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Brimstone and Lily, Chapters 1-4

Jasper’s Foul Tongue, Chapters 1-3

Jasper’s Magick Corset, teaser

Paragon of the Eccentric, Chapter 1

Shyclock, the Automaton of Venice (beginning)

Winterlesson (beginning)

BRIMSTONE AND LILY

(Bronze Medal winner, 2010 Independent Publishers Book Awards);

Finalist, 2009 Colorado Gold fiction contest)

Chapters 1-4

…the most magick-hunted person on Earth.

1/ Verity the Valiant

Right past my eye! Too close. The wasp-sting of the Fell Knight’s sword point buzzed so close to my nose that for an instant I saw two of them. A drop of sweat leapt from my face as I jerked back and the bead split itself on my foe’s steel. Move, move, move! Giving his rapier blade a quick tap upward with my parrying dagger, I cart-wheeled left. As I’d expected, my enemy’s own poinard gouged jagged woodchips where my foot had just been. I shrugged my dripping hair out of my eyes and squared off to meet his new attack. Ain’t much more than a warm-up so far.

“You’re too predictable,” I told him with a smirk. The saucy heroine must always smirk at the villain. I think it’s a rule.

“Predict this!” he sneered, giving me a feint thrust to the left shoulder. I moved to block it with my rapier but he deceived it. His tip dipped below my guard and licked at my wrist. Ready for him, though, I knocked it aside with a snap of my dagger.  Is that your best move? In that same second he stepped in hard with his own short steel to dispatch me with a jab to my right flank, his intended target all along. Clever boy.

But he hadn’t reckoned with the rattlesnake responses of Verity the Valiant. I paralleled both of my blades and spanked the knife out of his cruel fingers. With a yelp he tried to take my head off with his sword. Good thing I can do a fast split! His long edge tickled my cowlick as my feet slid apart and I dropped to the floor. I looked up, catching him out of position from his follow-through. Scissoring my legs back together, I rose to his exposed throat with my blades crossed. I placed the iron X at his sweaty neck, feeling his frightened pulse pounding through my edges.

I snarled, “Do you yield, monster?”

The Fell Knight gave me a proud laugh. “To the likes of you? Never! Do your worst, wench!”

    “I take you at your word, then!”  My weapons clattered to the stage floor as I began tickling him in his bony ribs.

“Hey!” Eddie shrieked, his defense against my wiggling fingers as vain as his swordplay had been. “You’ll make me wet my pants!” High and ringing, his voice echoed in the empty theatre.

That only increased my gleeful assault. I pinned him against the stage left proscenium arch.  “Give?” My arm wrapped around his neck and I Dutch-rubbed his scruffy brown noodle. “Give? Say uncle!”

My stage brother squirmed like a trapped rat but that got him nowhere. I’d always been stronger. “Oww!” He threw up his dirty hands. “Okay! Okay! Uncle, then! Don’t scalp me like a red Injun!”

I released him with a grin and staggered out the stage door into the alley for some air, making the cats and rats scatter. Eddie followed, gasping. Lordy, it’s hot. Side-by-side, arms around one another’s shoulders, we gazed east toward the half-completed Capitol dome. They still ain’t finished the darned thing, or the Washington Monument, neither. Prob’ly have to wait for the war to end now. I’d heard, though, that President Lincoln vowed to keep working on the dome, no matter what Jeff Davis tried to do.

We flopped onto a pile of just-delivered scenery canvas.  Later we’d make flats out of it, transforming it all into mountains and skylines and forests. Already I could smell the glue. Ick! That smell of that stuff always made my head hurt. Near as bad as the smell of the Canal. Seemed the farther into summer we got the worse the raw sewage stunk. Made you wonder why the Confederate army would want the place. Richmond sounded ever so much nicer than Washington. Our capital still needed paved streets and decent plumbing. I’d seen the mud so bad that a fire engine drove onto the sidewalk so it wouldn’t sink. Some days I wished Ma had never moved us here from the Maryland farm where I’d been born.

Touching his own aching noggin, Eddie made a face and offered me the jug of water he’d been guzzling. We panted and sweated in the June humidity. “I get to win next time. You can be the villain.”

“Only if you invent the fight moves. Them’s the rules. Besides, I like givin’ bad guys their comeuppance.”

He nodded toward the hole he’d made in the apron floorboards. You could see it even from that distance. “We have to fix that quick. If Mr. Ford sees it we’ll be the ones getting the comeuppance.”

“If you hadn’t stabbed so hard you wouldn’t’ve put a dent in his new floor. It’s just pretend, you know.”

“I know, but it has to look proper.” Eddie sure loved proper. Proper speech, proper clothes, proper manners. Everything had to be correct. That’s how you could tell we weren’t real kin.

“You’re gonna get a proper whuppin’ if you don’t fill that back in and paint it before their dress rehearsal tonight.” I nudged a pot of glue at him with my toe. “Here. Put the big chunks back, sand everything off even, and then slap some black paint down.”

Eddie sagged. “I don’t know how to do all that. I’ll make a hash of it. Can’t you?”

I sighed, something I did a lot around Eddie. “You’re a piece o’ work, Edward Stubb. How is it that you can paint the prettiest pictures but you’re useless for paintin’ a floor?”

To be honest, Eddie couldn’t really have been as useless as I let on. Mr. Ford paid him a nickel apiece to make color sketches of scenery and costumes. No adult could do them as well. Mr. Sherburn, the company carpenter, and Ellen Sauveur (my mother), the wardrobe mistress, used them as references.

Eddie shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s just different. Not like designing makeup or styling wigs.”

I snorted. Different’s the word, all right.  He’d fooled us all once, Ma and me included, by waltzing into the lobby of Ford’s Athenaeum dressed as a snooty rich lady. For ten minutes he’d complained about the ticket prices, how uncomfortable the seats felt, and the ruffian next to him spitting tobacco juice on the floor. Then he stuck his snoot in the air and stormed out. We might never have discovered him if he hadn’t come to supper with a tiny bit of rouge on one cheek. Mr. Ford announced that soon he’d put Eddie onstage. Even at twelve years old, he acted that well. Most of what I know of disguises and accents I learned from him.

Eddie was a lot prettier than me. I hate that word. Was. It still takes some getting used to, that he’s gone. Taken by the Bullies. You know what that means. Dead, or wishin’ you was. Magicked into something horrible, not even able to make a human scream.

Anyhow, Eddie had a prettier face than me, though that ain’t saying much. Prettier than his three girlfriends, too. Everybody called me a tomboy. A “ragamuffin”, Mr. Ford would say when he got cross at me. Short red hair, pug nose, and freckles. Dresses made me itch and corsets made me cry. All that girlie stuff left me cold. Seemed to me that all that girls and women got to do boiled down to three things: embroider, stay clean, and giggle. I preferred hammers and wrestling and swordfights. And maybe that’s why you only have one friend in the whole world. Who wants their kid to be seen with the freak? Ma always said I’d grow out of it, a terrible thing to contemplate. “You’re only twelve,” she’d told me that very day. “When you’re a bit older you’ll see.”

I stood up and stretched, looking around. Mad Molly crouched over down the alley a piece, hunting for who-knew-what in a trash heap. She’d lost her husband in the last war, the one where Washington had been burned by the Britannic army. Everybody said she’d lost her mind from grief back then, too. Walked about town living on handouts, babbling. Eddie and me gave her a dime now and then, but mostly avoided her. There were lots of poor old widows in town, left with no one to care for them. Now the new war minted fresh ones faster than anybody could count.

We finished up the water jug and shuffled back inside, muscles creaking from over an hour of stage combat. When I planned the fights Verity the Valiant triumphed, a spunky unbeatable righter-of-wrongs with a heart of gold and an arm of iron. The Fell Knight had no chance against her. But whenever Eddie designed the routines poor Verity fell, a rube from the countryside who scarcely knew which end of the sword to grab. A helpless pawn caught in the ruthless designs of her social superior. Today I’d won the coin toss.

“Battle of Agincourt?” blurted Eddie in a snooty Britannic voice. Aha. Time for Round Two.

“1415,” I answered, returning his serve with a Gaullic tone. “Fall of Constantinople?”

“Which one?” he asked with a grin, batting his huge chocolate-brown eyes. I noticed that his lashes were short, even for a boy.

“Both, smarty-pants.”

“1204, sacked by Christian knights during the 4th Crusade. Then the Turks took it for good in 1453. Shakespeare’s birthday?”

I made a ppfft sound with my lips. Too easy. “April 23, 1564. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

He hesitated for just a second. “Straight pin or safety pin?”

We had a good laugh at that.  I punched him on the arm a couple of times. He made-believe that it hurt. Like I said, Eddie could act. Sometimes he’d sham weakness. It helped him keep the rowdies away every now and then, since they couldn’t look very tough picking on a “sissy”. Fooled them, too. They’d saunter off to find bigger game and the next thing they knew, a rock would ping them between their shoulders, fired from around a corner or up on a balcony. Eddie worked on proper marksmanship, along with everything else he did.

While he rubbed his arm he peered at me like he wanted to draw my face. I twisted up my nose and mouth, and then stuck out my tongue. “Whatcha doin’?” I asked.

“Your eyes look bad. Are you sleeping okay?”

I looked away. “Sure.”

“None of those dreams?”

I rubbed the dark circles under my eyes. “Uh-uh.”

He pulled me back around and gave me his ‘you can’t lie to me’ face. “Verity.”

Sighing, I gave in. “Oh, all right! Just a couple o’ times this week is all.”

“Maybe you need to see a doctor.”

“What for? He’ll just say I need to quit eatin’ raspberries before bed or some other fool thing. Doctors don’t know beans.”

“Maybe not, but you need to do something. You tell your ma?”

“Not after the first time. She gave me a look like I’d just confessed to murder. Don’t want to see that again.”

Eddie frowned. “Same exact dream? Every time?”

I nodded, pulling glue and paint out of the tool cupboard. “Never changes.”

“The man with the gold skin? The big black dog?”

“Yep, all of it.” Fallin’ down a dark hole. Weird letters that move around like ants. The grandma with sharpened teeth. And blonde kids with long scary hands, reachin’ out for you. Like havin’ that Edgar Allan Poe feller in your head. I got spooked just thinking about it and wanted to talk about something else. “I’ll be okay. They come in bunches for a couple o’ weeks, then they go away. Should about be done.” I held up the glue jar. “And we should be about done fixin’ the floor, if you’d quit yer jawin’.”

I made a deal with Eddie to trade chores for the day. He’d wash costumes for me and I’d beat the lobby rugs for him, plus fix the floor. His funeral, I figured. Washin’ is ever so much more work, to my mind. So while he went out with our hired freedman Romulus to fetch water for the tub, I patched the nick in Mr. Ford’s apron floor. When I’d finished you’d never have known it’d been there. That’s what I’ve always been good at, hiding mischief.

Just as I put the paint away in the stage right cupboard Mr. Ford strolled in through the upstage entrance, dapper and handsome as always. One of the lead actors came with him. They didn’t see me because I snuck behind the cupboard door. They talked about the dress rehearsal that night, picking their way through papier-mâché Scottish rocks. Macbeth always pleased the crowds and no mistake.Mr. Ford seemed to think that his witches weren’t scary enough.

“They should move in an inhuman way,” he said, inspecting his theatre as he spoke. Yanking on a rope to see that it stayed secure, he continued while the other man followed. “Perhaps like spiders at times, or slithering snakes. Their heads might jerk as birds of prey do, eyes never blinking. I want the audience to be disturbed.”

“If you truly desire to upset your patrons, double your prices,” said his companion, as good-looking and well-dressed as they come, even for a star actor. Dark curling hair and moustache set off his square jaw and pale skin. His eyes matched his voice. Both struck me as deep and restless, with half-contained fire. After chuckling at his own joke he went on in a different tone, one that made my skin crawl. “Or you can re-cast them with the prettiest blonde children in town, all with black eyes and long fingers.”

What did he say? I tilted my head and crouched close to the floor where I could see and hear them without being noticed.

Mr. Ford froze and glanced around. He seemed scared to be overheard, even alone in his own theatre. “Not funny, Booth.”

John Wilkes Booth gave him the same smile boys made when stepping on bugs. I’d have bet his Thane of Glamis would give you more chills than any witch he shared the stage with. “Jumpy, aren’t we? Next you’ll be intoning, ‘The very walls have ears!’”

“It’s not the walls that I’m worried about. It’s the cat by the fire, or the rat that raids the pantry, or my housekeeper’s canary.” Are they talkin’ in some kinda code?

“Relax. As long as you don’t rock the Merchantry’s boat they won’t try to sink yours.”

Merchantry? What’s that? He’d pronounced it like a Gaullic word…mer-SHAN-tree.

Mr. Ford frowned and stared at the precise spot that I’d just patched, even though he stood twenty feet upstage of it. “My boat is not my chief concern. I’d just prefer not to wake up one day as a dung beetle.”

“Well, let’s just work to put on a good show and the rest will take care of itself.” Booth glanced at an expensive-looking watch plucked from his brocade vest. “I’m off to the Willard for a brandy, and perhaps some socializing with a couple of the Army bigwigs. See if I can find out what’s going on in the Peninsula. No one seems to have a clue about this Lee, the Rebels’ new commander. Coming?”

“Lee doesn’t matter. As long as he’s fighting McClellan, that bragging idiot—”

“Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!” Booth boomed into the empty house. I had to admit, he sounded darn good.

Ford laughed and slapped his star on the back. Booth stiffened for a second, but Mr. Ford didn’t notice.  “If you deliver all of your lines like that one, it’ll signify fat profits for us both!”

“Stay awhile, I will be faithful.” Booth shook Ford’s hand. “Adieu.”

The actor bounded off through the wings, humming. Mr. Ford moved downstage. Now he could see me in the paint cupboard, the picture of innocence. “So,” he purred, “was it your sword or Eddie’s?”

I blushed. Nothing ever got past him. Of course, the pile of weapons near the prompt box sort of gave it away. “Eddie gets too enthusiastic sometimes.”

“Which is why we all love him.” He stood right above my floor patch. “Good work. If I hadn’t seen it from the upstage side, angled in the light, I never would have noticed. I presume that this is your work and not Eddie’s?”

“Yes, sir. He’s out back scrubbin’ costumes for Ma. She’s in the Greenroom gettin’ things ready for tonight’s rehearsal. I’m gonna beat the lobby rugs for you.”

“Good girl.” He squinted. “Where’s your necklace? I thought you never took it off.”

I gasped and dug a hand into the back of my overalls. “Forgot! Didn’t wanna have a sword catch it.” A smooth red stone glowed in the afternoon light. The gift Pa had put around my neck the day of my birth. I had nothing else of him. No pictures, no letters, nothing but a flat speckled rock on a black silk cord. Shaped like a long blunt-nosed arrowhead with a vertical oblong slit in its center. Ma called it my Legacy Stone, a piece of jasper Pa’d claimed that he’d had since he’d been a boy. I slipped it over my head and tucked it inside my shirt.

“Still doing well in school? I’ve been bragging to everyone about how sharp you are.” As proud of me and Eddie’s school work as if he’d been our own daddy, Mr. Ford kept close watch on our learning. Since he paid for us both to go out of his own pocket, he had the right, I guess. Sometimes I wished he had been my real pa. I had no memory of my father at all. Ma said she’d lost him two days after my birth. Never would tell me more. Must’ve been real hard on her.

“Oh, yes, sir. Perfect marks in History and Literature last term. My grammar and cipherin’ still need work, though. You won’t want me countin’ your receipts, that’s for sure. Can’t wait fer summer to be over so we can go back.” I didn’t lie. Believe it or not, I loved school, except for having to wear shoes. You can call it girlie, I don’t care. Guess I had a knack for it, especially for Shakespeare and other storytellers. I reckoned I knew just about any book you could name then, backwards and forwards. Me and Eddie would have competitions in history, too, trying to stump one another. It amazed our teacher, Miz Finch, that we could be that sharp. Me in particular, because I didn’t appear the studious type. ‘Tweren’t natural, she’d say. High praise from someone who looked unnatural herself. Never saw such a backside on a woman. Broader than a hay wagon.

Reaching into his coat pocket, Mr. Ford drew out a peppermint stick and handed it to me with manicured fingers. “Here. Make sure you give him half.” When I reached for it he withdrew the candy. “After you put the swords back in the property closet.”

I smiled and stared at my big booted feet. Just like at school, I wasn’t allowed to be barefoot in the theatre. “Yes, sir.” I collected my treat and scampered off with the rapiers, their daggers stowed inside the caged hilts. Mr. Ford in a good mood, sweets in my hand, and Eddie doing my chores…all was right with the world.

As right as that twisted war-torn world of 1862 could be, on the last happy day of my childhood. Before I became the most magick-hunted person on Earth.

 

I punched his boy-bits with all of my might.

2/ Romulus

My ma folded shirts in the Greenroom, on account of it being cooler than in the costume shop. Sweat soaked her calico dress. Some crazy person built Washington City in a swamp, so summers always sweltered. Until last year’s attack on Fort Sumter had filled the city with troops and government workers, most people had always left town come June. It felt that miserable. Most years Mr. Ford booked little or nothing into the Athenaeum for June, July, and August, there being no audience to speak of. But now he had a chance to pack the house full of free-spending Army officers and War Department workers. That’s why the popular Booth had brought his company, to perform for folk starved for entertainment as well as thirsting for good news of the war.

Giving me that look she always used when I’d disappointed her, Ma said, “You switched chores with Eddie? What did I tell you about—?”

“I didn’t take advantage of him,” I protested. Well, maybe a little. “He asked me to help him out of a fix.”

She smoothed her damp dark hair out of her gray eyes. Short and round, she wore spectacles on the end of her sharp nose. They made her look like Ben Franklin’s sister. The glasses usually sat atop her head, except for when she sewed or when she wanted to glare at me about something I’d done. I don’t look much like her. Guess I got Pa’s face. At least that’s what she tells me. I don’t recall him. Sure wish I could, though. “You could have said no.”

“And then he’d be onstage right now, in a world of trouble with Mr. Ford. I did him a favor.”

“And since you’re so considerate for your best friend, you’ll do him another. Go help with the wash…now. Then you’ll both beat those rugs.”

I started to argue, but knew it would be useless. Jamming the peppermint stick in my mouth, I clumped out.

“Don’t forget to give him half of that candy,” she called after me.

Oh, a big one for honesty and fairness, my ma. She based everything she did or said on those ideas. Whether portions at dinner, kids’ games, or national affairs, she considered right more important than convenient. Even though Eddie didn’t really count as my real brother—Mr. Ford had found him on the street and let him live at the theatre—he got treated as such by us. And Ma had hired Romulus to help with odd jobs, paying him the same as a white man. Him being somewhat simple didn’t matter to her. As soon as Mr. Lincoln had freed all of Washington City’s slaves in April she’d made it a point to give a job to the first colored person who’d asked her. Didn’t care who knew it or who objected, neither. Of course, she expected the same from me, too.

Me and Eddie spent a miserable hour wrestling with two dozen pair of pants. Boiling water, boiling lye, and boiling sun, combined with stirring what seemed like eleven tons of waterlogged trousers, made us woozy and weak. The sultry air could have almost drowned you trying to breathe it. Romulus helped out a bit, truth be told, or we’d likely have fainted. He had the kind of  strength you read about in fairy tales.

Big old loyal Romulus. He’d come to Ford’s asking for a job, any job, the day he’d got his freedom papers in April. Ma hadn’t needed any help, but she told me that something about him made her feel safe, somehow. Faithful and brawny, he looked after us like a kindly uncle. Though sometimes he watched over me so careful that he resembled a sheepdog guarding his flock from wolves.

After some time in the shade back of the theatre—and about a gallon of Ma’s lemonade—we beat the lobby rugs till we almost choked to death. The beaters made good pretend-swords, so we performed Macduff vs. Macbeth for Romulus, poor old Mad Molly, and a few scruffy alley cats. Eddie got to win that time—his last victory, come to think of it. Shaved head shining in the sun like a big buckeye, Romulus clapped his giant paws as he watched. Sitting in that odd way of his, upright on his toes with his hands between his knees, he looked like a happy old mutt, tongue lolling.

Ma let us loose after chores, so long as we got back at five for supper. Dress rehearsal started at six and we had to help. I’d shift scenery and Eddie’d work with Ma and the costumes. That gave us over an hour. We ran west to the Potomac, my horrid boots left at home. Woo! My tootsies can breathe! We waved at the guards around the President’s House on the way. They were used to seeing us. Once Mr. Lincoln had even said hello while watching Willie ride his pony on the South Lawn. Willie had been the same age as us. The typhoid got him just four months before. Now the poor President didn’t come out much anymore.

President Washington’s monument-to-be rose a ways to our left, a whitish mess that didn’t look like something dedicated to a great man. Seemed more like a gravestone. In fact, some kids we knew said it was haunted. Weird things happened there, they said. People would  come out of it wearing clothes from long ago: Napoleon’s Gaulle, or the Middle Ages, or the Thirty Years War. We laughed, of course. ‘About as believable as the Headless Horseman’. But with the sewage smell of the nearby Washington Canal smacking you in the face, you could believe it a half-built castle from Ivanhoe’s time.

Hoping to see the Monitor, we peered at the river from a high point near one of the Heavy Artillery batteries that pointed downstream and toward the Virginia side. Harper’s Weekly had run pictures of the new iron gunboat, wonder of the Navy, and we itched to catch sight of it. No such luck. It probably cruised down by Richmond, making sure that the Confederates’ ironclad couldn’t do any mischief against McClellan’s army. Seemed like he needed all the help he could get. The papers said his siege had turned into a retreat, thanks to the new Rebel general, that Lee. Big battles brewed that could decide the war.

    We gave up looking for the wonder weapon and sprinted along the shore. Funny how the heat’s intolerable when there’s work to be done, but you can play in the same sun forever and never feel it. Pretending we were the giant guns of the battery, Eddie gave me orders like he’d heard their officers doing. I’d go through the loading drill for a 100-pound Parrot rifle, then cock my arm. When he’d shout, “Fire!” my rock would blast out to sink the enemy. Many a driftwood gunboat suffered our righteous wrath. Once I misfired and the shot landed amidst a bunch of bathing soldiers. They seemed to think that Southern sharpshooters had found their range, for they dove under the water like frantic ducks. Laughing at the sight of so many naked fish-belly-white bums, we tore off back through town.

Our laughter faded quick when we saw that we’d made a dumb decision. To save time after being held up by a slow-marching regiment, we turned off our normal route. Trying to cut across the grounds of St. Usher’s, a posh school for Senators’ sons and the like, we hoped we wouldn’t be spotted. Our previous dealings with those kids had taught us not to truck with them. “Mean” must’ve been a required class there. Once they’d stripped Eddie’s trousers and sent him home with a whipped bottom. What is it about money and power that makes some people so cruel?

We figured we were pretty safe, it being summer and no school, so we didn’t take it as careful as we should have. Three-quarters of the way through we started to relax. No one had jumped us or even yelled, “Boo!” The big sandstone building that the boys lived and studied in sat there like a forgotten mausoleum, all shadowy and dead. Weaving between the spooky old oaks on the lawn, Eddie and me started giggling from released nerves.

The first one dropped out of a tree behind us like a well-dressed monkey. His three friends popped up from behind a woodpile and a trash heap, cutting us off in all directions and closing in. Two carried sticks. Another had a length of chain. Eddie already started to shake beside me. As the noose constricted I recognized their leader, the one who’d been up in the tree. Time to apply some butter.

“H’lo, Horace,” I said with as big and goofy a grin as I could manage. Our best chance would be to act stupid and harmless, maybe disarm them enough to make them drop their guard and then we could run for it. “How ya’ll doin’? Nice suit.”

Horace returned my smile with one of his own. Since it looked like a hyena licking its chops, it didn’t reassure me much. “Verity…Eddie.” He looked down at his blue velvet jacket. “This old thing? Just the rags I like to wear on days like this so I don’t get the blood of interlopers on my really nice clothes.”

Interlopers? Somebody’s been payin’ attention in Britannic class. “We’re just tryin’ to get home fer supper. No need to make a fuss.”

His greased dark hair looked like a shiny skullcap. He lacked a front tooth, but otherwise looked the rich kid, a banker’s boy from New York. “Fuss? No fuss needed to teach you two your place. And because it’s so hot, I think Eddie might appreciate being stripped buck naked this time.”

The trio lurking between us and home snickered along with him. Wilbur and Hawthorne, the pair with sticks who dressed like Horace except more sloppy, took a couple of steps toward us. Eddie started to whimper. I nudged him with my hip to be quiet and to start sidling toward home. When he began to move I followed right behind him, but backing up to keep my eye on Horace.

“Y’all oughta be home. School’s out. Why ya hangin’ ‘round here?” I said, as cool as I could manage. To be honest, I felt like making Eddie-noises myself.

“My father has a position with the War Department now,” Horace announced in a grand tone. Means he’s sellin’ rations to the Commissary, emphasis on the r-a-t.

“Yeah? That’s swell.” The boy with the chain slid sideways. Our move hadn’t been as slick as we’d thought. Looked like we wouldn’t be able to dash after all. Oh, well. I had a back-up plan, but it depended on some luck. And on Eddie not fainting before we started.

“Swell…that’s what your heads are going to do when we break ‘em,” whispered Wilbur, thumping his stick into his fat empty palm. With his thin hair and round pink face he looked kind of like a pig. Some folks said Wilbur had been thrown out of public school for setting fires and talking to spiders, so his wealthy family had got him out of Pennsylvania and dumped him at St. Usher’s. They never visited, I heard.

Horace played the leader, the cool customer. Hawthorne and the kid with the chain seemed to be followers, trying to be popular. Wilbur looked like the one I could get to make a mistake. Anyhow, he stood closest and I wanted his stick. Oh, please, let this work. Oh, please…

I turned toward him. “You’re clever. You must be the boss here.”

Horace cackled. Thanks for being predictable. Wilbur puffed himself up and looked at the three kids beside him. “Well, ya know how it is…”

“No”, said Horace in a dark voice. “Suppose you tell us how it is, Little Willie.”

Oho! A snotty nickname. Better than I’d hoped. I could feel the heat rise from Wilbur’s wounded pride. “Shut yer trap, Horace!” he spat. “I  do what I want, when I want.”

“That so? And what do you want, Little Willie? Huh?”

“I want to whale on these two fer a bit, then I’ll tan your hide!”

“Well, get to it, then. I’m waiting.”

Wilbur eyed me, almost with an unspoken apology. He preferred going after Horace, but he’d been boxed in. Boys! I could see him wavering. But I needed him to go after me first. Otherwise his two buddies might just charge at us while he attacked Horace. So I helped him make up his tiny mind.

“Afraid ya might lose to a girl?” I smiled. Then I blew him a kiss.

Of course he swung at my face as hard as he could, like a batter playing rounders. I counted on it. Blood thumping in my ears, I dropped into the same split I’d done with Eddie earlier that day. My coveralls just let me do it. The stick whooshed over my dipping head in such a big circle that it forced Hawthorne to hop back. So far, so good. Before Wilbur could recover from his stroke I took him out of the fight as only a ruthless girl can: I punched his boy-bits with all of my might.

Just so you know, it hurts a girl to be hit there, too, but it seems to mean more to a boy, somehow.

Wilbur’s yard of oak plopped onto the grass as his knees buckled. Pushing him as hard as I could, I scrambled forward quick as a bobcat and grabbed the club. Hawthorne almost fell over him as Little Willie staggered backwards clutching his groin, then dropped. Chain-Boy reacted quicker than I’d expected. He ignored me and went for Eddie, who just stood there paralyzed in terror, eyes wide as a frightened bunny’s. That hunk of chain zizzed through the sultry air. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up fast enough to stop it.

But it didn’t hit Eddie’s noggin. My stage brother justified Mr. Ford’s confidence in his acting skills. You were pretendin’, you sneak! His scrawny form dove straight at his attacker, inside the arc of the chain. Chain-Boy’s swing had been a bit lazy, counting on Eddie’s staying frozen. They looked like attendees at one of those dances the soldiers sometimes had when there were no girls around. Swirling together, they spun away from the rest of us and crashed into a tree.

I couldn’t watch anymore, because Hawthorne and Horace had recovered from their surprise. Now they played it more careful, their overconfidence replaced by cunning. Hawthorne scooted around to cut me off from home. Wilbur struggled to his feet and headed my way. He looked real mad. OK, Verity, now you’re in trouble. I let Thorny have it with my new weapon, but he blocked it with a neat wrist snap. Darn! St. Usher’s must have a single stick class. I tried again, feinting this time and jabbing at his breadbasket. That worked, but he hopped back just enough so that the thrust landed weak. Crud! Time for my secret Verity the Valiant attack, a combination of cleverness and grace that’ll stun the world.

Before I had a chance to think of anything close to that, Wilbur screamed like a banshee and hurled his nasty self at me. My stick smacking his shoulder didn’t even make him flinch. I hit the grass hard, his weight knocking my wind out. In a second he had straddled me, knees pinning my arms down tight. No amount of squirming helped shake him loose. I relaxed, hoping he’d think I’d given up and lower his guard. No such luck. He may have looked creepy and dumb, but refused to be fooled twice. While he gloated over me, Chain-Boy drug poor Eddie over and dumped him next to us. Each of them had a swollen lip. Good for you, Eddie.

“I’m gonna enjoy every minute of this,” sneered Wilbur, raising his fist.

Horace grabbed his arm. “Wait.” He looked over at Eddie’s captor. “Roderick, move Pretty Boy over here next to her.”

Eddie’s bruised face appeared next to mine. His fear looked real now.

With a nasty chuckle Horace stood over us like an over-dressed Colossus. “Since you two stuck your big noses where they don’t belong, I think I’ll trim them a little.” His delicate rich-boy fingers drew a long knife out of his coat. A knife? Jiminy, Horace, this is just a kids’ fight!

“Come on, Horace, what are you doin’?” I said, more hoarse than I’d planned.

“I’m slitting your nostrils, that’s what I’m doing. We’ve been ordered to keep all trespassers away from St. Usher’s.”

“Ordered?” asked Eddie, wriggling. No use. “By who?”

Horace got an odd look in his eye, like someone testifying in church. “We’re Merchantry men now.”

While I digested what that might mean, he leaned down, knife tip hovering over my sweating face. I craned my neck to get away from the evil-looking blade. Just as it almost touched me Eddie pleaded, “Get away from her!”

Horace Hadleyburg flew back a full thirty feet, landing on the lawn in a screaming heap. Whoa! How’d you do that, Eddie? Wilbur rose straight up as if levitated by a stage magician. He squeaked out a froggy croak, feet kicking like a hanged man, then crumpled sideways off of me. What on earth’s goin’ on? I wrenched myself to a sit and looked around in a daze. Hawthorne and Roderick scrambled away from us, shakily brandishing their weapons as something huge and dark growled above my head.

Romulus towered there, almost smoking with rage. I’d never seen him like that, or ever imagined such a thing. He snarled in a way that you’d imagine Cerberus would do in the Underworld. His eyes had lost their calm loving look and almost seemed to glow. Our hired man crouched low, almost on all fours. Where had he come from, without making a sound or being seen? The man stood as tall as President Lincoln and weighed close to 300 pounds. Stealth shouldn’t have been in his vocabulary.

I had to give Wilbur credit, he didn’t back down once he got over the first shock. With a howl and a curse word or two he brought his oak cudgel down. I flinched as it caught Romulus square on the head…and snapped clean in two like a straw. Blinking, I felt my jaw drop. That should’ve laid him out cold. Romulus just shook his head and howled at Wilbur. The boy’s pants darkened as he wet himself and sprinted off toward the school building, Hawthorne at his heels. Roderick half-dragged Horace in the same direction.

Eddie and I got to our feet, shaky but not hurt too much. We stared at each other, then at Romulus. Now that our attackers had fled, he seemed to be shrinking somehow. His breathing got back to near normal and that ungodly light left his eyes. There stood our old Romulus again, harmless as a new puppy.

“This a bad place,” he told us in a soft voice. Well, as soft as he could ever manage. It still sounded like a locomotive ready to pull a load uphill. “Don’t you two come here no mo’.” He got no argument from us. “C’mon. Yo mama’s waitin’ supper.”

All the way home I kept sneaking sideways looks at our rescuer. Something didn’t smell good and no mistake. I remembered that knife against my nose, and how Horace had been so ready to cut me up just because we walked on his stupid school’s lawn. ‘We’re Merchantry men now.’ What is this Merchantry? Eddie grabbed my hand tight. It looked like he thought the same thing. What’s goin’ on at St. Usher’s?

 

 

“Be extra careful this evening.

It’s the summer solstice and…things… will be abroad.”

3/ A Weird Chamber

What did I tell you two about that place?” Ma said, holding a beefsteak on Eddie’s black eye. We sat in the kitchen of our flat, a half-block north of the theatre. I could smell the chicken boiling for supper. My mouth watered despite how much I hurt all over.

“We didn’t think anybody’d be there this time of year,” Eddie told her, wincing.

“They was awful nasty,” I said, rubbing all the parts of me that ached. “Acted like they guarded it or somethin’.”

Ma shook her head and muttered, “Merchantry men, they said?”

“That’s what I heard Horace say, whatever that means. His pa’s company, maybe? I’d like to find out.”

“No!” We jumped a little at the violence of that word. Ma’d gone white as a sheet and started shaking. “Don’t even think that!” She grabbed me hard under the chin. “You stay away from St. Usher’s. And anyone starts talking about anything you don’t understand, particularly about the  Honourable Merchantry, you skedaddle away as fast as your legs’ll take you. Hear?”

“Yes, ma’am. But I don’t understand why—”

“Were any of the boys blonde? White-blonde, with coal-black eyes?”

Eddie and I looked at each other as we replayed the fight in our minds, then we shook our heads.

“Well, they wouldn’t be out in the sun anyhow, I guess. That’s good.” She still looked as scared as I’d ever seen her, fidgeting with the dinner plates and her apron.

Romulus clomped up the back stairs into the kitchen. I saw no sign of the horrible blow Wilbur’s club had struck his bald brown head. Not so much as a bruise. How can that be? He leaned against the door jamb, facing sideways so he could look out at the street and still talk to us.

“Looks okay, Miz Sauveur. Everything seems normal, like.” He pronounced our name like we said it, not the proper Gaullic way: sew-FAIR. She heard plenty of jokes at Ford’s about that being the perfect costume designer name.

“Thank you,” Ma said, looking as grateful as could be. She stirred the stew pot and added some onions. “Can you check around the theatre after sundown? And keep a lookout during the rehearsal?”

“My pleasure, ma’am.”

“Do you have your mirror?”

He patted the pocket of his gray cotton shirt. “Never go anywheres without it.”

I felt confused. Eddie looked just as puzzled. “Lookout for what?” he asked. “They’re just kids.”

Ma eased herself down at the dinner table. “It’s not Horace’s gang I’m worried about.”

“Who, then?” I asked, sitting on her lap. “And why does Romulus need a mirror?”

She hugged me tight, then gathered Eddie into her arms with us. “You’re getting to be big. It’s about time to tell you, I suppose. Only right and fair that you know how the world really is. And what your part in it might be.”

Eddie made a face. “Is this that talk about babies and storks? Because I have to be honest, Silky Sadie who works the corner told me that what really happens is—”

Ma laughed despite herself. “No, it’s not that.”

Eddie had been holding out on me. “What did Silky Sadie tell you?” I asked him.

“Never mind,” Ma said. “We’ll have that talk soon enough, I imagine.” She scooted me off and stood up. “As for the other thing, that’ll have to wait till tomorrow. Time for supper now, and then off to rehearsal. Mr. Booth will throw a hissy fit if it starts late. Go wash up, you two.” We ran off to the basin and the soap. As we did so I heard her say to Romulus, “Be extra careful this evening. It’s the summer solstice and…things… will be abroad.”

*        *        *        *        *

    Ford’s Athenaeum started out as a Baptist Church. When they’d moved on to a new place, John T. Ford had taken over the 30 year-old building and made a music hall out of it. He owned several such theatres, here and in Maryland. Folks trusted him as being wise in business affairs and as honest as a saint. That meant something in Washington. Mr. Ford had even been acting mayor of Baltimore once. When he decided to do a thing, it got done right. I’d seen evidence of that firsthand. The theatre had just opened in March, after an expensive remodeling. Popular from the first, President Lincoln had even attended a play there, only three weeks before. It’d turned from a house of God to a house of Art, but you could still sort of tell that it had been a church once. It had that feel, like ancient forces throbbed beneath it.

I finished stowing the last piece of scenery, Duncan’s throne, backstage. Helping to stow it, anyhow. It took four of us to move the thing, they’d built it that massive. Booth, both the star and the producer, had gone all-out on this show. We half-expected a stage full of horses for the Act V battle scene. Nearby, Eddie and Ma dressed actors in armor and wigs. I wouldn’t see much of them once the play started, as my duties were mostly on the other side of the stage. After giving them a wave, I weaved my way through the crush of performers and stagehands to the up right corner, where I’d wait until they needed me to help shift a flat or adjust a bush.

Ducking under one of the half-raised drops, I smiled at the fly operator next to his bank of ropes. It amazed me that all of this chaos—flats, curtains, trapdoors, smoky fire-prone gas lights, racks of costumes, tables full of greasepaint—could result in something as wonderful as a play. Even more amazing, some of the flightiest people you’d ever seen managed the chaos. Booth, as full of himself as any man who’d ever lived, impressed me as a paragon of sense compared to most of the actors who shared the stage with him. Lady Macbeth loved laudanum a little too well. Our doddering King Duncan didn’t always know what play we’d staged. Sometimes he’d burst into a song from some music hall performance he’d done as a young man. Banquo seemed well-cast as a ghost, because he frequently became invisible (well, actually he had to be fetched from the basement maintenance closet, where he’d be romancing one of the witches). Despite all of this, the play itself proved a marvel. Only Shakespeare could have made so artificial a thing into such a scary, dreadful event. The jaws of our opening-night audience would drop. That I could guarantee.

It felt hot as Hades in the stuffy theatre. All of the gas lamps and limelights seemed to double the temperature. It made me real glad I didn’t have to wear any of the heavy costumes Ma’d made for the actors. My union suit and overalls had me sweating enough without adding velvet to it all. The boots they forced me to wear whenever I worked in the theatre—Mr. Ford’s rules—chafed my toes something awful. Bare feet are ever so much better in summer. I started to count the minutes till I’d be free of this torture.

The play started. Booth chose to have his performers act out the opening battle scene while the sergeant described it. That sure took my mind off of the heat. Watching swords and shields crash into one another, I moved in my little corner as if onstage myself, weapon on hand. Johnny Lee Harper, the actor playing Macduff, had planned all of the fight moves. A lot of them seemed too repetitive to my eyes, nothing like what real soldiers might do. I began to wish that I’d been allowed to swing a sword in this play. Then they’d see something.

Be careful what you wish for, the old sayin’ goes. You might just get it.

My first scene change came up after that. I placed my bench and retreated back to the corner. There it is, I thought. My glamorous career in show business. You need a chair moved? Call Verity. Artificial shrub placement? I’m your girl. Carry a flat and lash it to another one? That Sauveur kid’s a whiz-bang at that. No wonder I started to daydream between scenes, inventing stories that me and Eddie could act out later.

Lady Macbeth—Emily Thatcher– poked me in the ear. I about jumped to the moon. It took both hands over my mouth to not let out a holler. If an opium-addled over-the-hill ingénue had surprised you, could you do any better? She whispered that she hadn’t intended to scare me, but could I go and find Banquo? He’d be on in two minutes and nobody had seen him. She added that a delivery of props that day had filled the basement with hazards, so I should watch myself. Sighing, I set off on my next grand adventure.

I expected to find him down in the basement again, rutting with Witch Number Two. Having seen cows do the same on our Maryland farm, I couldn’t see the attraction. Seemed downright undignified to me, especially in that heat. But all of the grown-ups seemed to think it great sport, so there must be something to it. I reminded myself to find Eddie and get the lowdown on what Silky Sadie had said to him.

The stairs tended to squeak, so it took a long time to go down them. I had to walk on the sides and tiptoe, candle in one hand, the other hand on the rail. Behind me I could hear Booth booming out a speech, but the basement walls muffled the words. My candle made really spooky shadows on the wall, like goblins dancing. Smells of sawdust, mold, and cat poo tingled my nose. The dark didn’t normally scare me much, but something in Ford’s basement always got to me. It felt for all the world like something old and weird lived down there.

At the bottom I took a look around. A round gray mouse crawled out from under a pile of boxes and looked at me like I owed him a toll. Plump little Ernie. That’s what I called him. He always patrolled there. For some reason the theatre cats wouldn’t go near him. I just ignored the little guy and kept moving, not being one of those girls who jump on chairs when rodents show up. The walls looked dirty but cool. Cobwebs covered them, but I couldn’t see any spiders. I spotted the maintenance closet just ahead. It held spare parts for rigging, oil for lubricating hinges, and tools for fixing anything that might break.  A cot sat in there for the handy man to use if he needed a nap after a long day. I pictured Gus Shepherdson, our Banquo, showing Daisy Melville, his witch, how handy he was with tools. Yuck.

Tapping lightly on the door got me no answer. I rapped a little harder. No light showed beneath the door, but that didn’t mean much, considering the circumstances. I gritted my teeth. Darn these fool actors! Though tempted to leave them both there to face the wrath of Booth and Mr. Ford for missing their entrance, my hand grabbed the door handle and yanked. It screeched open and I jabbed the candle in. Nobody home.

With a roll of my eyes at the wasted trip, I turned around to go back up. Looking to my right, I noticed all sorts of new stuff. Lady Macbeth had been right in saying that a delivery cluttered things up. Just a quick glance showed me baskets, picture frames, old makeup tables with busted mirrors, teapots, a moose head. Even a harpoon. Turning to the steps, the candle light revealed something shiny in a far corner to my right. A full suit of armor. Boy howdy! I’d never noticed that before. Must’ve just arrived today. Picking my way carefully over packing crates, under false trees, and through a maze of other assorted stage junk, I made it to the antique. Somebody had painted it in gold, most likely for a long-dead play. It even had a fancy leather belt around its shiny waist. No sword, though. Oh, well. Can’t have everything. A tap told me that I felt real iron, not plaster or any other pretend material. It looked very old, maybe even as old as King Arthur. They said that knights were short back in the olden days, and this suit made me believe it. I could just about wear it. Maybe tomorrow I’d sneak back down and have Eddie help me try it on. Verity the Valiant, Savior of Mankind. Backing up to admire it better, I discovered that the floorboard beneath my right foot was probably as aged as Camelot, too. It groaned and gave way, sending me straight down like a condemned man dropping through a gallows trapdoor.

I only fell about eight feet, but it felt like eighty. Crashing through the pitch-black, I didn’t know where the bottom would be. Ending up on my rump, I sat there panting from the surprise. A quick check told me that nothing seemed hurt much. Due to some miracle, the candle lay within arm’s reach and still burned. I grabbed it and held it up to see how I could get out of my predicament.

I knew I stood below the basement, of course. That meant that I must’ve landed in some old root cellar or the foundation of a building that pre-dated the Baptist Church. Turning in a slow circle, I saw that the walls of this new space were cut from solid stone, carved smooth by somebody a very long time ago. I spied no door, so the original entrance had to have been from above. But I made out no steps, neither. They might’ve been made of wood and been removed. Is this some ancient Injun temple, maybe? I couldn’t make out any of their markings. What, then? No furniture, no paintings, nothing at all. Just a bare stone room. And how could I manage to get out of it?

Since it appeared that I might be stuck there until somebody came down to the basement to hunt for me, I decided to take a look around. It paced out at maybe twenty feet square. Although the walls were solid and smooth, cut from living rock, the floor wasn’t. Its designer had inlaid big tiles, but like no tiles I’d ever seen. Not square, but odd-shaped. In fact, they looked just like…my Legacy Stone.

“Huh,” I breathed out loud. I squatted down and held the candle close to the floor. Hard to tell in the sputtery yellow light, but I took the tiles to be made of the same red stuff as my Stone, too. Huge arrow-shaped blocks of solid red jasper two-yards-across. They even had the same hole in the center. What on earth is this?

I crawled all around the room, looking at every tile. Identical, with something like marble filling in the joints between them. And every tile faced the same direction, with the point of the arrow facing one particular wall, angled so they aimed at a single spot. I scooted up to it and gave it a look. Faint carvings crawled across it, in an alphabet I’d never seen before. The letters looked a little like the Viking runes I’d spied in a history book once, but no, not exactly the same. More swirly than Norse runes.

I noticed something else as I stood there. My Legacy Stone burned a hole in my chest.

Grabbing the cord from around my neck with a yelp, I yanked the whole necklace off and held it out. The Stone glowed. A dull reddish light came from deep inside it, like a beaker of blood on a sunny windowsill. Worse, the letters on the wall began to do the same thing, shining out from the surface as if they’d been heated in a forge.

Okay, Verity, you hit your head when you fell and this is some crazy dream. You have those all the time. Don’t worry.

Things got even spookier when the letters on the wall began to move.

I shrieked. Yep, like a girl. I admit it right here in front of the world. The only other time I’d ever made that sound had been when Eddie’d dropped a wriggling slug down my back. My heart bass-drummed and my head answered with a banshee solo. Not good. I preferred a dream that I could wake up from. Not this overheated nightmare.

Just as I started to holler for help, not caring whether it interrupted the dress rehearsal or not, the letters stopped moving. They rearranged themselves into a shape that I knew well. One that I could understand.

A sword.

The same fiery molten-iron color as the letters that formed it, the sword had a yard-long single-edged recurved blade that swelled a little bit toward the end, looking like a willow leaf with a wicked point. Its crossbar swirled in an S-curve and twisted like a vine. At the end of the handle the large pommel, sort of resembling an acorn, seemed as big as my fist. The whole thing still clung to thewall, the way you see old relief carvings in museums. But somehow I just knew that if I grabbed it, I could snatch it right off.

Real smart, Verity. Put your hand on a red-hot piece of steel. Dream or not, that’ll hurt. Only a lunatic would try that.

So I did.

It didn’t feel raging-lava hot, but warm, like bath water. The grip seemed to be birch bark but felt like supple leather. No, not leather…skin. Human skin.

I yanked my hand back as if it had been burned after all. Glancing down, I saw that my palm looked fine. My imagination must’ve been affected by the fall, the tiles, the letters. And now I could smell a tangy odor, easy to recognize because everyone in Washington spent the summer with it.

Sweat. A person’s sweat. Maybe from somebody who worked hard in a small space…like in a stone cavern under the ground.

To top it all off, I felt a buzzing vibration. At first I thought it lay under my feet, or in the wall. Soon I understood that it just was. It came from everywhere around me at once, like the very air I breathed throbbed from a close lightning strike. I started to have trouble thinking straight. This must be what the grown-ups feel when they drink whiskey. Fearing that I might faint, I grabbed at the sword again. This time I ignored every sensation and clenched my fist around the sword hilt. With a wrench I hauled the glowing weapon free of the wall and crashed backward onto the tiles.

Lying flat on my back, I could see that the candle had gone out. I could see that, in what should have been total darkness. Oh, this is a much better dream than the ones I usually have. Not only that, I could hear the Macbeth actors reciting their lines upstairs, as if I stood right beside them. Before now the stone chamber had blocked all sounds. I could also make out a slithering sound, like a snake on the move.

My new sword, now a three-dimensional steel and gold object, had stopped glowing. It had no more weight to it than a silk handkerchief. Its grip felt exactly like I held the hand of a living person. I could even feel its pulse. Most upsetting of all, the blade had curled around my neck so that the point stared at me like a spitting cobra about to strike.

“Hi, Verity!” said the sword in a pleasant cheerful voice. 

“If I turn into a giraffe and start bumpin’ my head on doorways,

you’re in big trouble, mister.”

4/ Jasper

A giant mouse squeaked and the sword clattered across the tiles. Mouse? Where’s the mouse? Is it Ernie? No, Ernie could never be that loud. Must be me. I skittered backward into a dark corner. Dark? Yep, couldn’t see a thing. But a second ago I had eyes like a cat. And now…

Shivering, my mouth as dry as sand, I huddled into a little ball, feeling even younger and more scared than ever. This ain’t real. I hit my head fallin’ into this hole. Just a horrible dream as my brain swells. I’ve had worse. Pretty soon I’ll wake up and—or maybe not. Maybe they’ll find me dead down here after the rehearsal. ‘Poor Verity. What a tragedy. But there’s a war on. Thousands die on battlefields every day. Life goes on.’

I felt my heart calming and my breath slowing. Not a sound audible except that. No actors’ voices filled my ears now. The wonder-senses that I’d enjoyed when holding the sword had left me. ‘When holding the sword…’ Sword? Where did it go? Don’t see a talking sword every day. Get movin’, Verity. If this is a dream, time to enjoy it. Life goes on.

The Legacy Stone still glowed faint in my fist, as did the letters on the wall. By the Stone’s dim light I crawled toward the middle of the room, groping along the tiles. It took quite a while, but eventually my fingers bumped into the big pommel and felt for the hilt. With a nervous swallow I grabbed the sword and lifted it, still on my knees. Well, to tell the truth, it grabbed me. Honest. I felt a hand grip mine. Good thing, too, because I squeaked again and tried to throw it away. This time the sword would have none of that. Warm dry fingers clung to mine, squeezing tight. Now I could see in the dark again. Looking at the handle of the sword, I saw only my own fist. No other hand to be seen. But I could still feel it.

“Pleased to meetcha!” the ghostly sword voice said. The weapon rose and fell as my hand got shook hard, as if by one of the enthusiastic salesmen who would come to the theatre to hawk their wares. “I’ve been waitin’ for you forever. Really forever, I think. No watch or calendar, but I’m pretty sure ‘forever’ fits the bill.” The voice filled my head but not my ears, somehow.

“Uhh…,” I said, if that counts as saying anything.

The sword giggled. It sounded like a kid, a boy about my age. That made it even weirder, but also calming at the same time. “That’s great. Verity Sauveur, ordained savior of the world, can’t put a simple sentence together. Got my work cut out for me, I do.” The voice adopted a snooty  accent. “Here, try ‘Hello, I am enchanted to make your acquaintance.’ It’s easy. Just put your lips together and—”

“Uhh…,” I repeated, ever so clever.

The sword heaved a disgusted sigh. “I thought you got top grades in school! Your teacher thinks you’re so smart you’re unnatural. What would Mr. Ford say if he were here to see you stammerin’ like a drunk?”

That started to wake me up. “How do you know—?”

“Hey!” The blade tip sort of melted until it looked like a steely thumb. Pointing back at itself it howled, “Magick sword! Yep, I can read your mind. You can accept that I’m talkin’ to you but the mind-readin’ is where you draw the line?” With that it snapped back to its former shape.

“I…I…”

“OK, let’s try charades. Sometimes we have to take baby steps before we can run.” Now the blade became an index finger. “First word. How many syllables?” The finger flowed into the shape of an ear. “Sounds like?”

At that point it struck me that: 1) I was being made fun of by a talking sword that sounded like the class clown at my school; 2) I stood in some old religious shrine underneath a Baptist church that had been turned into a successful theatre; 3) just above me they performed a Shakespeare play about witchcraft and murder. Call me a sissy, but I just broke down and started sniffling. “Where’s my ma?” I blubbered. “I wanna go home! Help! Get me outta here!”

My new sword’s blade wrapped around my mouth and shut me up. It didn’t feel cold, like steel, but warm and moist like someone’s palm. “Hush!” it whispered. “They’ll hear you.”

The thought galloped through my panicked mind that that had been what I’d wanted. How else could I be rescued from this dungeon if no one heard my cries? Boy-sword seemed to hear that without my being able to speak it. “I can get you out of here without their help. In fact, it’s better that way. There are …people…up there who don’t really want to help you.” He said ‘people’ in a way that made me feel cold as a January swim.

Peeling the obstruction away from my face I asked, “What is all this? It can’t be real. These things don’t happen.”

“These things happen all the time. People just explain ‘em away as coincidences, dreams, or fantasies. Or else they look the other way and convince themselves that they saw nothin’ out of the ordinary. People are stupid. I know. I used to be one of ‘em.”

Sneaky sword. Get me curious and nothing else matters. Wiping my nose on my shirt sleeve, I said, “Used to be?”

“A long time ago, maybe forever, like I said before.”

“Do you have a name? Can’t just call you ‘Sword’.”

“How about Blade of Destiny?”

“Excuse me?”

“Too showy? Cleaver of Retribution, then?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Edge of Vengeance?”

“Get serious.”

“Dread Hand of Reprisal? Bitter Steel of Punishment? Savage Sword of Sorrow?”

Now I laughed despite myself. “Maybe somethin’ without a preposition?”

“Oh, sure. Stifle my creative urges. Crush my artistic aspirations. Trammel my hopes of literary fame into the heartless dust of cruelty.”

I gave the sword a frown. “Have you been readin’ dime novels down here?”

“No!” The blade drooped, as if hanging its head in shame. “Wrote a couple, though.”

I snorted. “Did not!”

“Okay, you caught me. But I could if I wanted to.”

“Jasper!” I blurted, inspired.

“Say again?”

“I’ll call you Jasper. It suits you, somehow.”

My Legacy Stone flared up into its full glory at that. “The Stone approves,” said Jasper the Magick Talking Sword. As he spoke the letters on the wall where I’d found him brightened until they filled the whole chamber with their orangey light. “As does my Master.”

“Who’s that?”

The wall runes shifted again, like bugs scampering across the stony surface. As they flowed amongst one another, rearranging into a new pattern, more letters sprang to fiery life on all of the other walls. It felt like I’d been dropped into the middle of a blast furnace, except that I felt no heat, just…love, somehow. That warm vibration I’d felt when the letters and sword had first appeared filled the chamber again and hugged me like a grandfather. I thought I could smell bread baking and hear puppies yelping. If I’m still dreamin’, then don’t wake me up.

“You ain’t dreamin’, Verity Sauveur,” said Jasper. “You know you ain’t. Because the dreams you’ve been havin’ are awful.”

True. While the letters continued their journey around me, I saw flashes in my dizzy head of the dream I’d been having off-and-on for two months. I would fall forever down a long hole, like a well, and land in a dark place. Unnaturally beautiful children, all with pale faces and blonde hair, clutched at me with skeletal fingers, led by a sweet-seeming old lady who tried to eat me with her shark’s mouth. A golden-skinned man and an enormous floppy-jowled black dog came to my rescue, fighting them off as I made my escape to the sea. At that point I always woke up.

Just that brief reliving of the nightmare made me shiver. Jasper wrapped his warm blade around my shoulders until I stopped shaking. By then the letters had stopped moving and taken their final positions. They filled every inch of wall space, starting with the place where I’d removed Jasper and wrapping around clockwise. I stood in the center of the room, slow-spinning to my right, and read.

A contract. In Britannic too.

Most of  it read like Romanish lawyer-babble about the Rights and Responsibilities of the Stone-Warden (me, I figured), who shalt blah-blah-blah until such time as she wilt yap-yap-yap or unless both parties agree to jabber-jabber-jabber… It seemed to be an agreement that I would undertake a quest to use the sword of the Grand Mage (whoever the heck he was) in order to lead the Equity (ditto) against the Esteemed Gentlemen of the Honourable Merchantry (double-ditto) and return the world to its state of Accord and Harmony. All it required was a drop of my blood as a signature and the Great Battle Against the Shadows could commence.

Uh-huh. Who did they think they were kidding?

Me. I’m the only kid in the room.

“Are you crazy?!” I shouted, which just made Jasper cover my mouth again. Unable to speak, I had to think the rest at him. “First off, I don’t what any of this is about. Who are all these people? I live in the capital city of the States United and have never heard a word about any of this stuff. Second, this sure sounds like you want me to fight a war and kill people for real. I don’t think so. Third, I’m only twelve years old! Can’t you get some general to do this? Washington’s crawlin’ with ‘em. Can’t swing a cat without hittin’ a dozen. And Fourth, I’m gettin’ outta here and goin’ back to Ma and Eddie.”

I dropped the sword at my feet and ran toward the hole where I’d fallen into the chamber. No unseen hand clung to mine to prevent it. Jasper’s voice didn’t invade my head to try to talk me out of leaving. Strange mystical forces didn’t take over my soul and imprison me. My downfall was much simpler than that. I fell on my face.

To this day Jasper won’t admit it, but I know he tripped me. I swear I felt an armored foot stub my toe. Crashing hard onto the tiles, I broke my fall with outstretched hands. The russet stones scuffed up my hands and I winced. Not because of the pain, but because of what I felt in the palm of my right hand.

Blood. The wound was not so deep as a well…but ‘tis enough. ‘Twill serve.

    A hot wind swirled around me, peeling the letters from the wall and making the cavern look like it was filled with angry fireflies. Far-off voices chanted in a harsh language I’d never heard. I smelled a strange perfume. Brimstone. Brimstone and lily filled my nose. Swallowing, I tasted something hot and coppery. The sparking letters fluttered around my head like innumerable little bats, then flew straight into Jasper’s wall, which sucked them up into blackness. While that happened I spasmed with what felt like an electric jolt, then fell panting onto the floor.

Total silence. Total darkness. Total despair.

Had I just made a deal with the Devil? Or with something else?

Oh, I felt more alone at that moment than I ever had before or have since. With the sword out of my hand I couldn’t see or hear anything. It was just me lying in the gloom with the feeling that the happy life I’d had up to that point was about to end. I still hoped that the whole experience was my hallucinating while unconscious from the fall. But that wish began to feel like a scared kid’s vain delusion. Curled up in a ball like a wood louse (feeling like one, too), I cried till my throat hurt and I choked on the tears.

They say that having a good cry makes you feel better. Maybe, but that night all it did was make me mad. If this wasn’t a dream then it was a nasty joke to play on a little girl and this little girl wasn’t laughing. Aching from the fall into the chamber, the scuffing tumble onto the tiles, the magical jolt, and the bawling, I felt around for that miserable sword. When I finally found it I grabbed the hilt in both quivering hands and cursed at the blade for what seemed like three solid minutes, using every awful term I’d ever heard a soldier or sailor use. When I had run out of breath and swear words I stopped, panting.

Nothing. No Jasper. No chatty wiseacre talking sword. Is this really a dream after all?

Growling, I stomped over to the hole in the basement floor where I’d fallen through. I squinted up at it. The opening seemed too high for me to jump up to and the walls were too smooth to climb. My ‘sword senses’ let me see that the chamber sat as empty as a banker’s heart. There was nothing at all that I could stand on to get up there. I blew frustrated air through my lips and considered what to do. Far above, the distant sound of the rehearsal reached me loud and clear. One of the murderers of Banquo explained that he lay in a ditch with ‘twenty trenched gashes in his head.’

“Ain’t that a lovely thing to hear while you’re stuck in a dark hole?” I muttered.

    Should I yell for help again? Jasper had said that it was a bad idea, that there were harmful folks up there. But what did he know? Those were my friends, or at least friends of friends. Nobody dangerous. Stupid sword. Prob’ly just a figment of my imagination anyway. And even if he wasn’t, did I plan to let a talking sword that sounded like a bratty twelve year-old tell me what to do? If I’m the contracted savior of humanity then I need to start makin’ my own decisions. Jaw set, I opened my mouth to scream so all of Washington City could hear me, if that’s what it took.

Before any sound could come out I went blind and deaf again. But I’m still holdin’ the sword. What happened to my cat’s eyes? It was hot and stuffy. My breathing echoed in my ears as if I was in an ironclad’s turret. What the—? Did somebody drop a bathtub on my head? With my left hand I reached up to touch my face. I couldn’t. Metal stood in the way.

Turned out I really was in a turret, in a manner of speaking. Somebody had slipped a medieval helmet from Ivanhoe onto my shoulders. And they’d done it in the blink of an eye without my knowing it. Now who did I know who could have done that?

“Jasper!” I snapped, wincing as the sound deafened me. I lowered my volume. “Jasper!” Yanking on the helmet got me nowhere. I stamped my foot. “Jasper! Get this thing off me. I can’t breathe.”

“I don’t know,” the boyish voice said, sounding pouty. “You called me a lot of horrible names just now. Fairly rude, if you ask me. Were you brought up in a barn?”

“Next to one, if you must know. On our farm. Come on, let me out of this miserable brain-bucket. It’s hot.”

“Are you gonna scream? Can’t have that. Alert the nasties.”

“What nasties?!”

He took on an elevated hurt tone. “I won’t talk to you if you’re gonna take a hostile attitude.”

“I’m not hostile! I’m way past bein’—!” I caught myself, took a gulp of air, counted to five. “Jasper,” I went on as if sitting in a library, clipping my words between my teeth, “won’t you please be a dear and kindly remove this exquisite example of a twelfth century great helm from my poor little face?”

“Delighted, my beloved Verity.” Fresh air—as fresh as could be had down in the sub-basement—cooled my nose. That awful helmet vanished. It wasn’t removed or lifted from my shoulders, it just ceased to exist. This magick thing will take some gettin’ used to.  Now I could see through the gloom once more. The helmet melted away into Jasper’s blade, like water running back down a drain. My sword took on its normal shape again and the headgear was just a bad memory. Gonna have a lot more of those, at this rate.

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my shoulders to unkink them.

“Not at all.”

There was a long silence in the underground room. Sighing at last, I said, “I don’t think I can do this.”

Jasper’s voice was gentler than it had been before. “No one ever does, kid.”

“That’s just it. I’m a kid. Twelve years old!”

“So you keep sayin’. How old do you think I was when they put me in here?”

“No.”

“Yep. Say hi to a fellow youngun. Three weeks shy of my thirteenth birthday.”

Funny how shared misery really does make you feel a little bit better. “How’d that happen?”

I heard a sad laugh inside my head. “Someday I’ll tell you. No time now. You just have a few minutes to learn the ground rules, I expect. You can bet the Stone has tingled every Merchantry agent for ten miles.”

That made me frown. “Ground rules?”

“The fine print in the contract. You didn’t exactly read it careful-like, I noticed. Magick has limitations and responsibilities, just like everything else.”

“Is this gonna be like those stories where the genie grants wishes but there’s always a horrible catch? Will I turn into a giraffe later on?”

Jasper chuckled. “No.”

“That’s good. ‘Cause if I turn into a giraffe and start bumpin’ my head on doorways, you’re in big trouble, mister.”

The blade reared up like a horse. There was a strange pause, as if my sword sniffed the air. “We’re already in big trouble.”

“Really? What?” I had hoped that those ground rules would’ve been explained before I had to start saving the world from whatever might be wrecking it. This magick stuff was fun but so far it’d been awful vague on the why’s and wherefore’s.

Jasper’s voice interrupted my thoughts. It now sounded ancient and weary. “The Bullies have found you. And Venoma is with them.”

___________________________________________

JASPER’S FOUL TONGUE

Chapters 1-3

1/ Beaks and Squeaks

I needed to wash my sword’s mouth out with soap.

Sure, Jasper’s just an annoying boy, more or less, and they all love to be potty-mouthed, but still…an obnoxious kid trapped in a shape-shifting magick sword is capable of enough mischief, without me having to listen to that stuff. It’s not like I could force his nasty trap shut, him living inside my head and all.

And even if that were possible, I had enough to worry about, hovering four feet in the salty air above the well-scrubbed deck of our privateer frigate while a squadron of pelicans buzzed me. They raced at me from all sides like portly jousters, long pointed beaks lancing at my exposed bits. I tried to fend them off with bursts of magickal force from my hands, while keeping myself in the air with a Songline chant Ma had just taught me that same morning. About every fifth time I succeeded in not getting jabbed.

Boy, summer can’t get over fast enough. Regular school’s a cakewalk compared to this. Even them miserable cipherin’ sessions with Miz Finch.

The plump mouse who rode aboard the lead bird cackled as I clutched at my sore backside. In a phony working-class London accent Ernie hollered, “Watch yer arse, girlie!”

“Hard to miss it,” Jasper snorted. Even though he hung on my belt in the form of an old tin cup, his snide boyish voice sounded loud and clear, though only I could hear it. “We may have to put you on half-rations, Tubbo.”

“And I may feel the need to eat a mess o’ that liver and cabbage you hate so much. Usin’ you as a spoon,” I said to myself, for his benefit. He felt and tasted everything that I did. Whenever I got seasick he cried like a baby. “Now hush, this is tough enough without your babblin’.”

I’ll spare you his reply. Trust me, you don’t want to read that sort of language. Mr. All-Powerful Blade of Destiny had been cooped up with the tough sailors on the Penelope’s Kiss for way too long. Hoping it would prove to be a phase, I tried to ignore it. But it felt like trying to disregard an itch in your underwear during church.

Ernie banked his pelican in a big swoop around the foremast. He wore a tiny tricorn hat that Ma had just made for him. The bird, named Bob, a big brown and white fellow, bore in on my left flank. Three others came at me from low right and high center. Sweat glued my shirt to my skin as I tried to remember the chant that kept me airborne. Jasper’s prattle had distracted me so much that I’d sunk to barely a foot off the deck. With a shake of my head I focused on my lesson and on the odd aboriginal words. Ma claimed that if I learned to do this right I could use puffs of energy to maneuver myself away from danger. Not like real flying, but good enough for an emergency. The trick was to be able to block out everything except the spell and your opponents.

But I felt like a well-wrung washcloth. Magick’s tiring at the best of times, especially when you’re twelve years old and just learning it. This Songline stuff, though, made the miracles I did with Jasper seem like nursery school. As Ma explains it, Mother Earth’s energy runs through you like signals through a telegraph wire, thrumming along your bones and threatening to tear you apart if you can’t control it. When you embrace a Songline, a sort of river of power—like the Potomac, only made of liquid lightning—you become a fireman’s nozzle. If you don’t have a firm grip on the hose, it turns on you like a cranky rattlesnake. That takes training and talent. According to Ma, I had plenty of the latter, inherited from her and boosted by the Legacy Stone around my neck. It was the instruction and practice that I really needed, so as not to incinerate myself. No wonder two minutes of it had me beat.

And this wasn’t even the real heavy-duty Songline witchery, which required contact with solid ground where a line passed near the surface. What we were doing on the ship was a hollow imitation, only made possible because the frigate had been doctored with bespelled soil from all the continents. That’d been a Merchantry experiment, before Pitcairn and Roberta’s pirates had captured the ship and turned it against its wicked builders. It permitted a sort of weak Songline for a few minutes at a time. A little like the actual thing, but not really. Kind of like those icky desiccated vegetables the government gave to our soldiers, the ones the troops called ‘desecrated’ vegetables.

Almost rather be back home, fightin’ Bullies and poop monsters again. This is about to blow me to smithereens, like a shell from a Parrot rifle.

     “Oh, quit your whinin’, you,” Jasper sighed. “Worse than General McClellan before a battle with Lee. Get down to business. Your ma’s watchin’ and she don’t look happy.”  

True enough, Ma frowned. While overseeing my lesson she also patched a sailor’s shirt, her needle jabbing into the blue fabric. Clucking like a fussy hen, she peered down at me and shook her head. That made the spectacles she wore on the end of her nose fall into her lap.

“Verity, my one and only precious child,” she said with that sweet acid her voice held when she felt like swatting me, “you’re wool-gathering again.”

The tin cup hanging on my hip melted into the form of a tiny sheep, covered in steel wool. “Baa!” it bleated in Jasper’s annoying voice. “And everywhere that Verity went, the lamb was sure to—”

Gritting my teeth and narrowing my mind to a pinprick of intention, I jammed all of my will onto the deck and imagined myself a big red-haired spring. With a whoosh in my ears I shot up to the yardarm twenty-five feet above my head. I clung to the slick oaken spar with both hands, the heavy canvas mainsail whapping me in the face. Whoa! Hope somebody can catch me if this goes bad. Nothin’ like a busted neck on your own boat to end the ‘grand quest to save mankind.’

Right where I’d been floating a moment before the pelicans thumped together in an explosion of feathers. Indignant shouts stung my ears. Ernie shot off of Bob’s back and toward the starboard rail like a fat furry cannonball. I feared we’d have to send a bird to rescue him from the sea, but just before he passed the point of no return an elegant gold-ringed hand with black lace at its wrist plucked him out of the air as if he were a tasty peach.

“Miss Verity, the Equity has no surplus of Marshals,” called Commander Aloysius Pitcairn, squinting into the morning sun as he looked up at my flailing feet. “It would be a shame to so casually toss this one over the side.”

Ernie wriggled free of his grip and ran up his arm to stand manfully on his shoulder. Hiding amongst Pitcairn’s long brown curls, the mouse proclaimed, “All just part of her trainin’, gov! I had meself in total control, don’t yer worry.”

A high frothy giggle came from around Pitcairn’s knee. Peeking around the skirt of his long plum-colored coat, five year-old Freya, dressed as the world’s cutest buccaneer, pointed up with a stubby finger and said, “Mister Ernie, you’re silly!”

Our rodent ally sagged, his belly paunching out like a fuzzy gray balloon. He’d just been ridiculed by a toddler. True, this freckled little urchin was being trained to be a soulless killer for the Assassins Guild, but still… “If anybody needs me, I’ll be in the galley, drownin’ me inadequacy with cheese.”

“Can this ship carry that much cheddar without foundering?” Jasper snickered.

As Ernie scampered down Pitcairn’s brocaded garments and disappeared through a deck hatch, the pirate captain held up a pair of dainty smallswords, their points covered with leather buttons. “When you’ve found your way back down and rested a bit,” he said, “it’s time for your fencing lesson. Today we’re covering the fine art of prise-de-fer.”

“Ooh!” purred Jasper, sounding like one of Silky Sadie’s drunken customers in the alley behind our house in Washington. “Sounds naughty!” His voice dropped into a low and raspy whisper, making me squirm. “Excuse me, miss, but how much do you charge for a…a…prise-de-fer?”

I knew what that meant, but I figured I’d sham that I didn’t so our captain would feel better about his expertise. Pitcairn was a wizard with a blade, far better than me (of course) but he tended to think I was a complete ignoramus. To be fair, the only time I’d ever had a chance to fight where he could watch me had been the week before, when a wagonload of demons had tried to take the Kiss. Though Ma had insisted that I stay out of the way, my young hide supposedly being too valuable to risk, I’d had to jump into the fracas to protect her from sharpshooters. But the pirate lord spent the entire battle locked in a ferocious duel with his opposite number from the enemy ship. By the time he’d dispatched that monster I’d saved Ma and scooted back to my hiding place. No matter how many crew members insisted that I’d whupped a frog-faced tiger demon all by my lonesome (well, Jasper helped a little), Pitcairn would just smile, nod politely, and run me through more parrying drills.

As for resting, I had to admit that I could sure use a bit of that. My skin buzzed and itched from all of the magick Ma had made me funnel through it. Every joint ached as if I’d been tossing a team of oxen around. And tired? Oh, boy. My little five-foot-tall frame could’ve slept for a week. That happened every time I worked with Songline, which was twice a day now. Pitcairn had nothing on Ma when it came to slave-driving.

But first I had to get down from the yardarm. I’d been forbidden to use the rope ladder like a normal crewman. Ma insisted that I learn to be creative in those situations. That seemed to be code for ‘do some fancy Jasper thing.’ Since I’d already used up all of the easy ones—turning Morphageus (Jasper’s true name) into a whip, a grappling hook, a fireman’s pole—during the first few days, now I had to really use my noggin. The trouble was, all that spell-casting had scrambled my noodle. Nothing came to me. I hesitated, peering at the deck.

“Hurry up, now,” Ma said, biting her thread and tying it off. “Captain’s waiting.”

Jasper giggled. “Yeah, hurry up. Show ‘em your brilliantly-conceived dismount.”

“I kinda hoped you’d help me out on this one,” I confessed, muttering under my breath. Truth be told, I didn’t have to speak out loud. He could read my thoughts, a talent he loved to demonstrate at the worst possible moments. But I tended to talk in the normal way to him whenever secrecy wasn’t essential. It made me feel like I had a real friend, instead of a sorcery-fuelled talisman (he’d called himself that once when he’d been pouting about something).

“Nope!” he told me. “You’re on your own, O Savior of Mankind. So fare-thee-well.”

That last bit was a pun on my last name, Sauveur, which we pronounced ‘so-fair’, instead of the original Gaullic way of our ancestors. Since it means ‘savior’, Jasper probably considered himself doubly-clever.

A voice as deep as a straining locomotive engine boomed up at me. “Miss! Yo Ma’s waitin’, Cap’n’s waitin’. Heck, we’s all waitin’! Git down here!” Romulus, with Sha’ira by his side, had come on deck. Now I had to do it, and quick.

The size of a bull and its equal in strength, Romulus stood in a wide stance that took no notice of the ship’s roll. His shaved head reflected the sun like a chocolate mirror. Everybody stared at him the same way they might if Sir Lancelot had arrived amongst them. As I thought of it, that didn’t seem far wrong. A newly-freed slave, Romulus had begun life as a giant Neapolitan mastiff, guard dog to Emperor Hadrian. Two millennia old but looking under forty years of age, he’d gained renown as the greatest Marshal of the Equity, one of the secret freedom fighters who labored to overthrow the Merchantry. Now he served as my volunteer mentor and shield…and almost as my Pa, since my true father had vanished the day of my birth.

I swallowed hard. What do I do? Have to make it look good. All of my teachers are givin’ me the eye. Shaking my head to clear it, I saw that Sha’ira had raised one eyebrow and held her palms up, emerald robe dancing in the breeze. Not good. That disappointed look sent shivers up my sweaty back.

Tall, broad-shouldered, with wheat-colored skin and exotic facial tattoos, Sha’ira taught me self-defense and combat tactics whenever Pitcairn had other duties. Once she’d been a Shade, a fearsome member of the all-female Assassins Guild, slaying for the highest bidder. But a spiritual encounter with a stranger had made her swear off the taking of human life to become a scribe and Dreamwriter. Now she found herself hunted by the very Shades who’d once called her ‘sister.’ Born in the desert east, a speaker of Arabe, Sha’ira had the kind of grace and inner calm I hoped I’d have when I grew up.

Right at that moment I had precious little inner calm, and all the magick in the world couldn’t bring me any grace. Licking my lips, I hollered, “Look out below! Here I come!”

They all backed up a little, which showed more confidence in my ability than I felt myself. Lucky for me Jasper had tired of the game. Sighing, he sent me an image of a real spiffy trick. Either it’d work like a charm or I’d plow through three levels of deck and be buried at sea.

“You’re kiddin’, right?” I mumbled, heart pounding.

“Trust Uncle Jasper,” he said, voice all oil. “When P.T. Barnum hears about this he’ll offer you a national tour.” With that the tin cup hopped free of the hook at my waist and fell onto the deck, where it lay on its side, rolling back and forth a bit with each wave.

I waited for the cup to do what it had promised. Nothing happened. No magickal transformation. My audience peered at it, too, knowing that I needed Jasper to help me get down, unless I wanted to admit defeat and use the rope ladder. Already I could imagine the jeers if I gave in to that. After a confused moment all the faces turned up to give a look that said, “So?”

At that moment I gulped and did a big swan-dive off the yardarm. Plummeting two stories toward the pitching deck, time seemed to slow down, like it always did whenever I took a dangerous action. The arrowhead-shaped Legacy Stone soothed my panic, let my brain see all possibilities, eased my limbs into the safest angles. I heard my mother squeak like a terrified mouse, sure that she would lose her only child. My witched ears also picked up the hisses of everybody else catching their breaths as I neared my doom. An instant before I crashed into a bone-snapping bloody mess, I tucked my head, spun forwards, and landed on my back.

In a hammock.

Jasper had flowed out across the planks until he’d become a banana-shaped steel frame. Shiny spider webs of hair-thin metal twanged as I hit the hammock’s mesh. Tight as a trampoline, they twanged me into the air a little, changing shape again as I twisted upright. When my bare feet slapped onto the deck I struck a pose, hands up, like some great circus acrobat waiting for her applause. A second later the great sword Morphageus, bane of demons and other Merchantry minions, dropped into my palm. I saluted with a flourish and bowed to my audience.

Sailors all over the frigate cheered and applauded. With a whoosh the others let out the air they’d been holding in their anxious lungs.  Ma used the shirt she’d mended as a rag to wipe the horrified sweat from her round face. Her bench creaked as she sagged back onto it. And just to cap it off, my sword blade split in two toward the tip. A pair of gleaming metal fists clasped each other over my head in triumph.

“Thank you!” Jasper cried, as if they could hear him. “Much appreciated! It was nothing, really. Please leave your gratuities with this funny-looking girl in the patched overalls.”

I came within an inch of hurling the darned sword overboard. All that stopped me was the thought that he’d just turn into a boomerang and whirl back at my skull. Besides, I didn’t have the energy. Now that my ordeal had ended, reality returned. Dizzy and exhausted, I slumped to the deck. This time Jasper did nothing to break the fall. Teak turned out to be really hard when you crashed onto it like a sack of wet oats.

“Ta-da!” Jasper sang out.

Pitcairn’s boots appeared next to my nose, sideways. I had no interest in lifting my head. “Well, then,” the buccaneer said, all chipper, “fencing practice in five minutes?”

Before I could respond to that, bare feet slapped across the deck in a big hurry. Chunky little one-eared Fergus, out of breath and waving a spyglass, panted and announced, “Sorry, Cap’n! School’s out fer now.”

Commander Pitcairn took the telescope from him and aimed it aft, where his bosun pointed a stubby finger. “Hmm, that’s a trifle annoying. In fact, it leaves me perturbed and piqued.”

“What is it?” I asked, seeing nothing as I struggled to sit up, head ringing.

“Furies. A whole flight of Merchantry Furies, fresh from the Hellene Underworld. And it looks like they have…Springfield muskets.”

“Hope you enjoyed your rest,” Jasper chuckled.

2/ Monstrous Invective

I scrambled to my knees, wobbly as a new-born colt. The irritating voice in my head didn’t help. “Isn’t this just in-Fury-atin’?” Jasper sang out. “Few re-alize just how dangerous those things can be.” He reminded me that sophisticated wit didn’t necessarily come with being a mighty engine of magical destruction.

“Aw, hush, you!” I growled. “Help me up.” My ears, made super-sensitive by the magick of the Stone, hurt something awful as every set of lungs on the ship commenced to screaming commands or curses. Feet made a cattle-stampede racket all around me. Rough hands hauled on ropes, ran out guns, and otherwise prepared for imminent action. The crew of the Penelope’s Kiss knew how to respond to an attack in a heartbeat, even one this bizarre. They were tough to surprise.

Morphageus rolled beneath my backside and shaped itself into a jack-in-the-box. With a boing a little clown popped out of it on a thick spring, shoving me up onto my toes. I nearly went over the side from the strength of it. After catching myself on the rail, and nearly upchucking from dizziness, I whirled to glare at the toy. “Hey! Watch it, buster!”

The clown somersaulted toward me, then walked on its tiny adorable hands. “Trust me, I had no choice but to watch it, at that angle,” Jasper said. “I stand by my earlier comment about the half-rations.”

Snatching the box up and willing it into a pitchfork, I snarled, “Maybe we’ll go down to Al’s stall and scoop some horse manure.”

Two of the fork’s tines shaped themselves into a big pair of lips and tried to smooch my cheek. “Just joshin’! Let’s kiss and make up.”

I scrunched up my freckled face at the thought. “We’d better make up a plan for these monsters. We’re in no shape for much of a scrap right now.”

“Tell me about it. I feel what you feel, you know.” The pitchfork melted down until I held a wobbling top in my palm. “Is the ship stuck in a whirlpool or are you just that woozy?”

“No whirlpool, sorry. Might be better off if there was. Then at least this misery would end.”

My legs gave out right then and I plopped down onto a pile of sailcloth, shaping the toy back into a cup and hanging it on my hip again. All around me the controlled chaos continued. The second mate, Mister DeLatte, stood firm amidships, supervising the frantic preparations. His fellow sailors swirled about him as if he were the eye of a cyclone. They carried swords, axes, pistols, blunderbusses. Since we couldn’t elevate our gundeck batteries far enough to engage close-in aerial targets, extra pintle guns—small swivel cannon—were hauled out of storage and jammed into mounts at the rail. Fine nets rose from both sides of the ship, carried aloft by teams of pelicans. If the Furies tried to board they’d tangle there like so many herring. General Gracchus’ legion of rats swarmed up into the mesh to lurk, intent on assaulting anything that got snarled. Like some great Roman statue from his youth, Romulus stood unmoving in the forecastle, daring anything to attack us. Beside him crouched Sha’ira. Her recurved eastern bow, arrow notched, scanned the sky. I’d seen what that weapon could do to demons and didn’t envy any Fury on the wrong end of it.

While watching the adults make ready for battle, I wondered about our enemy. From my mythology lessons in school I knew that Furies were terrifying winged women who exacted vengeance for disobeying the gods.  According to my teacher, Miss Finch,  the Hellenes called them Eumenides, ‘gracious ones’, but somehow I doubted that Pitcairn would devote so much firepower to something that sounded like your grandma. I peeked over the rail to see what all the fuss was about. That didn’t help much. They’d stopped out of musket range, hovering too far away for even my witched eyes to make out any more than maybe a dozen human-like figures with wings. So I hauled myself up with a groan and looked around for somebody with a spyglass.

What I found, though, was Ma, glaring down at me with her spectacles pushed up on top of her head. Hands on hips, she sighed, “What did I tell you after last time? No monster-fighting unless absolutely necessary.”

  Bet I’m the only girl in the world that ever hears that sort of thing from her mom. Just once I’d like to get in trouble for somethin’ ordinary, like regular kids. This ‘ordained redeemer of mankind’ business is gettin’ real tiresome.

     “Shoot, I couldn’t fight Ernie for a bread crust right now,” I said. “We gotta cut back the Songline stuff to only once a day.”

She stroked my hair and gave me a sad smile, head cocked. “And who’s going to help poor Eddie while you’re taking your lessons all leisurely-like?”

  Aw, heck. Just like her to cut to the heart of things. Thanks, Ma. Now I feel two inches tall.

Our only reason for being on a ship full of blockade-running pirates was to get to London to rescue my one and only true friend. A dearth-demon named Venoma had stolen him two weeks before to force me to bring Morphageus and the Legacy Stone to Merchantry headquarters. No doubt they wanted to relieve me of both items (and probably my head) so they could use them to expand their control of the world. But just like Mr. Lincoln, the Merchantry had a rebellion on its hands. Other factions inside of that awful company seemed to want me, too, either dead or a prisoner. Most likely these Furies represented one of the splinter groups. Since he already knew that I was hurrying to London as fast as sails could take me, the Merchantry’s Proprietor had no need of sending a fresh bunch of uglies to grab me.

I jerked my head at the Furies, who still made no move to attack. “So what’re they waitin’ for? Permission to come aboard?”

Ma shrugged and steered me aft, where Pitcairn gazed at the monsters with his enormous tripod-mounted telescope. “Deciding on their best course of action, probably. Furies are powerful, but they tend to bicker amongst themselves. That’s why they seldom leave their realm. Not very efficient for their employer.”

“And who might that be?” I wondered, climbing the steps to stand beside our captain.

“A splendid question,” Pitcairn said, rubbing my head with an elegant but scarred hand. He knew I hated that. “If they hold off a bit longer our spies may discover who sent them.”

My eyebrows zoomed up. “Spies? We have some magickal invisible creatures out there?”

A corner of his moustache twitched. “Hardly. I prefer my espionage the old-fashioned way. Look.” He waved me to the telescope. I squinted into it, the device’s lens improving my Stone-vision so much that it made me feel that I flew with the Furies. To my embarrassment, I jerked back in surprise. Everybody on the quarterdeck laughed, including Jasper. Rolling my eyes at myself, I looked again.

Now you may think you know what ugly is, but I’m here to say that you’ve lived a sheltered life on that front. Miz Finch had left out a few details about the Furies. As I focused on one of them I got the full treatment. Her skin had more wrinkles than a year-old raisin and was the color of moldy parchment. When I say skin, I mean every bit of it, because it was all horribly visible. She wore no clothes at all, which would’ve been disturbing enough on a normal person. On these things nakedness almost amounted to a weapon. No hair, just a swarming mass of beetles crawling on the scalp. Her eyes were huge, yellow, bloodshot, with vertical pupils, so wide apart they were nearly on the sides of the head. What passed for a nose resembled a bruised wound. The wings that held her aloft weren’t the lovely angel wings I’d grown used to on our Norn horses. These looked more like leathery bat wings, with a few sparse black feathers. Nasty claws poked out of them at the mid-joint and tip. And just when I’d decided that a Fury had to be the creepiest thing ever, maybe even worse than Venoma, an adder slid out of her lipless mouth and displayed its dripping fangs, just to add to the disgust.

“Ick!” I said, all clever and descriptive-like. That’s me, the newly-trained author. Miz Finch will swat me when she reads this.

     Jasper had to throw in his two cents worth. “Kinda looks like the south end of a northbound nightmare. Hubba-hubba! My kind of woman. Wonder where she keeps her cartridges, though.”

I swiveled the telescope to see the spies that Pitcairn had mentioned. Nothing came into focus at first but more Furies, all holding Springfield muskets at half-cock, capped and ready to go. Who the heck gives modern rifles to monsters from myth? Aw, come on, you know very well who. The Merchantry, or somebody trained by ‘em. Now I saw that the hovering things weren’t completely naked, but wore complicated gold chains around their too-long necks. A fat black jewel hung in each. And a sort of sick bluish inner light pulsed there, like you’d imagine over a midnight grave. Just like Ma had said, the Furies seemed to be arguing, maybe about which of my arms or legs to pull off first. They were just near enough for my wonder-ears to pick up a faint screechy hissing as they spat nastiness at one another. The scene looked and sounded like an elementary school class in hell. For all I knew, that’s just what it was.

Right then I started to hear the Kiss’ scouts. Some of the saltiest language I’d ever heard insulted my young ears. From familiar lips, too. Or rather, familiar breaks: Matilda’s all-girl seagull squadron, Pitcairn’s eyes and ears. Dozens of the white birds zipped to-and-from in what looked at first to be random paths but were actually carefully-designed patterns that covered the Furies from all angles. Our enemies ignored them, thinking that they were just the usual noisy gulls you found all over the Atlantic. Just my luck, though, that Jasper paid them plenty of attention.

“Whoa! Would you listen to that!” he cried, clearly tickled pink. “I didn’t know you could cuss with those word combinations. I’ve been hangin’ around with the beginners. Matilda’s girls are trained professionals.” The tin cup at my side shaped itself into a tiny megaphone. “Here, let me try some of that.” He cleared his throat in a big overdone manner. “Why, you dirty mother–”

“Pluck her feathers,” Pitcairn declared, shucking his ornate 18th century coat. The commander had unknowingly spared me from having Jasper’s foul words bounce around my skull. “That’s what we’ll do. Her and all of her fiendish friends. They’ll wish themselves back with King Hades when we’re through with them.” He laid his tricorn hat atop his coat in a protected corner. Just as he had when we’d fought the Croatan’s demon crew, Pitcairn dressed for battle. His black lace shirt billowed like a sail. The tail of his gray head scarf did the same. Reaching back to tie his long hair in a queue, he squinted starboard at the Furies. “Just as soon as my lady returns with any last-minute intelligence, we’ll plan our course of action.” Tight black leather gloves snapped onto each hand with a single tug. A war-battered belaying pin appeared in one of them. Pitcairn idly slapped it against his thigh and waited. I gave the sky a look again, this time without the lens. He only had one lady and nobody could miss her when she had duty off of the ship. While I scanned the starboard beam for a streak of red, ignoring Jasper’s new experiments in blue language, Ma spoke to our captain about the Furies.

“Aloysius, don’t let your bravado get in the way of your good sense. Those things don’t die, you know…not really. We can send them back to their Underworld but we can’t destroy them. Not with cannon, muskets, swords, not even with magick. They’re spirits of vengeance. Violence only strengthens them.”

Pitcairn’s tiny smile tweaked a corner of one lip. “Now you’re just teasing me with the challenge of it all. Why do they carry those bloody muskets if they’re invincible?”

“I never said they were invincible, only unkillable.” Ma smoothed her dark hair out of eyes where it had fallen out of the Gaullic braid I’d clumsily tried to put it in that morning. “And I fear that the guns are to fool whoever finds our bodies, to make it look like a conventional raid by pirates.”

“Who will that convince?” Pitcairn demanded in an affronted tone. “The stoutest privateer on the sea, vanquished with mere musketry?”

Ma patted him on his sturdy shoulder. She didn’t succeed in keeping the ‘men are such simple creatures’ look off of her face. “Better than having to explain the envenomed talon wounds. People will always grasp at the simplest explanation, even if some thought might show it to be nonsensical. After all, that’s how they explain away every bit of magick they chance to see.”

The captain blew a long breath back into the ocean breeze and gazed up. All sails had been furled, to allow for the best visibility should the Furies attack. We wouldn’t be able to maneuver the frigate in response to their nimble winged assault anyhow, so sails were no aid to us. Sharpshooters clung to the rigging and yardarms. More musketmen knelt behind the rails, masts, and capstan, swordsmen and pike-wielders interspersed amongst them. Gunners stood by the pintle weapons. Our pelicans bobbed on the water all around us, acting all innocent and non-combative until needed. Ma hugged me close with one arm.

“So, be that as it may,” Pitcairn said, blowing a kiss at an incoming bird, “how can we best incommode our party-crashers? I gather more than firm words and a stern glance are needed?”

“If I remember my Young Mage’s Handbook of Distinctly Otherworldish Creatures correctly, there are only two known methods to rid oneself of a Fury. One is to take the charm from her neck, much easier said than done while she’s attacking you. The other is to shoot or stab her directly in her eye. That will dissolve her in this world and send her back to her own, for a time.”

Giving her a bland look, Pitcairn purred, “That’s all there is to it? And here I was all a-quiver at the potential difficulties.”

“Fortunately, Furies are not preternaturally strong. Stouter than humans, yes, but they don’t have demon-strength.” Ma used her free hand to conjure a shimmery yellow-green ball of force in front of us. I tried to do the same, but all I got was a wave of nausea and a Jasper snicker. “And they aren’t immune to magick, either. It can’t kill them, but it can hold them briefly to make them a bit easier to manage.”

“Well, that’s something, I suppose.” The privateer commander slipped his wicked smallsword from its scabbard. Just getting a look at it, all pearl-handled and silver-chased, made me drool with blade-envy. “Then it looks like my point control practice with Roberta may pay off. All those tedious hours of poking at grapes as she flung them at me, followed by all those delightful hours of the missus flinging herself at me.”

Right on cue, a big scarlet macaw with gold-rimmed spectacles perched on its white beak flew in from its station near the Furies and glided across the ship’s rail. The instant it passed the plane of the ship’s hull, the bird’s outline grew fuzzy and expanded in all directions. Colors changed to black and gold. Booted feet clumped onto the deck. In the time it takes to read this, a handsome lady pirate appeared in Pitcairn’s arms and started smooching him with embarrassing enthusiasm. After about twenty seconds they came up for air and grinned at us.

“Hey, there, Roberta,” I said with a wave. “Gettin’ in some last lovin’ before we’re all massacred by the hellish monsters?”

The Dread Pirate Roberta, as she was known to all who sailed the Seven Seas, reached out and rubbed my head as hard as she could, just to remind me who was boss. “Hey, there, yourself, shrimp! Still as positive-thinkin’ as ever, I see.” Of medium height and build, with a generous bosom spilling out of her embroidered velvet bodice, the first mate of the Penelope’s Kiss looked like a cross between a buccaneer and a Paris couture house model. Most of the crew dressed like the glorified bandits that they were. Roberta wore black silk pantaloons, a gold brocade satin overskirt, fancy boot lace, and a swanky tricorn with a dusky rose pinned to it. A wicked curved blade hung at her side. She nodded to Ma, then addressed her captain.

“Sweetums, as near as we can tell from their god-awful chatter, they’re debatin’ at the top of their lungs whether to just rush us pathetic weak mortals and get it over with, or to be cagey and come at us from a bunch o’ different directions. Them Furies sure know how to insult one another. More invective than a school board meetin’.”

Pitcairn still smiled from ear-to-ear. “Invective? Someone’s been thumbing through my thesaurus in her off hours.”

Ma pushed her force cluster into his face, making him stumble back a step and look at her with a puzzled frown. “Do you have a synonym for ‘oh, no, the vengeance vixens have come to a decision?”

I whipped my head around to look. Sure enough, the Furies had split into four groups and were racing toward us, screeching for all that they were worth.

3/ Furyous Battle

I call it screeching for want of a better word. The noise they made sounded like a hundred rusty nails being wrenched out all at once…from your skull. It must’ve been part of their usual arsenal, because we all winced and tucked down into ourselves a little. While our guard dropped they flapped those loathsome wings and covered a whole lot of territory. Worse off than the others because of my extra-sensitive hearing, I took longer to recover my wits. When I did, I found that the planks were a blur beneath my toes. Ma steered me to the nearest hatch as if I weighed nothing.

Jasper hooted, “Hey, didn’t you fight a dearth-demon to a standstill once? Aren’t you the fearsome warrior destined to overthrow evil and restore balance to the planet?”

“Aw, put a sock in it,” I thought to him. “You know darned well three-quarters of that fight with Venoma was you, not me. And I sure ain’t gonna use Stone-strength on my own mother.” The Legacy Stone and Morphageus gave me the muscles of a couple of sturdy fellows when I got riled up.

Ma dropped me down the hatch like I was laundry going into her hamper. When I tried to climb back up the steps to protest at being removed from the fight she kissed me on the cheek, rubbed my head, and waved her hand across the hatch. Tiny yellowish sparkles skittered all through the open space. They looked kind of like when you bump your head and see stars. A test of them with one finger made my whole arm go numb.

“This time you stay put,” Ma said with a firm eye. “Leave them to us.”

I started to remind her that if I hadn’t disobeyed her in the demon battle she might be dead, but she turned and scooted off. Argument over, just like that.

“Wow, she did everything except make you stand in a corner,” Jasper noted. “Maybe later you’ll have to write ‘I will not use my magick sword in frivolous Fury fights’ a hundred times.”

“If I do, you’ll be what I dip into the inkwell, boyo,” I muttered, stomping off down the dark, cramped passageway toward my cabin. Above me I could hear a mishmash of yelling, shooting, Fury screams, and thumping. It occurred to me that any sane girl my age would be hiding under her bed, blubbering and praying for rescue from the monsters. Yet here I was all pouty because mommy wouldn’t let me go out and maybe get my head ripped off by flying fiends. What a difference a couple of weeks makes. Before I fell into that chamber and found this silly sword, hidin’ would be exactly what I’d have been lookin’ to do.

Jasper reminded me that my thoughts were an open book to him. “Hey, who’s silly? I’m the Righteous Arm of Justice, I’ll have you know.” To prove his point he flowed out from my hip into a pint-sized limb and flexed his bicep like an itty-bitty circus strongman. That made me snort a laugh through my nose, impending doom or no.

“That makes me look like a sideshow freak, you know.”

“So? I think the extra arm suits you. If this ‘rescue humanity from the evil sorcerers’ thing doesn’t pan out, at least you can make a livin’.” He changed into a megaphone again. “Hurry, hurry, hurry! Step right up and see the amazin’ Stone Warden! Only two bits for the experience of a lifetime!”

As tired as if I’d been pushing the ship through the sea my own little self, I eased into the tiny cabin.  It lay just a little ways down from Pitcairn and Roberta’s, in the rear of the ship. “Yeah, well, if I don’t hurry up and learn this Songline stuff, not to mention how to defend myself against the really tough fighters, I might end up in a Merchantry menagerie, at that.”

The megaphone returned to its cup shape. “How about a little patience? You’ve only been on the job for, what…eighteen measly days?”

“Which leaves me exactly two weeks to get to the Scepter’d Isle and spring Eddie from the Proprietor’s grubby mitts. Time’s a-wastin’.” I grabbed my straw hat and slapped it onto my noggin. Something real heavy crashed into the wall next to me, on the outside of the ship. It clawed its way up, sounding like a giant cat going up a tree. Hoarse, alarmed voices began shouting. An instant later a pintle gun boomed and that hideous Fury shriek spiked my ears. Shaking my pounding head, I ran out of the cabin and turned left.

“Your ma said to stay put,” Jasper warned me.

“I’m not gonna fight. Just watch. Ain’t I supposed to be learnin’ battle skills?”

“Okay, but if she turns you into a donkey and gives you extra chores, don’t come cryin’ to me.”

I pushed open the heavy paneled door of the captain’s cabin, which took up most of the stern of the Kiss. Enormous gilt-trimmed windows ran all along the back and let in bucket-loads of July sun. Bookcases with safety bars to prevent spills covered a whole wall. The rosewood bed looked to be the size of a beer wagon. Since Pitcairn and Roberta shared it, the place resembled a fencing salon and map emporium run by saloon girls. All sorts of daggers, swords, and pistols lay about, most half-covered with lady’s frilly unmentionables. Picking up a heavy black lacy something-or-other with wire and buckles all over it, I frowned and gave it a squint like an explorer holding a new type of bug.

“What do you suppose this is?” I asked out loud.

“Beats me,” said Jasper. “Maybe they use it to torture prisoners.”

I set it back down on the bed as if it might explode. “Remind me to stay on their good side.”

The battle noise above grew louder. Those Furies probably wanted to control the helm and quarterdeck, which lay just over my head. Planks tore loose. Desperate men grunted as they struggled with muscles stronger than theirs. Something hissed like an angry cow-sized kitty. Pitcairn shouted a command and a volley of blunderbusses cut loose. Holding my palms over my ears from that sound, I saw Roberta streak past my window like scarlet lightning. A Fury swooped after her, clutching a musket with bloody fixed bayonet. I rushed to the glass to try to follow the pair’s progress starboard, but lost them. Hope she’s got a plan. Worried about that, I turned back toward the door to go find a better spot for battle-watching. Just as I did so I heard DeLatte yell, “Mind that hatch! She’s goin’ below!”

“Hey! We’re below, too!” chimed Jasper. “Quite the coincidence, huh?”

I may have only been Stone-Warden for a couple of weeks, but I’d already figured out that the Honourable Merchantry liked to manufacture its own coincidences. “Yeah? What do you wanna bet that Miss Ugly’s gonna coincidentally head straight for this spot?”

“Then it might pay to be prepared.” Hopping from my belt straight into my shaky fingers, the tin cup shimmered and became Morphageus. Flaring runes the color of fresh lava pulsed along its recurved blade. The crossbar had been sculpted to look like a twisted vine and the pommel at the back end resembled a big acorn. Its grip looked like wire-wrapped birch bark but felt like human skin, warm and sweaty. A pulse not my own pounded against my palm. As always, an invisible hand gripped mine, preventing me from easily being disarmed. Just another day at the office for Verity.

To an onlooker it might have seemed a fearsome sight. Well, the magick sword part, anyhow. I imagine the pug-nosed girl with the short red hair, mangy straw hat, smelly overalls, and dirty bare feet didn’t inspire much dread. Trust me, on the inside she wasn’t even half that tough. All the Songline practice had left me as drained and limp as an old banana peel. Standing and bluffing was about all I could manage. If something nasty busted through the cabin door all I could hope for was that it might accidentally charge onto my sword point. Hey, cheer up! Stranger things than that have happened to you lately.

That horrific Fury screech hammered at my noggin again. It stood in the passageway. Sturdy nautical swearing from several humans followed. Fierce blows pounded at the bulkheads just outside my door. A ferocious fight commenced, bodies flying every which way. Cries of pain mingled with the same scary hiss I’d heard earlier. Half a dozen heavy-caliber gunshots deafened me. Something awful heavy crashed into the door, making it split some near the top hinge. With a panicky gasp I squeezed the sword till my arm quivered. I half-expected Jasper to complain that he couldn’t breathe. That was dumb. He’d once stopped an artillery shell from blowing me to smithereens. Realizing where I stood, I whipped my head around to find another weapon.

Just as I took my eye from the door it exploded into the room. Time seemed to slow down as I watched the heavy brass lock spin past my nose and smash the window glass behind me. Whoa! That was sure close. Grabbing at the first thing my hand touched, I spun back to face the Fury. Now that I had a frame of reference I saw, to my shock, that it was close to seven feet tall. The leathery wings lay close along its spine or it could never have made it down the narrow passage. It filled the cabin, beetle-tressed skull brushing the ceiling. In one taloned paw it held the stock of a musket, shattered in combat with our crew. My lunch started to come back up when I smelled the stench of the monster. Jeepers! They must bathe in the bottoms of graveyard outhouses.

     “Kinda makes you long for the good old days of fightin’ dearth-demons, don’t it?” Jasper said. “Heads up now!”

The second he warned me the Fury hurled its wrecked gun at my face. Tired as I was, the Stone boosted my reflexes just enough to block it with the round steel shield Morphageus turned into. When it caromed over my head I heard glass shatter behind me again. Boy, Roberta ain’t gonna be happy at the damage to her domicile. I slashed backhanded at the creature, shield returning to sword form in mid-stroke. One of its unearthly long arms slapped the blade away, numbing me to the shoulder. A crewman burst through the shattered door and tried to tackle her. She bashed him back down the hall with the edge of one wing and leaped at me. With a squeal I swung the weapon I’d frantically snagged from atop the bed, hoping for a miracle.

Roberta’s frightening lace undergarment caught the Fury on the tip of its chin. I pirouetted like a Spanish bullfighter and watched the fiend fly past me. She collided with Pitcairn’s oaken map table, clutching her god awfully-ugly face and wailing. Now her soul-rending screech sounded more like a wounded animal than a death-dealing Underworld predator. Sickly greenish light leaked out from between her unnatural fingers. With it came a sound like the pained sighs of  a thousand lost souls. The Fury pounded on the heavy table with one fist, leaving deep dents. Its other hand tried to keep the ghastly light from oozing out of its left eye socket, with no success. My attacker seemed to shrink with every passing second, like a balloon with a pinprick in it. As it sunk onto the table top, I spied something standing on the Fury’s skull that explained everything.

Ernie, maybe as tough as he pretended to be, with his sharpened steel knitting needle in one paw and a proud grin on his whiskered snout.

He hopped from the dying Fury’s head as the thing began to evaporate. Like steam on a wintery pond, the wretched monster rose into the air and disappeared, just like that. Ernie sat on the table’s edge and peered up at me. “Do these bloody things smell as bad t’ yer as they does to me?”

I snorted. “Probably worse.”

“Boy, you got that right,” agreed Jasper. “Personal hygiene in Hades seems to be at the bottom of the agenda. Maybe we can get the Marshals of the Equity to smuggle in some lye soap and Parisian toilet water.”

“I’ll see if Romulus can bring that up at the next board meeting, right after the discussion about rescuing the world from unholy tyranny and such.”

I grabbed Ernie and plopped him onto my shoulder. Rubbing noses, we started toward the door. Sha’ira blocked it, curved sword in one hand a matching dagger in the other. Three sailors with cutlasses and pistols stood beside her. All of them frowned and looked around the cabin, wondering where the Fury had gone. And also wonderin’ why I ain’t dead on the floor, most likely. I know how y’all feel.

“What happened to the fiend?” Sha’ira asked in those deep warm tones of hers.

“Dispatched,” I crowed, waving my one good arm for emphasis.

She raised an eyebrow and the corner of one lip. “With that?”

I cocked my head to look at the disturbing underwear dangling from my pinky finger. With a yelp I flung it away as if it was a big hairy spider. “Well, Ernie helped some.”

He grabbed my hair and pulled hard, swinging back and forth from it. “Some! From where I sat—on top of the monstrosity’s head, by the way–all I saw was yer caterwaulin’ and flailin’ about like some granny with St. Vitus’ Dance. Call that fightin’?”

“Ooh!” purred Jasper in a silky Britannic accent. “I’m eager to hear your scathing retort.”

   “Okay, he did it all,” I admitted, too whipped to think up anything witty. “I can barely lift this darned sword, truth be told.”

Ernie let go of my hair and waved as if he was Queen Victoria on a balcony. “I humbly accept your merited applause.”

“Do not think to rest on your laurels,” Sha’ira told him. “Four Furies live yet. And they all hunt you and you alone. Come.”

I couldn’t decide which made a bigger impression on me, that we still had four of those terrifying things on our hands, or that the crew had dealt with the other eight so handy. The part about the Furies all being after little old me was no cause for handsprings of joy, but I’d grown used to it. Ever since that night in June when I’d fallen through a hole and found Jasper, some big ugly horror-show or another had been trying to stick its claws in my freckly hide. As Ma explained it, not only did the Merchantry want the sword and Stone for its own twisted, world-domineering ends, but I was such a magickal novice that I broadcast myself all over creation like the world’s biggest telegraph signal. Every nasty thing that coveted my gifts could spy me like a pillar of flame on a moonless night. Ma said I could learn to cloak that, but it’d take time. Until then I’d just have to keep my guard up.

Though my creaky body just wanted a nap, I let Sha’ira and the sailors escort me from Pitcairn’s wrecked cabin. Above me the noise of battle still could be heard, though it’d lessened as the Furies’ numbers got whittled down. Though I was glad that there were fewer of those wretched things, the memory of what just one had nearly managed to do kept me from relaxing. My right arm still tingled like I’d slept on it all night. As I rubbed it to restore some feeling, we peeked cautious noses over the lip of the aft hatch. Since no spell stopped me, Ma must’ve been otherwise engaged.

She sure was. My jaw gaped like a carp’s as I saw my short round mother animate a thick coil of rope with blue-white energy, without actually touching the hemp, and lasso a Fury as if she was a frontier cowboy. Her spectacles sat on the end of her nose like usual, and she wore a yellow gingham dress, which kind of ruined the effect. Still, she impressed her only daughter just the same. Wings pinned to its body, the screeching giant couldn’t fly away. When it tried to yank on the rope, Ma twisted her hands and made the rope snake itself around the mizzenmast. That brought the Fury up short. With only a moment to spare before the thing used its talons to cut the rope, Ma levitated a bucket of long nails with one hand and made a sort of throwing motion with the other. The iron spikes blasted out like Hell’s buckshot, catching the creature dead in its repulsive face. One of them pierced an eye, of course, sending the Fury back to Hades just as Ernie had before.

“Yep,” said Jasper, “your mom’s a lot more fun than the other ladies in the neighborhood.”

I nodded, a little bit awe-struck. Sure, I’d seen her slay demons with a spell that had turned them to ash, but it’s not the sort of thing you get used to in just a few days. Up until a week before I’d never known Ma had any talent other than sewing and cooking. She’d kept it all a big dark secret from me.

“Gonna be hard for her to go back to needlepoint when this is all over,” I breathed.

But needlepoint might have been all Ma could handle just then. Since there was no true earthbound Songline to embrace on the ship, Ma relied mostly on her soul-store, the naturally-recharged bit of magick that everybody carried inside their bones. That last encounter must’ve used it up, because she sort of withered a little and staggered backwards. I tried to pop out of the hatch to help her, like I had during the demon attack, but Sha’ira shoved me back down and ran out on deck herself. The former Shade dashed over to Ma in an eye-blink and caught her just as she started to sag onto the bloody deck. But while that was a great help to Ma, it didn’t do her rescuer any favors.

A howling Fury snatched up Sha’ira and flew out to sea with her.

_______________________________________________

JASPER’S MAGICK CORSET

(Released in November 2013)

“Scorn…oomph!”

 Four to go.

“Defiance…urrk!”

   Three now.

“Slight regard…yow!”

Only two. I can do this.

“Contempt…aack!”

   Last one. Don’t let ‘em see you sweat.

Jasper, the voice of my magick sword that only I could hear, snickered. “What on earth are you mumblin’ about?”

“Shakespeare,” I grunted between clenched teeth. “Henry V. We studied it in school some.”

Ma yanked on the laces that were threatening to crunch my ribs into dust, her knee in my back. Jasper kept on yapping in his thirteen year-old boy tones. “And this is helpin’ you…how?”

“I’m dreamin’ up all manner o’ tortures-vile,” I hissed. “Poison toads fer breakfast. Itchin’ powder in his underwear. Dearth-demons munchin’ on his wretched innards. Prussic acid pourin’ down from the heavens as he begs fer mercy from every woman in the States United and Europa.”

“All this misery is for…?”

“Fer the misbegotten bastard what invented the corset!” I yelped as Ma hauled in on those lines as if she was trying to land some great fish.

“Language, dear,” Ma purred, knowing that I’d heard a whole lot worse since coming aboard the Penelope’s Kiss. What she didn’t know was how much worse, mostly from Jasper. Our salty privateer crew could really burn your ears when they got goin’. Jasper loved to imitate them. Boys will be boys, even if they’re disembodied spirits.

“Ain’t you done yet?” I whined, trying to peer over my shoulder to check Ma’s progress. All I could see out of a corner of my eye was a veil of my short red hair. Blowing at it did no good.

“Just getting ready to tie it off. Take a deep breath and hold it, please.”

“Will I be able to let it out or is this the last breath I ever get to take?”

She smiled, the crinkles at her eyes looking like starbursts. “Oh, don’t be so dramatic, honey. It’s a corset, not an iron maiden.”

Jasper, resting on her sewing table in the form of an old tin cup, melted and reformed until he became a miniature torture rack. A rag doll was lashed into it, an expression of agonized horror on its little face.

“Aiee!” it wailed in my head. “Do your worst, Torquemada! You’ll never make me a slave to your dark fashion sense!”

I felt it a pity that Ma couldn’t hear him. She was the costume designer at Ford’s Theatre and had no truck with what passed for La Mode among  some of our lady patrons. Enormous cage crinolines that made women resemble walking lace mushrooms. Over-trimmed hats that made your head look like a confection. Magenta silk fabrics that gave you a pounding headache to look at. Ma would just shake her head and mumble to herself. Most of the time she wore a simple blue or gray cotton work dress and a snood for her dark brown hair. No fiendish devices to slim or reshape her. All natural, that was her motto.

But I had to travel incognito through Gaulle and into the Scepter’d Isle, so dressing like a native would be required. Walking about Napoleon’s time of 1804, to say nothing of Queen Elizabeth’s 16th century, dressed in my preferred overalls, straw hat, and bare feet would attract the kind of attention we couldn’t afford. Our do-or-die mission to rescue my friend Eddie from a Merchantry dungeon in London was going to be hard enough without getting arrested as a lunatic or a witch.

So Ma had decided to train me for the kind of disguises I’d have to use. Stays and corsets, along with Empire waists, farthingales, and shoes designed by the Spanish Inquisition were all part of it. I’d have preferred a vizard glamour spell that would let me wear what I liked but fool onlookers into believing that I wore the local rags. My mind got changed by Jasper’s gleeful explanation of how much I’d have to pay him for such a long-term use of magick. A whole bunch of whiskey, cigars, skinny-dipping, and even shoplifting would just about cover it, he’d said.  After considering the disadvantages of sneaking through hostile territory staggering and upchucking I’d decided to take my chances with the corset.

A snooty voice whoofed at me in a Parisian accent. “You can dress up the pig, they say, but it will still make the oink.” The floppy basset hound lying on the bunk rolled his eyes as he spoke. An aristocrat from the losing side of the 1789 Revolution, Jean-Luc D’Arcy Evremonde, Le Duc du Ponteau, had a difficult time letting go of his imperious attitude towards us ‘peasants.’

“Look who’s talkin’,” I shot back with as much force as my constricted lungs allowed. “The Merchantry dressed you up as a pooch, permanent-like.”

“But I am still every inch a peer of the realm, even in this ridiculous shape. It proves my point.” He lifted his long nose and posed as if David was painting his portrait.

Jasper turned himself into a six-inch long Roman ballista, bolt aimed at the Duke’s rump. “Just say the word and I’ll make my own point.”

“Naw,” I said with a shake of my head. “That’d just give him a bigger excuse fer his ‘poor little me’ act. He’s tough enough to tolerate as it is.”

“What is your ill-mannered toy saying about me now?” the Duke wanted to know, one eyebrow raised. “It never ceases to amaze me that you two are supposed to be civilization’s only hope.”

With a thought I returned Jasper to his natural self, the ancient sword Morphageus. Holding it up as high as I could while stuck in the corset, I let him see the recurved blade covered in fiery runes. “Hey, it weren’t no bright idea of mine, believe me, Drooly. I just fell down a hole one night and here we are.”

The same night three weeks before that a grotesque dearth-demon named Venoma had tranced poor Eddie and disappeared with a green flash into the Washington Monument. I’d been heading to London to spring him ever since.

So far I’d been attacked by giant ravens, zombies, the Assassins Guild, Furies, the Hellfiend Legion, a cast-iron submarine, my own insane sorceress aunt, a shipload of disguised demons, Dionysus himself, and those creepy corrupt mages who look like little blonde boys, the Bullies.

Oh, yeah…and poop-monsters. Loads of poop monsters.

 Welcome to my world, y’all.

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PARAGON OF THE ECCENTRIC

(Winner, 2013 Colorado Gold fiction contest)

1/ Fog, Fiends, and Flying Machines

When a Whitechapel whore waves her tentacles at you, attention must be paid.

Normally he would have passed on by, of course. It would not be wise to permit her to lure him in with her soft words and softer eyes. Before he knew it he would find himself reeled in like a foolish trout. Yanked from his element and skinned. Boned, possibly, if her pimp lurked in the alley and was more than usually desperate. Best to just tip one’s hat (no point in sacrificing civility), lower the eyes, and keep on walking. Particularly this time of night, in such a foul area of east London.

 Tentacles, though. Not your everyday dollymop, this one.

He slowed, turned. The gears in his right leg had just been serviced, but he could still hear them whirring. Most people couldn’t, but then most people hadn’t spent years being hunted across the globe. It had honed his senses, that. And an excellent thing, too, because his pricked ears detected tiny gasps coming from the murky doorway behind the whore. Some fellow’s trying to mask his breathing. But this bloody yellow fog is playing the devil with his lungs. He snorts like an animal.

Reserving a corner of his mind for that potential threat, he saluted her with the steel head of his stick. A few feet away a dim gaslight gave off the feeblest of glows, almost choked by the coal-fog. Beauty did not live in her features, of course. The comely ones easily found indoor work and better pay. This girl–and she was no more than twenty, though she looked twice that–wore the drawn look that spoke of too much gin and too little food. None of her clothes matched, coming from a variety of second-hand shops and trash heaps. Covered in sad, soggy flowers, her hat was a Saville Row disaster. But even without those disadvantages, she had never turned heads. Her eyes were a trifle lopsided, the nose over-long, the chin too pointed. One canine was missing.

“Evenin’, m’lord,” she croaked, voice as dry as a mummy’s. “Fancy some company? Dreadful night to be alone, ain’t it?”

“Dreadful it is,” he agreed. His eyes scanned her thin form. The tentacles had disappeared, tucked out of sight now that she’d hooked him. “But I’m no lord.”

“A gentleman, at least, though, with togs like yours. And such refined speech.”

A corner of his mouth twitched beneath the fair mustache. Oh, you should’ve heard me at Isandlwana, missy. I swore like a thousand demons when the Zulus took my leg. Pissed myself, too. No gentlemanly airs back then, with my Yorkshire accent and pauper’s manners.

“Hush,” he said with a smile. “You’ll turn my head.”

“Oh, I can do more than that, love.” She slid toward him, trying on her best ‘come-hither’ gaze. “For the right price Millie can turn yer inside-out, she can.”

Yes, and your partner back there will do the same to my pockets, no doubt.

A brewery wagon rumbled past, empty kegs making a terrible racket as it bounced along the cobbled street. When it had gone he cocked his head to pick up the suspicious breather again. No sound could be heard now. The man had scooted away under cover of the noise. Ah. Aren’t you the clever one?

“Well, Millie, I must be honest with you,” he told the trollop, “I’m not the sort of man who patronizes a working girl on the street.”

She smiled and waved a dirty hand at him. “Aw, if I had a shillin’ for every time I’ve heard that—”

Returning her smile, he nodded while scanning about them for sign of the missing stalker. Now that the street was silent again, he’d be easy to hear if nearby. But the laboured breathing had gone. No strange odour gave him away, either. Hardly surprising, with the stench of so much filth this near the Thames. Plays hell with one’s defences.

“I imagine so,” he agreed. “Nevertheless, though I hardly make a habit of this, you intrigue me.” His voice dropped to a whisper. “My Millie is a special girl, isn’t she? She can tease her man in a rather unique way, what?”

Millie tried to wrap her tongue around the unfamiliar word. “Yew-neeke?” She made a sour face. “Don’t know about that one, dearie. Whatever ‘tis, cost yer extra, it will.”

Her new customer did his best not to make an eye-roll at such ignorance. “It means one of a kind. Exceptional. Rare.”

Understanding lit her plain face. “Aw, yer mean me wigglers?”

“Quite. Are they real?”

That earned him an affronted frown. “Course they’s real. I gives honest value. Whaddya take me for?”

“Well, that’s what we’re negotiating, isn’t it? Your terms?”

“Down to business, is it, then? Two bob, love. That includes Millie’s bonus treatment.”

With that she glanced about, then shook her head. Two slim snakes, perhaps eighteen inches long, slid across her prominent collarbones. Mottled gray and green, they seemed to grow from the base of her skull. The tentacles were as thick as her thumb. Small pink suckers ran along the undersides. At the end of one was a mouth with tiny curved teeth, while the other sported a lovely blue eye with a vertical iris. It raised itself up and blinked at him.

“That’s quite the bonus,” he breathed, squinting back at the eye. His callused hand held out two silver coins, one on either side of an ivory calling card. “And a bargain, I’d say.”

She peered at the card. Its writing was difficult to see by the muted glimmer of the gaslight. The fog had grown worse. Now it resembled oolong tea with sulphur added. After taking a long moment to sound out the words in her head she read the card aloud. “Montague Paragon.” Millie raised an eyebrow at him. “This yer name?” He nodded once, still captivated by her wriggling tentacles. “The Ogilvy Theatre.” Her head came up again. “Yer an actor, then?”

“Of modest reputation only. I’m no David Garrick.”

The whore frowned. “Who?”

A sigh. “Not important.”

“What’s this at the bottom? The Eccentric Club, 67b, Shaftsbury Avenue, Soho? Sounds dodgy to me.”

He laughed aloud at that. “And to many others, I daresay. That’s where you can locate me tomorrow afternoon.”

She took a suspicious step back.“And why would I do that?”

“Because, my dear precious Millicent–that is your given name, yes?–if you present this card there at two o’clock I will hand you £5 for your trouble.”

Her tired eyes grew to the size of carriage wheels. “Pull the other one!”

“You are right to be circumspect.” Paragon produced a gold sovereign. “Here is proof of my good intentions.”

The coin vanished, snatched up by the toothed tentacle. It tucked the loot down her failed bosom. “Ooh! What did I do to deserve meetin’ yer tonight?”

What, indeed? My imagination deserts me. “While you ponder that, listen carefully. Promptly at two o’clock ring at the servants’ entrance, show my clockwork man Mervyn the card, and say ‘Namaste.’ He will escort you directly to me. Can you remember that?”

Her brow furrowed as she concentrated, tongue peeking between her chapped lips. “Nah-mah-stay.”

“Very good.”

Fresh suspicion darkened her brow. “Say, what gives, guv’? Yer doesn’t want a tumble tonight? What game yer playin’ at?”

“No game at all. I merely want a professor friend from the Royal Society to examine your, um, wigglers. All very innocent, I assure you.”

Millie giggled. “Innocent! I ain’t precisely in the innocent business.”

Paragon winced as his mind flickered an image of poor Leighton’s pale, dead face on that African killing ground. “None of us is, I fear.” Once more he raised his walking stick in salute.

And in that polished steel head he saw two rough men with knives creeping up on him from behind.

 Ah, well. I came to Whitechapel to be killed. This is as good a spot as any. 

The rowdies were stout fellows, but Paragon was no willowy reed himself. A decade of wandering Africa and Asia, working with his hands and back in exchange for the secrets of each new master, had hardened his body into oak. It had also taught him to embrace the calm at every storm’s centre, to permit the winds to whirl past him with minimal damage. In the seconds before the first attacker arrived, he took a cleansing breath and sank his soul into the earth.

Perhaps Millie was in on the assault from the first. Perhaps they merely took advantage of the opportunity his whisper of a limp suggested. It mattered not to Paragon. These were just the sort of men he’d have sought out later that night anyway. Hard lads who could offer him the sort of atonement he’d desired for over eight years.

He shoved Millie back against the wall. Her tentacles disappeared into her hair as if jerked back by steam-driven pulleys. From the look on her face, the knife-men were no friends of hers. That’s nice. I’m developing a fondness for the girl. With a wink to her he spun hard left just as the lead man laid a heavy hand on his right shoulder. His balance too far forward, the thug was easily shoved away with a firm elbow.

The dollymop clung to the grimy wall, too shocked to run. Or perhaps too weakened by hunger and vice. Paragon placed himself in front of her. See, m’lady? Chivalry lives, even here in Whitechapel. How long I may live is an open question, though. Exaggerating his limp, he played the part of a pathetic cripple, just as he had on stage earlier that month in Avery’s wretched over-written melodrama. And now he played Caliban at the Ogilvy. Typecast as the dregs of society…just as you began in Yorkshire. A book-ended life.

One man with a blade was a hazard worth avoiding. A skilled knifeman could get in four thrusts per second. Two of them were death on winged feet. No sane man would invite them to waltz. But then, all sane men in London were a-bed this night. Wobbling dramatically on his left leg, black stick held behind him, Paragon oozed as much false fear as he could muster without choking on his own artistic sensibilities. His opponents looked at one another and smiled. Though he expected them to pause and insist that he empty his pockets, they set their ugly faces into grim masks and advanced as one.

     No robbery, this. Just murder. So much the better. I hope you’re up to it, gents. I grow tired of waiting to join Leighton, but I won’t just lie down for you, either.

The fellow on the right proved to be a bit lighter on his feet than his partner. Less gin in his system, perhaps. He arrived a few steps ahead of the other chap, much to his immediate chagrin. As his knife slashed at the arm Paragon offered, it met only fog. A neat pivot on that now-firm front leg had removed the target. With a blurred snap the stick rapped the man’s knife hand, disarming him. When he yowled and yanked the bruised member away, Paragon kicked the second rowdy in the knee with his rear leg.

His aluminium leg.

A high-pitched hiss left the killer’s lips. Though he didn’t fall, he could hardly be said to have stood upright, either. He hopped back out of range, clutching his wrecked joint.

Paragon put his weight on both feet, now that the ruse had played itself out. The complex system of gears, chains, and clockwork that Queue had installed in that new lower limb groaned as he pushed off toward the first man. Splendid that it’s worked so well in its first trial-by-combat. The bloody thing’s worth its weight in silver, I’m told. Yet light as the proverbial feather. I’ll wager that this strange metal is the coming thing.

Right then the first assassin was the coming thing. He’d taken great offense at having his ribs elbowed. Instead of attempting to fence with his knife, he rushed in hard and fast to get inside Paragon’s stick. The actor let him get a good grip on the lapel of his frock coat. Then he thrust his stick between the man’s arms and across his thick neck while twisting the grasping wrist. In a single heartbeat the fellow found himself levered face-first onto the cobblestones, Paragon’s cane grinding his elbow in a direction nature had never intended.

An ornithopter rattled overhead, almost close enough to spit at. Its fabric wings clattered and jangled as they beat back and forth, nearly smothering the sound of the small steam engine. Who in blazes is flying in this beastly fog? And so low! Is he mad? Distracted by the unexpected machine, Paragon learned too late that the man he had kicked possessed great powers of recovery. It seemed that he took some offense at having his knuckles rapped like a naughty schoolboy. His wicked blade just missed Paragon’s cravat, and the vulnerable throat behind it. Hurling himself backward, Millie’s newest friend managed to block the second and third strikes with instinctive flicks of his stick. He skidded backward to gain some breathing space. When his grunting foe kept advancing, Paragon sighed and pulled thirty inches of Sheffield steel from the black body of his cane. While he caught his breath something he had noticed gave him pause.

Grunting? Really?

Now that the assailant had skidded to a stop, the wasp’s sting of a sword point mere inches from his nose, Paragon took the time to get a good look at the fellow’s face. He had to blink and stare again. There was no mistake. The knifeman did not have a nose per se. He had a snout. An actual pig’s snout. Oink-oink and all that.

Paragon let out the sort of disbelieving laugh a bloke might make if he had come face-to-face with a unicorn. Edging to his right, he gazed at the other assassin, who was holding the stiff, ruined arm while scrambling to his feet. That man had a normal human nose, but his ears had points, while patches of reptilian scales covered his cheeks and neck.

What the devil…? Sorry, Leighton old chap, our reunion will have to be postponed. I simply must know what this is all about.

Scaly-bloke hissed, a forked tongue flicking out of his thin mouth. He scooped up the knife he’d lost and hefted it in his undamaged hand. With a sideways glance at his fellow slayer, he began to slide around to Paragon’s left. Swine-boy eased around the other way, hoping to position himself where his enemy couldn’t see both foes at once. Paragon kept the sword aimed at the first man and the heavy cane body at the second one. He scooted backward to defeat their plan, keeping his eyes on the lizard and his ears on the hog. When they rushed him he’d deal with the latter one first, since he’d shown himself to be the better fighter, even with a damaged knee. This time he’d use that new metal leg to put him down for good.

But, like everything else about the night’s encounter, Paragon’s plan went awry. Only an instant before he tensed his muscles to interdict the attack of the weird pair with one of his own, the ornithopter returned. This time it was much lower. In fact, it landed right on top of them.

The thing was a tiny single-seater, a Hargrave 300. It took up so little space that the pilot almost wore the machine, rather than sat in it. Even with its graceful curved wings flapping away it still had room to maneuver in the narrow London street. How the operator could see in this abysmal chocolate fog was anyone’s guess. Before diving out of its way to pull the screaming Millie down and cover her, Paragon caught sight of him. Fat green goggles with a slotted breath shield covered his whole face. One hand worked the stick, while the other brandished a queer-looking pistol with brass fins and a fluted glass barrel.

The animal abominations also launched themselves out of the flying machine’s path. As it lurched to the clumsy stop that characterized all ornithopter landings, they did not run away, nor did they attack the pilot. Instead, they did the last thing Paragon would have expected. Each knifeman knelt before the sputtering contraption, placed his weapon on the ground, and then touched his beastly forehead to the stones in a sort of worship.

A metallic whine came from the weapon, which was connected to a wooden box on his back by a metal hose. Its translucent barrel gave off a pulsing aquamarine light. While the stranger unbuckled himself from his leather seat harness he leveled the gun at the pig-man. Neither of Paragon’s would-be slayers had raised his head yet. Clearly they knew this person, to be kowtowing so. The object of their veneration shrugged off his straps and stepped into the murky street. His entire head and neck were clad in snug gray-green leather. Long white hair stuck out beneath the back of it. He wore tall boots with puttees, canvas jodhpurs, and a Norfolk jacket with a bandoleer across the chest. Instead of standard bullets it held what seemed to be narrow glass tubes full of a mercury-like fluid.

“What is the Law?” croaked the pilot. Some sort of mechanical device in his mask garbled the sound, making it sound like a speaking tube from one’s servants’ quarters.

The piggish fellow glanced sideways at his partner, then whispered, “Not to hunt other Men. That is the Law.”

“That is the Law,” the scaly chap echoed, not lifting his head.

“What else?” demanded the stranger with a wave of his pistol.

“Not to shed blood,” the swine-man continued. “That is the Law.”

Again the reptilian repeated the odd refrain. “That is the Law.”

“For are we not Men?” cried the pilot.

“Are we not Men?” the assassins chanted in unison.

Millie tried to shove Paragon away from her so she could see. “Look here!” she complained in her Whitechapel whine. “What’s he on about? Who is that bloke anyway?”

Paragon slapped a firm hand over her mouth. “Shush!” An instant later her toothed tentacle nipped at his fingers. Its teeth felt like straight razors dipped in acid. He released her out of pure reflex.

“Don’t shush me, mate.”

He whispered directly into her ear. “A thousand pardons, my marvelous Millicent. But as this mysterious gentleman is in possession of a firearm I’ve never seen the like of–and I am unusually well-traveled–perhaps it’s best we lie low until we have a firmer grip on the situation.”

She turned up a corner of her mouth at that. “A firm grip, eh? Now yer speakin’ me language, gov. I thought yer said yer was just gonna have me examined by a Perfessor, like?” Her bony hand reached low to give him a rather more intimate squeeze than he might have expected in their present situation.

How can this blasted woman think of coupling in these circumstances? Paragon glared at her. “I meant what I said.” He grabbed her wrist and yanked it from his expensively tailored trousers. Bad enough they’re suffering the indignity of this East End sludge we’re lying in. Soiling them from the inside would be more than my poor valet could bear,  clockwork man or no. It occurred to him that only a year or two earlier the thought of possessing any sort of bespoke tailoring, or a valet, would have been laughable.

Millie’s other tentacle, the one with the eye, jerked back. It tapped her on the shoulder and pointed toward the scene in the street. In the time it took for her to turn her head to look back toward the pilot, both snaky appendages had disappeared back beneath her hat. Paragon shifted his gaze as well.

The odd recumbent pair stared into the glowing maw of the outlandish pistol. Ah. He’s not here to rescue us, then. More’s the pity.

Its unearthly whine grew louder. A yellow-green blaze like Satan’s flash powder obscured gun and shooter. Instead of a sharp report like a normal weapon, it made a triple boing like a great clock spring snapping. The very air seemed to melt as its deadly charge burned the stones and wall where Paragon and Millie lay, obliterating the street lamp. In its place remained a plume of burning gas, throwing weird flickering lights that made the scene even more disturbing. If they had remained there only a scorched shadow would have remained of them.

But Montague Paragon hadn’t survived African Zulus, Indian Thuggees, Cantonese Triads, and Parisian Apaches by debating with himself on courses of action. With no conscious thought his clockwork leg kicked against the wall and propelled them both out of range. As masonry rained down upon them he threw the shrieking and cursing woman into the alley. He pulled himself up with his cane body, useless sword at the ready. Jaw set, he waited for obliteration.  No second shot followed, however. Apparently the weird weapon took a long time to recharge.

Its owner turned away from Paragon. The masked man seemed to sense that Millie’s savior posed no imminent threat. He stared down at the fawning beast-men, who had not stirred from their subservient positions. His voice crackled from the metal mask.

“When the Law is transgressed, what must occur?” There was no reply. “Speak!”

“Chastisement,” said the reptilian one.

“And why is this?”

A snort came from the other knifeman. “That Chaos may not reign. That Order may prevail in house and field.”

“Is your offense a minor one?”

Neither replied. They only shook their heads in rough unison. The pilot holstered his terrible pistol on his hip and approached the pair of unnaturals. He put a gloved hand on each bowed neck, a tender gesture out of keeping with his prior harsh words and deeds. “It is a hard thing for a father to lose even a single child, let alone two.”

Paragon blinked. Father?

“Yet an example must be set,” the stranger continued. “No one may override the Law.” His voice seemed to almost break. “For are we not…Men?”

“Are we not Men?” the odd pair echoed again.

They picked up their knives together, as if they had received some secret signal. For the first time Paragon noticed that their blades were not of steel. Rather, they were some sort of curved animal tusk, each a good twelve inches long, with a serrated outer edge. Rawhide wrapping served as a handle. No animal Paragon had ever seen or heard of produced a tusk of that precise size and shape.

The pilot spoke to each man in turn, saying the same thing in a soft tone. “Go in peace, my son. I do this out of love, not anger.”

As he stepped back, the pig-man cut the throat of his partner, just as the snake-man did the same for him. Scarlet jetted onto the filthy cobblestones, collecting in the joints and sliding into the gutter. With their last breaths the dying men staggered toward the pilot, arms outstretched, pleading. They sagged to the ground, still imploring him with those limp hands. He never moved, even when a stream of blood pooled beneath one boot.

Paragon remained frozen, watching, listening. There were times when a man of action needed to embrace stillness and observe. He did not yet have enough information to choose a proper course. All of this will have to be recalled later. I must collect and record, not strike out of ignorance.

But the unknown man never paused. Once the bodies had ceased twitching, he thrust a hand into his jacket pocket and produced a large steel flask. With an unhurried motion, as if there were no witnesses nor any potential for a bobby to show up, he shook a coarse powder over the still forms. After returning the flask to its pocket, he unholstered the deadly pistol and turned a knob on its breech until it clicked. Two casual shots sent sparks onto the fresh corpses. Painfully bright blue-white light flared up from them, supremely harsh in the fogged darkness. Paragon clenched his eyes to protect them. His sensitive nose, though, was soon overwhelmed with the sweet stench of roasting pork.

In moments the street lay dark again. Though the powder burned with a terrifying ferocity, its life was brief. Paragon opened his eyes, but of course his night vision had been destroyed. He might as well have been holding a white cane and an alms cup for all the good looking did him. Realizing his vulnerability, he scooted sideways until he found the alley. The smallsword slid back into its housing with an oiled snick.

In the street the stream engine which powered the ornithopter chuff-chuffed into life again. In half a minute the wings began to beat. The foul London air, sooty and dense, became a stiff breeze as they moved with increasing speed. With a bit more grace than it had shown on landing, the flying machine rattled past him and lumbered into the sky once more. By the time Paragon’s vision had partly returned, the street was empty. Nearly nothing remained of the two creatures that had attacked him. Only scorch marks and bone fragments.

He looked down, feeling with his stick. Millie had fled, of course. No one of any sense would have remained. Perhaps she’d still turn up at the club tomorrow. £5 was an unobtainable fortune to her sort. Professor Prendick Charles would positively coo with delight when she displayed her wigglers for him. A quick bath might be in order for her, though, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities. How the man managed to dissect cadavers without fainting was beyond Paragon’s ken.

Blinking as some of his vision returned, the actor brushed off as much street muck as he could. His pale grey kid gloves would have to be seen to by Mervyn, who would give him a disappointed shake of his brass head. Best not to think how he’ll react to the ruined trousers, not to mention the scuffed toes of your boots. Probably a metallic shudder of horror. I wonder, do they build that response into all of the artificial valets at the manufactory, or is mine just a bit odd?

A police whistle finally tweeted in the near distance. Even in crime-riddled Whitechapel the recent festivities had drawn notice from the locals. From an inside pocket of the frock coat he produced another of Queue’s new toys, a narrow, brass, wind-up electric torch. Several strong turns of the crank produced a serviceable light. With speed born of urgency Paragon hurried into the street to stand at the blackened site of the beast-men’s immolation. At first he thought that all remnants of them had been consumed, but upon close examination with his monocle magnifier he spied a sliver of bone with perhaps a square inch of attached flesh. His prize went into a tiny corked vial. Off Paragon sped, back into the alley and toward home before a copper could spot him.

All the way his mind tried to juggle what had happened. Monty, Monty, Monty…quite the puzzle, this is. Your alienist will charge you double for tomorrow’s session.

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A tiny bit of a Steampunk Shakespeare story I used as an anthology entry

Shyclock, the Automaton of Venice

Famine…plague…strife..

Misery.

In the aftermath of the Martian invasion, chaos reigned.

Though the Otherworlders had succumbed to terrestrial microbes, yet more proof of the superiority of Device over Flesh, their vicious assault had reduced civilization to little more than packs of slavering mongrel curs battling for dustbin scraps. Order, government, empire.. all crumbled like a scaffold of wet straw.

This Shyclock knew, yet he cared little for the sufferings of the meat-sacks down below. What concerned him was the imminent demise of the foolish Flesher beneath his blade. The panicked glare in Anthony’s bulging eyes. His terrified gasps. How his blood-gorged heart pounded, as if begging for liberation from that weak and puny torso.

Did not your tissue-friends warn you that I would insist on my bond, silly skin-wearer? Revenge truly is best served cold. Better it feels than fresh lubricant and new gears. How I savour the memory of my journey to this moment…


* * * * *

Two dozen great steam engines belched their blackened breaths into the frigid air over Nuovo Italia. Wooden screws spun with deceptive slowness, propelling the mightiest airship ever sent aloft. Longer than a pair of football pitches, the Venetia was home to over a thousand fortunate souls who had possessed enough wealth or influence to procure passage just as the interstellar war began. Initially launched by her namesake city as a point of civic pride, she soon became one of the last bastions of humanity as the surface of the planet seethed in a foul cauldron of heat rays, black smoke, and red weed. What loose bonds of love had held men together dissolved like strings of boiled pasta. Bestial instincts took over. Rumour even said that the dead had risen from their shallow graves, animated by gases from a Martian laboratory explosion.

No, the clouds were the only safe place now.

Shyclock heard a Flesher parent explain all of this to her young daughter as he passed them on the Rialto Bridge, an aluminium expanse which linked the portside Commerce and Government section with the starboard Living Quarters. The child’s mouth gaped as the truth was revealed to her. Silly tears of water ran from her fragile eyes. No doubt she had believed that such tales as she had heard about life on the ground were mere fairy tales meant to frighten her into good behaviour.

Nothing oozed from the clockwork man’s own green crystalline eyes, save a drop of the pale golden oil which eased their movement in the brass sockets. If he had been capable of crying then he might have done so when the mother hugged her child close as he passed, to preclude any accidental touching of him. His tympanum detected her whisper of “foul Device” as he passed. The little girl made a rude gesture at him which she believed he could not see.

Lovely to see that the next generation wilt be as backward as is the present one. A waste of precious resources, feeding and housing this lot of hateful Fleshers.

He brushed lint from the lapel of his gray-green gabardine robe, the required garment of all Devices when out of their tiny prescribed zone, the Ghetto. A perfectly-named place, that. It came from the Italian word for foundry slag. What better place to store the metal slaves who made life aboard the Venetia so cozy for the Fleshers? Far down in the bowels of the ship, amidst the trash and spare parts.

But Shyclock contained no slag, no cast-offs. His maker John Shy had blessed him with the best inner workings which the hand of man could fashion. Vision, hearing, strength, all were superior to the Flesh. Only the joints lacked a human’s fluidity. On stiff metal legs he shuffled across the bridge. Gears ground together, cables tightened, springs twanged. His steel heart, wound tight that morning in the Rejuvenation Cabinet, ticked like a doomsday clock counting the seconds until the Last Judgement.

In the case of poor luckless Colin Anthony, that may have been appropriate. Which is why the inner pocket of the gabardine contained a long post-mortem knife. If the Captain rules in my favour…

“How now, Shyclock!” cried old frock-coated Rupert Salan from his usual late-day perch on a bench near the thick-glassed Overlook Nacelle. As Fleshers went he was fairly inoffensive. “What news among the merchants?”

“Thou know’st of my appeal to the Captain’s Court today.”

“Verily. If young Colin cannot pay his bond, it shall go hard with him. Though ‘tis roundly believed that thou shalt be merciful. But tell us, dost thou hear whether Anthony have had any loss?”

“Nay. Yet it matters naught to me. I will have my bond.”

The withered codger sitting beside Rupert, looking sour as a month-old apple in his threadbare bowler, spoke up with a wheeze. “Why, the end is, he hath lost a ship. Brought down by a barbarian’s ballista, they say. An Argosy-class autogyro, cramm’d with profitable medicines and victuals looted from the surface. Enough to have paid his bond to thee ten times over.”

Shyclock grumbled, not betraying his secret pleasure at the news. “A bankrupt, a prodigal, who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto; a beggar, that used to come so smug upon the mart; let him look to his bond: he was wont to call me usurer; let him look to his bond: he was wont to lend money for a Fleshly courtesy; he spat his weak and watery fluids upon me; let him look to his bond.”

“Why, I am sure, if he forfeit thou wilt not take his heart-flesh,” said Rupert with a glance at his companion. “What’s that good for?”

“To bait seagulls with! If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” Shyclock’s crystal eyes began to glow red beneath the curled brim of his silken topper. “He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my clockwork design, thwarted my bargains, cooled my spring-friends, heated mine fleshly enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Device. Hath not a Device eyes? Hath not a Device hands, dimensions, senses, affections, passions as a Flesher doth? If you prick us, do we not leak? If you amuse us, do we not laugh? If you unwind us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Device wrong a Flesher, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Flesher wrong a Device, what should his sufferance be by Flesher example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

Salan whispered into the ear-trumpet of his companion, “Surely his maker erred by in-building such passionate workings.”

____________________________________________

This Christmas story has been published more than once

Winterlesson

“Is he going to be all right?” the wan woman asked, biting her lower lip.

Joshua Paxon shrugged and kept working on his patient’s bleeding head. “I don’t know,” he sighed. With a hand cracked from cold and hard work he pulled the blanket up to the sleeping stranger’s bearded chin.

His wife’s brow furrowed. “Are you still going out?”

“Have to.” Paxon started pulling on his insulated boots. “Did you find any ID on him?”

She still held the old man’s scorched parka. “No. Not a thing in his pockets except a piece of a cookie. Oatmeal raisin.” Shuffling her nervous feet, she returned to her earlier plea. “Listen, why don’t you wait until morning? It’s Christmas Eve, for heaven’s sake.”

“I’m sorry, hon’. But if that was a plane crash we heard, there may be more people hurt. Maybe some who couldn’t crawl away like he did.”

Mrs. Paxon touched her husband’s worn face and smiled a little. “You’re
right,” she whispered. “Let’s go.”

He looked up, less surprised than she probably expected. “Riding shotgun, hmm? Who’ll watch our patient?”

Squirming into her blaze-orange jumpsuit, Mary told him, “He’ll be out for
hours. Others may freeze to death by then. Besides, those big fumble-fingers of yours won’t be much good if we have to do some serious first aid.”

Josh stood and gave her a peck on her thin warm lips. “If this turns out to be nothing, I’ll bring you back here and show you who has fumble-fingers.”

A corner of her mouth turned up. “Oh, so we’re playing doctor either way,
huh?”

They were bundled up now. Josh had their big medical kit in one hand and a Maglite in the other. His wife grabbed blankets and an Army surplus five-gallon water can.

“Well, here we go,” Paxon announced, heading for the cabin door.

“Wait, Joshua. You must take me with you.”

Paxon turned back to ask Mary what she was talking about. Then it struck him that it hadn’t been her voice he’d heard.

Wobbly but upright, the pudgy old man struggled into the burnt and torn parka. At the same time he pushed wide feet into what remained of his old black boots. Despite the head injury, his blue eyes glittered with a clear fire. When he moved, tiny pale flames seemed to crawl through his white hair and beard.

“Mister,” cried the alarmed Paxon,” you really shouldn’t be out of bed.”

The benign stranger stared back at him. “No, we must hurry to the crash site,” he insisted, pleasant but firm. His voice sounded like dozens of crystal bells set to ancient music.

Josh’s will melted and flowed out of him like spring snow from a roof. He found himself following the odd little fellow outside as if he were being led on an invisible leash. Mary appeared at his elbow, a bemused smile on her face usually seen on small children at magic shows. A moment later they sledded north through the Alaskan night behind the couple’s eight yelping dogs.

Paxon kept trying to ask the stranger questions, such as how he’d known his name when he’d been unconscious ever since they’d found him. But every time the opened his mouth, the desire to know left him, as if the question itself were being gently nudged from his mind. Mary, tucked into the sled behind their visitor, merely kept gazing at him as if she were seeing a shooting star.

Twenty minutes of peaceful sledding ended as cruel lights and a harsh command toidentify themselves ripped apart the darkness. The dogs snarled and snapped at a pair of huge helmeted figures, which blocked their way, brandishing assault weapons. Both soldiers seemed very young and clearly scared. Beyond the men Paxon could make out some sort of commotion of men and metal.

From under the rugs in the sled came that marvelous sound of melodious bells. “We’re friends, son. We have business here. Stand aside, please.”

Astonishingly, both sentries moved away and waved them forward. Paxon urged the dogs along again. No one challenged them again as they glided into a substantial clearing surrounded by burnt and broken trees. Stopping the rig at an improvised rope barrier, Paxon and Mary stared in horrified amazement.

Several olive-green trucks squatted at the edge of the open space, banks of lights in their beds pouring harsh illumination into the cordoned-off area. Behind them sat half a dozen helicopters-mostly Blackhawks, but also a pair of fully-armed Apaches. At least a hundred shivering infantrymen, their breaths clouding the icy air, crowded against the ropes. They murmured, shook their heads, and pointed at the clearing. Inside the barrier a clump of dazed officers gathered around a piece of still-steaming wreckage. Although it was shattered, and scarred by fire, Paxon could still recognize it. He felt
Mary’s sharp intake of breath beside him as she also recognized it.

(the rest is available at Amazon.com)

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