“No, I am saying I agree fully that the threat from the Dead Zone is one that is most dire, Major. I think any sort of full scale incursion, however, would be a massive waste of resources.” Roland’s voice had taken on a rare edge as it bounced about the spacious study. The sound did not carry, though, muffled by both the thick walls and the sheer volume of books which covered them. The reason? Major Vetch was being exceptionally vexing this evening.
“Thankfully, and respectfully, Mr. Thistle that is not for you to decide now is it?” There was nothing even close to respect in the rat-faced man’s tone or expression. He made a sweeping gesture with his officer’s cap across the map spread out between the two men. As often was the case Roland’s library had been co-opted for an impromptu discussion on matters of the war which mattered to Scarborough. It happened so very often the cog-smith had a special table hand-crafted so the top could be flipped and pinned map displayed. At the moment it had several small wooden figurines to represent this battalion or that. When Mr. Thistle said nothing Vetch’s expression took on a needling tint. “As this will be a strictly military expedition I do not have to worry about interference.”
“That is what you see us as.” It wasn’t a question that spilled out of the aristocrat but rather a blunt statement. Gilded fingers plucked the representation of a cavalry unit from the board. To him people were more than pieces to be pushed about without any consideration. He didn’t look at the military man but scanned over the map once more. It was beyond him how Vetch had gotten approval for such an audacious plan in the first place. The units committed could be better spent elsewhere. What sort of connections did the bastard have?
The distinctly unattractive man put his hat back under one arm with a crisp motion. “Correction, that is what you are. The military can handle such matters.”
Roland made a disinterested sound at first before lifting his soft brown gaze. When their eyes met Vetch became shaken. The hardness at the depths of Mr. Thistle’s look was not something he thought the noble capable of. Not that Roland was glaring, exactly. His expression remained absolutely placid, like a winter pond waiting to suffocate life from any who dared test its waters. “I find your attitude distasteful, if not uncommon. The Order and His Majesty’s forces have always enjoyed a companionship.”
The major managed to collect his wits enough to snort. “More that you like to pull at our leashes as if we are your valued hounds.”
More or less blasé to the newest insult the cog-smith set the wood piece down. Then he reached for a cup of tea. No response was given to the boorish remark. It was beneath him, and a sure sign of the terrible breeding which had spawned Archie. Roland did not speak again until he had wet his tongue. “If we are such a burden that does beg the question, why call this private meeting, major?”
Vetch smoothed thumb across his terrible moustache. “First and foremost to keep you updated. I am well aware that defense of Scarborough is in your hands. My superiors wished to make sure you knew what was going to occur.”
“And second?” Mr. Thistle probed in an almost bored manner. He had all but detached himself from the conversation. “Some sort of declaration to stay out of the expedition forces way, I assume.”
“Precisely. Keep your dolls here. I don’t want to have to bring everyone back in closed caskets.” A smile creased on Vetch’s face. He was sure that he’d scored a coup de grace with that last cutting remark. After all, wherever the Thistle Sister’s went high casualty reports followed. The average doughboy stood as much chance against the monsters they faced as a bug did flying at a coach’s window.
The smile was wiped away by Roland’s next remark. “If you follow through with this idiotic plan of yours that is exactly what will happen. However, my duty is to protect Scarborough, so unless otherwise directed by the Order or the Crown the girls will stay here.”
The coldness in the cogsmith’s eyes only grew in intensity. “Get out.”
“What?” The rat-faced man was a bit taken aback by the blunt order. Roland didn’t repeat it. Instead he gestured to the door in a dismissive fashion, the sort that blue-bloods used with scullery maids. All that Vetch could really do was grow red in the face. Clearly he was trying to think of something to say. Instead he pushed his hat on and moved to the door with a straight back. Even that didn’t last long as he caught Ms. Sage standing in the doorway. Her somber clad form was full of wound tension. For a tick the major thought she might strike him down.
The bespectacled beauty took a halting step to the side. “May the Lord watch over you, Major.”
“Good day.” Vetch’s response was full of acid and he didn’t look the clockwork woman in the face as he passed. As far as he was concerned she didn’t deserve any more respect than a rifle hanging on a wall. That was a lie he told others. In truth he’d been stymied by the Sisters and Mr. Thistle so many times he’d grown to loath them. Disrespect was really the only way he could strike back at them… for now.
For far too long a stretch Ms. Sage remained against the door frame and Roland Thistle stared at the toy map before him. The sound of Vetch’s terse boot falls was the only sound between them and then that too faded. It was hard to tell what was more terrible, the silence or the tension.
Roland had to break it before it strangled him. “I shall be fine, Ms. Sage. I do hope that you were not witness to most of the major’s… mm… disgraceful behavior.”
“I am afraid I was. I should, not bother you. You are busy.” She didn’t meet his wondering gaze but cast her look away down the hall. What little she’d heard in truth had driven home the harsh truth with immaculate timing. She wasn’t a woman, she was a thing. To dare have dreams like a living, breathing, bleeding woman was ludicrous. She should find the Widow and beg her to scrub such emotion from her.
“Never too busy for you. Please.” He motioned her in with a sweep of mechanical fingers; they clicked and whirred with elegant movement. Roland canted his head as her gaze was caught by his false hand. A hard swallow consumed him, but he didn’t know quite why.
Either way she was drawn in as sure as high tide to the shore. Her coiled copper and crystal heart told her to leave but instead Ms. Sage swayed over to the table’s edge. It was all she could do tonight not to reach out and curl both of her small hands around Roland’s metal one. “She made that for you, didn’t she?” So shaken the Spaniard wasn’t able to catch the stray thought before it was loose. Likewise, her proper diction suffered.
Roland blinked and paled. It seemed for a moment he was going to fall over. His real hand caught the lip of the table and he pressed against it. Silence settled in again before he managed to breathe. “Excuse me?”
Ms. Sage froze up and drew no closer to him. Instead she reached out and toyed with a miniature airship. It was lifted from the battlefield and she didn’t really look at it. Instead her gaze was distant. Ms. Thyme had thought it was best to flush all doubts from her system, one way or the other. Why was she choosing this method? In for a penny… in for a pound. “Isadora. She made your hand didn’t she?”
Now it was Roland who turned away. He did so by looking to the liquor cabinet before heading over to it. Every man had triggers which demanded that they find spirits quickly before they overwhelmed. It also bought him time to think of the proper response. “Would you care for a drink? I think I need one. Quite the night.”
“Who was she?”
The whispered question was so light that Roland didn’t nearly catch it. He pretended not to hear it though, with the sort of skill that only one brought up in the gentry could display. Those of good blood were adept at missing spoken words when it was prudent not to do so. “Ice?” He jumped as the model vessel bounced off of the wall next to him.
“Who was she, Roland?” Anger replaced fear as it bubbled out of the gynoid. She tossed her shade backwards in such a manner that it closed the study door. This was going to be a private conversation. Nigel was not going to walk in at a timely moment and stop what needed to be said. “Tell me.”
“You do not wish to know.” He crouched and picked up the marker with a wry smile. Her temper… he should have expected it. Some things never changed and one of those was how fiery she was. His expression started to ripen in a maudlin fashion.
“Who was she?”
“My wife.” Roland looked the constructed woman right in the eye as he sucked in his lips.
“I do not have time for this.” The Prussian wanted to turn and stroll out of the cemetery before matters became more complicated. He didn’t feel like moving, though. Certainly Derek Brier didn’t feel like talking either. Too much of who he was and who he worked for had been let slip in subtle ways. He was sure that the minister had done so on purpose to protect his own hide. Man of the cloth or not Vicar Moss was shrewd.
“Ye jus’ take a seat now, over there atop that bit o’ stone. Else yer not leavin’ this place under yer own power, warlock.” Ms. Rosemary gave him a hard look. She’d seen with her own eyes the devastation the silver-handed fey had wrought. Too many people knew something about what it meant and no one was sharing. That was going to change tonight. She jutted at finger at him with such force that it seemed as if it might bowl the injured and arrogant man over, even though she didn’t touch him.
Vicar Moss ushered out a rare smile and leaned against a headstone. He didn’t feel much like moving either. This gambit was playing out better than he hoped. Anything to needle the Society of Morrigan. “Yes. Let us all pool our resources. If you stay and talk this all over with the good lady and me, Herr Brier, I shall speak first. Thus you will get all the information you seek.”
The stone-wielder didn’t bother to veil his glare. After a moment Derek relented. What choice did he have, really? Besides being beaten to a pulp and hauled off to Scarborough Castle. He’d have to kill himself then for the sake of the Society. He really valued himself too much. So he trailed over and sat down where told. A motion was made for the reverend to start.
“The Scottish Dead Zone is not as dead as we thought. It is my theory, and I’m sure that you agree old ‘friend’,” Vicar Moss spoke directly to Derek. “that something survived the crash of the spire there.”
Derek nodded slowly in agreement. In the meantime the gorgeous ginger stayed rooted where she was. Ms. Rosemary took a wide and all together intimidating stance, on purpose. Her arms folded under bosom and the leather of her combat corset creaked. She didn’t have anything to add, yet.
The scarred and holy man continued. “Common wisdom holds that all of the fomorians perished when that particular spire strike at the heart of Scotland, along with a great deal of the humans that lived there. The once full and verdant life of the lovely country was scoured away as it struck. The toll of human life was extraordinary. Yet, isn’t it odd that all across the world Scotland was the only place to suffer such calamity, well and distant Siberia. Now, most think that perhaps that was done by accident. What if it was not?” Vicar Moss let the question sink in for only a few breaths. “For years scant resources, but resources all the same have been stationed to keep an eye on the dead frontier, decades really. Now we are finally seeing the sign of some threat – familiar yet fundamentally different, deadlier.”
The minister held up one hand for emphasis. Of course his digits weren’t silver.
“Deadlier is one way to put it. The trolls we fought a’ Melrose were twice as smart n them some. Not’a mention those lil burning buggers, imps. I can only imagine how fast the Vain would burn out our trenches wit’ a few squads of them.” Ms. Rosemary caught herself just before thumbing at the side of her nose. Oh she was pleased as punch that Vicar Moss hadn’t seen the damage she’d taken in that fight. The Irishwoman doubted any man could stomach it. “So you think one of them survived?”
“Survived and thrived.” Vicar Moss added.
A snort called attention back over to Derek. “I was promised something I did not know.”
“So you were.” After running his tongue across the top row of his teeth Vicar Moss continued. That spire was purposefully driven down into solid earth. Why? Because the lord of it wanted to avoid the rest of his kin, or was forced to do so. From a tactical standpoint why would the fomorian’s keep attacking Scarborough? Or for that matter on the other side of our fine island at the Isle of Man and Liverpool? Wouldn’t it be easier to march into the Dead Zone and set up base camps there?”
“I see.” Derek scratched under his chin slowly.
On the other hand Ms. Rosemary took a step closer to the holy man. She didn’t inquire just yet how he came across this information, this chilling theory. “Ya think it is because whateva Bonny One that landed there be opposed to their own kin, shunned ‘n feared by them then? One that’s capable o’ smithin’ refined n’ new sorts o’ fey?”
Vicar Moss dipped his chin. “Yes.”
The warlock didn’t ask where such information had been gathered either. After all he was about to burn it out of the minister just moments before. He shifted where he sat and leaned back on one hand. A cool air danced between all three of them. “We were worried about such. A few modified sluagh recently attempted to steal information from us, with alas some success.”
“’n jus’ who exactly is ‘us’?” The Irishwoman asked. She wasn’t answered by more than a bland look from the Prussian.
“The amount of power they were able to bring to bear, it was quite disheartening. Several… engineers were brought low before one was finally stopped. Things turned worse once we crossed paths with their direct commander in the area.” Derek leveled his cutting gaze at Stuart. “They all had silver hands. Alas the… whatever it was that was in command escaped. We’ve yet to classify what sort of fairy it was.”
A huff pushed out of Ms. Rosemary and she considered lobbing a full gravestone at the aloof fellow. She’d been asked to refrain from violence. For now she continued to do so. In the end Mr. Thistle she was sure would be interested in all this.
“I see. This solitary enemy is getting ready to play his full hand, as terrible as it is. That is my greatest fear. All three of the interests we represent need to pool our resources and make sure that this does not come to pass.” Vicar Moss extended one hand and curled it to a fist. Now just who did he represent besides the Church?
“Right. I still feel ‘n the dark here.” The redhead stomped one foot.
There is little more that either of us can say about those we work for.” In contrast to the severe fellow Stuart smiled. Which was unlike the stern faced reverend in truth. He clearly wanted to put the artificial dame at ease. “Again, trust that our primary goals are all the same: to return domination of the Earth to its rightful place, in the hands of Man.”
“Just which men of course…” Derek almost chuckled but regretted the action as his side throbbed. “Who is he?”
“The silver hand points to Nuada, at first. He was an ancient enemy of the Fomorian’s in mythology. So that does not make much sense at all. Now, Cainte was the ancient deity that was said to have made the arm for his stricken king.” Gestures went along with Vicar Moss’ explanation. “Not a likely candidate at first. However once his son healed Nuada’s arm to flesh and blood he slew the boy out of jealousy as well as committed other atrocities.”
“Ye speak as if these Vain’r actual old gods come to life.” Ms. Rosemary crossed herself.
“Is it any wonder that cults have sprung up that think of them such? Even now those deluded souls are perhaps the biggest threat to London if not the world. They are a cancer that is eating away at us faster and faster every day. This… silver-handed Vain has gathered quite the following. We believe he is directly responsible for the strife that the cells have cause through this country. The corruption that delves even into political and military circles across the continent.” Again Derek did not fill in exactly who ‘We’ were. It was unlikely that a foreign national was working for the Crown, though. Mankind still had its nations even if they were all united in trying to drive the invaders back. “Even into our own, we fear.”
“Bloody… “ The curse died on Stuart’s lips before it came all the way out. He pinched at the bridge of his nose. “Such foolishness.”
“Desperation.” Derek clarified. “War grinds people down. From those that have fallen under this beast’s spell we learn that he offers them a chance to ascend from being simply men to something… better. Closer to the good lady here.”
Oh, Ms. Rosemary did not like it at all when she was gestured too. She deeply snorted and settled at the reverend’s side. A long hard look was given to the other fellow. Her jaw started to screw up before realization passed over her face. “The mad bombers ‘n the hospital. The turncoats that aided the sluagh here tryin ta get important plans from Colonel Thorn. Sweet Mother Mary! What they took from Melrose as well. This ‘Cainte’ be further along in whatever plans he has than be a good thing.”
“Do you know what sort of things the fairy attempted to steal?” Derek asked. Ms. Rosemary shook her head because she didn’t know if it was safe to speculate. Ms. Thyme and Ms. Sage had mentioned some their suspicions in passing.
“The dear departed colonel was involved in many classified projects as he worked closely with the Order of Thistle and other organizations within the government.” Vicar Moss held no such reservations. They were all here to share information in the end. Again, it was information he shouldn’t have. “Development of weapons using hell-stones to power them. A way to fight fire with fire. Which does work sometimes…”
“I see. Nothing worse than an enemy that innovates as well. I can see why the other Fomorian’s would fear this one. The data stolen from us is of a similar vein, of course.” A sigh rippled from Derek as worry started to smother his arrogance.
“Okay. ‘ve had enough o’ this. Just who do you two work fer?” Ms. Rosemary clearly had decided she’d ring the truth out of both of them if need be.
“I am an agent of the Crown. Herr Brier represents a cabal of humans that are working on mastering the same sorceries the Vain use against us. Both of us play a very dangerous game.” Another trace of a smile surfaced on the vicar’s face when Derek cursed low and in German. “I will not say any more as to protect you, Ms. Rosemary. I would suggest the three of us form a small cabal – share what information we gather about this. For the good of humanity.”
The other two were silent for a long moment. Perhaps surprisingly it was Derek who agreed first with a raise of his chin and a faint sound. Ms. Rosemary followed suit with an uneasy nod.
“Good. No more violence between we three. Shall we retire to some warm tea and something to nosh on? We can plan how to best do this.” Vicar Moss motioned for the side door into the church. He was sick of skulking around the graveyard. Tea fixed everything after all. The other two followed after him.
Becca shielded her eyes as she looked up at the military airship that drifted along. Her father had taken her up on the first generation of the aerial behemoths when she was but a child. All the doughboys laughed every time she ran by, exhilarated by the feeling of the wind against her face; by the high flying birds being so close one could almost touch them. She dimly recalled asking her father, a man always of a stern face but good heart, if they could fly up and touch the sun. At the moment the dilettante couldn’t recall what he’d answer had been, only that she didn’t like it. Really, he should not have been surprised when she fell for a dashing captain of one of the vessels.
Neither of them should have let her youthful indiscretion come between then. They had created a wall of ice to block one another off. Her charming suitor had gone down in flames years ago only making the rift worse. Now her father was dead too, that wall of ice could never thaw. Miss Thorn knew that she could not wallow in misery, or else she would lose more years from her life and never ever get them back. A smile pressed across her pretty lips and the sea breeze played with her hair. Stretched before her the beach was covered with families and couples trying to ignore there was a war on. Many of them had known nothing but the conflict; she remembered little else in truth. Still, here with the gentle surf lapping at pristine sand it was easy to imagine the world wasn’t soaked in blood – if only for a little while. That was until the airship’s shadow had loomed over them all, or one looked out into the water where warships floated. Her mood dipped and she raked her lower lip with one canine. Perhaps she was not as far along the road to recovery as she thought.
Where was Harper with her drink! When Becca turned she very nearly bumped into his wide chest. Not that she would have complained if she did. The fellow’s sturdy frame was something she found compelling. The strength and stability it offered, no… that he offered. Perhaps it was just because her life had fallen apart but the Colonel’s daughter didn’t care. She cast a thankful and coy smile up to him before taking the cold lemonade.
“What?” He canted his head a bit to the left as he looked at her. The warm sunshine played across the angles of firm features. A bit of the surf’s far off spray clung to the morning’s whiskers. “You wanted lemonade, right?”
“Mmm hmm.” Her soft lips pressed to the edge of the cup and she tilted it to take a sip, it was more like she was kissing the cup than drinking though. Becca’s eyes started to dip demurely but she forced them back up into his questioning gaze. She was not quite sure what to do herself.
The coachman nodded before rubbing his face with scarred hand. Her gaze did deviate then, brushing over the knot work of old burns across his fingers that stretched all the way to under cuff. When Miss Thorn’s drink lowered she reached out and took hold of Harper’s extremity, brought it down so she could take a better look at it. “If I did not know better, Harper, well… One might say that it seems you enjoy collecting scars.”
“Just the world we live in I suppose. Nothing to worry a…bou…” His other hand nearly dropped his own cup of sweet refreshment when she lifted the one she held to her fine bone cheek. She rubbed her tender cheek against it while her lids fell to half mast. The expression cast her crystal gaze to a hungry place, which in turn roused a sense of longing in his own chest which was similar. Her flesh visibly pebbled above her collar. The moment was something so very indecent in such a public place.
The masses around them trying to squeeze a few hours of pleasure and forget that there were military ships in the water and another flying above them did not notice. Many moral critics complained day in and day out and the erosion of good behavior that the prolong war had caused. They even claimed that this retreat back into savage and Godless times would be the true cause for Man’s extinction, not the fomorians.
Becca didn’t care.
Neither did Harper.
Holding one another on the pale sand was the right thing to do. It was what they both needed. So was the way that their faces gravitated toward one another and then their lips touched. Both of them needed to know what the other tasted like. Harper’s mouth was rough, the stubble tickled but his lips were tinged with all things masculine. The mere contact sent shivered through Becca’s veins. Her naturally sweet lips were flavored with the stark sour of lemonade but it gave Harper all the more of a thrill. A heavy sound rolled about in his wide chest and the pain in his side was forgotten, along with the clogged ache of his nose. She mewled gently in return and the pain in her heart was likewise subdued. Their first kiss was a short one though, little more than a tease before it was all done.
It still left both of their hearts racing.
Harper had turned his hand and curled it against the gentle slope of her face. He relished the way the tendrils of her hair felt against his fingers. “You’re not going to slap me are you?”
“No.” The blue-blood words came out as a bare breath. “You are not going to let me go, are you?”
Becca nodded and lingered in the moment. Life would go on. This was the surest clue of it. Around them the murmur of people at play continued. She half expected for a fomorian shell to come whistling in and ruin it all. She was glad that it did not. So instead she whistled out a long held breath and smiled. “How did it happen? Your hand.”
“Oh. My father was a ship captain, nothing too grand. He just ran cargo across the channel. We all helped out now and again, as much as we could as children. My sister and I… well… we would race down to greet him whenever it came into port. That didn’t change even when I started working aboard it. It was always how we knew we were home.” Harper’s expression put some distance between he and Becca. His hand didn’t move from her face. “Kitty running down the dock waving her hat about and smiling like a loon. Even as she blossomed into a woman too it never changed. We’d hoist her up, hugs and kisses and stories would be shared as the crew worked on unpacking. Those were… fine days.”
“Shh.” Her fingers settled on his mouth, the edges of her eyes glimmered. One did not need to be psychic to know where this story was heading. Each and every living soul in this dark century carried deep emotional scars. War was their constant companion thank to the bastards from Balor’s Eye. “Please. I did not mean to dredge such things up.”
“You haven’t. Ms. Thyme did that.” Harper spoke and then made a face as soon as the words slipped out. After all he had just broached a state secret. He imagined even now someone from the Order was drawing a bead on his head with their rifle.
“Whatever do you mean?” Becca’s eyebrows knitted.
“Never the mind.”
“Harper, do not make me jab your split side to get the truth out of you.” The woman’s gaze shifted from sensual to fiery. Becca was not the sort to be seen and not heard.
The thick man was quiet for a few moments more. Harper knew what was good for him, though, and spoke up. “Fomorian’s attacked the ship while we were sailing out on the open water to celebrate Kitty’s betrothment to a wealthy lawyer in London. They were friends at best, of course, but it was going to be a good match. We didn’t have anywhere to run when the shells started coming in. I lost sight of her as the cannon’s tore the back half of the ship apart. Father ran into the flames to try and find her. Her fiancé ran the other direction for the life boats… the bastard. At any rate I stayed with my mother but we were separated as the fire spread. I tried to hold onto her hand but the fires were too hot. Eventually my arm just gave in.”
Becca gasped but couldn’t find fitting words. She could only watch as he looked away into the water. Emotion drained from his face. “I was picked off a piece of wreckage a few days later by a passing schooner. None of the family survived, nor did the folks that got to the life boats. They may have been taken as slaves. I have no idea really.”
“I am sure that she perished, your sister.” It was an unusual way to console a man in the face of such news. Still the Colonel’s daughter knew that it was better to be dead than shackled by the Vain, especially as a woman.
“I was too.” Harper nodded slowly and looked back down to her.
“Was?” Her curiosity spiked once more.
“Ms. Thyme… looks just like her. “