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Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears - Page 8: September 24, 2012 - October 30, 2012

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Swords to Plowshares
A Tale of Two Armors
The Inverted Marionette
Bundles of Sticks
Directly and Soberly
L'éprouveuse


Swords to Plowshares

Entry for September 24, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

Sergeant J. B. Fox looked through the sights of his gun. As an expert marksman, he had the choice of aiming at his target’s torso, the recommended military target, or their head, the decisive shot for the kill, but with a lower probability of success. Monsieur Punaise was backlit by the sunlight coming in the expanse of the barn’s front door, and J. B. was aiming straight into the center of the lit halo of frizzy hair that defined the perimeter of Monsieur Punaise’s head.

“Shut them all down!” he barked emphatically.

Erasmus took a small step to improve his angle on the mad inventor. He carefully raised his pistol, hoping to keep his location concealed. While keeping his rifle pointed at Monsieur Punaise, Sergeant J. B. Fox flashed his eyes over to Erasmus. Whatever J. B. was thinking, he didn’t give it away.

J. B. continued his monologue, “We have you cornered, Monsieur Punaise. And, yes, we will shoot you.”

At that, Erasmus cocked his Colt Pocket 1849, an unfortunately loud but requisite precursor to firing the pistol. Now it was Monsieur Punaise who glanced at Erasmus, but it wasn’t fear that he exhibited. Instead he cackled with glee.

“You are not going to zhoot me! O’ you would ‘ave already!”

J. B. made a second glance at Erasmus, but this time he subtlety but quickly nodded his head in agreement that he wasn’t going to shoot Monsieur Punaise. Erasmus knotted his face into a momentary grimace indicating that he understood that this was about to get a great deal tougher. J. B. had planned, or better put, was ordered to bring Monsieur Punaise back alive. That was an easier plan when they had hoped to have a dozen Aerial Marines helping out. But those men were now dealing with the worst of it outside the barn. Inside, it was just the two of them and a person obsessed with power.

“You zee?! No zhooting! Ah have zomezing better than guns! Now you zee!”

Monsieur Punaise’s face scrunched up and he whistled the loudest note, or was it a pair of notes?, that Erasmus ever heard from a single person. Then thump, thump, thump! A heavy running sound came from the recesses of the barn. Sprinting into the light were six assemblers, racing toward J. B. and Erasmus. They dropped their guns, knowing that they would be useless, and made their initial, instinctive evasive jumps to the side. The metal brutes turned in sync with the dodges and prepared to attack. In the background, they could hear Monsieur Punaise howl with laughter.

The faces of Mr. Hedgely and Mr. Martin poked out of the woods on the hill just enough to watch the melee below. “Look at that,” Mr. Martin stammered out while pointing to the Dragon’s Teeth running about. “How did they learn to do that maneuver?”

“Clearly Monsieur Punaise had some tricks up his sleeve. That looks like a Roman army tactic. Maybe. Just a bit? Or like those American savages attacking from horseback?”

“How can you be…intellectual about this? Our countrymen are down there!!”

“Mr. Martin, look at the airship! It’s firing a massive torch!”

They both stared wide-eyed as the flame lit up the sky, its heat making the air shimmer and dance. Thrice it fired.

Then the ring of mortars below fired at the light and heat, arching their explosive loads up and over, and curving through their peak, rushing downward to land in simultaneous detonations on the Dragon’s Teeth on the far side of the circle. The parabolic trails of smoke were beautifully symmetric. The ring of devastation was impressively accurate.

The noise of the blasts caused both men to cry out and cover their ears a split second too late. They looked at each other, and retreated back into the woods. They looked at the mechanical army that awaited their orders.

Mr. Hedgely placed his hand seriously on Mr. Martin’s shoulder. “My good friend. How do you feel about the agriculture business?”

“I see what you mean. We can turn these into planters, plowers, and weeders. Swords into plowshares, right?”

“Yes. Yes, Mr. Martin when things calm down below, we still have a half year’s lease on this property. By winter we can have all of the Dragon’s Teeth refurbished, and prepared for Spring. Make sense?”

“More sense that anything we have done in the last year. It’s time we got to know the townsfolk, too. I’m ready to settle down.”

“Well, first thing is for us to not get detected. Let’s go for a walk.”

Erasmus ducked the first swipe of a great metal arm, but the kick from the rear leg of the second Dragon’s Tooth caught him square in the stomach, skittering him across the hay covered floor. He stood up next to the controller panel. He needed a weapon! Any weapon. He grabbed at the bench and came up with a long wrench. A Dragon’s Tooth leapt at him, front legs stretched out to do damage. He swung the tool at its head, hoping to disable a sensor or two.

The wrench banged heavily on the side of its head, denting the iron, and shooting a reverberating pain into Erasmus’ left hand. “A wrench is just not made for striking,” he thought.

The legs struck his chest, ripping his clothes and bearing his chest, the corners of the square feet leaving scratched trails on his skin. Erasmus went down again. He could hear J. B. having a similar one-sided struggle. Monsieur Punaise had switched to a high-pitched giggle.

It was only the briefest of moments, while Erasmus’ backside bounced off the ground for the second time, that he thought, “I can’t win through strength or perseverance. What if I had taken a jelly baby?” He imagined the scent of anise. Licorice, absinthe, ouzo. The feel of biting through the soft confection, and the aroma. And then he thought …

Erasmus jumped to his feet. Three Dragon’s Teeth pounced at him, as the same scene unfolded for Sargent Fox. Erasmus took a deep breath and whistled a loud hail for a cabriolet, and all six front left limbs of the Dragon’s Teeth shot up and knocked their own heads clean off.

The contraptions landed clumsily, staggered a bit, teetering to keep their balance, and then fell over, lifeless.

J. B. sprang up to his feet. Erasmus got his first good look at the sergeant since the attack. His hands and face were bloodied, but not visibly damaged. His uniform was ruined from what looked like claw marks from grappling with metal machines. In one motion, he leapt up and grabbed the flooring of the platform where Monsieur Punaise stood, swung up, landed impressively on his feet. He deftly pulled irons from the inside of his coat and screwed them onto the yelping and grimacing Monsieur Punaise.

Erasmus surveyed the damage he had wrought. He then suddenly remembered the battle out on the grounds. He scooped up his pistol, and shouted to J. B., “I’m headed out to help …”

He never finished the sentence, as multiple mortar rounds went off all at once. Erasmus staggered back, temporarily blinded by the flash and deafened by the blast. J. B. looked up in time to see Erasmus run out into the dust and smoke.




A Tale of Two Armors

Entry for October 1, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

“Mr. Hepburn, please remain at the ready. Dr. Yin and I are going down on the platform hoist to retrieve casualties. I think the battle is won, but things are still moving about a bit too much for my taste.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” echoed from the voicepipe.

“Mr. Jones, lower away.”

Just as the hoist began to budge, Jean Chemiserouge bustled into the hoist’s bay, making his presence known for the first time since the day’s frenetic activities ensued. He was practically flapping his hands like a dodo as he hopped down the few inches to the platform.

“Monsieur Chemiserouge, what are you doing?!”

“I am prepared to execute my mission to capture Monsieur Punaise.” McTrowell started to reply, but thought better of it. As if Her Majesty would let the wild-haired troublemaker out of her jurisdiction. As if Chemiserouge were actually “capturing” the villain after so many brave Marines had given their lives. The fop had probably been sitting in his cabin fretting about his
café au lait spilling during maneuvers. Harumph!

“The situation on the ground is not entirely secure. Either help us evacuate the casualties or stay out of the way and don’t do anything…dangerous.” She’d wanted to say “stupid.”

Private Jones stopped the platform just a few inches off the ground and Captain Cox was doing a world-class job of holding HMA Brittania steady and level. She shouldn’t have been surprised at their mutual skills. It was this well-coordinated choreography they used to deliver their sovereign as gently as if she were a baby bird.

The uninjured and ambulatory Marines were already lining up with the wounded when McTrowell and Young touched down. They began efficiently laying their brothers in arms side-by-side on the platform. They had already performed the grim task of battlefield triage; the casualties they brought first looked the most injured that were likely to survive. Their actions were so well coordinated that she stepped back to allow them to proceed without interference. She took a moment to scan the devastation.

Chemiserouge was observing a partially disabled soldier Dragon’s Tooth at close range. It was whirring and agitating on the spot. It was clearly jammed, but still struggling through its inability to solve the problem. “This doesn’t belong here.” He smiled at his own cleverness. And with that, he pulled out the offending gear.

Sparky almost gagged as her heart leapt into her throat. There was no time to shout a warning. The soldier swung smoothly into action, slewing its barrel around. It fired point blank into Chemiserouge’s chest. The trajectory of the barrel continued its arc toward the platform. Sparky, Yin and all the Marines were in range.

“Hepburn!,” she shrieked straight up in the air. Her voice must have bounced around the platform hoist’s bay and reverberated down the voicepipe because she felt the heat of the cannon’s flame come on over her head, even through the leather of her flight cap. She ducked a bit and flipped up the collar of her duster to protect herself from the intense blue heat. When the conflagration ended, the machine was an unrecognizable slag heap of cinders. And Monsieur Chemiserogue’s body was also considerably worse for the encounter.

Private Jones called down, “Gunner Hepburn says to tell you that the cannon’s fuel is expended.”

“Indeed.”

Sparky turned to Yin, and said in a voice she hoped none of the Aerial Marines would hear, “I doubt we can save them all, but we must do our best.”

“It is not so bad as it seems.”

Although McTrowell realized that Young had probably seen more than a lifetime’s worth of violence and carnage, she still thought the response inappropriately callous.

She tried to focus on the gruesome task ahead of her. “Gentlemen, we’ll take this group up. You and you,” she pointed to the two nearest, uninjured Marines, “will ride with us to transport the wounded to the infirmary. The rest of you round up the remaining casualties. We’ll send the hoist back down.” She stood on one corner of the platform and held onto the cable. The Marines and Yin followed suit. “Mr. Jones, bring us up!”

Sparky sprinted ahead to the infirmary to strap herself into the mechanical surgical assistant. Her invention was getting considerably more use than she had ever anticipated. She really must discuss patenting it with Jonathan Lord Ashleigh when the current excitement passed. The thought of her friend gave her pause. She wondered what he had been doing while she and Drake had been pursuing Punaise with Fox.

Her pleasant intellectual diversion was interrupted by the arrival of casualties. She pointed to the three tables and the wounded to indicate how to arrange them. “Corporal, bring Her Majesty’s best brandy.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Private, start cutting away their jackets around the bullet holes. I’ll remove the remnants of cloth when I extract the bullets.”

“No.”

“Dr. Young, how dare you countermand me? While I respect your skills as an engineer, you are not a physician. Time is of the essence.”

“No, look.” Yin hastily unbuttoned the jacket of the Marine on Sparky’s operating table. A bloodstain wicked out from a remarkably clean indentation in his shift. The aforementioned undergarment didn’t make sense to Sparky. It was soft, smooth, and the color of undyed silk, as if it were a fine lady’s unmentionable. But, it appeared to be holding the shape of ripples, as if from a pebble dropped in a puddle.

The corporal trotted back into the room holding a cut crystal decanter large enough to use as an anchor, sloshing its amber contents. Sparky nodded at the patient on the table in front of her. The corporal poured the liquid slowly into his comrade’s mouth until the fellow couldn’t swallow any more. Without prompting, he wadded up his leather gauntlet, stuck it in the wounded man’s mouth, and took his hand firmly while still managing to stand out of the way.

Yin waited patiently. “Be ready.” Sparky wasn’t sure what she needed to be ready for because she was already prepared to operate. Yin grasped the edges of the ripples and pulled away from the wound in opposite directions. The fabric stretched taut and then popped the single shot into the air like a champagne cork. Yin pulled the garment up under the man’s chin to reveal a chest wound in dangerous proximity to the his heart, but which appeared to have only penetrated his pectoral muscle. Sparky’s head swam with questions that unfortunately would have to wait until later. She had three men to sew up immediately and at least two more on the way.

By the end of it all, she was really thankful for the mechanical surgical assistant. Her hands were shaking from exhaustion to the point where she couldn’t have finished without it. There was a surprisingly neat row of crystal decanters on the floor against the wall of the infirmary, placed there by the corporal when he emptied one into a patient and had to fetch another. And her impromptu loblolly boy’s glove was ruined from the gnawing of his wounded brothers. He reached out to steady her as she unstrapped from the mechanical surgical assistant.

“Corporal…?”

“Bennett, ma’am.”

“Corporal Bennett, is there any more in the Queen’s stores?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Just as well. They needed it more than I did. Thank you for your able assistance.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He saluted smartly, turned crisply on his heel, and departed with the purposefulness of someone who knew exactly what to do next. She envied him that. She could stay and clean up the operating theater or go lend her services to cleaning up the theater of battle. No doubt Her Majesty had an army of stewards and maids to keep her airship spotless. McTrowell decided she would be of more use on the ground.

As she stepped onto the platform once again, she reflected that she and Private Jones were practically becoming friends. She would need to invite him over for a cup of tea, if only she had an actual domicile. She added that to her growing mental list of tasks to undertake upon her return to London.

When she arrived on terra firma, she found Dr. Young waiting for the return trip. There were several piles of machine parts at hand, although calling them neatly sorted might have been going too far. At least there was some sensible order to them. Closest to the platform’s footprint were two shapes draped in canvas. Two shapes that bore the unmistakable outline of bodies. McTrowell pulled up the top corner of one. A neck shot. The, as yet unexplained, undergarment couldn’t have stopped it. Dr. Young peered over her shoulder and said, “Collar.”

Sparky just screwed her face up in perplexity. She peeled back the second tarp. She had to remove it two thirds of the way to discover the cause of death, exsanguination from a brutal saw cut to the femoral artery. She replaced the cover and turned to Yin.

“I think an explanation is in order.”

“We must add a collar. As a government official’s.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“I believe you call them mandarin.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Yin gestured to the first body. “We should add a collar to the armor. The type on high government officials’ uniforms.”

Sparky blinked once. Twice. Yin had that blank, factual, engineer expression on her face. Sparky blinked for the third time. She reminded herself to think like an engineer, not like a physician who had just lost two patients that she was sure she could have saved if she’d only just gotten to them in time. If only she’d foreseen the mortar attack on the first pass. She squinted at Yin to focus both her vision and her attention.

“A high, straight collar might have stopped the shot that killed this Marine,” she concluded, pointing at the first tarp.

“Yes.”

“Yes, I agree. Now, would you kindly explain why the arm and leg wounds I treated today are much worse than the chest wounds that should have killed those three men?”

“Miss Slate is very talented and useful.” Sparky made her “that is not an explanation and you know it” face. “Genghis Khan and his Golden Horde wore silk armor. Your English ancestors wore chain mail. Miss Slate thought that shirts woven of both would be highly protective.”

“I didn’t see any chain mail.”

“Miss Slate is very talented and useful.” It was clear to Sparky that she wasn’t going to get any more information without going to the source. She turned her attention to the remains of Monsieur Chemisrouge. Yin handed her another sheet of canvas without comment. As McTrowell wrapped his crispy carcass in the heavy cloth, she wondered to herself,
“What is it with me and Frenchmen coming to an unsavory end?”



The Inverted Marionette

Entry for October 13, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

Dirt and debris were still raining down. The air was thick with smoke and atomized soot. The air was filled with the stench of gunpowder sulfur and burnt grass. It burned Erasmus’ throat to breathe as he ran across the yard, so he placed his handkerchief over his nose and mouth with his right hand as he kept his pistol at the ready out in front of him. Soldiers moaned in the unseeable distance. He moved toward the sound, stepping over the twisted chucks of metal that used to be operational automatons. Small orange flames licked outward from their broken interiors, issuing black, greasy smoke.

Once past the line of metal destruction, Erasmus saw the wounded on the field. If any of the Marines had been ambulatory, they had been knocked to the ground by the detonations. Erasmus looked around for any further threats to the men and noticed the perfectly circular blast ring around the Marines. Then an odd motion caught the corner of his eye. He spun on it and led his gaze with his pistol. Where was it? He took a few steps toward the well. Still not obvious. He completed the walk to the well and slowly checked behind the waist-high stone structure. Again nothing. Then the corner of his eye saw it again, beyond the ring of smoldering debris, over near the cottage. He continued his cautious march. He exited the burning ring, stepping between two piles of mangled metal. The smoke was clearing now; he replaced his handkerchief into his pocket and steadied his pistol hand with his now free right hand. The flash of movement happened again in the window of the cottage, and Erasmus instinctively took a series of quick side steps to get a better angle on the cottage door.

Circling in, he placed his hand on the cottage door latch. A strong but steady squeeze silently unlatched the door. He opened it just a crack, planning to glance in, but if there were an imminent danger, Erasmus figured he could throw his weight back to jerk it closed again. Instead, through the gap he saw only the tranquil scene of a well-maintained country house, without a person in sight. At least that was the case for the two-foot vertical slice of living room he could glimpse.

He opened the door slowly and evenly with the aim of not squeaking the hinges, a maneuver which worked better than he thought possible. He then slipped inside. The contrast between the battlefield outside and the tranquil interior of the house was off-putting for Erasmus. He had the feeling that he should have wiped his feet before entering. The cotton curtains were clean, well pressed, and perfectly tied back. The coordinated colored cushions on the circle of chairs and couch were recently dusted and fluffed. And the fireplace was devoid of soot and ashes, with a clean set of logs and tinder set for lighting. The room smelled faintly of fresh-brewed coffee and baked bread. Erasmus’ initial thought was that for a cottage being shared by three men working on a fabrication business, this domicile was eerily neat and tidy.

The first noise he heard was a small splash in a room to his left. Actually it sounded like a plate being submerged into soapy water, as if dishwashing were occurring around the corner. Through the connecting doorway, he saw what was surely a kitchen table, set with three places. Erasmus took a few stealthy steps into the room to get a better angle on the doorway, with his pistol held out ready for trouble. Erasmus thought it might be one or both of Monsieur Punaise’s helpers, Mr. Hedgely or Mr. Martin. Or perhaps a hired housekeeper. But what didn’t add up was that no one with a lick of sense would be calmly doing housework while full-fledged combat was underway outside.

Erasmus raised his pistol up momentarily, took a decisive side step into the doorway, re-lowered his weapon, and aimed at the sink area that was emanating sounds of domestic industry. There stood a five-foot, slight, almost delicate wooden contraption, puttering at the sink. Erasmus stood for a few moments, intrigued, as it took the top plate off a short stack of dirty dishes from its right, placed it into a sink full of soapy water, rubbed the surfaces, transferred it to another sink full of rinsing water, agitated it, and placed the now clean plate in a drying rack to its left. The body and arms of the mechanism were made of some dark hardwood, such as cherry or rosewood, which looked to be oiled or shellacked for water-tightness. A metal box acted as its footer, on top of which a small steam engine purred, delivering power through a spinning metal shaft that stood vertically and ran downward into the heart of the metal box. Upwards through the box were a series of metal cables that ran up through small guide loops to the various moving parts above, operating the contraption like an inverted marionette. It seemed quite oblivious to Erasmus’ presence, which was a relief to him and a pleasant change from the metal menaces without. Erasmus was mesmerized by the operation of its hands, the finger working in unison, and their fine smooth motion during its dishwashing production. No need to interrupt this, he thought. He turned and walked though the rest of the house, finding nothing of great interest except an uncluttered, orderly residence. He was primarily looking for any potential dangers, but found none. However, there a stack of books and notes on a bed stand in one of the bedrooms. He would revisit it if he had the chance.

Upon his return to the kitchen, Erasmus witnessed the amazing transition of washing to drying. The contraption reached for any remaining dishes to wash, and feeling none, unstoppered the sinks. While the basins drained, the dishwasher pushed with one arm against the edge of the counter and spun itself ninety degrees on its metal box foot. Then bending at the waist, it reached down with its wooden hands and placed them on the floor. It proceeded to scoot itself forward about half a foot, and then repeated the process for another half a foot. It righted itself again, pushed with the other hand against the counter, turning itself back to face the stack of wet dishes. It deftly picked a cloth towel off a nearby rack, and proceeded to dry the dishes in a similar manner as washing, transferring the dishes from a wet stack on its right to a dry stack on its left. After all the autonomous gadgetry that Erasmus had seen of late, this seemed so useful, domestic, and tame. He silently nodded his approval.

Erasmus returned to the stack of books and notes in the bedroom. He took the time to uncock his pistol and return it to his interior jacket pocket, which freed up both his hands. He went through the stack, one at a time. The books were a hodgepodge of engineering books, mechanic’s tables, British history, and adventure fiction. Buried under them was a sizeable leather portfolio of notes. Erasmus untied its leather thong and opened its well-worn cover.

The Wallace residence was a sprawling affair for a residence within London. It was, of course, much smaller than their country home, a multi-floored, many roomed, stone-walled, labyrinth of a domicile. In their London home, the rooms were spacious, well appointed, and showed the taste and refinement that Reginald’s wife, Annabelle, applied during her decorating.

Reginald’s study acted as his sanctum; a dark wooded lair with two upholstered chairs, a burgundy colored work desk, and its own fireplace. Two of the walls were filled bookcases. It smelled faintly of good tobacco, brandy, and new leather. Despite these appointments, it was not cramped.

Reginald sat in his chair, a fine wool blanket over his lap, a glass of brandy in his hand, and his unshod, gout-suffering foot propped up on an ottoman. He was deep in thought, but it was more of an unproductive brooding than beneficial analysis. A light rap on the door started him out of his moping.

“Come in, come in,” he mumbled.

The door swung open, and the Wallaces’ housekeeper stepped carefully into the opening, keeping her hand on the doorknob. She looked very agitated to the point of slight panic.

“Mister Wallace, three men are here to see you. But they are very …,” she stammered, and looked back over her shoulder to see if they were in ear shot. A man’s hand thumped on the door and the housekeeper lost her grip on the doorknob.

“Out of the way, young lady,” boomed a voice from behind her. She retreated sheepishly back into the hall, and a bushy mustachioed man stepped forward, refilling the doorway. “Reginald Wallace, you need to come with us!”

Reginald sat up a bit straighter and gave the stranger a quick once over. His formal military uniform was out of date by fifteen years or so. And his face looked very familiar.

“Colonel Howell Michael Spreckler? By jove, man, you haven’t changed a wink since I saw your face on the China War Victory broadsheets! You look fit and dapper.”

This threw the Colonel off his game. “Well, thank you. I’m astounded that you remember me.”

“Of course, of course! Just give me a private minute to put the shoe on my swollen foot and retrieve my crutches and jacket. I’ll be with you gentleman shortly.” Reginald politely signaled with his finger to close the door as he slowly scooted.

The Colonel looked back over his shoulder at his two companions, Sir Sidney Fredric Porter and Sergeant Barrett Wentworth, and gave them an inquisitive “is that acceptable to you” look. They nodded in agreement. “Thank you, Mister Wallace. We’ll be right here.” Colonel Spreckler quietly closed the door.

The three men knew their mission. Word had come down from the top of Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears that chances were not to be taken and they needed to bring Reginald Wallace “to the Tower,” the Tower of London of course, and have him held there for questioning. Reginald’s letter to Monsieur Punaise proved that he was in league with the Frenchman. The three war veterans should be able to do the job.

The three men stood patiently as they heard shuffling behind the closed door. Then a quiet click. And then silence. They waited about ten more seconds. Still nothing. The Colonel reopened the door to a now unoccupied room.

“Where the hell is he?!” the Colonel bellowed. “Get that housekeeper back here.”

The young lady appeared quickly on her own. “How may I help you, sir?”

“How did Mr. Wallace leave this room?!”

She apologetically pointed to the rear of the room. “Sir, do you see that small door? The one painted to match the wall. That’s the servants’ entrance. He may have …”

The three men all raced to the half-width door, the Colonel getting there first, flinging it open, and then doing his best to charge down the tight wooden spiral staircase. At the base he found two doors, one clearly leading back towards the house, most likely to a kitchen or washing room. The Colonel threw the other door open to the sight of a busy London street. He stumbled out onto the sidewalk looking for any trace of Mr. Wallace. Instead he only saw various vehicles, including at least a half dozen cabriolets proceeding away from the spot where he stood. Sir Porter and Sergeant Wentworth breathlessly joined him, all three looking about to see where the lame man had disappeared.

The Colonel finally shrugged in resignation, and flatly stated, “I guess we should return to headquarters to see what to do next.”

Her Majesty’s Eyes and Ears headquarters at 19 Cheyne Row in Chelsea was not as collegial as usual. The six members that were not assigned to the HMA Brittania were all there, having arrived just minutes before.

The Honorable Jacob Lenthall spoke first. “Does anyone know why we were summoned? I have a deliberation I need to make this afternoon.”

The Colonel disclosed the situation. “We ran into a bit of a spot apprehending Mr. Wallace. Temporary setback. We’ll have him in no time. I alerted the brass just so they know.”

The door swung open and the Minister of HME&E entered. The men immediately found their seats. The minister cleared his throat and declared, “Gentleman, I received a mission report regarding the attempted apprehension of Mr. Wallace. A man who, I might add, is made lame due to gout, and walks with a cane. Sir Sidney Fredric Porter, Sergeant Barrett Wentworth, and Colonel Howell Michael Spreckler, you are all relieved of duty. Please collect your things and leave.”

The surprised men sat in silence for a short moment. They were not used to being talked to in such a terse manner, and certainly not used to being dismissed.

The Minister continued. “Now, gentleman.”

The three men rose and walked away without a further word. Everyone at the meeting knew that this was just short of a miracle for the Colonel.

The Minister proceeded. “I would like the rest of you three to go to the offices of Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines and seize control of the business. I need you to make sure that no crates of Dragon’s Teeth are shipped out of Britain.”

“I am afraid I have a deliberation I need to make this afternoon,” Magistrate Lenthall restated.

“You are also dismissed. Collect your things and leave. Please.”

The magistrate was aghast, but he rose and also walked out. The remaining two men, Mr. Cooke and Captain Vaughan, nodded their approval. Mr. Cooke responded, “Sir, we are on our way.” And they stood and left.

Alone in the room, the Minister said quietly to himself, “Well, I was asked to clean house, and I did.” He pivoted smoothly toward the door and departed.

Starting from the top, Erasmus found a collection of letters between Monsieur Punaise and Reginald Wallace, complete with details of Reginald’s negotiations with various nations for the sale of Dragon’s Teeth. “Ah ha!” he said quietly. Most of Reginald’s reports back to Monsieur Punaise indicated that the officials he had talked to were disinterested in either paying the high price that he was demanding or had a concern with unleashing mechanisms that weren’t completely controllable. In response, Monsieur Punaise urged Reginald to press on with negotiating with additional nations. Under these letters was a draft fifteen-page document, complete with maps, hand drawn diagrams, and proposed timetables. This discovery caused Erasmus to gasp out loud.

Monsieur Punaise had written a treatise on how to cripple the British Empire through a series of attacks using Dragon’s Teeth. Erasmus thumbed through it quickly and concluded that it was well researched to the extent that, if delivered into the wrong hands, it would have made an excellent blueprint for global control of the Empire’s territories. It noted early within its pages that Britain had dominance of the world’s seas through the strength of its Royal Navy. It pointed out, quite correctly, that the British Empire was in the process of eliminating ocean-going piracy and slavery, and was instituting a forced peace on the oceans by acting as the world’s maritime police force.

But Britain did not control the air or land. The airways were the domain of commercial airship lines, which were not beholden to any nation, but rather to the laws of commerce. It flatly stated that Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines could be the dominant air power if it wanted to use its vessels for both transport and for armed combat. It went on to state that the land wars were currently dominated by another empire: Russia. The document listed the victories that Russia had recently achieved under the rule of Tsar Nicholas. The text concluded that if Russia were interested in Dragon’s Teeth, she could dominate Asia, move into Eastern Europe, and Britain would not be able to stop them.

The single-page letter below that was handwritten in Russian, which Erasmus could not read to save his life. But he knew that Sparky could.

His first thought was to take just this letter with him to find out what it said, but then he decided that he should take the entire portfolio, and have all the evidence needed to explain Monsieur Punaise’s treasonous motivation. He secured the portfolio with its leather thong and tucked it under his arm.

Returning again to the kitchen, he saw the wooden helper placing dry dishes into a cabinet, one by one. Erasmus glanced at the scene outside of the window over the sink. HMA Brittania had descended near the ground, and its loading platform was lowered. Royal Aerial Marines were running about, completing the last steps of their mission and securing the scene. But what caught Erasmus’ eye the most was Sergeant J. B. Fox leading Monsieur Punaise, who was wearing manacles on his wrists, to the lowered platform.

Erasmus leaned over and pushed a small lever on the puttering steam engine, and it quickly came to graceful stop. The arms of the wooden assistant slowly drooped to its sides. Erasmus embraced it around its waist with his free arm, picking it up.

“Spoils of war, and all that!” he thought as he trundled off to reboard the awaiting airship.



Bundles of Sticks

Entry for October 16, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

“What is that?”

“I’ll explain once we get on board and we’re underway back to London. What is that?”

“I’ll explain once we get on board and we’re underway back to London.” Sparky thought that was a fair and completely vacuous conversational exchange. She waited until Drake had piled his bundle of sticks onto the platform hoist. “Could you lend a hand with this?”

Drake thought the canvas parcel felt like a bundle of sticks, but it smelt like the time he’d tried to make Lancashire hotpot, and then let his attention drift to the details of a particularly interesting case. It was the fateful cooking attempt that nearly burnt up his flat and burnt down Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. And, thus, it was the genesis of the arrangement by which James Crocker delivered Erasmus’ meals at a reduced fare.

They moved their two parcels off the hoist and to the infirmary in exhausted silence once Private Jones had used the lift to bring them back into the belly of Brittania. McTrowell was only too happy to leave the final clean up to Dr. Young and the Aerial Marines. She would look in on the wounded en route to London, and the components of the Dragon’s Teeth would be better examined in the commodious and well-equipped environs of Pogue’s laboratory.

“Now then, what is in this bundle?”

“The remains of Monsieur Jean Chemiserouge.”

“The remains?! What happened?”

“He hadn’t the sense of a goose when it came to the Dragon’s Teeth.”

“He doesn’t weigh much more than a goose. I would have expected him to be heavier.”

“He used to be.”

Drake took ahold of a corner of the makeshift shroud. “May I?”

“I wouldn’t,” Sparky grimaced sourly. Erasmus nodded in terse agreement and dropped the flap of fabric. Wishing to move on quickly, Sparky pointed at Erasmus’ spoils. “What do you have there?”

“It’s another of Punaise’s automata.”

“And you brought it here?” She jumped behind the operating table in a defensive posture and cast about for a weapon.

“It’s a housemaid and it can barely move. It’s harmless.”

Sparky wasn’t sure she was willing to take that assertion at face value. “What does it do?”

“I saw it wash and dry dishes. The cottage was neat as a pin, so I think it must be able to perform other chores. I can’t imagine that Hedgely and Martin are such fine housekeepers. And I’m sure that Punaise can’t be bothered to concern himself with anything except his inventions. Oh my, have you seen Misters Hedgely and Martin?”

“No. They weren’t among the wounded or dead. And Sergeant Fox only captured Monsieur Punaise.”

“I wonder if we’ve seen the last of those two miscreants.”

They stood there with the thread of the conversation lost, just staring at each other. The hum of the airship grew louder and HMA Brittania began to rise. “Well, that’s the end of that,” Sparky commented off handedly.

“I’m not so certain,” Drake retorted, reaching inside his jacket.

The visitor cleared his throat loudly in the direction of Littleton. Littleton scowled at him a tad peevishly before turning his attention to the warehouse foreman who had just entered with a sheaf of paperwork. “The customs office wants to inspect these three shipments,” Littleton said as he rifled through the stack and handed three of the bills of lading back to the foreman, “so move them to the back of warehouse five.”

“Yessir.” The foreman departed, but not before fixing the other visitor with a dark look for his tacit refusal to move out of the way.

The visitor coughed softly into his gloved hand, forcing Littleton to look up from the ledger and acknowledge his presence.

“Perhaps you should wait until your m...employer arrives.”

“I assure you that you do not want me to arrange for my employer to arrive on the premises.” He smiled archly, mostly for his own amusement. “Your employer, however, will be most interested in my arrival. Would you please inform Mr. Wallace that I’m here?”

Littleton didn’t offer the courtesy of asking the visitor’s name before replying, “Mr. Wallace has taken ill.”

“Are you charged with the operation of Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines in his absence?”

“No.” The visitor raised his eyebrows, indicating that Littleton should also answer the implied question. “Mrs. Wallace is…seeing to matters.”

“And where might I find Mrs. Wallace?”

Littleton jerked his head toward the door through which the foreman had just left, “Warehouses.” Without further exchange, the visitor turned to the door and opened it with his dove-gray gloved hand in one flowing movement. It snicked closed softly just behind the disappearing tails of his paisley frock coat.

McTrowell emitted a heavy, groaning sigh of exasperation. Would this infernal intrigue never end? Drake produced a folded letter. “I can only read the numbers, so I know how much, but not what of.” He handed the paper to her.

Once she unfolded it, she understood his cryptic comment. She scanned it quickly. Her eyes froze half way down the page and she gasped.

The Russian Letter
The Russian Letter

“What is it?”

“It’s a planning specification.”

“Why is that surprising?”

“It’s not.”

“What are they planning?”

“How to ship the Dragon’s Teeth in an airship of the Russian & Trans-Siberian Air Fleet.”

“If it’s not surprising, why did you gasp?”

“The shipping specification is for the Rumyantsev.”




Directly and Soberly

Entry for October 24, 2012 Written by David L. Drake

“My dear Sparky, please don’t leave me in suspense. I honestly cannot read Russian. I don’t even know the vowels from the consonants. This is a planning document for what activity? And what is the Rumyantsev?”

Sparky beamed and held the paper up as if it were a demonstration prop, going so far as to point at it with her other hand. Erasmus was sure that she thought her demeanor indicated she was about to impart some invaluable and singular knowledge unto the Chief Inspector, but he also detected a touch of “I know something you don’t.” He still found it endearing, but he was also sure that she wouldn’t have appreciated his take on her enthusiasm. She began her impromptu presentation.

“This letter you found is an ordinary enough document…if you worked in the airship cargo delivery business. It is from the Russia & Trans-Siberian Air Fleet, one of the airship lines that has an office at the London Airship Port. It is mainly a cargo business, hauling imports and exports between London and St. Petersburg. They do some passenger business, but…”

“The letter, my dear. What does it say?”

Sparky cast a momentary glare, a “you interrupted my lecture” face. But it disappeared as fast as it appeared, and she continued, quoting.

“The eleventh of July. Dear sir, we offer cargo service between London and St. Petersburg aboard the Ruyantsev. It has a…what’s this in English?...lift capacity…of 5 berkovets. Individual crates cannot be larger than 2 arshins on a side. Thank you for doing business with Russia & Trans-Siberian Air Fleet. It ends there, unsigned, meaning it is their standard letter for their cargo specifications: total weight and unit size.”

“The Ruyantsev is a cargo airship. I see. Why was that so exciting?”

Sparky perked up at the opportunity to tell this part of the story. “Well, it has to do with…”

One of the Aerial Marine physicians politely interrupted Sparky and Erasmus to inform them that an early dinner was being provided on the upper deck, and suitable clothes were requested. Erasmus smiled at Sparky. “Must maintain appearances, and all that,” he restated from much earlier in the day. “We should continue this after dinner, privately. For security reasons.”

She smiled back, but it silently reflected her thankfulness that the battle had come to an end. He continued. “I will join you upstairs as soon as I’m presentable.”

The brig on the HMA Brittania wasn’t as posh as the other chambers, although it did have a nice hardwood floor. Monsieur Punaise sat on an overturned pail, still with his hands manacled behind his back. The vertical metal bars that separated him from his jailer had a door, also made of bars, and hefty lock. The bars separated the room into two halves, one for those incarcerated, and the other for those carrying out the incarceration. Just outside the miniature prison, Sergeant Fox signaled the brig steward, a Marine in his early twenties, to step into the short hallway that led to the promenade for a private conversation. The Sergeant kept his voice low, but it was just as commanding as it was on the field of battle.

“I want you to watch him despite the fact that he is locked up. We want him delivered to Her Majesty, whole and unharmed, as per her orders. Any questions?”

“No, sir,” came the quiet reply.

As the two were talking, the prisoner leaned his head back and hunched his shoulders, pressing the top of his trapezius into the back of his skull. There was a subtle ratcheting sound, then a distinctive click, and Monsieur Punaise relaxed his shoulders. A pair of spidery metal legs inched their way out of the mass of hair on the back of his head, crawling slowly down his neck. At the success of this maneuver, Monsieur Punaise chuckled quietly.

On the upper deck, a spacious room was used as a mess hall for the tired and hungry Marines. To a man, each had taken the time to clean up and change clothes, but the assembly still had a weary look about them, and the level of conversation was subdued. As Sparky and Erasmus entered, they noticed more visible bandages on heads and hands than they would have liked.

They found an empty pair of seats facing each other at a shared table. Sparky started the conversation this time.

“I haven’t seen J. B. for a while. I thought he would be up here with the men. I hope all is well.”

“I’m sure that he’s just making sure that Monsieur Punaise is properly secured. He is the major prize, if you will, for the campaign. I have some more documents of his that I found that I want to share with you after dinner. Quite enlightening.”

Sparky made an understated nod to agree with the offer, but then followed it with an “I want to change the subject” pursing of her lips. She looked down at her hands for a moment to collect her thoughts.

“Erasmus, I have something I want to talk to you about.” She looked back up into his eyes. He looked at her gently, but didn’t interrupt her thought. She proceeded, “I know that Her Majesty wanted me here, and I believe that I’ve helped in a number of ways. But, …” She broke off for a pause, took a truncated breath and sat up a bit straighter. “… I don’t want to become a full-time battle nurse for the Crown. It’s not the life I want or need right now. And when this is over, I’m thinking of repositioning myself so that I am not confined to this fate. The reason I’m telling you this is that it may affect…us. I hope you understand.”

“I’m glad to hear that. This isn’t the life for you. Nor me, really. Let’s discuss this…” He broke off as two plates with glazed chicken, broiled potatoes, and mixed vegetables were served in front of them. Erasmus resumed, “…let’s discuss this after dinner. It is important. However, I am famished. And this smells wonderful.” They both eagerly began their meal.

The small penny-sized clockwork slowly made its way down the back of Monsieur Punaise’s shirt; eight claw-tipped legs, grabbing and releasing the cloth in a plodding, syncopated manner. At the base of his spine, he took the mechanism into his hands, and blindly manipulated a few small buttons and releases on its body to form its legs into the outline of a skeleton key. It took a few tries to reshape it, but he was able to create a variation that fit into the lock on his manacles. He deftly turned it and quietly released his hands as the young guard returned.

They sat and looked at each other for a few minutes as Monsieur Punaise kept his hands behind himself, pretending to be restrained. He then coughed quietly. Took a deep breath, and then coughed twice, spasmodically.

“Sorry. Ah must ‘ave breathed in zome smoke, yes? My lungs, zey burn. Quite dry.”

The unemotional Marine sat still watching the prisoner. He was quite aware of his task.

Monsieur Punaise coughed again. Still nothing from his stern-looking sentry. No offering of water, no concerned looks, no sympathy. Monsieur Punaise realized that he needed to take ruse to the next level. Without a hint of wincing, Monsieur Punise bit the inside of his cheek. He drew a few drops of blood, and positioned them at the corner of his lips. He let the blood drip out of his lips in a single crimson dribble, rolled his eyes up into his head, fitfully coughed a last time, and slumped over in a masterful performance.

The young Marine jumped up and ran out of the brig, through the hallway, and onto the promenade.

“Medic!” he yelled, desperate to make sure his charge was not at risk. As soon as he was outside the room, Monsieur Punaise was up, makeshift key in hand, working on the jail door lock. A few quick tries, and the lock clicked open. Monsieur Punaise didn’t hesitate a wink, cast his manacles aside, flung the door open, and sprinted out through the hallway in a strange gangly loping that looked awkward, but propelled him just the same.

He threw a bony shoulder into the Marine and darted down the promenade looking for any way to escape. He instinctively headed aft for no other reason than the walkway in front of him appeared to be unoccupied. Over the railing to his right he could see the open expanse of sky and feel the cool breeze, although he had no idea how high the airship was.

The downed Marine blew his warning whistle as loud as he could, following it with a hearty yell. “Escape! Escape!”

The entirety of the mess hall rose to their feet at the sound of the distant distress signal. All of the Marines ran to the closest exit to get to the deck below.

Sergeant Fox had been in the infirmary conferring with one of the doctors when the whistled alarm grabbed his attention. He turned without apology or explanation and sprinted to the promenade, his sidearm drawn and ready.

The opportunity that Monsieur Punaise had hoped for presented itself. Near one of the storage room doors was a stack of aerial wing backpacks, awaiting cleaning, folding, and storage. He jumped at one and threw it on his back while grabbing at any of the controls. One side snapped into place, but the other was bound up. It didn’t matter; he figured he would work it out, even in the air, if needed.

Taking a few steps back to get a good running start, he looked out at the darkened blue of the evening sky.

“Stop!” J. B. bellowed as he slowed his run. The drawn and leveled revolver made the escapee hesitate again.

“It is over a thousand feet to the ground below.”

Monsieur Punaise responded by pulling the now untangled cord and popping the final wing into place.

Three other Marines, with rifles, ran onto the scene. J. B. continued; his voice was clear and unwavering, hoping to calm the inventor.

“I will give you a choice, Monsieur Punaise. One of four things is going to happen. You will attempt a launch overboard, making the same mistakes every Aerial Marine makes when they first try using the gliding wings, and fall to your death. Or you could miraculously sidestep six weeks of grueling and painful training and actually glide for a while up here in these winds, in which case we will follow you with HMA Brittania and shoot at you like a pigeon. As an aside, this option is more sporting for us than for you. Or you could hesitantly stand there thinking about what to do next, as you are doing now, and my Marines, who are excellent marksmen, will shoot at your knees until even the thought of leaping is no longer possible. Or you could surrender directly and soberly allowing us to confine you in a civil manner. What say you of your fate?”

Monsieur Punaise’s eyes darted between J. B. and the edge of the railing. By now most of the Marines, Sparky, and Erasmus had all shown up.

Monsieur Punaise’s eyes narrowed to slits. “I do not wan’ to be hung az a traitor.” He made an instinctual quick pout and a shrug, a Frenchman’s way of signaling that his decision was clear, but not to his liking.

Without needing an order, a dozen or so Marines took a knee and leveled their rifles at Monsieur Punaise’s legs.

The Sergeant provided his final justification, “The Aerial Marines have gone through great pains to ensure that you are brought to London intact. Consider Her Majesty’s reasons for requesting that. Bluntly, I don’t think she is just planning to hang a healthy man.”

The unarmed man resigned to his fate. Letting go of the control cords, he put his hands up in defeat. “Alright, alright. I weell return to zee ‘olding cell.” He began to slip his shoulders out of the backpack.

As they returned to dinner, Sparky and Erasmus could hear J. B. ordering a doubling of the guard on the prisoner.

Erasmus slipped his arm around Sparky’s waist. She looked up and smiled at him. He responded, “We could use a few days of quiet, don’t you think?”



L'éprouveuse

Entry for October 30, 2012 Written by Katherine L. Morse

Sparky watched Drake struggle with his utensils. “May I offer my assistance?”

“I’m fine, thank you. After all the excitement of the day, it is helping me to eat more slowly.”

Sparky took Erasmus’ bandaged hand and turned it over, examining it critically. “Will you allow me to rewrap that after dinner?”

“Yes, if it will put your mind at ease.” He soldiered through his meal before letting her lead him to the infirmary for the repair.

Sparky was taken aback by the sight of Fox sitting shirtless on an operating table in the surgery. Somehow she had always imagined that some portion of the breadth of his shoulders was actually his uniform, but right in front of her was irrefutable evidence to the contrary. She was unsurprised to observe that his torso was decorated with several scars. She’d patched up enough soldiers and air crewman to recognize the results of the hazards of those professions. Fox’s constellation was only remarkable from the perspective of the variety of the size, shape, and age of its constituents. And judging by the sloppiness of the hand of the alleged Marine surgeon at work on him, his newest acquisition would dwarf several of the earlier marks. It was probably the same hack who had given Drake the mummy wrapping on his right hand.

Sparky realized she was gawking. Just as propriety compelled her to look away, she glimpsed an incongruity. Hanging around his neck on a patinaed leather cord was a small object bearing a remarkable resemblance to a locket, albeit a dented one that showed as much wear as the supporting thong. She turned to face Erasmus whose expression showed no indication that he had taken note of the keepsake.

The physician completed his ministrations and Fox nodded in a perfunctory fashion to indicate that he should leave. Sparky fetched a fresh roll of linen while the physician took his leave and Fox donned his shirt.

“Despite the casualties, I think the mission was a success.”

Having dealt directly with the casualties, McTrowell had a different opinion. “And what mission was that, may I ask?”

“The mission to…stop Punaise.”

“If the mission were truly to ‘stop’ Punaise as you say, burning down the barn with him and his production plant in it would have been considerably faster and almost assuredly could have been accomplished with no casualties at all. A thorough tactical engagement with the flame cannons would have sufficed. With all due respect, Sergeant Fox, I don’t think you’ve been entirely honest with us. Why are we hauling a pile of mechanical parts, two dead Marines, and a charred French diplomat?!” There was an instant of stunned silence while Drake and Fox recovered from the ferocity of McTrowell’s diatribe.

“Dr. McTrowell, Chief Inspector, I owe you an apology. You are correct that our mission was not simply to stop Punaise. Unfortunately, I am no authorized to disclose more at this time. All your questions will be answered on our return to London.”

Sparky was not mollified and continued to scowl at Fox. She yanked the loose wrapping off Drake’s hand, causing him to wince. The uncomfortable silence in the room stretched out, punctuated only by the snipping of the surgical scissors as Sparky cut a fresh length of linen and the subsequent clank as she dropped the cutting instrument onto the metal table. Erasmus sucked in his breath as she began cinching up the new bandage a pinch too tightly. Feeling the need to rescue the situation, not to mention his hand, he cleared his throat at a theatrical volume. “Dr. McTrowell and I have an important piece of intelligence.”

“Yes?”

Drake nodded at McTrowell, calculating that engaging her directly in the conversation would cool her temper. She shot him an “I know what you’re up to” look, but took the bait anyway.

“Drake found a shipping specification in the cottage for a cargo ship of the Russian & Trans-Siberian Air Fleet. It explains the lack of a shipping address on the crate Mrs. Wallace discovered. The shipment didn’t need an address because Wallace only needed to move it across the airship port to the offices of Russian & Trans-Siberian.”

Drake continued, “Wallace must have a contact in the office who attaches a new bill of lading to the final destination. This intermediary probably also pays him.”

Sparky interrupted, “If Reginald Wallace hadn’t been afflicted with gout and his wife hadn’t intercepted that bill of lading, there would have been no trace of his crime.”

Drake picked up the thread again, “If one of us were to pose as an air stevedore,” here he looked significantly at Fox, “and deliver the crate to Russian & Trans-Siberian, perhaps with the assistance of a Russian-speaking employee of Western & Transatlantic posing as Wallace’s agent,” here he shifted his significant look to Sparky, “we could apprehend the buyer’s agent.”

Sparky interjected, “Why wouldn’t you just arrest the buyer?”

“In a clandestine enterprise such as this one, it is far too dangerous for the buyer and seller to have direct contact. There is too much risk that they will be seen together, raising questions. The buyer is almost certainly in St. Petersburg. I think we will also find that Mr. Wallace paid an air stevedore to keep silent about moving the first shipment across the airship port. We should also be on the lookout for such an individual who has been uncharacteristically profligate or drunken of late.”

Fox seemed simultaneously highly interested in this information and extremely anxious to take his leave. “Thank you for this valuable information. I will make arrangements to set this plan in motion as soon as we land.” And he was gone.

Erasmus flexed his fingers, checking the bandage’s tightness. His ploy of getting Sparky talking had succeeded; he still had his circulation. He gazed woefully at the neat formation of depleted crystal decanter. “Do you suppose Her Majesty has some hidden port stores?”

Sparky smiled fondly at him and chuckled, “I believe some reconnaissance is in order.”

They didn’t have to trouble themselves with extensive searching. Apparently Corporal Bennett knew his battlefield anesthesia because he had eschewed the port for stronger, less sweet liquors. Sparky handled the uncorking, sparing Erasmus’ injured hand the stress, while he held the glasses. After she recorked the bottle, he held both glasses close to himself. “I believe you owe me a story.”

“I do?”

“I’m familiar with the name Rumyantsev, especially the family’s significance in Russian military and political history. I don’t find it a particularly shocking name for a Russian airship.” He waited, hoping she would take his meaning. She didn’t. “And yet you do.” She squirmed. He extended his right hand with the glass of port in it. “Would you care to explain?” He smiled in a manner he hoped was charming and endearing, the curled tips of his moustache contributing to the effect.

“Oh, very well.” She plopped down into a comfortable chair, taking care not to splash any of the precious, ruby libation. Drake settled into the matching seat across from her. “As is, unfortunately, so often the case, history records the exploits of the men. And while they’re all very important, they aren’t always the most interesting stories. Unlike the Pecos Incident, I have no proof that the following story is true. It is only a matter of family legend, but with enough facts to be plausible.”

“As are all fictions.” He raised his glass to her.

She returned the salute. “Indeed. Countess Praskovya Aleksandrovna Bruce, a Rumyantsev by birth, was less well known than her male relatives, but in my opinion, was just as important to the smooth functioning of the Russian empire. She was a lady-in-waiting and confidant of Empress Catherine the Great. She was
l'éprouveuse to Catherine, the tester of lovers. When a fine young man caught the eye of the Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias, it was Praskovya Aleksandrovna’s job to test whether the potential paramour’s ‘skills’ were up to Catherine’s standards.”

Erasmus, while fascinated by the tale, shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I have heard stories about the Empress’ tastes.”

Sparky responded peevishly, “Mostly lies perpetrated by men who are afraid of women with healthy appetites. The truth is, she died of a stroke. And, allow me to point out, she sent her former lovers on their way with money and titles to live happily ever after rather than rewarding their loyalty with imprisonment and decapitation as was apparently the custom in your country.” She took a sip of her port and exhaled through her nose loudly in annoyance.

Erasmus considered the wisdom of raising Sparky’s ire multiple times in one day. He felt it best to return the conversation to safer ground. “You make an excellent point. Please continue with your story.” He made a promise to himself not to run the risk of interrupting again.

“The countess overstepped her assigned duties by having an affair with one of Catherine’s lovers, Ivan Rimskii-Korsakov. Countess Bruce and Rimskii-Korsakov were ejected from the court for their transgression and lived in Moscow for a short period of time before she returned to her husband. Everything I’ve told you to this point is a matter of historical fact. Family legend begins with an illegitimate daughter born to the lovers while they were in exile. Neither could risk being publicly ostracized for the child’s existence, so she was given to a widowed Welsh merchant who raised her as his own daughter. Once grown, she married another Welshman, named Llewellyn, and gave birth to my mother, Elizabeth. My mother was told this fanciful story of her origins when she was a child, although she never entirely believed it. Nonetheless, she named her own daughter Czarina as a sly reference to the Russian empress whose disfavor supposedly set the course for her life. She told me the same story when I was a child. I think she meant to teach me that I was special and that my father’s absence wasn’t a reflection on me.” She took another sip of her port, sighing a little wistfully this time. She stared into her glass, fighting back the urge to cry at the remembered pain. She straightened up. “I learned Russian so I could address a member of my great grandmother’s family should I ever meet one.”

“Your mother was right.”

“You have some proof that my mother and I are descended from the countess?”

“Sadly, no. But I have ample proof that you’re special.” He stood slightly, leaned across, and kissed her on the cheek.

No sooner had HMA Brittania bumped to a halt in the camouflaged park alongside Buckingham Palace than an Aerial Marine in night kit dropped the crew gangplank and sprinted, invisible, into the night.

The richly attired young man did not deign to address Littleton as he entered the offices of Western & Transatlantic Airship Lines just after opening time. Remembering the uncivil reception he experienced on his previous visit to the offices, the visitor turned directly to the door of the president’s office and rapped twice lightly.

“Enter please.” Annabelle Wallace had aged visibly in the last week and the return of this particular visitor did nothing to relax the growing creases in her visage. “What can I do for you today, sir?”

“Chief Inspector Drake and Dr. McTrowell will present themselves shortly in the company of another gentleman. They will require some supplies including a bill of lading, a crate of the size of the one that was seized, a cart, and 350 pounds of scrap metal.”

“That is a rather tall order.”

“Her Majesty greatly appreciates your cooperation in this matter.”

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