Read The Dark Volume Online

Authors: Gordon Dahlquist

Tags: #Murder, #Magic, #Action & Adventure, #Fantasy Fiction, #Horror, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Suspense, #Adventure fiction, #Steampunk, #Thrillers, #General

The Dark Volume (10 page)

Miss Temple found herself suddenly taken with another question that had slipped her mind: the smell of the blue fluid on the window-sill. It had without doubt been infused with blood… yet that made no sense. From what she had seen in the dirigible and from what she could guess from Franck's body, the blue glass acted in an instant to solidify human blood, and thus the flesh seethed with it, into glass. So how was the blood-tinged liquid on the sill, spat from the mouth of the ghostly face,
still
a liquid? How could the blue fluid, which utterly, utterly stank of indigo clay, be taken inside a body without hardening whatever flesh it touched? If only the Doctor were here! Perhaps this was one more reason he'd gone ahead to warn Chang. Miss Temple fought away a tentative impulse of pity for the Contessa—for the ghastly, pale face spoke to an unthinkable price paid for survival. Yet the disfigurement of so cruel a seductress could be no cause for sorrow—such ironies of justice were more aptly met with outright glee.

MISS TEMPLE saw the train. Most of the cars were open and piled high with what must be ore to be taken south for smelting. Miss Temple needed to lie down, to sleep, to bathe, and she kicked at a nearby stone with irritation. She reached the rearmost cars, hissing aloud.

“Elöise! Elöise Dujong!”

The woman must have gone on toward the engine, where she would find more protection. Miss Temple sighed—she was not in any state to meet anyone, much less unfamiliar men smothered in coal dust—and followed on.

Near the front of the train was a squat building topped with skeletal scaffolding and a metal chute—where the ore was poured into the cars—and next to it a more modest cabin whose windows gleamed with yellow light. Miss Temple padded on, cautious at an eruption of voices, trainsmen shouting to each other with sudden urgency. A gang of nine or ten burly fellows in helmets and long coats had gathered around a figure on the ground, directly beneath the loading chute. The figure writhed and moaned as some of his fellows held him down and the others ran about for bandages or water or whisky to ease his pain. She crept forward in the shadow of the train.

“Elöise?” she whispered.

The car seemed empty and, with a sudden surge of effort, Miss Temple tossed the book and the knife in before her and jumped up, catching the car's floor just above her waist. She hung for an awkward second before heaving herself inside and crawling inelegantly from view. The trainsmen still ringed their fallen fellow—someone knelt over him, tending a wound on his face. Miss Temple ducked from sight, doing her best to still her heaving breath.

She looked down at the book in her hands and on a whim let it fall open, expecting to take comfort at its opening to the same poem. But the book did not. Instead, to Miss Temple's great dismay, it fell to the
next
page—the reverse side of “Pomegranate.” How had she not seen— the folded-over page was bent in the opposite direction—it was to mark not
that
poem, but the
next!
This poem, “Lord of Sighs,” was even shorter (
two
meager lines!), leaving more room for Cardinal Chang to write his own words in the open space:

OUR ENEMIES LIVE. LEAVE THIS INN.

TRUST NO ONE. TRAVEL BY NIGHT. STAY TOGETHER.

I WILL WAIT AT NOON THE LORD'S TIME.

Outside the car a footstep turned the gravel. Miss Temple slipped farther from the door into shadow. Was it one of the trainsmen? What if the fellow locked the door? Was she prepared to remain on the train for its journey south to the city? What had happened to Elöise? What would
she
say to Svenson and Chang—what feeble excuses? The steps crunched closer and, curling like an unseen cobra into the chilled air of the train car, she smelled the first creeping, reeking tendrils of scorched indigo clay.

An unnaturally long shadow stretched across the open doorway, the smell becoming harsh. Miss Temple sank into a crouch behind a barrel, no longer able to see. She realized with a spark of hope that the barrels were full of fish oil, giving out a stench that would hopefully hide her own scent from her pursuer. But would they? The indigo fumes made her head swim and the sniffing came on, insistent as a bloodhound but broken by hideous swallows and spitting. The reek made Miss Temple's eyes water and her throat clench. The shadow came closer. She felt as if she must faint or cry out.

From the darkness behind her a firm hand fell hard across her mouth and soft lips pressed full against Miss Temple's ear, the words that slipped between them scarcely louder than a sigh.

“Be
still
, Celeste,” breathed the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza, “or it will mean the death of us
both.”

Two
Exile

C
ARDINAL Chang took another sip from the metal mug, less from any desire for tea than a restless need to measure, again, exactly how tender his throat still was and if, upon clearing it, he found any residual taste of blood. He did not, though the rawness persisted. It had been a week since they'd come ashore. The Doctor had done what he could to leech the ground blue glass from Chang's lungs. Indeed, he had saved his life with the foul-tasting orange liquid. Chang abruptly drank the rest of the liquid and with a tight grimace walked back down the corridor to return the mug to the three trainsmen crouched around their stove. Looking again as he went, Chang's quarry was not to be found in any of the compartments he passed.

Chang sank back into his seat and looked out the window at the utterly uninteresting countryside. He'd spent each moment in that godforsaken village in those godforsaken woods ridiculously unable to see beyond regret and reproach. He had never realized the degree to which his heart had held Angelique at its core—it had taken her death to spell it out. The courtesan had rejected him utterly, but the only sin he could charge her with was honesty. Chang swallowed and winced. Honesty was the cruelest thing of all.

HE REMEMBERED carrying Celeste to the fisherman's hut, but the rest of that first night blurred in his memory as any catalog of endless work—building a fire, rummaging for food, and coping with the storm, the likes of which he'd never seen. The hut was all but flooded, roof torn open, tree branches crashing around them, the downpour endless—and through it all, with each worsening moment, Chang had been driven farther from his companions and deeper within his own brooding soul. He did whatever was required. He carried Celeste to the cart the next morning, and from the cart into Sorge and Lina's cabin, one small bare foot slipping free of the blanket as they climbed the steps. He helped Elöise gather clothing, he went with Svenson to arrange matters with the fishermen and their hardbitten wives—until it became plain that his presence only complicated things, and so he spent even more time alone.

At one point he realized he had not spoken a word for five hours. He had carried an armload of wood to stock the stove and found himself in Celeste's sparse room, looking down at her body on the bed. He could hear the whisper of her breath, its rasp as delicate as any lace-work. Her skin was wet, her hair darkly coiled, the bruises marking her neck and face like a language Chang alone could read. At another time it would have aroused him, but instead Cardinal Chang found himself wondering who this young woman was to have changed his life so much. He watched her chest rise and fall—the size of her rib cage, the sweet proportionality of her breasts, abstractly curious to their softness—while at the same time keenly aware of the pain in his own chest, his tattered appearance, his poverty, his profession, and perhaps more than anything, the steady grasp with which sorrow was taking hold of his heart. That two so unsuitable people might be alone in a room together under any circumstances, much less in a tiny fishing village on the Iron Coast, was not to be imagined.

Chang would finish this business as quickly as he could and dis appear into the opium den. He would remain beyond every well-intentioned effort of Doctor Svenson to find him, until those efforts ceased. He would remember them all, two more kindly anchors to weigh him down, until the end of his days—the arrival of which, in his present mood, Cardinal Chang would not resist at all.

He had been interrupted standing over the bed by Elöise, come to place a fresh cool cloth over Celeste's forehead. As soon as she leaned over to smooth the hair from Celeste's face, Chang left the room.

He had walked to the water, stalking through the sodden woods to stand at the band of sharp black rocks that bordered the shore. A creature of the city, Chang stared at the line of breaking waves as if he were looking at some strange undiscovered continent. The biting wind brought a grim pleasure, the roaring of the water echoed his spinning thoughts, and the expanse of sky conveyed the futility of his struggles. He wondered how he had been able to leave Angelique's shattered body, how he had gone on, fought on the airship—how, in truth, he had not died with her. The answer, of course, was because she had never wanted him to.

HE SAT on the rocks and took a volume of poetry from his coat pocket, Lynch's
Persephone.
Yet the very first poem, “Arcadia”—an ironic account of the Princess's innocent life in the Edenic gardens of her mother—caused him to close the book. Chang stuffed it back into his coat and winced at the coldness of the wind.

He looked down at his boots and scuffed the sand. He frowned. There was something buried… something blue. Making sure he was unobserved, Chang used a small, flat black stone to dig, and quickly uncovered the broken remains of a blue glass book. The pieces were of various size and jagged—if he hadn't known better, the fragments might have come from a large, brightly colored bottle. With a great deal of care he excavated a deep hole in the sand, then pushed all the glass he could find into it with his boot. He refilled the hole and covered it with stones, and continued down the sand, watching closely for any further flash of blue, but there was nothing.

INSIDE THE cabin, Elöise was speaking to Lina. Chang did not enter, turning back to the barren yard and the stark trees beyond it. The cabin felt like an over-large coffin. He thought wistfully of his city routines, longing to be standing in the cool, dusty darkness of the Library stacks. But then he sighed. It did not matter where he was— his world would still seem lost. Behind him, the door abruptly opened.

“Cardinal Chang!” called Elöise. Chang turned to her. She waited for him to speak, realized he did not intend to, then nodded with a smile. “Good morning. I was wondering if you had seen the Doctor.”

“I believe he was dragooned by Sorge—something about an ailing goat.”

“Ah.”

“Is Miss Temple in danger?”

“She is unchanged, which, as the Doctor says, is good news. She has even been able to drink a little of the Doctor's herb tea.”

“She is awake?”

“For instants only, and never herself within them, but able to take a swallow and slip back to sleep, or into dreams. She dreams constantly, I think… like clouds passing before the moon, they cross her face… and her hands clutch so…”

“The Doctor will return as soon as possible,” said Chang flatly, wondering when and for who else Elöise had ever evoked the moon and clouds. “He cannot love goat-tending.”

Elöise nodded at the sand still clinging to Chang's boots. “You walked to the sea?”

“I did.”

“I so love the sea,” said Elöise. “It lightens my heart.”

“On the Doctor's suggestion I searched again for any refuse from the airship, or any corpse washed ashore.”

“I'm sure that's very wise. And what did you find?”

“That the sea does not lighten my heart at all,” said Chang.

SVENSON CALLED to them from the muddy lane behind the house that ran to the village. Limping a step behind came Lina's husband, Sorge, whose conversational skills were such that Chang was certain the Doctor had shouted to them as soon as he could, to escape the torpor.

“The fellow himself,” Chang observed to Elöise, smiling at Svenson's awkward waving.

“He is a very good man,” replied Elöise quietly, and they said no more until the Doctor reached them. Svenson shook hands with Sorge, refusing any thanks, then waited until the fisherman stumped up the steps and into the house.

“How fares the goat?” asked Chang.

Svenson waved the question away and turned to Elöise. “Our patient?”

“Very well, I think—of course, you must see for yourself.”

“At this point your observations are fully the equal of mine, but I will be in momentarily.” He paused, and Chang was on the verge of excusing himself, so obviously did Svenson long to say more to Elöise. Instead, before he could, the Doctor turned to him, glanced down at his boots, then back up at his face. “Did you find anything?”

“Nothing at all,” said Chang.

He was not sure why he did not mention the broken glass to Elöise—hadn't she as much right to know as Svenson? Wasn't her life as much at risk? Could it be that he did not fully trust her even now?

“Yet I am unsure if I have walked the same ground you searched before. Sorge has mentioned the power of the tides—something might have come ashore some distance away.”

A complete fabrication—the Doctor and Chang had never spoken of this at all.

“Why don't I show you?” offered Svenson. He turned to Elöise. “We shall just be two minutes.”

“I will see if Lina will make tea,” Elöise replied, smiling, with the exact same careful tone.

AS THEY walked to the sand Chang quickly described finding the blue glass shards. They stopped at the ring of black rocks, where Svenson lit a cigarette, hands cupped round a match. The tobacco caught, and after a deep breath and an exhaled plume of pale smoke, the Doctor waved a pale spidery hand back toward the house.

“I did not want to say in front of Mrs. Dujong, for I do not know what it means—and after your own discovery I am even less sure. Something has happened in the village.”

“Something aside from sick goats?”

Svenson did not smile. “The men will not speak of it openly… I am convinced we must go with Sorge and see it for ourselves.”

THE BODIES were laid out on flat squares of canvas that would, once the families were satisfied, be sewn around them for burial. Several men from the village were still there—to Chang, all alike with their drab woolen coats, bearded faces, and wrinkled hard stares—and they silently made way for the two outsiders. The Doctor knelt by each corpse. From Chang's perspective, the damage was clear enough—the throats of each groom gaped wide, the wounds nearly black with clotted blood—and so he turned his attention instead to the stable. The double wooden doors were open, the muddy yard marked by too many foot-and hoofprints to untangle. Chang could see from his clothing and plastered hair that one of the dead men had lain in the rain. Any traces of blood would have been quickly obliterated by such a storm. He looked to the village men.

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