Chapter 2: Gears of the War Machine
Somewhere out in the coastal, moonlit forests of the Orcadian Empire a train sounded, breaking the quiet, chirping ambience of the night. The words ‘Soderquist Express’ were painted in bold black letters on the side of the locomotive, while inside over a hundred soldiers were snatching at whatever sleep would come to them. They were virulent soldiers—soon to be shipped off to the Imrauvian icelands that had claimed nearly all of their brethren. The war had trudged on just as stubbornly as her military, and it wasn’t just the soldiers that were sick of it.
Imrauvian sympathizers stood quiet in the trees like bastard sentinels, devastating mechanisms clutched in their freezing fingers. They waited until the train was positioned on the tracks just so, passing what had become the point of no return. With the grinding twist of a remote knob, a mechanism in the tracks sprung into deadly action as the shadows of Imrauov scattered.
A flash of white-hot heat and a wave of pure energy decimated the locomotive, ruining the tracks and scorching the land nearby. A rain of debris crashed down into soft earth and a fiery gash scarred a stretch of forest, lancing out to climb the trees and shrubs. Twisted lengths of metal lay about like blackened, mangled limbs.
Somewhere out in the coastal, moonlit forests of the Orcadian Empire, a train full of Her Majesty’s soldiers was derailed. Miles away, the citizens of New Lochbourne remained in their beds— not sitting quite as close to the tracks as Soderquist did.
Cool evening air drifted in through one of New Lochbourne’s open windows as easily as the soft trickle of music floated out. Moritat Kouvelos sat at the desk in his study, leaned back in his leather chair and staring out at the evening sky above the buildings of the city. An elbow rested on the chair, his fingers rubbing idly together as his thoughts drifted about, lacking any aim.
His white shirt was somewhat rumpled, and his chestnut hair was combed, albeit carelessly. He had eyes that were bright, like ice, with pinprick pupils— chilly and without feeling. Most notable was the tight pink scar against his olive skin that ran from the bone of his wrist to the point of his elbow. It was mottled, the shadow of a burn.
“Careless crinoline, my heart, you trailed through empty halls that’d never seen it, so part and parcel to your scheme…” Moritat sung softly with the radio, his voice muted and gaze a thousand yards away. “And yet, when I dream, it’s you I seem to….”
Moritat stopped singing, turning his head at the sound of the door clicking open.
“Request that one again, Mr. Kouvelos?”
Moritat gave a smile like a wild dog as he focused his attention on the man who’d entered— some unimportant gunsel, and one of many to work for the Kouvelos.
“Always,” he said. “The local station loves me. Now, Panos, I hope you have a reason for interrupting." He said it with a smile and that charming drawl of his, but a visible pallor came over Panos as Moritat clicked the music off.
“Yes, of course, nightking Kouvelos,” he said, gesturing to someone standing in the hall. Yet another gunsel came in, but this one was dragging a man whose face was bruised and battered, a blackberry-sheen around both eyes and a mouth that dribbled blood.
“As you know, sir, we were out, taking care of the train with them soldiers in it,” Panos said, licking his thick lips nervously when he realized he had Moritat’s undivided attention. “We got a call on the radio says that the Midnighters were out, and this one bolted. Think he’s in cahoots, maybe….” He scratched the back of his neck. “At the very least, he’s chicken-shit.”
“I’m not— I’m not in…” the beaten man sobbed, shaking his head. “I got… I got a family, I couldn’t get caught, the Empire would—”
He was cut off by a string of vicious Pallasic swearing from Panos who kicked at him. Moritat rose from his chair, and the soft skid of the furniture’s feet on the hardwood was like a gunshot immediately commanding the gunsels’ attention.
“Panos, have pity,” Moritat said, approaching the group at a leisurely pace. He looked down at the beaten man, his face a picture of sympathy. “It’s very hard, isn’t it…?” Moritat started, dropping to one knee to be level with the man. He reached out his hands to gently lift the man’s face. “It’s very hard to be a family man when you do work like this.”
“You’re so kind, nightking,” the man sobbed. “So kind… so kind….”
“Shh,” Moritat murmured, leaning forward and kissing the man’s quivering forehead. “I’d know a thing or two about it. You’re my family— you all are family to me.”
“But it hurts when family abandons you, doesn’t it? This was a very important thing, this train,” said Moritat. “They’re sending men to fight our brothers overseas. They’re sending soldiers to kill Imrauvians in Dasha.”
“I’m sorry… so sorry….”
“I know you are,” Moritat said, standing again. “And I believe in second chances. You have made your peace with us, paid your debt in blood… you will not do it again.”
“I won’t,” he said tearfully. “Never again.”
“Good,” said Moritat, smiling. “Now run along to your family, brother. Be thankful for your good fortune.”
The beaten man was released roughly, and he groveled at Moritat’s feet a moment.
“Thank you,” he whimpered, standing tremulously and bowing his way out of the room. “Thank you… thank you, nightking Kouvelos….”
Moritat watched him go idly, the sympathy sliding off his face like water.
“I don’t suppose we have have any men nearby our brother’s house, do we?” He asked, his voice level.
“We do, of course, nightking. It’s just on the edge of town.”
“Good,” he said, moving back to his desk. “See to it that they get there before he does. I don’t care what you do… just make sure he understands his job isn’t one to take lightly.”
Panos nodded, the other gunsel hurrying out of the room before Panos could order him to. Before Panos could leave, he watched Moritat’s hand reach for the knob on the radio. His arm seemed noticeably more wretched and pink than usual— more than Panos was used to Moritat allowing.
“Do you need more glamour, nightking Kouvelos?” Panos ventured.
Moritat absently rubbed the mottled patch of burn that stretched along his forearm.
“I’ll find some later, Panos,” he said with an absent smile. “Thank you.”
With a soft click, the music came back on, the light serenade of Moritat’s favorite song tinkling out of the large radio behind him.
“Oh, and Panos?” He said, just as the large man was turning to leave. Panos paused a moment, meeting Moritat’s gaze. “I think it’s high time we broke my good-for-nothing Imrauvian brother out of the hoosegow. Mark your calendar.” Moritat gave him a dry smile, one that Panos returned lamely before bowing and leaving the room.
Left alone once more, Moritat relaxed back into his chair, humming along with the final strain of the song. His gaze was out the window again, focused on nothing and everything as he absently rubbed his thumb into the grooves of his third finger.
Oleander honey, belladonna pie— I feel a little sick when you say I never cry. Twine around my heart, stick a needle in my eye. I swear for us to work, my dear, we only need to try.
Violet stood at the window of her room in Soderquist, arms wrapped around her rebelling stomach. Her intestines weren’t nearly as raucous as the crowd outside— all people with tickets for the Soderquist Express that was delayed for an indeterminate amount of time. A train full of soldiers had been reduced to a smoldering wreck on the tracks. Unfortunately, they were the same rails the Soderquist Express ran on. Violet wasn’t sure if her stomach was so troublesome because she’d eaten nothing but junk that morning or if the crowd outside was bothering her. Maybe it was some combination of both.
Pulling on his thick jacket with a sigh, Aaron seemed to be avoiding the window, as if not wanting to come to terms with the fact that they were, quite technically, stranded here.
“I don’t suppose we had a backup plan,” Violet said.
“None, darling, no,” Aaron murmured, running a hand through his hair to tame it before tugging on his cap. “I hadn’t anticipated the train would blow up.”
“That was a little mad, wasn’t it? So are the soldiers alright?”
“They’re being seen at Hephaestus as we speak,” Aaron said. He looked over at Violet, hands shoved in slouchy pockets. Violet had to admit, this calmed her nerves somewhat. To consider that a train full of men had been so heartlessly ruined was a little sickening to think. Before Aaron could say another word, Violet rounded on him.
“Where were you last night?” She asked.
“What business did you have last night?”
Aaron cringed at the accusation in her tone.
“I had to take care of things, like I told you,” he said. “I had to make sure the car made it to the scrapyard… why?”
“Because when someone you hardly know disappears into the night like you did, just before a train blows up, one gets to wondering,” Violet said, giving Aaron a hard look. She hadn’t noticed quite how suspicious she’d been of Aaron until this moment— and apparently, neither had Aaron. He blinked, confused.
“You thought I…?”
“I can’t be blamed for it,” Violet said.
“You were gone when I come back last night, too,” he said, “how do you think I felt? You’re sick, Vi, I was terrified.”
Violet crossed her arms, pinching her lips together.
“Right, I know,” she said at last. “I was going to come back sooner, but then we started listening to Alloicious Quinn. I lost track of the time.”
Aaron’s face brightened.
“Is that all it takes?” he asked. “I’ll have a radio put in your room, then.”
“There was a girl there, too, who knew me.”
Almost immediately the mirth drained out of Aaron’s countenance.
“Her name was Renata,” Violet said. “She was just about to… oh no, she was just about to tell me about what had happened when she saw me a few nights ago, but then there was that explosion. Can I go and see her today, just for a moment?”
“She might not be around, Vi,” Aaron said. “Most of the Imrauvians scattered after that explosion.” Violet was quiet for a moment, and then:
“Do you think they did it? They seemed pretty surprised.”
“It’s impossible to say, Vi.”
They both went quiet for a moment. Violet took a quick glance out the window at the crowd again.
“So… are we going to join those lot?”
“Eventually, yes.” There was a touch of hurt to Aaron’s voice, but Violet did not respond to it. Disappearing in the night on your amnesiac friend was hardly the proper thing to do and he deserved to be told as much. “The Empire will be out soon to figure out how to deal with all of us who paid for tickets.”
“Why do you carry a gun?”
The question had come entirely unprompted, and seemed to catch both parties by surprise. Aaron looked down impulsively at the gun resting at his hip.
“Well, to be safe, of course…” Aaron said, cutting off Violet before she could ask anything further about the matter. “Anyway, let’s head downstairs, shall we? Join the group?”
Violet frowned, staring at Aaron a moment longer before scooping up her thin shawl from the bed, following him to the door.
“Alright,” she said. “But if our safety’s in question, shouldn’t I have a gun, too?”
“Ha… well, I wouldn’t complain about having another gunslinger at my back.”
Violet raised a brow— she had not expected this response. She’d expected something rather more along the lines of ‘a woman with a mental disorder ought to not have a pistol.’ Which was, by far, the sanest thing to say. She smiled in spite of her earlier cloudy mood, following Aaron out onto the wooden landing and down the roughly hewn steps. The lobby of the inn was mostly empty, and those who were inside were wordlessly watching the escalating riot outside.
“All this about a train?” Violet asked as she pulled on the shawl.
“In a way,” Aaron answered, stepping up to the door and pulling it opened, holding it for Violet who stepped through with a brief nod. “Ha, there’s a lot more than that to it… they feel like certain issues aren’t being addressed and that things like this will continue if they continue to go this route.”
“Things like what?” Violet asked, not turning to look at Aaron. When he remained silent however, she turned with a frown, planning to repeat the question until she noticed he was no longer behind her. She blinked, looking around at the crowd, trying to find his mess of blonde hair peeking under that old grey cap. “Aaron?”
She was a little worried to have lost him, especially considering she now stood in the middle of an increasingly violent, jostling crowd. Sharp elbows found their way into her ribs and rude bodies shoved her to and fro. After about the third or so, she shoved back roughly, causing a tall, thin man to stumble backwards into a portly gentleman nearby him.
“Hey, what d’you think you’re at?!” He snarled, shoving away from the round man and rounding on Violet. Violet only cracked her knuckles.
“You pushed first,” she responded. The man looked at her in disbelief for a moment before shaking his head and walking away, muttering something that may or may not have been ‘dry up, crazy slag.’ Honestly, if Violet had any sense, she’d have let him walk away to lick his wounds after such a thing, but the name-calling she simply could not abide.
And so it was that Violet stuck out her very sensible boot and tripped him, sending the rake of a man straight into the muscle-bound beast in front of him, one with a smattering of tattoos that snaked up his neck. The tattooed man turned with a fury in his eye, snatching the thinner man by the shoulder. The two traded threats and insults, tensions rising until the thinner man got a firm punch in the face. Violet tried very hard not to feel a grim satisfaction at this, but she found that she could not deny herself that pleasure.
Suddenly, she felt a firm hand on her shoulder, pulling her back and away from the crowd whose agitation had only been stirred at the outbreak of a fight. She tried to get a better look at her captor who was steadily pulling her outside of the crowd to safety. Once outside the barrier of arms, she turned to look up into the face of the large man who’d been bumped into earlier on. He had a long moustache that curled just below his round, red cheeks and was dressed in fine clothing. He had a stocky build, and his chest was decorated with medals—no doubt a veteran anticipating the coming siege on Port Dasha. He smiled down at Violet.
“Ha, aren’t you a little firebrand?”
“I didn’t expect I’d start a fight today," said Violet. The man only laughed in response, holding out his hand.
“It was impressive all the same,” he said, shaking Violet’s hand vigorously once she’d slipped her hand in his. “Colonel Letton Decoudreaux.”
“Violet Vanguard,” she said. She had to cast a cursory glance at the name printed on her wrist— just to be sure. Letton didn’t seem to notice.
“Vanguard? Ah, like the Kennsdale Vanguards?”
“I’m not sure.”
“They’ve gotten quite big, the Kennsdale Vanguards,” said Letton, gently steering Violet out of the way of an angry woman who threw herself backwards just to tromp indignantly toward City Hall. “Ever since they started planning the World’s Fair, all it’s been is Vanguard this and Vanguard that.”
“A World’s Fair? Will it have a menagerie?”
“Have you not heard of it?” Letton asked, aghast. “Not a word? How strange! All the same, I rather hope they have a menagerie. And I hope it’s got a dragon in it. I’ve never seen one, myself.”
Violet was quite happy to continue speaking to the colonel about dragons, and gladly would have if a sharp voice hadn’t cut through the crowd, beseeching the attention of the mob.
“To all citizens with tickets for the Soderquist Express,” the man shouted, “We will be meeting in an hour to field questions about the current situation. We’ve reached out to Parliament to resolve this issue and are working to remedy it as quickly as we can. Any and all citizens with comments are welcome to offer their perspective in City Hall this afternoon!”
It was hard to make him out through the pulsing sea of angry bodies, but from what Violet could see, he was a well-dressed man in a dark suit with short black hair and very impressive sideburns. Letton listened to him speak a while before crossing his arms, shaking his head slightly.
“Councilor Trince does so much for us for such a young thing,” he said. “We never see hide nor hair of the other Councilors. I say, our boy Trince is the only one who seems to care.”
“I like his sideburns,” said Violet. Letton quirked a brow at this but laughed.
“You’re a curious woman,” Letton responded. He seemed about to say something before averting his gaze to a spot just over Violet’s shoulder. Violet turned to identify the cause of Letton's sudden pause and found herself looking up into Aaron’s face. She smiled.
“They’re to have a World’s Fair, did you hear?”
“Ah…” Aaron started, eyes flicking over to the riotous crowd before returning his attention to Violet. “I heard about it, yes…. Now let’s get back inside before things get much worse out here, shall we?” He held out his arm, waiting for Violet to take it. She only waved at Letton, ignoring the arm and starting back towards the bed and breakfast.
“Don’t tell me,” she said, stepping inside again. “I’m to wait in my room until everything’s settled.”
“It’s dangerous out there, Vi,” Aaron said. He pursued her to the stairs, struggling to keep up with her clipped pace.
“So why aren’t you waiting in your room, then?”
“I need to see about transportation—”
“And I can’t come with you?” she asked, turning in place after making it halfway up the stairs and shooting a hard look at Aaron. He froze where he was a minute, ensnared by the enmity of the look before frowning in a way that besought mercy.
“It’s dangerous out there.”
“Whatever happened to wanting a gunslinger at your back, Aaron?”
“Well, I’d prefer to not have to shoot people in a crowd, Vi.”
“A general fighter, then,” Violet said, starting up the stairs once more. “I’ll have you know I’m no stranger to fisticuffs.” She walked to her door, placing a hand on the cool metal of the handle. “I like to think I’m not, anyway.”
“Vi, you’re sick,” Aaron said. He crossed his arms, waiting for Violet to enter. “When you’re better, you can get in all the brawls you’d like. For now, please… just stay in the room.”
With a soft sigh of concession, Violet gently turned the knob, stepping into her room again. There was a quiet dread within her, a supreme dislike of the idea that spread out from her core like poison. She wasn’t looking forward to sitting in the room obediently as the only person she’d really come to know went out in a mob to ‘settle’ things. A small part of her understood Aaron’s fear, however, and allowed him this one moment of respect.
“Stay away from the big fellow with all the tattoos,” was all she said, “he’s got a mean left hook.”
Aaron smiled appreciatively.
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll avoid the crowd as much as I can.” He gave a brief tip of his cap. “Have a nice time. I’ll have the good lady of the house bring up some books."
“Books would be lovely," she said, pausing a moment. "And so would cakes."
“Books and cakes, then.”
“Try to make them interesting books, or else I’ll have to listen to Alloicious Quinn all night.”
Aaron turned at this, looking up at Violet.
“You listen to Quinn?” he asked.
“It’s not as though there’s much else to do.” Violet crossed her arms. “He’s entertaining enough.” Aaron smiled.
“I’m sure he’d like to hear that,” he said, turning forward again and continuing down the stairs. “Take care, Vi.”
She watched Aaron’s retreat, drumming her fingers on the wood of the doorframe before pushing the door closed and staring at it blankly for a moment. There was a profound feeling of helplessness in her and it was a wretched feeling— as though she were some cushioned, mewling thing that required care and coddling. She wrote off Aaron’s over-protectiveness as guilt about the accident. Crossing to the stand beside the bed, she made a mental note to speak to Aaron about that later.
She flicked on the radio before letting herself fall unceremoniously into her bed, bouncing there on her back a moment as the voices of the Empire began crackling through the mesh cover of the familiar device. She’d know the ads back and forth by this evening from sheer repetition. Mortimer’s Sulphur Soap, guaranteed to beautify the complexion. Dr. Lammond’s Blood Tonic, the cusp of modern medicine. And, of course, Alloicious Quinn’s curiously alluring brand of nationalism, fresh from the Crown's coveted, august ovens.
Violet had been falling asleep until she heard it— the soft strain of violins behind a man’s voice that came from the radio beside her. She blinked a few times, trying to parse his words from the dream she’d been having, and was left not quite sure where the divide belonged.
“And she flew around corners, ran until her legs were throbbing and her chest was heaving, but there was nothing she could see but tall alabaster walls; dark sky and a litter of stars; gardens and tiles and an impossibly long maze, but no hint of an exit,” said Alloicious. “Like Lucretia in a dress shop.”
“Hush, you,” Lucretia said, but her voice lacked its usual sharpness, as though she were strangely enraptured with what Quinn was saying. Bardsley had already gone to sleep and it was just the two of them, telling the Empire stories, coaxing it to dream.
“She realized she wasn’t sure how she’d come to be in the maze,” Alloicious went on, “and was afraid. For what must have been weeks, she paced through the beautiful, empty park with its walls, gardens, atriums and a gazebo with silk pillows and sashes that billowed in the night breeze, lit by a moon that was perpetually full.”
Violet shifted onto her side, facing the radio as though it were an actual conversant, eyes focused on it. There was a strange familiarity to the place Quinn was describing, but she of course was not certain why.
“Come on, Lucretia, you have to tell some of it.”
“I’m not as good at it as you are,” Lucretia said. Quinn laughed.
“It doesn’t matter how a story’s told,” he said, “so long as you can believe what you’re saying.”
“But aren’t all stories lies, anyway?”
“You have to admit that a lie’s better when you can believe it’s true.”
Reaching out toward the radio, her fingers stretching to their limit, Violet turned up the knob for volume. She settled herself in bed.
“Stop complaining and tell the story, Lucretia,” she murmured sleepily, eyes still on the radio as if it had eyes to stare back.
“Then fill in the blanks,” said Quinn. His voice dropped to that softer storytelling tone again. “One day, while sitting in the…” he started, then paused.
“Gazebo,” offered Violet. It had been the part most familiar to her, and there was a quiet sadness in her to think about it.
“Garden,” said Lucretia. Violet scoffed.
“There’s more than one garden,” said Alloicious.
“I don’t know which garden,” said Lucretia. “Let’s say… the one with the prettiest roses.”
Violet moaned, covering her face.
“Alloicious shouldn’t have let you talk, no matter how much the listeners like you.”
“The prettiest roses have the biggest thorns,” Quinn intoned cryptically, “and while brushing past one, she scratched her arm. It only took a few moments for the poison to set in, quickening in her, making the world hazy. As she sat down upon a stone bench she said, ‘Oh! Oh, woe,’” Quinn said, his voice edging up into falsetto. “‘I do wish Lu hadn’t chosen the gardens. Now I’m to die and it’s all—”
“—It’s all her fault,” Quinn finished with a laugh, just before a sharp slap could be heard. “Ha, Lu, darling, there’s no need to be sore with me. I’m not the one who killed her. … I ought to call the Watch. Murder is a crime.”
“Where should I have sent her?” Lucretia said with an audible pout.
“The gazebo,” Violet said, in unison with Quinn. Upon realizing this she laughed, a curiously warm feeling spreading in her stomach. She only half-listened to Quinn’s explanation— that that’d been where he’d left off, of course it was obvious to start there. There was a twinge of disappointment in her heart to hear Alloicious’ soft goodnight to the nation before the steady stream of music that played until the next morning, when the shows would start again. Violet felt a bit lonely when the music started playing, already missing Quinn’s excited, buoyant tones.
She closed her eyes, pulling her covers close. That night when she slept she dreamed of a maze— one with an unresponsive male storyteller who told her a story in snippets. She spent the whole night hunting him to no avail, his story— as most tend to— going unfinished.
Did you enjoy my ongoing story so far? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, Elodie WestWrite a Review