protest began to rise -- and Gilbert put a hand on Jesse's shoulder, giving her the lightest shake of his head. No.
He kept his hand there, as the AutoButler escorted the girl from the room, off to pack up her favorite books and toys and preloaded spell monocles. (Normally witching students had to copy spells by hand into paper books, to teach them discipline and respect for magic, but the House of Gears spared no expense for its heir.)
"...we cannot take her with us," Jesse stated, once the child was out of earshot. "You just finished explaining how risky this is. If it goes sour, we stand to lose a great deal. Starting with our lives."
"Which is why she has to go with us, love. We've no choice in this, thanks to the Ascendancy," Gilbert said. "Sarah, you've seen the security around Emily's house, yes? They have Susan under virtual house arrest, with only the Summerlions keeping them from completely controlling the nerve center of the Faerie Court. Now, imagine what will happen if the heads of the House of Gears vanish mysteriously after kidnapping England's top diplomat. Imagine how quickly the Ascendancy will move to seize our house... and our daughter. For her safety, of course, it will be said."
"And if she comes with us, she may die," Jesse said. "The first priority is always Camille. The two of us... we may have thirty, twenty, maybe even ten years of life left. We must build a legacy for her, and keep her safe, in whatever time we have..."
"I know, love, I know. But I'd rather protect her with my own hands than leave her behind, thousands of miles away. If we do end up in exile... she needs to be with us. Consider Una and Nel. They're in exile now, and now their adoptive daughter Carrie is all alone. You remember how she came to the house the other day, looking... lost, and desperate for social contact? It was quite sad. We can't allow that to happen to Cammy."
"Camille would hardly be alone and unprotected. She'd have Jeeves. She'd have Susan looking out for her interests... and despite being rendered near powerless by Lar, the Faerie Court would follow Susan to the grave, no doubt."
"In the face of the Ascendancy, I'm afraid that wouldn't be enough," Gilbert said, shaking his head. "No. She has to come with us. Is it safe? Hardly. But there are varying levels of safety. This is the best we can offer her."
The war witch, for the first time in quite a year... was pensive about charging into battle.
Let my enemy see me coming. Let him know that it was I who crushed his every effort, thwarted his every trap. Let him know that his best was not enough to stop me, and let him understand how completely destroyed he was in the face of my determination...
But that was a determination that relied on being ready to give her own life, and hers alone. No doubt Gilbert felt the same way -- they would do battle together, charging directly at their foe with a smile and eyes blazing with sheer force of will... but if the two should fall, they would not fall as two alone.
Jeeves batted irritably at a cobweb, trying to pull the whole silky mess down from the rafters of the Great Hall. It wasn't like they never used the Clockwork Mermaid -- generally the family would take a vacation together, sometimes even to England, once a year or so. Between these trips Jeeves prided himself on keeping the ship as ship-shape as possible, despite being in dry dock at the House of Gears... but no matter how much you tidied up, leaving a ship in disuse always gave rise to some inevitable entropy.
All other travel lately had been done by other means at their disposal, such as the late Esrever's mirror world, or stone circle teleportation. But these were business trips, social functions, other outings to help establish the House of Gears firmly in the echelons of the Faerie Court. This was the first time the Mermaid was being used for something other than frivolity.
Because of this, Jeeves was trying to keep his charges as comfortable as possible. They were headed into a tense situation, and his programming leaned heavily towards cutting that tension with a precisely placed silver dinner knife. Or, in this case, a long broom to sweep away the dust bunnies of their great airship.
His not-quite-so-young-anymore master was doing his part, as well. Gilbert had dusted off something of his own -- the Abbey Road, a classic pressing of it. They'd switched away from vinyl to proper electronic media many years ago, but in times of trouble, nothing quite matched the perfect tones of an original reproduction pressing. Plus, the lyrics delighted little Camille, who found fanciful stories of ocean trips and miscreants armed with silver hammers to be entertaining.
While the AutoButler swept away the last remnants of imperfection, and father and daughter enjoyed classical music... Jesse was doing her own best to work away the tension.
Specifically, she was preparing the dueling automaton.
It was a fierce array of (dulled) blades on arms, designed to represent multiple antagonists attacking at once, to push the fencer to the very limits of his or her ability. Gilbert had enhanced it time and time again, as his wife kept defeating the new programs and weapon augmentations -- well past his own fencing ability, and he knew it, as he began to focus more on his science and less on his gentlemanly dueling talents. In prior adventures, Jesse had trounced every incarnation of this clockwork robot.
While her family busied themselves with other amusements, Jesse drew her favored saber and prepared to train. It hadn't seen much action either, being kept over the mantle place in their foyer, but she kept it polished and battle ready in case anyone assaulted her home. Unlike the ship, which needed a bit of tidying up, it was ready to fight. And so was she.
She activated the automaton, making sure her daughter was far away, on the other side of the Great Hall that comprised much of the Clockwork Mermaid's interior space. Camille had been taught at an early age not to go near the fencing automaton. At least, not until her mother was confident in the child's swordswomanship ability.
Raise the blade, signaling the robot to prepare itself. Then drop to a defensive guard.
Parry, parry. The clatter of metal on metal. Familiar patterns; Jesse had beaten this particular combat tactical routine into the ground countless times in years past. All she needed to do was roll into the blow, avoid the feint from the third mechanical arm, and then--
It was hardly appropriate for a Lady of War to scream in pain. It was a scream of surprise, instead, and a brief one at that. Hardly a scream at all. More of a passionate expression. Perfectly reasonable.
The fencing droid shut down instantly, declaring a failure condition with a red light. Not that the unit had failed... but that Jesse had failed to defeat it.
She fell back from the opponent, staying in a defensive guard for several seconds, ignoring the bleeding wound on her upper arm. Ignoring her family rushing to her side, to see what was wrong...
One quick Mending spell from her monocle, and the injury was sealed before Jeeves could tend to it with the emergency first aid kit kept in his left hip.
"Dear, are you--"
She cut that one right off.
"I am perfectly fine, thank you," Jesse declared. "I believe I am done with this exercise. How far are we from the empire's borders?"
"We... we should arrive by morning," Gilbert said. "I'm sorry, I really should have made sure the fencing automaton was working properly before we set out. Was it malfunctioning, or...?"
"I think I shall retire to my chambers to read. Please let me know when dinner is ready. Thank you."
The Lady of War swept out of the Great Hall with great speed.
Part of her knew damn well she was running away from a defeat. It knew there was no malfunction, that the machine hadn't outsmarted her, hadn't beaten her... except it had, because she was too slow. Too old. Too close to the end, perhaps...
In her mid-thirties, still a healthy and robust woman. But she had given away a good amount of her life to keep her beloved at her side. How long did she really have, now? They'd assumed decades, or at least a decade, singular. Or was this the start of everything falling away, all the skills and talents and abilities she'd worked so hard to develop...?
But more importantly, in the short term... what did this mean for surviving the upcoming adventure, should it turn into an adventure rather than an errand? If she should experience exactly the wrong split-second moment of weakness again, what would that mean for her daughter's future?
Minutes later, she was reading whatever book was within reach, to pretend she was doing something constructive. And pretending that she could still charge blindly into the gaping maw of her enemy's traps, and emerge the other side victorious against all odds.
British airspace. For generations, tightly controlled and monitored. You could slip through with a costumed ship, and the Clockwork Mermaid had in fact proven that theory many years ago... but a disguise was not invisibility. You couldn't avoid being spotted by the empire's air traffic control balloons and towers. And any ship which had absolutely no business crossing those borders would be dealt with by armed airship response.
They'd visited England several times since signing the rather aggressively proposed treaty of non-aggression. Each time they'd been spotted, but since they enjoyed quasi-diplomatic status with those in power, nobody rushed out to meet them with heavily armed warships of friendship and understanding.
Today was no different. No airships.
It was different in that heavily armored men with jetpacks came to meet them instead.
Four flanked their ship, on all fronts. A fifth was hovering just outside the bridge, knocking on the window.
Gilbert found the latches that would let him open the window, which was normally sealed during travel.
"Mr. Gearhaus," the Ascendancy guard acknowledged. "Good day. Was your trip uneventful?"
"Ah... yes, I suppose," the confused captain of the Mermaid replied. "Just the big old blue pond, and a few clouds in the sky..."
The guard's expression was unreadable through the mirrored surface of his helmet, but he offered a curt nod. "Good. We've been hearing rumors about surviving Kraken, but suspected it's just damaging hearsay. At the request of Ambassador Benny, we're here to escort you safely to your dock. Please follow my phalanx and do not deviate from this flight plan."
"Not our first time dropping in to say hello, and we've never needed an escort before, old chap," Gilbert pointed out. "Is there some sort of problem with our arrival? Are we too early? We did email ahead to ask if Benny was available today, and--"
The guard raised his hand, bobbing lightly in the air as his backpack's gravity pumps compensated for a stiff wind. "Sir, you misunderstand," he said. "The escort is for your safety from treasonous elements. Terrorists. Rest assured, we will protect your ship and your family from harm. You are friends of the British Empire, and under our general memorandum of understanding and by special decree from Proctor Lar, friends of the Ascendancy."
Apparently he enjoyed our tea considerably, despite his unceremonious exit, Jesse thought.
The armed puppet show continued even past docking. The four representatives from the House of Gears (three, if you didn't count Jeeves, which Gilbert was dismayed to note was quite a common reaction) stood at the top of the Mermaid's cargo ramp... while no fewer than six armed guards stood at the bottom, ready to receive them. And one smiling, cheerful Ascendancy tour guide, ready to chaperone them the rest of the way.
No horse-drawn carriage or autocar was waiting for them. Instead, some sort of shiny hovering vehicle took the place of their usual London conveyance... looking like the mutant offspring of a suppository and a chrome salt shaker. It cheerfully ignored gravity, hovering a constant foot above the cobblestones of the city streets, whisking them along in comfort and safety.
Jeeves kept Camille company in the back seat, entertaining her with a game of cat's cradle, string wound delicately around his brass jointed fingers. In the middle row of seats, Gilbert and Jesse sat... although their attention was on the streets around them, through the bulletproof glass dome of the vehicle's bubble-shaped roof. In the front seat, their driver provided an upbeat counterpoint to the stoic armored warrior that had come along for the ride.
"We're hoping to introduce hovercars within a year as a replacement for public transit," Engineer Yqi declared. He didn't need to keep his eyes on the road, as the car generally drove itself, so he had turned near completely around in his seat to chat with the tourists. "Get rid of all the cabbies, and that clattering old Underground train system. Methane from horse emissions and steam venting from the tunnels is simply too destructive to the environment. Within a decade, we're going to have the entire Empire running on clean, efficient, safe Essence Capacitors, just like my hovercar!"
She didn't squirm in her seat at the idea of gradually destroying someone's soul just so they could ride in comfort to Buckingham. Instead, Jesse hardened her resolve. Perhaps a bit too much for what was supposed to be a friendly theme park-style ride through London.
"Fascinating," she said, with a firmness like granite.
"Isn't it?" Yqi replied, not catching on. "This is the second Earth I've helped revitalize with the Ascendancy. You should've seen the last one I went to -- little more than barbarians tearing each other apart for meager resources. We got them up to speed quickly, after suppressing the chaotic elements. But this Earth was already so organized, before we even got here! It's going to be an even smoother ride. Just like my car! I helped design it, you know. Compact design, very minimal resource drain in construction..."
"I'm... extremely impressed, I must say," Jesse said, trying to water down her displeasure. A conversation with the enemy was a battle, after all; if she could wrestle Proctor Lar's will to the ground, she could deal with this. "The House of Gears is establishing itself as the premiere scientific force in the Faerie Court. No doubt we've much we can learn from each other. My husband no doubt agrees. ...don't you, Gilbert?"
"Mm?" Gilbert mumbled, not taking his eyes off the buildings they slid past.
"The man is eager to describe his technology, and you're daydreaming! For shame," she chided. In hopes that would rouse him, so he could carry on the smalltalk, and perhaps glean some vital intel in the process.
"Sorry, I was... well, I can't help but notice the graffiti," Gilbert explained, having completely missed an opportunity to talk shop. "There seems to be quite a lot more of it than we saw last time we dropped by this side of the pond..."
Jesse spared a glance at the landscape. Even moving as quickly as they were through the streets, she could see what he meant.
L'ANONYME IS LEGION.
EARTH FOR THE HUMANS!
DO NOT FORGIVE, DO NOT FORGET.
FREE OUR ANGE...
For that particular one, the "L" at the end was being scrubbed away by men with gravity pump jetpacks, spraying the building with an abrasive nanopowder. They'd already managed to scrub away most of the illustration... including a familiar looking silhouette. One which had been drawn with wings.
Yqi spared a nanosecond glance at the protest art, before shrugging it off.
"It's common for Suborbitals to approach the Ascendancy with trepidation, in the early stages of transition," he said. "Personally, I think it's just harmless protest speech. Why should we be afraid of words? It's nothing we need to take seriously, since it won't last in the face of the friendship we'll be showing them in the years to come. But, well... I'm not really in charge of that sort of thing... uh... hold on one second..."
The Engineer had to actually touch the controls of the autocar, for the first time since they took off from the docks. In this case, to slow it down, as an Ascendancy guard was blocking the road, holding up a glowing STOP sign.
An intersection had been shut down completely, surrounded by yellow holographic lines indicating a crime scene. The autocar floated to a halt, joining the rest of the stopped traffic. An irritated looking cabbie in a horse-drawn buggy next to them was busy reading a newspaper, ignoring the scene ahead of them, indicating both how long this had been going on and how little he cared.
Gilbert leaned forward in his seat, to get a slightly higher vantage point.
Someone had spraypainted a huge set of wings and a halo across the entire intersection. It was sloppily done, probably the work of an automaton programmed to spray it in a brief window between the waves of traffic. And probably programmed by the two teenagers currently on their knees, hands bound, at the business end of five energy rifles. Broken Guy Fawkes masks lie on the stones before them, smashed to bits by the guards.
Yqi tried to distract them with platitudes.
"Ah... it's just protesters. I mean, um, terrorists," he said. "That's the official word that this Earth seems to like, so we've been told to use 'terrorists' or 'treasonous individuals' when describing them..."
"And no doubt the hooligans will be given a firm word and perhaps a few days in the tanty," Gilbert said, trying to look understanding.
"Excuse me? The what?"
"The dock? The clink? Prison. Jail cells."
"Oh! No no, England's already past the point of needing that sort of barbaric punishment!" Yqi insisted. "Well, mostly past that point. No, these days, when crimes against the public peace like these happen, they just... oh, good, the Thaumatologist is here. They're almost finished."
A dour looking individual had hovered into the square, on a small jetpack. An individual with Fae spell runes tattooed on his arms.
Less than two minutes later, and the two criminals were released on their own cognizance, staggering aimlessly down the sidewalk. The graffiti had been blasted clean. The problem was handled.
Yqi started his vehicle up again, resuming course.
"Total Social Conversion is an excellent tool for situations like that," he was explaining, looking relieved to be underway. "Those two won't bother the public again with their pranks. ...I mean, personally, I think it's a bit of an excessive use of resources, I mean there are far more violent offenders out there to focus on, but... I just make vehicles, you know? I suppose those in charge know best how to keep public order."
"Quite," Jesse replied, harder than granite this time.
"I understand Total Social Conversion programs are starting up in America, too, right?" Yqi asked. "I don't get much news about that part of the world here, but I know we've a memorandum of understanding with the Eastusa President, and I'm sure we'll have one with the Princess of Fae any day now. ...right? How are things going over there?"
She spared a glance to the back seat.
Camille hadn't noticed any of this. The girl was bored out of her mind -- and Jeeves was taking care to keep her distracted from the horrors around her, bless his likely aetheric soul.
"Things are going well enough," Jesse replied. "And, with our assistance, may there be brighter days ahead."
The driver didn't quite understand, but decided that whoever was in charge of understanding these things could probably do a better job of understanding than him, anyway. He adjusted the hovercar's course, laying in the final destination.
Which was not Buckingham Palace.
Instead, they had arrived at an extremely upscale restaurant. Unlike much of the city, which had remained unchanging for generations, this was of a modern make... which is to say it heavily favored the retro-Victorian style that the steam-powered British Empire brought with them to this Earth. Despite the classic styles of its window arches and crown molding, it was pristinely painted and used modern building materials. No crumbling relic of an austere era; instead, it merely echoed crumbling relics of austere eras.
It was also completely empty. Almost.
Their guard escorted the entire family through the empty banquet hall, past dozens of unoccupied tables, which clearly had been laid out with plates and silverware in anticipation of the lunch rush, or whatever passed for a lunch rush with the cream of Britain's crop. But today, the entire facility had been bought out for a single reservation.
Benny the Broker was already on his second basket of bread sticks when they entered.
And while they had a single armed escort... he had four. All standing in perfect formation behind his chair, like a row of cardboard cutouts patterned after a squadron of super shiny space marines.
Just like that, their entire mission was a failure.
The whole point of coming to England was to ask Benny for help in fighting the Ascendancy. They had hoped to have a private soiree with him at Buckingham, where they would be among friends... Prince Edward, the unorthodox heir to the throne, and his recent bride, "Princess" Chloe Manchester. Even if Benny might not have wanted to hear them out, those two certainly would. But they were nowhere in sight... whereas several stoic enforcers of the Ascendancy's might certainly were.
Even if Benny would have agreed to help, there was no way to ask him for that help, now. Whether this heavy Ascendancy presence was Benny's idea or not, it cut off all hopes at recruiting him.
A conversational encounter. A combat of words. Yes -- much as her previous lunch date with Proctor Lar, Jesse had to employ razor wit, and squeeze an attack past the Ascendancy's defenses. Recruit Benny without them even realizing the intent behind her words. Years of tangling with the houses of the Noble Fae had taught her the value of such unarmed warfare. Very well; she would change her tactics, and overcome...
Gilbert exchanged the briefest of looks with her, to confirm what they would have to do. He was no stranger to this game, either, and was ready to play.
Camille was ready to eat bread sticks, yanking the basket away from Benny and digging in.
"Yes, please, have some," Benny filled in for her, but with a smirk. "Kids. Y'know, odds are I'm gonna be an uncle for real, sooner or later. Got any tips for me?"
"You'll find no more wily an opponent than a toddler," Jesse commented, turning in the charm with a bright smile. (Which should be Benny's first sign that something was up, since Jesse was hardly known for her smiles.) "Benny. It's good to see you again. I'm glad you were able to make some time in what is clearly a very full schedule to see us."
"Hey, Chloe's always said we should make more time to have social outings like these," he replied. "Wish she could join us, but... well. First thing's first. Oh, garçon?"
Benny leaned back in his chair, and snapped his fingers for the waiter.
A man in a tailcoat squeezed past the mirror-faced guards, his notepad at the ready, despite nervous glances at the men with rifles right behind him... and the brass robot which stood in silent guard over the other side of the table, for that matter.
Steak for Benny. Lobster for Jesse. A soup for Gilbert. And chicken nuggets for Camille, who opted to order off the available menu and be very insistent on her unusual selection, as any proper high society lady should.
Drinks first. And plenty of time to chat before the food itself arrived.
"As you've no doubt seen, things are a little tense around here," Benny explained. "The seven corporate heads are firmly in the Ascendancy's camp, seeing them as a high-speed freeway onramp towards Britain's modernization, but some malcontents are letting fear get the better of them..."
"L'Anonyme," Gilbert recognized.
"Yes, and thank you so much for introducing that little blast from the past into my adoptive empire," Benny said, with a scowl. "They've been a complete pain in the ass ever since. After Chloe started pushing hard for social reforms, they didn't have a good target to focus on anymore -- you can't protest an oppressive government when it's actively getting unoppressive."
"Why did they not disband, then?" Jesse asked. "L'Anonyme had served its purpose, after all..."
"Yeah. Right. You're a parent -- try taking a fun toy away from your kid, and see what happens."
Camille paused in blowing bubbles with her chocolate milk. "Mother took away the Cursed Amulet of Xanthor from me because I turned one of the house elves into a newt with it," she interjected. "I didn't get any dessert, either. It was most unpleasant!"
"...right," Benny decided to reply with. "Anyway. Point is, they were having too much fun to let it go. L'Anonyme started splintering into different groups, and attacking any perceived slight. Most are just harmless jackasses, but a few groups have caused serious problems. Like the 'Ship of Fools' who caused a massive tube network jam-up three years ago... and then the pro-corporate Court Jesters who started hacking away at them in retaliation... ugh. What started as righteous protests completely lost sight of fighting the good fight. Now they're just fighting."
Gilbert chuckled away at the Broker's misery. "My apologies, then, for revitalizing the spirit of Guy Fawkes à la Alan Moore. Still... all I did was give them a little meme to toy with, Benny. People are people are people, and will carry on with or without silly masks. England's always had a bit of a rebel undercurrent, yes?"
"The Ascendancy is not very big on rebellion. And the seven have given them free reign to reform the justice system to put their boots down on it," Benny said. "That's why we're meeting away from Buckingham. We had to secure a location. After all, I am a valued ambassador, as are you."
"I trust we won't be guarded twenty-four-seven for the duration of our visit?" Jesse asked, slipping exactly enough distaste into her words. "We had hoped to tour London for a few days before returning home. It would be a waste to be stuck in our ship behind a wall of men with guns..."
"Probably no need for constant escorts, no," Benny said... nodding slowly to her. "In fact, I'll insist they leave you be. You're friends of the Crown. This whole show of force was just in case someone tried to suss out the location of this meeting. ...I'm not very well liked by the populace right now. They think I'm the Ascendancy's mouthpiece, just because I was the one called upon to negotiate the peace accord."
Gilbert, who had been the 'wild one' of this discussion since being called out as L'Anonyme's creator, continued to play his Devil's Advocate role. "Things are a bit tense back home, as well," he said. "Some doubt the sincerity of the Ascendancy. You must admit, Benny... they do seem to enjoy throwing their muscle around."
"Yeah, and think back to the kind of muscle my Employer Above liked to throw around in the good old days," Benny said... flicking a finger upward, to point to the heavens. "In the end, He had our best interests at heart. It's no different here; the Ascendancy knows the score. In the long term, once our people get past their initial doubts, they'll see the light. I mean, I did, right? I'm an angel now, because He convinced me of His perfect righteousness. I saw the light, and it was glorious!"
The couple recognized it immediately. Benny had told an outright lie... but one nobody else present would've picked up on.
He didn't surrender his status as an infernal being out of any particular love for the Word. He didn't turn to the light in some rapturous moment of understanding.
He negotiated for his job back in order to save the life of his sister, Chloe... and for no other reason. He'd even fallen from that high place for her in the first place, as well. She was the only thing Benny the Broker put stock in. Not the Word.
In his extended metaphor, if he didn't really fall into the Word's camp, and the Ascendancy was like the Word... that meant Benny the Broker was not firmly in the Ascendancy's camp, either. He'd just indirectly said: Don't buy it. I'm on your side. I just can't act openly.
Her attention broke when a flower fell into her water glass. It had grown out of the quasi-fertile fields of a bread stick.
Camille was bored. She liked to grow flowers, using the spell taught to her by Princess Susan Moonthistle, whenever she got bored. They were awkward-looking things, unnatural, like a crayon drawing of a flower brought to life... and Jesse's water would probably be undrinkable, now.
"Camille, no magic at the table, dear," Jesse chided.
"Magic? Hey, that reminds me -- I know a little magic," Benny said quickly. "Oh, but... no magic at the table? Darn. And here I wanted to show Cammy my super cool magic trick I learned..."
"I... think we can make an exception in this case," she decided, keen to let Benny have the moment he was looking for. "Very well. But only one trick, in honor of Lady Camille, because you are our host."
Benny reached into the pocket of his aging coat. (It wasn't his beloved old trench coat, the one with pockets linked to an infernal storage network... that had been burned in the fireplace of the Clockwork Mermaid, years ago. But clearly he seemed keen to wear out this more mundane coat until it was just as comfortable.) With a flourish, he withdrew... a single, shiny coin.
He tossed it lightly back and forth between his hands...
"Okay, watch the coin, watch the coin," he instructed, waving his hands in front of Camille's eyes. "Follow the coin. See if you can guess where it is when... I... do... THIS!"
He snapped his hands closed.
"Right. Now, which hand is the coin in?" he asked.
"Neither. You slipped it into your sleeve, Uncle Benny," Camille said, even pointing to the correct sleeve. "That's not a magic trick. Where's the magic trick? I was promised a magic trick!"
"Ahh... but see? Nothing up my sleeves!" Benny promised, making a flashy show of tugging back his sleeves. "There's no coin there. But I think I see it... right... here! Behind your ear!"
And lo, the coin was produced.
"No, you slipped it back into your palm and then pretended to pull it out of my ear, Uncle Benny," Camille pointed out again. "When does the magic trick happen?"
Defeated, Benny let out a sigh. He flipped the coin to Camille -- who caught it neatly.
"Keep it, kiddo," he said. "You've earned it. I'm terrible at magic, I guess. Heh. You know who's great at parlor tricks like that? Chloe. No fooling. Those first years when she was doing half-days on the breathing mask? Read a LOT of books to pass the time. Including some stupid stage magic book a maid loaned her. How about it, huh, Jesse? Maybe she could give a witch a run for the money..."
Another opening, Jesse realized. An angel's magic was exactly what they were looking for today, after all. She moved in quickly, to seize the opportunity.
"I wouldn't mind seeing the kind of magic tricks Chloe can do," she suggested. "Perhaps if we retire to Buckingham after lunch...? We had so hoped to see her again during this vacation..."
"No can do, afraid. Friends of the Crown or not... Buckingham is on complete lockdown," Benny said. "Complete lockdown. Thanks to her charity efforts, L'Anonyme's got it in their head that Chloe's their 'guardian angel,' which is unsettlingly not too far from the truth... but the Ascendancy is concerned that with all the protests out there, she could be in danger if she faces her public. So. Edward and Chloe are not leaving Buckingham, and are not receiving guests."
"A bastille, then," Gilbert recognized.
"Funny. No, the Ascendancy has made it perfectly clear that she is not under house arrest, Gilbert. This is for her protection. The palace guard's been augmented with Ascendancy guards. You'd have to be insane and/or suicidal to try to break in there and make away with England's guardian angel, I'd say. Like, crazy enough to step in a bear trap just to prove your leg's made of sterner stuff sort of crazy."
Let my enemy see me coming. Let him know that it was I who crushed his every effort, thwarted his every trap. Let him know that his best was not enough to stop me...
The battle of words was over. And the soldiers behind Benny didn't even realize they had lost; they seemed vaguely bored from listening to this pointless smalltalk.
But the communication to Jesse's ears was clear enough. Benny was really saying: I'm playing along with the Ascendancy to buy time and keep Chloe safe. They're holding her prisoner at Buckingham. I want you to rescue her. She can help you stop them. All I've ever wanted is to keep her safe. Help me.
And then the food arrived, and the rest was conversational smoke screen, as the Family of Gears worked with Benny to further bore his wardens into submission.
Benny apologized again that he couldn't spend any more time with them -- matters of state, coordination with the Ascendancy, meetings with the seven corporate heads, and so on. By the end of the week he'd be returning to the United Nations, to work with Ascendancy specialists that were integrating with the Eastusa government. Too much to do, too little time.
Too many things to do to help the enemy, just to keep them from hurting Chloe. Chloe, who was likely kept under lock and key for the same reason that she was so valuable to the rebellion's efforts... she was an angel. Her domain was that of saving souls, while the Ascendancy destroyed them. Same reason they were keeping a short leash on Benny.
For the rest of the day -- after sending Jeeves back to watch over the ship -- the family toured London, seeing the sights, playing the role of the unimportant visiting dignitaries. They were just boring and typical enough that hopefully, the Ascendancy would stop being interested in following them, either overtly or clandestinely. Just another noble couple who wanted to indulge in the tourist traps of the empire, having completed their official business.
On a double decker bus tour, Jesse cast a silence glamour, learned from Nelliwyn a few years back. That combined with the whine of the bus's electric engine -- a recent development, as they had been modernizing under the pact made with Benny and Chloe -- would be enough to give them a moment to chat.
"You know what we have to do, correct?" Jesse asked her husband, while looking at a glossy map of London.
"Find some way to break into the reinforced security of Buckingham, and make off with the Crown Princess? Most certainly," Gilbert agreed in advance. "Although... we'll have a rather difficult time getting away with that. Even assuming we can figure out some way in, figuring out a way out and past the border patrol with royal cargo may be impossible. At least, impossible to do while maintaining our neutrality..."
"You think I fear the risks?"
"I think you have every right to fear the risks, love. Put the bravado aside and admit the truth, now. You're just as concerned as I am..."
He spared a glance to Camille, who was busy playing with a plastic model of Big Ben that transformed into a robot warrior.
Jesse wanted to immediately rebuke it, to speak with determination.
And she couldn't.
What felt like ages ago, Gilbert faced this same dilemma. Move forward into the unknown, and risk life and limb... or take what you love most and seek safe haven? It was even in similar circumstances, a planned invasion of Buckingham. He'd stalled, unable to work past that block, until Jesse pointed out that what he loved most had no future unless they charged forward into the danger...
Despite being the one to give him that lesson... she wasn't sure she could educate herself on that subject, this time.
She had a daughter. She had a House. She had a stable and satisfying life, after so many years of struggle and strife. She had everything she ever wanted, and could be throwing it away if she went ahead on some foolhardy adventure. If Jesse paid the harsh price of failure... she would not pay it alone.
But the consequences for avoiding the risk were the same today as they were that day. Then, they risked facing the guns of the British Empire, eventually destroying their lives if they didn't fight back. Today, they faced the Ascendancy, which would no doubt purge this world and burn their souls away if they didn't gleefully help in their own purge...
"Camille? Allow me to posit a scenario," Jesse spoke up after lowering the silence spell, to get her daughter's attention. "It's lesson time."
"Mmm? What, Mother?" she asked, trying to flex her toy robot's elbow back into place, so it'd turn into a clock tower again.
"A bully says he's going to take away all your toys. You could fight him, but he's strong; he may very well beat you, and take your toys anyway. But if you don't fight him, he'll definitely take away your toys. Which would you prefer to do? Fight, or not fight?"
"Well, that's just stupid, Mother," the girl said. "If he's gonna take your toys either way, fight him. At least then you might get to keep your toys. Why do you ask? Do you think someone wants my clock robot? I'll strike him down where he stands! Ha! Have at you, evil robot thief!"
Jesse offered her daughter a loving scruffle of her golden locks.
"I believe Camille has answered for me," she said, to her husband. "We will not let the Ascendancy take our clock robot without a fight."
After sufficient smokescreen had been laid down in the form of seeing the sights, the Family of Gears returned to their home away from home.
True to his word, Benny had asked the armed guards at the docks to leave them be. They were now a non-concern; with any luck, between Jesse's friendly teatime chat with Lar and their supposedly boring lunch with the Broker, the Ascendancy had written them off completely.
Still, she was glad they chose to leave Jeeves behind... not only would he continue to tidy up the ship from its time in mothballs while they toured London, but he had been outfitted with sensors of Orbital make over the last few years. Gilbert had initially been resistant to upgrading his AutoButler, as the mystique of J33-VES relied on the strange combination of archaic clockwork and angelic steam, but Jesse pointed out that he'd be a far better nanny for their daughter if he were capable of detecting threats using something more modern than his single monocular input. This also gave him an advantage in their situation -- if the Ascendancy had bugged their ship, he would know.
He would certainly know if an intruder of unknown intent had come aboard the ship through the fireplace. Which was in fact what happened. Which explained his agitation, given the nature of that intruder.
The fellow was sitting comfortably by the fireplace in the Great Hall, sipping delicately from a flask. Jeeves had refused to bring their guest refreshments, instead deciding to loom in a menacing manner, daring the man to make a single move of an unacceptable nature.
When they entered from below decks, he waved them over in greeting.
"Gilbert! Jesse! Man, it's been, what, ten years?" the King of Pain asked. "You never call, you never write..."
"Camille, go to your room," Jesse immediately ordered.
The little girl blinked in puzzlement at this mismatch of friendly greeting and cold shoulder. "Mother?" she asked. "Who is this?"
"Grown up business, dear. Go play with your toys and we'll have supper ready soon."
One tap of her mother's foot on the wooden floor was enough to send Camille scurrying, albeit reluctantly. Further tapping was not required.
The beatnik demon in the armchair screwed a tiny cap back on his flask, returning it to one of the many pockets in his coat. Unlike Benny's coat, this one would undoubtedly be of true demonic origin, and come packing all manner of objects nefarious and unpleasant.
Truthfully, they hadn't interacted with this man much, the last time they saw him. He was a professional acquaintance of Benny the Broker... possibly a friend, although few in his line of work liked to consider anyone a friend. Demons looked for leverage the way a man in the desert looks for a refreshing beverage, and that went doubly so for anyone in their chain of infernal command. Plying the soul from a mortal's hands in exchange for trinkets was amusing work, but jockeying for position in Hell took a far sterner approach.
And that meant no matter how little Jesse knew this man, she knew enough to know he couldn't be trusted.
"Trust me, I'm here on friendly business," the King of Pain insisted, putting up his hands, in mock surrender. "One of Benny's dead man's switches fired, so, here I am. The question I have no answer to, however, is 'Why am I here?'"
"Infernal," Jeeves warned, before they could barter any deals for their souls, or anything of that sort.
"Yes, we know, Jeeves old man," Gilbert agreed. "Question is, why didn't you throw him overboard?"
The butler's moustache twitched lightly on its bolted axis. "...behaved," he offered.
"Exactly! Very well behaved, as you can see. I'm not here to trash the place or ask you to sell your daughter or anything crass like that," Pain insisted. "I just came in through the fire, explained I was here on behalf of Benny the Broker, and had a seat to wait for the man of the house to get here. So. Why did Benny the Broker just pay me three and a half million pounds to pay you a visit, Gilbert Gearhaus...?"
Gilbert cocked his head to the side, confused. "I'm sorry, but... what? I'm afraid you're going to have to back up a bit. You're saying Benny hired you to help us?"
"Yes and no," Pain said, crossing his legs, enjoying the comfort of the leather armchair. "See, we have an arrangement. He's got a series of dead man's switches... sequences of events that will trigger if he doesn't check in with certain contacts in certain ways. It's designed to allow him to call in favors if he's ever in a position where he's in trouble. I woke up this morning to find a considerable sum of money wired into my account, with a short message... 'Meet Gilbert Gearhaus.' I can only assume he's in trouble, and somehow I can assist you in assisting him. My fee is paid; I am your demonic resource to use as he requires, as per our arrangement. So. What's Benny gotten himself into now?"
The Gearhaus fellow offered a wry smirk. "Clever fellow, that Benny. Clever indeed. Indeed, we could use your assistance! Can you help us break into Buckingham Palace and rescue Chloe from the Ascendancy?"
"No," the good doctor replied.
"...ah. I see. Well. Is it a question of money? We can supplement the stipend, if need be--"
"No, as in I have no idea how to do that, sorry. I'm a medicine man, not a commando," the King of Pain pointed out. "Violence is a bad trip, man. Not my bag. Is there something more sex-and-drugs I can help you with instead? Or is this to do with my primary line of work?"
Jesse, who had been quietly considering the situation before her, decided to throw her hat in into the ring.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, but Chloe doesn't fully understand or command her angelic nature," she suggested. "So even if we do rescue her, she may have no idea how she can help us counter the Ascendancy's power source--"
"The stolen souls, right, babe?" Pain interjected.
"...you will never refer to me as 'babe' again unless you desire to spend your fee on the applesauce you will be drinking through a straw after after the doctors wire your broken jaw shut," Jesse suggested. "Secondly: how do you know about that?"
The demon made little horns with his index fingers.
"Man of wealth and taste, remember?" he said. "I used to barter souls for a living. I know more than enough to know a soul phylactery when I see one, and those new batteries the Ascendancy's using to modernize the Brits sure do look like 'em, ba-- Jesse. Sure, I went into business for myself when I got yoinked here by Pandora, and souls don't pay the earthly bills... but give me some credit for remembering how the shtick works. And yes, I know about how angelic power works, too. I've played both sides of the fence in my days."
"Hmph. Well... then you apparently will be the ideal candidate for helping Chloe learn how to counter those 'soul phylacteries.' That is what Benny hired you for, unless I am missing the mark."
The King nodded, in agreement. "THAT I can certainly do," he agreed. "That's all mixtures and rituals and processes. I'm a man of science, not a soldier. Make love, not war. So! You two enjoy your daring midnight raid, and if you survive, I'll do my part. Meanwhile, what's a guy gotta do to get a beer around here? Or some good hash?"
Gilbert scratched at his chin, thinking the problem over. "Leaves us at square one on said daring midnight raid, it seems," he stated. "I doubt we can sneak in during a high society party again, as well. Very well. What we're going to need are detailed blueprints of the palace, and some intelligence on troop rotations and patrol patterns. This may take some time, as no doubt they have technological counters to snooping--"
"Didn't Benny leave you a map?" Pain asked.
"A map? I rather think his handlers would have noticed him passing us blueprints under the table."
"He probably gave you a map. No way he'd leave this all to you, not with his sister on the line. Not his style," the man said. "I don't care if he has gone soft and taken a civil service job, he can still play hardball. He didn't give you a pin by any chance, did he? It's one of his oldest tricks."
The couple stared at the King, not quite getting it.
Rolling his eyes, the former celestial explained slowly, as if to a child.
"How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? You've never heard that one?" he asked. "People say the devil's in the details, but that's only because devils come from angels, and nobody does fine detail work better than angels. They did invent the laws of quantum physics, remember. Ben'ai used to pass notes in class by etching them microscopically on the tip of a soft metal pin. So. Did he give you any pins? Or anything metal?"
Getting Camille to cough up one of her many prizes of conquest (a.k.a. souvenirs) from today's trip was difficult enough. Much as Benny had said in regards to the L'Anonyme meme, taking a toy away from a child was difficult indeed -- made doubly difficult by the curt way they had sent her to her room minutes previous.
"Uncle Benny gave it to me, that means it's mine, and you just told me I shouldn't let bullies take my things," Camille protested.
"Dear, I'm not a bully, I'm your father. I'm a nice guy, yes?" Gilbert offered. "Come on, now. Be a sport. I'll give you three coins in exchange for your one! You'd be coming out ahead!"
"No I won't! I'll just be rich and bored, like mommy's High Fae friends. And I don't wanna sit around my room, bored, either! You're planning an adventure, aren't you? I was listening. Auntie Chloe's in trouble and you're gonna rescue her."
"Ah... that is the idea, yes, of course--"
"I want to help!" Camille said. "I want to go on a grand adventure, like you went on in Westusa! Or when you went to London and helped that angel!"
"What? Oho! Love, I'm afraid you're not quite old enough for that yet," he said, with a smile. "I admire your spirit, though! Tell you what -- once we're done here and we go home, we'll go camping or something. Maybe we'll see a wild wyvern! That's adventurous, isn't it?"
"S'not the same," the girl said, with a pout. "That's just being eaten by mosquitoes and sitting around in tents. That's not a proper adventure..."
After much coaxing, cajoling, and finally Mother putting her foot down to put an end to Gilbert's attempts at negotiation, they ended up confiscating Camille's property. True to his word, she got three coins in return, but didn't seem happy about it. Nor was she happy with being told to stay in her room for the evening.
Rich and bored.
The Clockwork Mermaid was a musty old ship. Its rooms were tiny, not like her expansive bedroom back home, with the princess bed and the toy boxes. She had barely any toys here, just a few she'd tossed in a suitcase on the way out the door.
Although... she fingered one of her prized possessions, previously buried under piles of clean underwear, with interest.
With the situation being handled neatly by the Gearhaus family, their demonic conscript retired to a guest room in the Clockwork Mermaid, to "get super high." He had nothing further to offer until they had an angelic being in tow, with whom he could craft an anti-Ascendancy superweapon, after all.
That left the remaining wee hours of the evening to decode the mysteries of Benny's gift... the coin, which hopefully would bear some fruit beyond being the subject of a poorly handled parlor trick.
Being the sort of fellow who would keep a scanning electron microscope tucked away in the engine room of his luxury vacation craft, Gilbert used his scanning electron microscope to examine the coin.
After ratcheting his smile up a few notches, he invited his wife to take a peek through the scope.
"Looks like a complete blueprint of Buckingham Palace," he explained. "Benny etched it onto the coin. A complete blueprint... including all the Post-Pandora additions, like the basement facility where they held Raphael. There's even annotations describing the patrol routes the Ascendancy guards take, including hourly rotation schedules. You're right. When Benny the Broker steps up the plate, he indeed plays hardball."
"Impressive... but we've still work to do, to interpret this and make a plan," Jesse considered, reading the microscopic sentences like guard usually steals sandwiches here and popular spot to loiter and chat between patrol cycles. "Even with these notes, getting in and out may be difficult. And there's always unforeseen human factors... hmmh. What I wouldn't give to have Nelliwyn on this trip. I lack her talent at stealth..."
"Didn't Nel give Cammy a glamour amulet for her birthday?" Gilbert asked. "Perhaps we could use that to disguise ourselves as guards? With this map, we could easily follow their routines and blend in..."
Despite once being able to detangle the quantum linguistics behind Fae spells... her husband still was lacking a basic understanding of much in the way of magical mechanics. Jesse shook her head, turning his idea down flat.
"It's a child's toy, dear," she explained. "It's not powerful enough to throw a disguise over a full-grown adult, much less two of them plus one giant clanking robot. And please tell me you aren't planning to bring your giant clanking robot with us on a stealth operation..."
"It'd be handy to have him if this becomes a fight, but... no, of course not. I'll have him babysit Cammy," he agreed. "After all... and I know you don't want to even think about this... if we don't come back from this mission, she's going to need a guardian to get her through this troublesome chapter of human history. That gentlebot raised me better than anyone, and I trust him to do the same with her, if need be."
A sharp pang, in Jesse's heart. Another worry.
It wasn't cowardice, but it was fear. She had so much to lose, now... the price of failure wasn't simply humiliation and defeat, but the end to everything she had in life. There was no choice, that was obvious now -- the Ascendancy would not take their clock robot, and all -- but the thought that she wouldn't even have the few years she had remaining to see her daughter grow and become an adult...
"We will have to succeed. That's all there is," she said. "I agree with leaving her in his capable mechanical hands, but... we will succeed. We will."
"At least Benny left us a terrific starting point. With this, I can plan our entry and exit, and minimize the chances we'll run into anyone," Gilbert said, shutting down the scanner, for now. He pocketed the coin, stepping away from his workbench. "I'll transcribe this to paper tomorrow and start calculating out an optimal strategy. With any luck, we'll be ready to go at nightfall..."
Something green caught his eye.
Curious, he peered behind the workbench, at a leafy potted plant.
"Dear, when you asked Jeeves to tidy up this old bucket of bolts... did you did also ask him to decorate my greasy, clattery, noisy, wonderfully mechanical engine room with a fern or two?" Gilbert asked.
"No, but I wouldn't doubt he took the initiative himself," Jesse said, uninterested. "He tries so hard to make us happy. Rather like a giant, shiny puppy dog. ...I tire. Let's get some rest. I want that brain of yours working at full strength in the morning on this, after a good night's sleep and a filling breakfast."
"Right! ...and perhaps some hanky panky?" Gilbert suggested, eager.
"Maybe after we save the world. Consider it your reward for a job well done."
"As you wish, my mistress!"
With a shared chuckle, the two walked out of the engine room, closing the door behind them.
Twenty minutes later, a potted plant nervously turned the door handle, and slipped away of its own accord.
The difficult part to planning a kidnapping while on vacation is making your kidnapping look like a vacation. Difficult, but not impossible -- in fact, Gilbert had spent most of the evening working on that problem (instead of enjoying the hanky panky he sought). It'd take a number of errands, all in the guise of ordinary shopping and sightseeing, but in the end all the pieces would be in place for their grand adventure!
Except this time, they didn't bring their daughter with them. There was an agreement that it was too dangerous to take her along, just in case the interdimensional Praetorian guard figured out what they were up to. Jeeves was under strict orders to make a break for their chosen exit, child in tow, if they didn't return from their errands in time. As for the independent contractor on board their ship, one book of matches and a fireplace would allow him to fend for himself.
Which meant that Lady Camille Runeblade-Gearhaus was home alone, with a celestial robot and a demonic drug fiend, and incredibly bored despite how interesting that might've sounded to anyone else. Once again, they'd left her behind.
Camille did not share her best friend's attitude towards these sort of scenarios. Susie Moonthistle was taught at an early age that her parents were stuck with a heavy responsibility -- one they may not have asked for, but one they would see through to the end. That meant they would leave her behind quite often, off on business trips and occasional adventures. Susie was okay with that, content to sit at home and be as ordinary as possible. Meant more time for her to work on her webcomic, too. But for Camille... she had her mother's blood in her veins. She wanted to take action, not inaction.
That meant when she saw a chance to slip away, while Jeeves was busy packing up books and other valuables for transport, she jumped at the opportunity. And sought out the only intriguing thing left on the Clockwork Mermaid.
He literally had his hand in the cookie jar when she caught him in the galley.
"Uh. Sorry, kiddo. Munchies," the King of Pain explained. And offered her one of his stolen confections. "Here, peace offering. I won't tell if you won't."
Camille nodded, entering a pact with the demon to protect the secret of the cookie theft -- which she could use as blackmail leverage at a later point, if she chose to.
"You're a devil, aren't you? Like the bad guy that Susie let out a long time ago?" she asked, after nibbling at the edge of the cookie.
"Technically, although I haven't checked in with the boys below in a long time. ...you probably shouldn't be talking to me. I probably shouldn't be talking to you. I don't like the way your butler glares at me. --how did you manage to evade him, anyway?"
"I want to talk with you. You're a mystery and those are cool."
"Yeah, well, it's all scary mysteries up here. I'd rather not enrage your parents by making it so you can't sleep at night for like, ever. So I think I'm just gonna scoot along now--"
"If you don't talk with me I'll scream and tell Jeeves you tried to eat my soul," Camille warned. "And that you stole a cookie."
The King of Pain paused, in the middle of trying to find a way to edge around the girl, who was blocking his path. He glanced at the door to the Great Hall, where no doubt the steam-powered monstrosity was lying in wait... and decided to err on the side of caution.
"Fine, fine, we're talking," he said. "But this is seriously harshing my buzz, kid. What do you wanna talk about?"
"Does the Ascendancy really eat souls like devils do in order to make Cold Fun?"
"Okay, look, let's get one thing on the record here," the King said, putting a hand firmly down on the galley counter. "Because I won't put up with slander like that. Demons do not eat souls. Not the way the Ascendancy does. --wait, how do you know what the Ascendancy does?"
"I listen. Mom and dad talk all the time about things, and assume I'm not paying attention, or that I can't hear them. But I'm good at listening," Camille said, with some pride. "Mom always says the best way to defeat your enemy is to know them, and you have to listen to their voice and their body to know what they're saying."
"And your parents are the enemy, are they?"
"Sometimes. Like bathtimes and bedtimes. You're deflecting my inquiry, Mr. Devil. So how do demons eat souls?"
The King, resigned to his doom of talking about this with a kid who hadn't even reached double digits yet, decided to grab the nearest chair and have a seat to lay some truths down.
"We don't eat souls," he explained. "We barter for them and keep them and... do stuff with them. But we don't eat souls and we don't steal souls. All the souls we get were given to us freely. Usually by complete idiots, and we do trick them a bit, but... they made their choices and always had a chance to say no. And we don't destroy that soul, not like the Ascendancy does. Frankly, I find the idea of it completely disgusting, and that's saying something coming from one of the most evil people you'll ever meet."
"I don't think you're evil. I think you're just not a nice person."
The demon cocked his head, trying that distinction on for size. Perhaps it was just his lingering mellow, but it seemed to fit. Normally he'd protest and insist he was totally evil and super evil and you-take-that-back, but...
He tried to refocus his thoughts. This was a wilier mortal than he was prepared to handle right now.
"My point is that... yes, the Ascendancy have managed to get their hands on immortal souls using some sick mix of science and magic. True, immortal, eternal, for-reals souls. The ones you read about in bible camp, or wiccan camp, or whatever camp you go to. And they're eating those souls right up, obliterating them. And man, that is SUCH a complete waste of a quality soul, you know? Upstairs, downstairs, we can both agree on that fact. ...hey. You wanna know a secret?"
"I like secrets. Can I ply it as leverage later?"
"What's the secret?"
"What I just told you. That's the secret," the King of Pain said. "Mortals aren't supposed to have confirmation of the existence of the immortal soul. Angels are forbidden from telling them anything about how things work, because these things are supposed to be matters of faith. Granted, there's a LOT about the souls they're harming that even the Ascendancy can't comprehend... but peeking behind the curtain like this and getting some of that truth? BIIIIG secrets. Even Benny couldn't tell you this stuff anymore."
"Well, duh. Because Benny's an angel. But you're a devil, so you can tell me anything!"
"Smart kid. I think that's why he wants me to work with you... I can do whatever I want. And that means I can help you fight the Ascendancy--"
"A-ha!" the kid said, pointing to him, in a 'gotcha!' gesture. "That means you're not evil. If you were evil, you wouldn't help us."
"Uh... no. I'm helping you because Benny paid me a disgusting amount of money, kid. That's avarice and is one of the seven deadlies."
"Wrong! You could've stolen the money and done nothing, like you stole that cookie I totally saw you steal. But you're helping us. You can do whatever you want, you said! And you hate the Ascendancy and really like souls, so you WANT to help and just needed an excuse. Called it! Not evil! You are defeated, by me! I am so GOOD at this!"
The King of Pain was probably about to protest.
The sound of the wooden galley door slamming open hard enough to crack the old walnut interrupted what he might or might not have done.
"Infernal," the AutoButler warned, his monocle glowing with the borrowed power of an earthborn angel.
"It's okay, Jeeves, he's not evil," Camille declared, pleased with herself. "He's just not very nice. But he did not steal any cookies. Now, then! I shall return to my room and play quietly until it's time to go. Goodbye, Mr. Devil."
The girl somehow found a way past Jeeves, despite the bulk of his metal form filling the doorway.
Pinned under that gaze, the demon swallowed. Hard. And only breathed in relief when the butler was done glaring him down, returning to guarding over his master's progeny.
Well, I'm sober now, the King of Pain thought drearily. What a terrifying child. If this is the sort of mortal that's getting pumped out of ovaries these days, I pity the Ascendancy.
And maybe her parents.
With all the errands handled, all the arrangements made, all the goods transported to and fro, and a thick cloak of London nightfall to work within... it was time for the grand finale of the family vacation.
Three would stay behind, of course -- their daughter, their suspicious companion, and the one they trusted to look after both of them. They would remain, while Mommy and Daddy went off to indirectly save the world.
This merited extra hugs, of course, to both placate the child and reassure the parents.
"We'll be back within an hour and a half," Jesse promised, after one more hug than she should have gone for if she wanted to look strong in front of her daughter. "Remain strong. When we return, we will have Auntie Chloe with us. Won't that be enjoyable?"
"As you say, Mother," Camille responded.
"I know you're upset with us, dear. I know you want to help. But right now, the best thing you can do is stay at the Mermaid with Jeeves. If you need anything -- milk, sandwiches, hot chocolate, a latte -- just ask him. This'll be over before you know it, and in the morning, we'll be home. Okay?"
"As you say, Mother."
Gilbert nervously glanced to his pocket watch. "Don't want to rush it, love, but... the mechanisms and chemicals will only be viable for another two hours, and we've a schedule to keep, so..."
Reluctantly, Jesse rose from taking a knee to hold her daughter... and nodded firmly, ready to face what was ahead.
And then they were gone.
Camille sat on a chair that was slightly too tall for her, watching the clock across the room. Swinging her feet. Waiting.
Five minutes would be enough.
"Mr. Demon?" she called out, to get the King of Pain's attention, distracting him from playing with napkins.
The light grinding of brass gears indicated Jeeve's displeasure at her talking to him, but she ignored it.
"I want to show you a neat trick," Camille declared, hopping off her chair. "Jeeves, you may assist me in this matter..."
The King glanced at her metal companion, unsure if he liked where this was going. "Kid, uh--"
"Mr. Demon, did you know that Jeeves has a very, very special button hidden on his back?" she asked. "I read all about last night, in the manual Father keeps in the Clockwork Mermaid's engine room. A button that's right HERE!"
Bouncing lightly on her toes to reach, she poked at the hidden switch. It had been moved once already, after it was used to disable Jeeves, during their last trip overseas -- moved, but not removed, as it was still needed in case of a dangerous steam buildup that could damage him.
The AutoButler's monocle widened in surprise... and then slowly irised itself closed, as his body slumped forward.
Whistling a merry tune, Camille moved quickly, to raid a nearby broom closet. For a broom. She had to move fast, before anybody else could stop her from carrying out her plan...
"I'll be going now, Mr. Demon," she declared. "I suggest not turning him back on. He vents steam when you do that, and Benny told me demons hate his steam. Bye!"
"Whoa, whoa, wait--!"
"Hm?" Camille asked, firing up the broom flight enchantment on her junior spell monocle, getting her transport ready. "Did you want to stop me? Thought you were a bad guy. Bad guys don't care what happen to little girls."
He was still trying to figure out how evil he was supposed to be tonight by the time she jumped onto the broom, and sailed out the front door.
...okay, so. Kid gone, he assessed. And I can't exactly fly. No wings. Not even cool leathery bat wings. Could turn on the robot and jump back before getting nuked by angelic steam, but he might blame me for this. I could get someone else's help... and potentially wreck their plans more than they're already wrecked...
He regarded the quiet of the room. There were resources he could draw on here, people he could call on, but... if there was one thing demons approved of, it was the free will of man. Granted that they approved of it because it meant man could be convinced to cough up precious souls, but...
Let the kid sort her own problems out, and I'll deal with my own, he decided. If this goes south, I can set the place on fire and run for it. ...but I think I'll root for her. It's safer than rooting against her.
Breaking into Buckingham Palace was going to be considerably easier this time around. Last time, they had to sneak in with a crowd during a very specific event. This time... all they had to do was crawl on hands and knees down a half mile of disused steam piping.
Nobody in England outside of a select few knew about the true purpose of Buckingham. For two hundred years, it housed a facility designed explicitly to "contain" a wayward archangel... one connected to an elaborate series of pipes, which fed into numerous refineries around London, which in turn supplied all the aetheric steam production plants around the empire.
This one pipeline was the original source, running in secret beneath the city, and connecting to a basement that appeared on no blueprint save one. A blueprint etched onto the back of a coin, by Benny the Broker.
Even before he looked at the map, Gilbert knew this was the way to get in. It hadn't been used in years; Benny had been weaning them off steam power for a decade now, using his sister's breath in sparing amounts. Nowadays steam was only produced by special order of the Crown, for ceremonial uses. For instance, sending a few barrels overseas to power a friend's AutoButler.
With the Ascendancy in town, and their fear of the power Chloe carried in her breath, they'd certainly have shut down the works. But no reason to disconnect anything... right now, the only feed into this system was from a breathing mask, in the royal bedroom. Yank that from the wall, and you're done. Why bother doing anything with the huge maze of pipes beneath the ground?
Why bother closing off an access route that would allow an enemy to crawl in from below, emerge in a tertiary kitchen, and infiltrate your royal prison?
It was a gamble, granted. But knowing the psychology of the Ascendancy, one worth taking. Plus, it afforded Gilbert a rather lovely view.
After all, he'd insisted on going second, as they crawled through pipes from the disused refinery all the way to Buckingham.
His wife glanced over her shoulder, frowning lightly at the lens that bobbed lightly behind her lovely behind.
"Would you put that ridiculous thing away, please?" she requested. "This is a stealth mission, not a stag film shoot."
"Now now, I paid good coin for this personal filmer today," Gilbert protested, zooming in a little to get all the details. For the record. "And this is the closest I'm going to get to proper vacation snaps on this trip. I promise I'll put it away when we reach the palace."
"Wish I could have worn my Fae battle dress instead of this ridiculous spandex catsuit you bought me. Not only would it have a better chance of deflecting an energy blast, but you would have less cause to drool over my backside..."
"Wouldn't do, I'm afraid. Faerie steel, clattering off the pipes? What a racket that would make!"
"Yes. My chatty husband makes more than enough racket by himself--"
"Shhh," Gilbert hissed, quickly.
"Don't you shush me, you--"
"Shh. Something's wrong," he said, adjusting the lens on his miniature camera, quickly. "I hear something..."
Briefly, Jesse considered drawing her blade. It had been secured in a velvet sheath, to minimize any noise... but in this confined space, hand to hand combat would be difficult--
The sound of their crawling (and arguing) was well known to her ears, by this point. But there was a third source of noise, now...
Quickly, Gilbert twisted around, looking through the camera... at the empty pipe behind them.
"Cammy, take off that silly glamour amulet, please," he requested. "You know it's not strong enough to hide you from indirect view through a mechanical lens."
Rather than sheepishly remove the amulet and plead for mercy... Camille decided to approach the situation in a manner befitting one of the historical mantras from father's research into ancient computer culture.
Specifically, she revealed herself like a boss.
With a single flip of the wrist, the amulet was over her head and into a pocket. Her look -- half defiance, half confidence, and half absolute self-assuredness -- said she was here to get down to business, and possibly take it to the limit.
"Mother. Father. I am here to assist in saving the world," she declared.
"You're grounded until you're twenty-six," Gilbert declared.
"I will accept this punishment, and will add 'no dessert for six years' if you take me with you," she added. "And if you don't then you'll be delayed too long making sure I go back and won't be able to save Aunt Chloe and then everyone will be sad and I think Mr. Demon will run away and that won't help anyone, so I may as well come with you."
"Young lady, this is not a negotiation--"
"We need to get moving," Jesse decided.
"--excuse me? Moving? With her?" Gilbert asked. "I thought you especially were concerned about--"
Jesse studied her daughter through a cold, analytical gaze... and, to her credit, the girl did not flinch or withdraw. Lady Camille held her ground.
"We all have something to lose," Jesse understood. "Including her. This isn't just about our fears and what we could lose, Gilbert. And if she's like me, she won't accept anything less than to fight for what she wants in life. --Camille. This is the last time I will ask this question, so answer in a manner befitting an heir to the proud Runeblade-Gearhaus family. If you do not have conviction, absolute conviction, you must withdraw. ...are you ready for this?"
"Mother... I am here to kick ass, and chew bubblegum," Camille declared. "And I have brought plenty of bubblegum with me."
To emphasize the point, a pink sphere inflated, and popped upon her grimace of absolute willpower.
"We need to get moving, then," Jesse declared. "Once we are in the palace, Camille, absolute silence. Say nothing. Follow our lead and our gestures. And we will be gone before our enemy even realizes we were there."
The glass dome was still there, in the dark of Buckingham's basement. Nobody had bothered dismantling it; the entire angelic prison facility was pointless now, after all.
Once upon a time, his enemies hid within it, using sonic weaponry to try and stop them. There was nothing they could do to disable the weapon or attack their foes. Jesse had just exhausted herself by doing something no witch had ever done before, redirecting a hail of live gunfire with magic. For most, there would be no conceivable way out the scenario.
Gilbert Gearhaus was not most people. He quickly recognized the resources he had on hand, the personalities of those involved, and traced a route to victory through a tangled network of countermeasures. He used nonverbal signals to move his piece into play, a stealthed agent, to break one little window. Even that wouldn't be enough; he had to know exactly which pane of glass in the near-invulnerable dome to target. He had to study the entire structure, and within seconds, understand what had to be done.
Even without actively inhaling angelic steam, his mind was a sharpened razor. Sharp enough to cleave a molecule in twain. Plenty sharp enough to adjust his plans for two intruders rather than three, without having to abandon Plan A. Not yet, anyway.
Having their daughter along honestly did not increase the risk factors. The risk factors were already sky high, after all. Also, they were planning to exit with two civilians, who would be little more than cargo when it came to a combat scenario. Chloe might have been an angel, but she lacked Benny's aeons of experience in the role. Prince Edward was clever for pampered royalty, but not a soldier. Their job was to keep the royal couple safe all the way to the Mermaid, and adding one more head to the cargo count, even if it was Camille, wouldn't change that plan.
"Plan A," Gilbert mumbled to himself.
"Still?" Jesse asked -- keeping her voice low, as they worked their way up the winding staircase, away from the room they were trapped in, long ago. "My spell may not effectively cover three, for the duration required. It takes great concentration. We may end up dropping back to Plan B..."
"Only if we're seen, which is not likely, given Benny's attention to detail on that map. For the benefit of the one coming along with us, let me briefly cover Plan A," he said aloud, for Camille. "Plan A is to use our knowledge of the patrol routes to remain completely undetected, being everywhere the patrols are not. The route is long and winding, but will avoid all contact with the enemy. Jesse's silence glamour will muffle our footsteps even if we can't be completely invisible. We reach Chloe and Edward's bedroom, wind our way back down to the kitchen, and out the way we came. Escape back to the Clockwork Mermaid, and we're gone."
"Huh?" Camille asked, trying to mesh those ideas with what she had seen of their activities today. "But I thought we weren't going to--"
"Plan A is the best plan, but if it fails, yes, there's Plan B," Gilbert added. "Or, if we're very unlucky, Plan C. I'll explain those plans if we get to them. And I am not the sort who believes that, dramatically speaking, the existence of Plan C means its inevitability. So, Plan A, until I say otherwise. That means you, little one, stay at your mother's apron strings and make as little noise as possible. We can do this without a fight, if we are swift and silent. Understood?"
The child nodded, slowly, as she climbed the stairs behind them. "I will not fail, Father," she boasted. "I will be as silent as a churchmouse."
And if you aren't silent, if anything does goes wrong... we will still win, Gilbert didn't add. Because then he'd feel compelled to add, and I hope you will not blame yourself in the years to come for what your parents will have to sacrifice in order to win.
The spiral stair ended here, at the secret door, behind a refrigerator in a basement kitchen. Here on out was enemy territory... guarded, patrolled, watched over for exactly this reason.
Gilbert pressed a finger to his lips. His wife cast the glamour spell, holding her focus on it, using it beyond the scope of simple conversational privacy as she had done on a tourist bus one day previous.
This was her opportunity, Camille recognized. A chance to stand on equal footing with her parents, as a brilliant adventurer, as a fearsome witch. As a little bit of both her father and her mother. She flicked through the spells loaded on her monocle, just in case her mighty power would be needed... even if she was hoping it wouldn't be, given about all she could do with her favorite tricks would be to grow lilies for their funerals.
The lines etched on Benny's coin had etched themselves into Gilbert's mind. He'd memorized the entire map, and every annotated detail... which routes the guards took on which evenings, how they covered the entire mansion in an efficient manner. The Ascendancy made sure no area of the building remained uncovered for more than a minute. Which meant they had to take a very complicated path through rooms, down hallways, hiding for precisely 37 seconds within a closet, and so on... all to avoid the enemy.
To start with, they had to wait for an enemy guard to visit the kitchen. That would be the starting time index; after that, using his stopwatch and probability calculations as a guide, they would hopefully never see another one.
Within a minute, their starting guard had arrived at the kitchens.
He paused briefly, to survey the room, while they hid within the secret door. Gilbert peered through the tiniest of cracks, to verify some of his suspicions... to assess his enemy.
(Camille, being much smaller, was able to peek through the crack as well. She wanted to play adventurer, too, and see what Daddy saw.)
Energy rifle, more powerful than the simple personal pistol that Una once carried. Blast shield on his helmet, so headshots wouldn't be effective. Armor designed to deflect basic kinetic projectiles of Suborbital make.
And no jetpack... of course. It would've weighed him down, and been useless indoors. The Ascendancy loved overkill, but they also loved efficiency, and Gilbert had predicted the latter would win out in the end when it came to flight power for an indoor guard.
Good. That'll make Plan C easier. Thinking about Plan C does not make it inevitable. I need to stop thinking about Plan C. I can stop thinking about Plan C whenever I want to. Like right now. Like--
A nudge, at his back. Time to move. He clicked his stopwatch, starting the timer, and moved out. No need to look back; his wife would follow closely. ...he considered checking to make sure Cammy was back there, but had to have faith she would keep up. They didn't have time to constantly double check, not according to the schedule.
Down hallways. Through doors.
Hiding for 37 seconds in a closet.
Up one set of stairs, down another, then up two more.
No guards. The clock was working. Either that or they'd pulled a dozen guards from this assignment, leaving only the first one they saw. Unlikely.
13.7 minutes later, and they were at the royal suite.
No guards at the door. According to Benny's notes, he'd insisted the Ascendancy let the couple sleep in peace without "clanky" metal armor just outside their door, that the patrols would be enough. Benny could be a hell of a negotiator when he needed to be, after all -- he compromised on a few issues, shuffled around some favors, and came out on top. Not enough sway to raise the gate to the prison, but enough to leave the cell door itself unlocked.
They had exactly four minutes to rouse Chloe and Edward and get them ready to go. That would be Gilbert's job, while Jesse stayed very, very still and tried to focus on muffling the noise made by four people. (Now, five.)
The prisoners were dressed and ready to go. Chloe had even packed a small suitcase.
"We've been waiting," Edward mock-scolded.
"Benny got us word that you'd probably be here tonight," Chloe said. "We went to bed in our clothes so they wouldn't notice. Ready to go?"
"...well, yes, but not for another three minutes and thirty four seconds," Gilbert noted. "You're a bit ahead of schedule. We'll have to wait for the next guard to pass by before we can depart."
"Ahh. Alright, then."
Awkward silence between the Crown Prince, his commoner wife, and their rescuers.
"Hi, Auntie Chloe," Camille said, nervously shuffling from foot to foot.
"Right, Lady Camille. I'm a bit surprised to, um, see you here..."
"I snuck along for the trip because I wanted to keep Mommy and Daddy safe and because they wouldn't let me have any fun and stuff."
"I say, this IS going to be an adventure then, isn't it?" Edward said, with a smile. "Fun for the whole family. Speaking of which, Gilbert, apparently we have the same mother."
Stunned silence, next.
Gilbert glanced to his pocket watch. "I... don't think you're going to be able to explain that one in the next two and a half minutes, are you."
"Afraid not, big brother," Edward said. "Guess you'll have to make sure we both get out of this alive, then, mmm? A good leader knows how to properly motivate his subjects, you know. And you didn't technically lose your British citizenship, sooo..."
"Does this mean Auntie Chloe really is my Auntie?" Camille asked.
"Focusing. On. Silence Spell. Is HARDER. When you people insist on smalltalk," Jesse pointed out, through gritted teeth.
The remaining two minutes passed in a silence that was both awkward and stunning.
And then they were off.
Doors. Hallways. Wait 37 seconds.
And around the very next corner, a guard standing right where he wasn't supposed to be, with the flame of a cigarette lighter about to touch down to its intended cigarette. And would have, if he hadn't found himself face to face with a gaggle of prisoners and liberators.
Understand where everything went wrong starts three days previous, when Wep was busy pondering if he was interested in obtaining a lung tumor or not.
He'd seen Suborbitals puffing away on their rolled up leaves and papers, confused about what functional purpose the drug delivery mechanism served. He'd seen all the standard media files about Suborbital cultural trends, of course; he knew what cigarettes were, and thus how incredibly stupid smoking them was. Addiction factors, financial burden to maintain the habit, all sorts of negatives.
They were just another incomprehensible nugget of Suborbital life that the Orbitals of the Ascendancy had evolved past. Nothing to worry about.
But there had to be SOMETHING to these strange devices. Ever since arriving in this dimensional variant of England, he'd seen people everywhere smoking the strange things. On street corners, in bars, even in the kitchens of his new assignment at Buckingham Palace.
Wep wasn't afraid of cancer. If he got cancer, they could just initiate a transfer into a clean new cloned body, after all. Why should he be afraid of some silly little Suborbital fixation? He was better than them. He could smoke and it wouldn't mean anything.
Except that his purified Orbital physiology meant that in the span of three days, he'd come from being clean as a whistle to a four pack a day habit in no time at all. And it meant that tonight, on his first patrol, he'd have to duck out of his assigned pattern for a brief moment if he wanted his fix.
For one brief moment, Wep was more humiliated to be caught smoking than he was alarmed at the fact that the princess was about to escape.
That brief moment allowed Jesse to draw her saber from its velvet sheathe, apply a Spellblade enchantment to it, and ram it directly through his chest.
The glowing steel left no true wound -- instead it jammed sheer agony through his nervous system. Many who have been run through by a Spellblade wish they were impaled on an unenchanted rapier instead, rather than subject to THAT sort of "non-lethal" takedown technique. It'd be far less painful, after all.
Her aim was true, pushing the magically insubstantial blade through his lungs, to keep him from being able to scream out.
But he did manage to tap a button on his belt in his agonized fumblings.
The alarms rang out before his unsmoked cigarette hit the carpet.
"Plan B!" Gilbert immediately declared, ducking down low to scoop up the guard's energy rifle for himself. "We run for the kitchen as fast as possible. Jesse on point, I'll call out the hallway turns and which doors to enter before we reach them. And we can't be seen entering the tubes! MOVE!"
He fished a wireless transmitter from his pocket. Getting a powerful enough signal to call through the walls of Buckingham and back to the Clockwork Mermaid was tricky, but he'd managed to cobble together what he needed earlier that day. One push of the button, to start the rest of his plan... to upload the film he'd made with his newly purchased filmer, to get the ship ready for takeoff, to prepare for their grand exit. With that, Plan B was officially underway.
He did modify Plan B in one respect, however. He decided to fire the stolen rifle from his hip, so he could free up one hand to grasp Camille's hand, and never let go. It wasn't a particularly large increase to the risk factors, after all... he wasn't that great of a shot anyway, and was carrying it mostly for intimidation factor. And, well. In case of Plan C.
Turn a hallway, up a staircase, to throw them off. Closing in on all sides.
Blocked. New route needed.
Down a staircase, through a hallway. No chance to pause and wait for guards to pass, not now. Turn here, turn there, double back. That would have to do as a diversionary tactic--
Energy blasts sailing past his head. No sound of agony, so they didn't hit anyone. Good. New route needed.
Down, around, under, through--
Blocked. Jesse plowing through two guards simultaneously, coming in low, catching them both in the replaced space of her blade, skewered like two bits of meat on a kebab.
New route needed.
Based on the previous moments of the guards, and the most likely outcome of their flanking tactics, only one route presented itself. The kitchen was no longer accessible. They wouldn't be going back the way they came.
"Plan C," Gilbert declared.
The only one alarmed by this was Camille, since their two companions didn't know what that meant, and the parents had long ago accepted what it meant.
Jesse picked up a chair and hurled it at a floor-to-ceiling window, shattering the glass. She kicked away some shards at the base, to keep anyone from cutting themselves as they climbed through...
...into the Royal Gardens.
Long ago, they had taken tea here, right after signing the peace treaty that would reorganize the world into an economic warzone rather than a military warzone. The Royal Gardens were a vast, rolling plain of green. Perfect for Easter Egg hunts with toddlers, or the large open air social gatherings of Chloe's book clubs.
Absolutely terrible for making your escape, given there was no cover whatsoever.
Gilbert transferred Camille's hand from his grasp to Chloe's. With his other hand, he pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, and passed it to Edward.
All tasks complete, Gilbert raised the slung energy rifle up to his shoulder, properly aiming at whatever may be following them through the broken window.
"Go to the address I've written down there, and look for the Mermaid," he explained. "You can't miss it. That's your sanctuary. Take our daughter, take your wife, and go right now. Jesse and I will cover for you. GO."
"Excuse me? The two of you against all the guards in the palace?" Edward asked. "That's suicide. Not metaphorical, but quite literal--"
"We'll be fine," Jesse lied. "Leave immediately and keep Camille safe."
Being the daughter of a strategist and a witch, and having some common sense, Camille immediately understood. Two remain to slow down the enemy, while the others flee. A last stand. It'd work brilliantly, except for the part where the two who remained would never come back... and those two were Mommy and Daddy.
"No. No, you can't! You can't stay here and fight!" Camille begged, even as Chloe was trying to pull her away. "There's too many of them, you can't--"
"You know why we have to," Jesse said, trying to stay cold, as cold as she had to be, ready to receive whoever may come. "You have to live, Lady Camille. You--"
"But you don't HAVE to do this! There's another way!"
And Camille turned away sharply, to face away from them... and to the wide open grasses of the Royal Gardens.
At this one moment in her life, at her most desperate and her most confident... she did what no witch her age had ever done before. A thing which required the Word and the Way, but above all, the Will to enact your willpower upon the planet itself and bend it to your liking...
"!" she called out... as her Word. Which, again, was unheard of.
At one point, Gilbert Gearhaus had decoded the art of magic itself, crafting and blending spells together. He still wasn't a spellcaster, having none of the skill, talent, or practice that comes with years and years of training. And technically, neither did Camille. But she was her mother's daughter, of the world of magic... and her father's daughter, of the world of the mind. The arcane mathematics were in her blood, along with a child's stubborn determination. If this was not within her grasp, she would make it be so.
The hedge maze went on for as far as the eye could see, in every direction. It had walls as high as the second floor of Buckingham. Unlike her prior efforts at growing plants by magic... these were true hedges, verdant green, and thick as brambles. Ready to protect them as their creator led her family to safely, through a route and an understanding only she possessed.
...only after that superhuman effort did Camille waver. She at least had the ladylike dignity to collapse in a controlled, graceful manner, having spent all her energy on the spell.
They didn't have time to be amazed at the maze. They had just enough time for Jesse to sheath her blade, lift her daughter's exhausted body, and run into the thick of the green.
But she did have enough time to think, with some pride: My daughter is going to be the Archmagus, one day.
Hrg stared in utter confusion at the sight before him. There wasn't a hedge maze behind the mansion before. And yet, here one was. Sitting there. Mocking him, because somewhere in the middle of that maze was the target and and the ones who snatched and grabbed the target from under his nose.
"Jetpacks," Hrg suggested to his second in command.
(Except that as Gilbert had noticed, they didn't have any. And, for that matter, Camille had noticed the same, when she peeked out alongside him... which is why she knew a hedge maze would work.)
"You, uh... you said we wouldn't need any," Uip said. "So they were prioritized to the Thaumatologists--"
"Get your comm units on active, then," Hrg said, flicking his earlobe to turn on his implant. "I'm going to the fifth floor to study the maze from above. I'll direct you through. I'm a ninety-eight, for crying out loud -- if I can't beat some silly maze and get you to the target, I don't deserve my rating."
He was wheezing by the time he made it up five flights of stairs. Even their elite Ascendancy guard were still Orbitals, after all, and not known for physicality. But he had made it... and from here, he had a perfect vantage point of the maze.
Which was actually worse than he'd feared. Even aside from the scale of the thing, it didn't have an obvious exit... it had SEVEN obvious exits. He had no way of knowing which one the target was going to try to escape through...
So, he analyzed the maze structure. Found the optimal path to the optimal exit. The one who designed the maze obviously would do similar, after all. His men would just have to be faster. Despite not being marathon runners.
"Left. Then a right, then another right," he announced, tracing the lines. "Then a left..."
Turn by turn, he directed them. And, from this angle, through a few gaps in the maze... finally he could see the target. They were indeed following the optimal path, just as he'd expected. He directed his remaining forces to head them off at that exit, confident that this would soon be over -- if they didn't catch up from behind, they would be caught on their way out--
"Sir? Uh. Sir?" his comm unit spoke, with a tinny reproduction sound.
"Do you have them?" Hrg asked.
"We hit a wall."
"No, you didn't. There's a junction ahead, and--"
There was a wall. A wall which wasn't there before.
In fact... there were a LOT of walls which weren't there before. The maze had been changing all this while, restructuring itself... hedges moving around under their own power. He hadn't bothered looking for changes before, since obviously plants were meant to be inanimate...
The exits were different, as well. He'd just directed his men to what was now MORE maze. It grew around them, closing them in.
Finally, the obvious answer presented itself to him. The one that anyone well under a ninety-eight probably should have thought of by that point.
"Open fire," he ordered.
"You have rifles, don't you? Use them, damn you! Cut holes in the walls! Lay waste to everything around you and find the target! I don't care if she has to be taken alive or not, they are NOT going to beat me!"
The flickering glow of fire within the maze, from his high vantage point, was satisfying. He directed which way for them to go, slicing holes towards the target -- they were on the move, and the maze was shifting to cover their escape, growing thicker to keep from being cut down so easily... but capture was inevitable, now. The fires from the early parts of the blazed trail rose higher--
"What was that? I don't copy," Hrg spoke. "Uip? Hello?"
"Hello," a kindly old voice spoke, in his ear. Which was certainly not Uip.
"...who is this?"
"I am sorry to impose myself, but... my master tasked me to protect the one who could complete his work," the now increasingly familiar voice spoke. "The work we started together, centuries ago, to protect these mortals from your kind. When I saw through my bedroom window that you were inconveniencing her, and had spread all that lovely fire I could move through, well... I would be ungrateful not to take the opportunity you presented to me, yes?"
Couldn't be. Not the wheezing old butler of Edward's family... what was his name? Ik'ai?
"You may wish to send a physician. I'm afraid I've left your men worse for wear, and must now be going," he replied. "Good day, sir. And if an old gent such as myself I may impose further... a suggestion. Your Ascendancy has invoked the wrath of both my employers, above and below. You may wish to seek a less dangerous line of work, such as bomb disposal. Good evening to you."
The light click signaled that Uip's comm unit had gone offline.
By now, the target would be long gone, of course.
But Hrg didn't panic. Not yet. He knew exactly where they were going, in the end. And this time, his forces damn well would have jetpacks.
The Clockwork Mermaid tore itself free from its moorings, and rose into the night sky for its desperate escape attempt.
The airship's propellers quickly ramped up to full power, pushing it along... but not with any great velocity. Classic airships were designed for style, not speed. Even if it were an optimized ship, it would never be able to outrun even the simplest of Orbital gravity pump technologies, the back-mounted "jetpack."
Five armed guards sailed behind it, chasing the airship as it flew unusually low over the London streets. The same five guards had escorted the ship on its way in, not long ago... now, they were tasked by Security Monitor Hrg to bring the ship back in, using gravity hooks if the pilot refused to obey orders to turn around.
The squad leader, Rwq, ordered his men using his comm unit to take up flanking positions around the ship, ready to tractor it back if need be. Then, he arced his flight path around to the front of the ship, to the windows around the main bridge.
Which were blocked up, with reflecting metal plates. Crudely assembled, but capable of deflecting or absorbing most of an energy blast. The pilot must be flying blind... or perhaps by instruments. This was Gilbert Gearhaus, after all. His files said he was more than capable of taking the archaic technology of the Clockwork Mermaid as far as it could go and then farther, perhaps even using Orbital technology from Arcology #A076...
Half expecting it to work, he hovered with a matching speed, and knocked on the hatch. Nobody answered the door.
"Hooks," he ordered.
As expected, the gravity hooks couldn't take hold. Gearhaus was a crafty one; somewhere in there, he'd rigged up a means of generating interference. Not strong enough to disrupt the jetpacks, but they wouldn't be able to pull the Clockwork Mermaid in manually.
"Sir, unable to tow ship. Something's not right here, even beyond that," Rwq replied. "It's currently heading east, following the river. They should be headed back to the Atlantic--"
"I don't care how you do it, bring the ship in!"
"We can't do that with this equipment, sir. We'd need to bring out a towing rig, and they'll likely be out of our airspace by then. ... sir? Your orders?"
Rwq tapped the side of his helmet, wondering if the silence meant a bad comm unit. It was worrying. As was the unusual amount of activity below... a quick glance, followed by a longer glance, confirmed it.
The streets of London were busier than normal. People were running down the road, looking up, following the Mermaid's extremely slow escape. But they saw airships come in and out of the city all the time, and often with armed escorts. Why would this be any different...?
"Sir!" a new voice spoke, over his comm unit. One of his airborne guard. "Sir, news coming in from... uh, from my friend Rop in Acquisitions, actually... he says there's some film that was just leaked on the tubes about the Clockwork Mermaid! That's the ship we're chasing, right? Here, wait, let me patch you through, he's holding one of their film players up to the comm--"
"--forget. Expect us. Message repeats. This is the voice of L'Anonyme," the recording spoke. "Tonight, at precisely ten o'clock, we will be rescuing the guardian angel of the British Empire, Chloe Manchester, from her Bastille. We are liberating the people's spokeswoman, the voice of comfort that has brought so much change to our people. We will be leaving to the East, by airship. We do not know if we will survive, as the Ascendancy fears and loathes your angel, and will do anything to stop her escape. But we will try. We are L'Anonyme. We are legion. We neither forgive, nor forget. Expect us. Message repeats--"
The streets below. The cheering people, following the airship. They know who's up there...
"We have to bring this ship in safely," Rwq decided. "If any harm comes to Chloe Manchester we could have open revolt on our hands. We're going to board the vessel and shut down the engines. Put your rifles on their lowest setting once we breach--"
"Negative! No! Bring that ship down!" Hrg screamed in his ear.
(NOW he decides to stop panicking? Rwq thought, with a grumble.)
"The target cannot be allowed to escape! She can't be allowed to live, if it comes to that! You have no idea how dangerous Chloe Manchester is to the Ascendancy. This a direct order, Rwq! Destroy the ship immediat--"
"Sorry, sir, faulty comm, can't hear you," Rwq lied, before shutting off that channel. "Right. Squad, listen up. There's women and children on that ship. They brought their daughter, for crying out loud! You are not authorized to follow Hrg's orders. Now, get ready for a breach. I want a controlled sortie; no lethality allowed. On the count of--"
The ship swayed hard enough to smash directly into him.
Rwq fought for control of his jetpack, just as he fought to fight off the ringing in his ears. Why were they ringing? Like some sort of concussion impact, a loud noise...
The ship was going down. Its rear, the engine room, had burst into flames.
It was a magnificent spectacle, an airship falling apart in midair, angling nice and low to crash neatly into the Thames. A camera trick of slow motion, almost...
Frantically, Rwq oriented his flight path, and tried to latch onto the wreck with his gravity hook. But, the interference held... he couldn't even save the vessel.
Seconds later, it disintegrated on impact with the water. Rwq had to pull away at the last moment from his desperation dive, flying close to the banks of the Thames, to avoid the disaster. A combination of fire and water, as the explosion blasted river water into the sky, and the gasbag above the ship ruptured, spraying steam mixture high into the sky.
All around him... the populace of London, on the streets nearby. Gathered to watch the Clockwork Mermaid die, to watch their guardian angel sink to a watery grave. Sent there by the Ascendancy.
"Who opened fire?!" he demanded, on his team's channel. "Dammit, I ordered no lethality! Report!"
"Sir! None of us opened fire, sir!" his second replied. "I just confirmed it in the weapon logs. I... uh, but I don't know what happened. The ship just exploded for some reason, sir..."
The windows, blocked up. No response to knocking. Just a prerecorded message, telling people exactly where to look for their big escape. Warning them that they may not survive the attempt...
"The ship was empty," Rwq realized, the shock of it making his unspoken thoughts become spoken. "Moving on autopilot. It was a trick. They didn't even need us to shoot them down; they blew up their own ship, knowing nobody would believe we didn't do it. They framed us for killing the princess..."
He looked to the nearby crowd, just in time for a half brick to bounce off his helmet.
Rwq did the only sensible thing.
"Retreat," he ordered.
That night, London burned.
The rioting would go on for days. The Crown Prince was missing, likely dead alongside his beloved Chloe Manchester. She was the commoner from overseas who had swept into the hearts of the masses, with the simple idea that maybe the corporations shouldn't be quite so exploitative of the people they governed. With their angel taken away, with blood on the Ascendancy's hands, there would be no kindness for these newcomers.
L'Anonyme had spoken. They would not forgive, and they would not forget.
On the evening that the British Empire turned against the ones their corporate heads had embraced, a coffee shop with a mermaid on its sign near Buckingham Palace vanished. In all the chaos, everybody assumed the newly installed shop had simply burned down. Nobody paid it another thought.
Technically, the King of England was the leader of the British Empire. True, he was bedridden and wheezing, a leader in all but name -- which meant now, the Ascendancy spoke for him, for lack of a better successor as his only known heir had supposedly gone down in flames in the Thames.
The true ruler of England in all but name, meanwhile, was giving the ruler of the Faerie Court a look of grand disappointment.
"He was acting under my orders," Queen Emily insisted. "We discussed it, when he sent message through Sarah asking if they could escape through the Quantum Mermaid instead, using the Clockwork Mermaid as a distraction. I said that if they couldn't get out cleanly, to try and fake Chloe's death by crashing their ship. That'll give the Ascendancy something to worry about other than us, giving us the time we need to finish our weapon--"
"And to throw my empire into chaos, to boot," Prince Edward added.
"The whole world is going to have to rise up against the Ascendancy eventually. On a short timeline, even. We just pushed your empire closer than the other nations are right now. They'll all be together on this sooner or later."
"People are going to die in this revolt, you know."
"People are going to die one way or another. This is a war. It's the war we've always been headed towards, whether we knew it or not. Whether we want it or not."
Safely hidden away in the heart of the Quantum Mermaid, which had been relocated to the Twin Cities, far away from the fires of London. Away from the disaster they had instigated, in the name of saving the world. It left ash in Edward's mouth, ash which could not be washed away from the lattes they offered him in consolation.
"Develop your weapon," he decided. "Use my wife. Use people, as you seem so adept at doing. Use whatever you have to use. In the end, I will take your weapon and use it to save my people. I will lead the charge and I will retake London. After that... we will see where this leaves relations between our two empires."
Emily raised her own latte, nodding in thanks.
"That's the best I could've asked for," she recognized. "So. To victory."
The Prince raised his own cup.
"To victory," he agreed.
His desk was alive with holographic reports. Damage reports, notably. Resource requisition requests, to replace gear lost or destroyed or expended in the riot suppression efforts. More Essence Capacitors, we need more, this is a flash fire that has to be put down, this is the focus of our efforts, we can't afford to lose the British Empire, to show any weakness in front of the other nations, to allow them to realize we only have a handful of Arcologies against potentially an entire world in rebellion...
Proctor Lar closed all the error messages, to get the annoying red glow of them away from his eyes. No sooner did he do that than a dozen more popped up. Closing those made two dozen more appear...
"Slipping away, isn't it?" the devil on his shoulder mockingly asked.
"It's nothing the Ascendancy hasn't dealt with before," Lar said, trying to sound convincing. "We've dealt with Suborbital barbarians on other worlds. Compliance with the path to the future is not mandatory; we can force their compliance, in the end."
"Can you? Can you, really?" the ghost of The Mister asked, constantly there, constantly hovering where Lar didn't want him. "This isn't like any other Earth you've pushed down and stolen lunch money from. This is the world that Proctor Hel designed specifically to fight you--"
"We destroyed their pathetic 'Gatherers.' They have nothing left which can stand against us."
"All slipping away, slipping away so perfectly. And soon, you'll come to me, crying, begging for my help--"
Lar rose to leave. He didn't have to pay attention to this revenant. Sooner or later, they'd find a way to exorcise him, for that matter. Through science or magic...
He paused, before reaching the door.
The hallway outside was still finely polished, like all Orbital surfaces. Smooth, and reflective.
If he set foot outside his office, he may see the eyes again. The face. The woman, howling in rage, accusing, clawing through the surface, trying to reach him, murderer, you killed my Esrever, I will have you, I will have you in the end...
Enemies before him. Enemies behind him. Chaos outside his gates.
Everything was under control.
He was Proctor Lar. This was his world, his personal project, his revenge. He would not let it slip away. He would sooner destroy it all than let it slip away.
to be continued
copyright 2011 stefan gagne
copyright 2011 stefan gagne