Short Story: Seeking Pretty Things

The clatter of wheels on cobbles filled the air as Fenton and Gillie left the alley. A broad thoroughfare lay before them, thronged with horse-drawn vehicles and people who all seemed intent on either heading to or from places with great concentration and purpose. Here and there small stalls sold hot food or newspapers, and the voices of the people running them blended with the noise that washed over them.

“We’re looking for Peddle Lane.” Fenton said, linking arms with Gillie so that they didn’t get separated.

“Over there,” Gillie responded,”I recognise the pawnbroker sign next to the entrance. Charlie’s boys keep using it for slingshot practice – that’s why the top ball’s so dented.” Her finger pointed it out unerringly. Fenton squinted to make it out.”

“Your eyesight’s better than mine. Come on then.”

“Well of course, I haven’t ruined it peering at old ledgers by candlelight, have I?” She kept pace with him, guiding him between a couple of hansom cabs and out to the middle of the road. They paused there a moment to let a tarpaulin-covered cart rattle past, and continued to the relative safety of the other side of the street. Their way from there to the pawnshop was simple; with the crowd light enough for them to walk side by side. Sure enough, a side road could be seen next to the shop, bounded by an archway between the buildings.

Fenton led Gillie past the shop and into the mouth of the lane, which was lined mostly with the doors to tenement buildings. The buildings were tall and crammed side by side. Families and workmen lived side by side here, behind the shops and offices on the main roads. Gas lights were already glowing at intervals here and there even though the day’s light had barely begun to fade. The other end of the lane wasn’t far away.

“Why are we going down here? I thought you said you had something to show me?” Gillie asked. They were about halfway along the lane already. Fenton looked across and grinned.

“You keep teasing me about all the old books while you gallivant round causing trouble. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations we’ve had about the amazing things you’ve found while thwarting your colourful nemesis collection.” He grinned and pushed his glasses back up where they had drooped a little down the bridge of his nose. “So there I was last night, working my way through Hawksmark’s Primer and I found something that I think you’re going to love.”

“Oh? So that’s what you get up to while I’m defending the Realm?” Gillie pretended to be affronted, but the little smile quirking her lips suggested otherwise. “If I didn’t know better Mr Fenton, I would think you were a little jealous of my midnight perambulations!”

“Perish the thought.” They were nearly to the other end of the lane, and Fenton stopped. He turned to look back the way they had come, and gestured for Gillie to do the same. The little gasp of joyous surprise was exactly what he’d been hoping for.

“Oh Fenton – ” The sun was in just the right angle. The plans in the primer had hinted at it, but the reality was far more than he had hoped. The placement of the local architecture had been a labour of love  – written in stone, bricks and mortar – and right here and right now the day added the final touch: a rose formed of sunlight and shadows right in the middle of the lane.

“You keep finding wonders in times of danger or in the darkest places, but I thought that seeing something beautiful in and of the light would help bolster you when it gets tough.” Fenton’s voice was quiet.

“It’s so pretty. I’ve never been given flowers by a city before.” She admired the sight before her a little longer. “You old romantic, I thought you didn’t care.” Gillie beamed, and enjoyed his momentary discomfort.

“Well, of course, we work so closely, I have to make sure you’re operating at your best with how important the Work is…” he twisted and turned in the light of her regard.

“Of course, Fenton, of course.” She patted his hand, linked arms, and let him walk her back out into the City.

Short Story: Arrival

Harp’s fingers gripped the rail on the observation deck. Below them, dock hands were moving purposefully as the airship made its final approach to the elevated berth, and the crew were preparing to throw mooring ropes down.

Heliograph signals had already been exchanged while they were some way out, confirming their identity, last mooring and intentions. Harp had fed answers to Robert the signalman as fast as he’d translated the flashes of light. They were The Nightingale, registered out of London, stopping overnight to refuel and possibly take on a private passenger. Their next port of call was expected to be Tintagel.

(The truth of that last statement was probably stretching things a little, but not so much that anyone checking logs later would notice or much care. They would end up at Tintagel sooner or later.)

The rapid responses and general good condition of The Nightingale had made a suitable impression on the berthmaster, and they had been directed to this favourably orientated part of the spire.

The air at this height was biting, even through the thick fleece-lined coats that Abernathy had issued to everyone venturing outside the main cabins. Harp was grateful that no one else from the team had come to watch their arrival; the last thing anyone needed was a member of the group coming down with a chill just as organic material began to hit rotating objects.

Harp sent a deck hand to inform Abernathy of the Nightingale’s imminent docking and the location of the nearest coal supply. Then as the airship began to descend they went back inside into the warm. The warmth in the stateroom was welcome, and Harp gratefully permitted Barnes to take their coat and add it to the others hanging nearby on pegs. Harp waited for the butler before continuing down towards the room that Lord Farnsworth kept set aside for briefings.

Barnes had never made any secret of his discomfort around Harp, but the two of them had come to a working arrangement when it came to Lord Farnsworth’s enterprise. His prosthetics made occasional small hissing noises as the pair made their way down the shallow staircase. Harp’s own progress along the corridor was notably silent. They could hear a quiet rumble of voices through the partially ajar door, but no sounds of breaking crockery or glass so far; all of which boded well, Harp thought.

Four sets of eyes turned to face them as they entered. Harp took the seat Barnes pulled out for them and murmured a word of thank you. Barnes took up station by the door and Harp began to speak.

“Well then, it’s getting to about that time where we need to get serious, but we do at least have one more evening before our benefactor arrives. Talefirth is large enough to have several hostelries and we will be able to restock most of our requirements, so if anyone needs anything or just fancies a bit of shopping and a promenade, then this is your opportunity.”

Harp smiled, and then adopted a more serious tone. “That said, the crews of three other airships appear to be docked at present, so do please be aware of waggling ears and of course try not to get caught up in any unpleasantness.” Harp made no bones about looking straight at the usual suspects for her next sentence: “Perhaps if we could agree to a moratorium on physical debate during our stop-over gentlemen?”

To their credit, both Orson and Herr Machen nodded without hesitation.

Short Story: Breakfast Deliberations

It’s not often that you walk into the dining room on a lavishly appointed airship gondola to find a seven foot steam-powered cyborg dressed as a butler. It’s even less common to do so while finding him holding an irate German by the scruff of the neck in one hand and someone in an oil-stained white lab coat in the other.

As I had been expecting a simple breakfast on entering the room, I hope I can be excused for being a little surprised and raising my voice in consternation. My name is Abernathy Fitzroy, of the Chelsea Fitzroys, and I’m Lord Farnsworth’s quartermaster for these little expeditions.

Barnes slowly lowered his two captives to the ground and released his grip, wide gauntleted fingers spreading wide. The two men stumbled away from each other and their erstwhile captor, and immediately began levelling accusations against each other and poor Barnes. As the butler was showing every sign of wanting to bash their heads together I thought it best to step in. I banished Orson to the workshop, while Herr Machen stormed off unprompted to his rooms.

Harp mimed applause and returned to the paperwork in front of them while the lethally polite ladies from the Finishing School pretended to ignore the whole thing while feeding each other morsels from their plates and cooing over a catalogue of hats. If I hadn’t seen Lady Alexa skewer a wirewolf with its own severed tail two nights ago, I wouldn’t have credited just how much my employer valued their presence here.

Barnes and I nodded to each other. He smoothed the front of his shirt and pulled out a chair for me. He was always sure to go that extra mile for me, knowing his maintenance relied on my being able to negotiate for and procure essentials for him.

“My dear Abernathy,” said Harp, “how lovely to see you this morning. Do try the black pudding, it’s lovely and moist – where on earth did you dig some up from out here?”

“Aren’t I allowed to have some secrets? A good quartermaster makes these things look simple.” I did help myself to a good size portion along with everything else. It was going to be a long day, even if Lord Farnsworth hadn’t told anyone yet what was in store.

Harp smiled in that secretive way they always did. The notes and map fragments on the table were soon tidied away for safety, and Harp’s eyes fixed on mine. “We should reach Talefirth by midday.” Harp pronounced. “It should be quiet enough to rendezvous with Lord Farnsworth’s coach without drawing too many prying eyes.”

The ladies had turned to listen. Miss Bellingharm smiled and leaned closer. “I take it this will be a short layover – or do we need to break out arms from the locker?” Alexa sipped her cup of tea and affected nonchalance.

“If Lord Farnsworth has beaten us there, then we should just need a few hours to take on more coal, isn’t that right Mr Fitzroy?” Harp seemed to need no more than confirmation, so I nodded through my breakfast. “Otherwise we may have to tell the crew to set a watch, but we really shouldn’t be in any danger.” Harp concluded.

“I really hope those words won’t come back to bite any of us.” Alexa quipped. “Though goodness knows an attempt on the ship might be a good warm up for the main event, don’t you think?”

Short Story: What The Butler Sees

Lord Farnsworth’s butler, Barnes, had seen better days, but the gearsmiths in Lanthorn Street had done their best to restore him after his last misadventure. The old ticking noise that had usually preceded him into the room was gone, but the pneumatic hiss of his prosthetic leg more than made up for it.

If the encroaching mechanisms fused with his ailing flesh bothered him, he was far too stoic to make a fuss where anyone might see him. He had served both the present Lord Farnsworth and his father before him with faultless efficiency, leading some to joke that he had a little clockwork in him long before the gearsmiths were commissioned.

He advanced with military precision ahead of the girls into the dining room, and supervised them as they prepared the room for breakfast. An array of platters and tureens were rapidly filled, and the smell soon brought the houseguests out of their respective rooms.

Lord Farnsworth may have been called away, but he had left strict instructions with his gentleman’s gentleman that the frankly motley crew now assembling should be extended every courtesy. Barnes was assiduous in his efforts to make this happen.

The Bellingharm woman and her companion Alexa were first to arrive, and politely acknowledged his presence even as they took their seats. The next to enter was Herr Manchen, whose polychromatic lenses concealed much of his scarred face. He was soon engaged in a heated debate with the dour engineer-savant who had arrived in the small hours of the morning. He had given his name as Orson – at least that was what Barnes hoped he’d said – his hearing wasn’t what it was.

Last but not least was Lord Farnsworth’s advisor, the mysterious androgyne known as Harp. Barnes didn’t trust them, but his employer did. They exchanged a cool glance and then Harp started filling a plate with a hearty selection of fruit.

The strange assembly paid Barnes and the servants little mind as they broke their fast. Seeing that the serving girls weren’t needed any further, he dismissed them for the moment and moved with heavy gait to rest near the speaker tube in the corner. If help was needed, he could discretely manage it.

Barnes allowed himself a private moment of reverie. He remembered his more dashing days with the regiment in Africa, and previous teams that Lord Farnsworth had assembled to resolve certain matters for The Crown. He wondered how many of this new group would return this evening, or the days to come.

Then Herr Machen threw a punch at Orson, and small pastries went tumbling. Harp moved out the way as they staggered back and forth, and just smiled as Orson produced a slide-rule to fend off his assailant.

Barnes stepped forward. He may have seen better days, but that didn’t mean he should let this one get any worse.