The Buzzing Box
There were five buildings that dominated the night skyline of Jing Mon Ceros. The first was the emperor’s palace, standing grandly in the center of the city. The other four were scattered around the city proper. One was a tower that offered the highest point for incoming clockships, another the temple of the arbiter with high piercing spires. A cluster of sky whale embassies gathered around the temple’s base. The last two buildings were orphanages.
With ruddy bases, wide and impassive, the orphanages squatted on opposite ends of the city. If a passerby were to look upon the city by the whale’s starboard eye, they would have caught a singular structure as the two orphanages aligned perfectly with emperor’s palace.
Both orphanages stood as mock reflections of that center structure. The red tiles on the pagoda towers were dull and dark, the walls more yellow than white. Had the palace be gone, there would be no imposters, because between the orphanages there was yet one difference.
The place built furthest back, the first of the two orphanages, had its highest top crumbled off. That was Matron Feila’s orphanage before she had opposed the emperor. And just as her home lost its head, so too did she.
Its army was stripped, its funding gone. The turns who had once grown up and served for the orphanage were conscripted into the Emperor’s survey teams. Feila’s once esteemed organization was reduced to its fundamentals. It became a home for displaced children.
That had happened a week ago.
Elsewhere, the black coated counterparts to Feila’s red coats rushed about in organised troops. They marched the still wetted streets. They rummaged the alleys and downtrodden places. Onlookers whispered awful rumors as they saw the happenings. In their minds Mai must have been planning what Feila had. And that meant trouble. What the suspicious few lacked was what the emperor did. Proof.
Gemjo had it. It buzzed in a knitted pack that hung off her shoulder. The organised steps of Remy mixed messily with Gemjo’s lazy ones and Franco’s longs strides. In between the houses that shadowed them and sporadic clusters of turns, the three made discreet work to the place the buzzing box would go.
They passed through the largest street in all of Jing Mon Ceros. The palace waited at the end of it, while a bustling crowd filled the space between. Gemjo smiled under the shadows of passing umbrella fliers, her eyes craning high, higher than the source of those shadows. Her plan that was brilliant and mad and daring would start from the very top.
Charles and Pratchet had been walking for a while. They munched on loaves of coal as they made quiet work of the city’s quieter roads. It was dusk still. Glancing at the city skylines, Tig knew that would not last. Bright borders traced the structures. Shapes of pagodas, low buildings and, most notably, clockships towers lay ahead of the wayward marines. Tig behind them.
He wondered if they knew he was following them. The streets north of the inn weren’t as cleanly as he wish they were. But now, as he ducked behind yet another crate, he thanked the hours for the mess. It gave ample places to hide.
Among the litter and the browning leaves, puddles of rain water coalesced where the cobble had cracked. The factories the puffed gasses were close now, their fumes pocking the sky in steamy mists.
Houses hugged either side of the road, their fronts covered by planks in mock repair. The full turns who wandered the streets were not much different. Some had missing limbs, others dents and tears in their metalwork faces. He saw a full turn eye him from a porch. He coughed as that turn let out a smoke ring in his direction. He read about that in Wilma’s library. Some turns had engines in their bodies that let out smoke.
Tig ducked between two houses as Charles peaked over his shoulder.
A shrug and the two continued moving. Tig read his porcelain lips as the men continued away.
Thought I heard a cough.
Charles and Pratchet had been traveling exactly where Tig needed to go. He was unsure whether Webly or any of his other men would appear behind him at any point, but he was certain the Charles and Pratchet would see him if he chose to go ahead.
Charles was sharper than he looked. A cough or a misspoken word was all it took to alert the man. It made Tig just as careful. He hated being careful. Now was not the time for caution. His brother was in the city and every moment he wasted trying not to get caught was an opportunity for that man to kill his companions. Tig paced a little faster. He could not risk that.
Charles slowed a little and again Tig rushed into an alley.
“What’s with you today?” said Pratchet.
Charles glanced about wearily, “I feel as we’re being watched. Followed.”
Sweat dripped down Tig’s forehead. He didn’t dare to see where Charles was looking now.
“By who, dear Charles?”
Charles swallowed and said the one word Tig hoped he wouldn’t.
Tig paused. It was strange. Charles had spoken in another direction. Just as Tig spied around the corner he heard the heavy steps.
There, opposite to where tig had been hiding and few houses ahead, Lemini Trimbly stepped out of an alley and greeted the men with a tip of his hat.
He was as bulky as Tig remembered him and seemingly more so as he flung open one side of his coat. There were long scrolls tied to the fabric.
Lemini cocked his half mechanical face, unaware of Tig glancing at him.
“Are you my hunters?” he said in a low, rumbling voice.
Pratchet and Charles struggled for their rifles. Charles gestured at the turns walking about. He flung his free arm madly.
“Run! Get out of here! This is dangerous.”
All that got him were confused glances and unconvinced shrugs as those walking kept walking.
Pratchet sighed, “My turn, Charles.” He fired into the air.
The street fell into panic. Screams and hurried steps followed turns as they tumbled into alleys and volleyed down the road. Within seconds, Charles, Pratchet and Lemini were alone.
Lemini cracked his shoulders, “Leave and I will not chase. I have no wish to kill what need not be killed.”
“Well sorry then, Trimbly,” said Charles, his rifle wavering at Lemini, “But our old sergeant will give us a lecture if we do that.”
Lemini nodded, “It is your will then?”
“Yeah,” said Charles, his gun practically doubled by how much he shook it, “It is.”
Lemini had taken out a scroll, unfurled it. Tig could see the tell-tale signs of time magic, the white lines, the distortions in space.
“Then let us begin,” said Lemini.
The plan was a simple one.
Gemjo realised it on her descent down the orphanage stairs and explained it to Franco and Remy on their way out. They would not find Tig first, in fact they would find him shortly after ensuring Ming would be rescued. As to how, it all depended on her little buzzing box.
She remembered how Toji loathed her decision to leave the soldier behind. And how guarded Mor’de seemed when Remy thought to reveal his plans. All she needed to do was let the admiral know. Or perhaps not Mor’de at all.
It was a quick trip down the border streets into Lion’s Way. From there, amidst the massive crowds, it was slightly longer before they reached the palace at night.
There were two guards by the entrance and that was where Remy, Gemjo and Franco split. Franco and Remy entered as guests of Mor’de and continued on saying they had a message for the admiral. The guard asked simple questions that warranted simple responses. Why find him here? What message? The two explained it had to with a secret getting out. Gemjo snuck in behind them.
Members of Mor’de’s navy soon joined the two guards and an escort was fashioned further into the palace. Naturally, word of a soldier wanting divulge a secret at night gathered a crowd of painted faces and worried soldiers alike.
When court was assembled, Remy and Franco stood before a room split between navy and palace officials. The emperor waited upon the throne, yawning loudly. They waited for one of Mor’de officers arrive before continuing and when the man got there, they lied between their teeth.
They claimed a marine had deserted Mor’de’s forces and Franco, upon one of his many tours, spotted the man board a vessel and escape on a clockship. He bid those present if any soldiers had been reported missing of late. Mor’de’s officer, a man by the name of Jinshe, a skinny and tall above lander that had been conscripted as an immigrant, was sweating as Franco spoke.
When the Emperor insisted Jinshe answer the question he did. It was a nod and a message to both the emperor and the navy present.
He’s deserted. Find him.
The meeting was adjourned, the navy dismissed and when all the blue coats had filed out, the door closed.
The palace officials who waited for their emperor to dismiss them paused as the dog did. The emperor’s beady eyes had been fixed on something by the door. Two dozen heads turned in unison. Gemjo waited by the palace door. She waved at them with one hand and held out her little buzzing box with the other.
“The man you seek is still in this city,” she told them, her voice echoing. “And you better find him before they realise he is.”