Authors: Adam Dreece
Tags: #Emergent Steampunk
“I’m not sure. Long enough for me to get bored,” Richy replied.
“Do you practice a lot?” she wondered.
“Usually every morning with Tee and Elly. We started doing that about a month ago, or at least I found out about it a month ago. It’s kind of weird doing it without them.” Richy put his unarmed shock-sticks back into the hidden pockets of his yellow cloak.
Egelina-Marie untied her horse and walked it over to him. “Richy… we can’t go after Bakon without help.”
Richy deflated. “I kind of figured you were going to say that.”
She lifted his chin and smiled into his eyes. “We have no food, no water, no firearms and almost no money. We have no idea what we’re heading into or which of the two cities he went to, if that’s where he even went. Never mind that the soldier was sorry about something, and my gut is screaming that we’ve got to find out what it is.”
Richy nodded in understanding, a small smile on his face.
“What?” she asked, trying to make sense of his reaction.
“You sounded like your father for a second there. He said things like that when we were hunting for the Red Hoods, the day we met Franklin.”
“You seem to know a lot about what my father says,” she retorted.
“Yeah, well, he says interesting things.”
Egelina-Marie grinned and messed his hair. “Let’s go get the others, and then we’ll head out after Bakon together. He’s a big boy; he’ll be okay,” she said hopefully.
As she mounted and slowly turned her horse to point westward, she stared longingly over her shoulder. As the horse started to saunter forward, she was hoping to see a sign that would tell her to go with her heart.
“Soldiers. Lots of them,” said Tee, returning to her grandfather’s hidden downstairs study. She pulled her hood back, revealing her black eye and shoulder-length, dark brown hair. Adrenaline had vanquished any signs of fatigue or injury from the battle earlier in the day.
Elly came up right behind Tee. “I spotted some going around to the back of the house.”
“Do you think they are the same ones that took Anciano Klaus?” asked Mounira.
“No,” said Christina sharply. “They’d already know the house. These are a different group, of that I’m certain.” She couldn’t imagine who they were working for, or what they knew about the house.
She closed her eyes and thought through its layout. She’d visited Nikolas many times over the years, but had never had to think about his house tactically. Given all the secrets that Nikolas had shared with her, and her with him, she’d never known he had a hidden study, let alone a huge secret lab. She was worried about what other secrets it housed.
Opening her eyes and glancing around the bookcase- lined room, she said, “Okay, I’m going to assume we’re surrounded, and that they don’t know about this room— at least, not yet.” Her tone was that of an experienced leader.
Mounira walked over and took Christina’s hand with her left, and only, hand. Christina smiled down at her little eleven-year-old sidekick.
Franklin stood at attention, several inches taller than everyone except Christina. He stared at her nervously. “Why don’t we fight them?” he asked, aware that everyone knew he had no skills to support such an action. “You’ve got that gun and a shock-stick on your belt.”
Christina shook her head. “We’re in a small space, we don’t know how many of them there are, we don’t know who they are… no. We’re at a tactical disadvantage. Remy would kill me if I died doing something like that.”
“Who’s Remy?” asked Mounira, frowning with curiosity.
“Later,” replied Christina. “I need to think.”
As Nikolas’ thick oak front door blew apart, a dozen soldiers flooded into his house, onto the landing, and up the stairs to the kitchen. With a few quick gestures, they spread out to the study on the left and the bedrooms on the right.
“This guy’s got a lot of books,” said one of the soldiers, glancing around the study. He moved his torch around, pushing back the night. “And a lot of stuff.” He stared in disbelief at the two work tables, overstuffed bookcases, and piles of books and papers on the floor in heaps.
“Careful with that torch!” barked the captain from the landing. “We don’t want this place going up in flames with us in it.”
“No one over here, Captain,” said a soldier returning from the bedrooms. “Walker’s double-checking under the beds and closets.”
“And you’re not helping—why?” asked the captain, sending the soldier back. “Newbies.” He rubbed his thick dark beard. “Keep an eye open. Look under and behind every piece of furniture. If there’s someone here, we want them. If there are any brass tubes, you may just have found yourself an Abominator reward, so cough it up. You lunkers hear me?”
Several soldiers replied with eager yeses.
The captain took in his little theater of war. “Alright, you’ve got ten minutes to earn yourself an early Solstice bonus, so move with purpose.”
Satisfied at the sounds of soldiers shifting furniture and things falling to the floor, the captain went up the landing stairs into the kitchen and noticed something affixed to the walls. “Hey, you bunch of lunkers! This place has candleholders on the walls. Probably has oil lamps, too. Let’s get some light in this place. Come on! Use your heads!” He shook his head in irritation. Within a few minutes, the house was lit up so brightly that the soldiers and captain were squinting. “Okay, okay, enough! We don’t want to burn the house down… yet,” he said, waving off a soldier readying another oil lamp.
From the landing, a soldier made a startled noise.
“What is it, Grimes?” asked the captain.
“You’re not going to believe this,” said the young soldier nervously.
The captain raced down the steps. “You’ve got my attention, Grimes. What is it? All I see here is a door, stairs going up, and you squatting down like you lost your grandmother’s wedding ring.”
Grimes held his torch close to the floor and wall. “See how the stairs up to the kitchen have a shadow here? That’s where you’d expect a shadow to be, right?”
“That’s how light works, you —”
Pointing, Grimes quickly added, “But look here, this part of the wall… its shadow is in the wrong place. I tried to touch the wall, but it’s like it’s not there.”
The captain stared carefully at the wall and the shadow. “You might have something.” He reached his hand out, and it went through where the wall should have been. He laughed and slapped Grimes on the back. “It’s a trompe-l’oeil! Never heard of one being in a house before. Huh, you learn something every day.”
“A what?” said the confused soldier.
“It’s a painted illusion, a trick for the eye. My father used to be responsible for cleaning them in the palaces of Roja. He was the only one allowed to touch them.” The captain closed his eyes and slowly slid his boot forward until he felt the edge, and then the step below. He banged his foot around. “You hear that? There are stairs going down.” He grabbed Grimes by the neck and smiled at him fiendishly. “Good work, Sergeant.”
The soldier grinned at the sudden field promotion.
“Now, get in there,” said the captain, pointing at the wall. He raised his head and yelled, “You two, down here with us. The rest of you, the clock’s ticking.”
“Captain, there’s a door down here,” yelled Grimes from some distance away. “I hear something, too.”
The captain led the other two soldiers down the stairs carefully. At the bottom they found Grimes, who was leaning against a door with blue light emanating from under it.
As they arrived beside him, Grimes said, “I heard voices and then a lot of weird sounds, like heavy metal moving.”
“Okay,” whispered the captain. “Pistols and swords at the ready. When I give the order, Sergeant, throw the door wide open. You two lunkers get in there and take them by surprise. Be careful. I’m told this Klaus guy is dangerous, so be prepared for anything.”
The team nodded.
As the door flew open, the soldiers flooded into the room, yelling.
The large room was lined with bookcases. There was a smoldering fire in the fireplace and two green books laying on the floor. It was otherwise empty, except for a rug, a worn couch, and a decorative chair with an ottoman.
“Where is everyone?” asked Grimes. “I really did hear voices.”
The captain slapped Grimes upside the head. “I bet you heard voices, Corporal. Heard voices, my eye.” He noticed one of his other soldiers turning around in a circle. “Is it time for dance lessons, Walker?”
The soldier stopped, a puzzled expression on his face. “Where’s the light coming from? There are no shadows.”
Christina stared up at the underside of the rug as it completed locking into place thirty feet above them. The elevator mechanism was impressive and she wished, once again, she had the time to figure out how it worked. Finally taking a breath, she put down the magnetic sticks she’d used to activate it. They’d barely made it out before the soldiers had burst in, and Christina knew it was probably just a matter of time before the men either figured another way to get down to the secret lab, or forced Christina and her team to leave it.
Tee, Elly, and Franklin stared in amazement at Nikolas’ grand, secret laboratory. The lighting was the same omnipresent glow as in the study above. There were two workbenches nearby covered in geared machinery, and contraptions on the floor and hanging from the ceiling. Bookcases and wooden cabinets stood here and there, stuffed beyond capacity. Several corridors left the central area for parts yet unknown.
“I think we’re okay for the moment,” said Christina, sighing.
“The lab’s even bigger than the house!” said Mounira excitedly to everyone, relieved she was finally allowed to speak.
“You’ve been down here before?” Tee asked Christina, surprised. She glanced down at the small painting of her Grandmama that she’d snatched off the mantel at the last minute, and wondered just how many secrets her family had. Her mother and father had certainly been filling her head with all sorts for months now.
“This is where we found the rocket-cart,” said Christina, scrutinizing everything around them for its potential use, or a possible exit.
Tee frowned, feeling a bit left out.
“Well, the flying part,” added Christina, spinning a finger in the air, “that’s my invention. Well, was.”
Elly took comfort in the continued surprise on Tee’s face. They were in this ever-stranger world of the Tub and Fare together.
Franklin slowly absorbed the myriad machines and drawings around him. “This is beyond blooming marvelous. No wonder you didn’t want to fight, Christina! Now, what are we going to build? A cannon maybe? Another flying machine? There’s got to be a million things we could do to give those soldiers what for!”
Christina frowned at the girls, confused.
“He means kick their butts,” said Elly. “We treat it like a speech impediment, him being Ingleash.”
To Elly’s surprise, Tee didn’t react. The gloom that had enveloped her before had already returned.
“Ingleash expressions,” said Christina, rolling her eyes. She wasn’t particularly fond of the Ingleash to start with, but their expressions were something that made even less sense to her than their politics. “The plan is to grab what we can, find a way out of here, and make our way to Herve to get the steam engine plans. We’re not going to fight.”
As the rest nodded, Franklin shook his head. “Wait. Why would we run then? Let’s just stay here until they’re gone. We’re safe down here.”
“Because if I was them,” said Christina, gazing up at the elevator mechanism, “I’d burn this place to the ground.”
Everyone went silent.
Christina turned to Tee. “Do you recognize anything down here? An exit maybe? Last time, Mounira and I had to take the rocket-cart back up through the study, and trust me, it was crazy getting it up those stairs. I figure Nikolas has to have another way out of here.”
Tee raised her eyes from the floor and nodded. “I’ll see what I can find.”
“Good,” replied Christina.
Elly stared at Christina, bewildered. “Wait, how would Tee know anything about what’s down here? Tee, come back here. That doesn’t make any sense.”