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Eleanor, Duchess of Montresor, snorted at a young girl and waved her back a pace or two with disgust, holding a lacy square to her nose. "Heavens, child, are you ill? What do you mean, coming here and coughing at me like that?"
The girl, who had never done anything more unfortunate in her life than be more naturally comely than Eleanor had ever been in her days of best beauty, and poor enough to be willing to take a well-paying job even if it made her miserable, backed away obediently with another slight curtsey. "Please, ma'am, I thought you would want to know. The Vatican was closed and all the tourists expelled. They say... they say there is a woman there ... some say she is of the Massri family... claiming to be a goddess and calling for God to appear." She knew the early notice would be enough to avoid a beating for not bringing her the lastest gossip instantly, but only hoped it would be enough for an extra coin or two in her pay, if her mistress remembered. Her family was entirely dependent upon her salary, so anything she could do for the cantankerous and capricious Duchess might help them immeasurably.
Eleanor's plucked-chicken eyebrows raised nearly to the edge of her wig, causing layers of caked-on makeup to crack and flake off, sliding down the slopes of her nose and cheeks and drifting gently onto the vast front of her dress. "Well... that IS interesting." Her jowls jiggled as she chewed at nothing while ruminating on this news, an unconscious habit the girl thought made her look like a gigantic, ugly sheep. Once she made a decision, though, the Duchess of Montresor was lightening-fast, thrusting a bundle of correspondence at the girl with an impatient wave. "Here! Take these and post them immediately. Dab a bit of perfume on that top one.Now go! Instantly! And tell Jakob I am not to be disturbed until dinner." She turned back to her writing desk and began inking a new missive so furiously the nib of her pen bent and she hurled the unreliable instrument across the room.
The girl took the packet with another genuflection and exited quietly, closing the door behind her and passing along the warning to the expressionless doorman. She stopped at Eleanor's dressing table for the ordered perfume, and, smiling slyly, quickly dabbed a generous amount of each of the dozen or so perfumes onto the letter. Her work would not be checked and she hoped to save another poor soul from the grasping talons of the Duchess' machinations. Nodding to the butler, she slipped out onto the street and set a course for the nearest post office.
A weary, middle-aged woman nursing a glass of harsh red in a Roman taproom was telling the harrowing story of her journey on the seaside road between Nice and Sanremo when she heard the rumors of a Massri appearing in the Vatican. Blinking with surprise, she recalled the directive to deliver her message to Rashida Massri, in Rome. Well, the Vatican is in Rome, so technically... Tossing a few lire on the table, she drained her wine and headed to her motorbike, wanting this commission over and done so she could return to her family. It was good to get away from their squabbling from time to time, but this had been a long trip, and she longed for their company again.
As the buzz circulated around Rome, the faithful flocked to St. Peter's Square, armed with rosary beads and faith, there to pray for their Pope, His Holiness Peter II, to be strong against the heathen. Watching closely for signs of unrest, the Swiss Guard ringed the perimeter, ready to control or protect the crowd should... whatever... happen.
Sam's fur was warm under her hand, but his purring presence only made Rashida miss the Duchess Kittington even more: the thought of her warmth, kindness, and wisdom, more fully revealed by the time they had shared within the helmetcat's body, was a comfort to the neo-avatar. With Ma'at's absence came a keen awareness of the absence of others, too, friends all. They have become very dear to me. I hope... the 'other' is taking good care of them. Maybe someday I'll see them again.
The clear sounds of an opening door and pacing tread echoed through the cavernous space, approaching slowly. Rashida remained immobile, head high, despite the lack of Ma'at's presence. An elderly man dressed entirely in scarlet entered her vision, flanked by two Swiss guards looking moderately nervous through their determined attempts at poker faces. The man stopped before her and nodded courteously, dark eyes bright with intelligence beneath thick, snowy brows.
"I am Cardinal Mancini, Vicar General of Rome. These gentlemen insisted upon accompanying me, though I would prefer they did not. I welcome you to the Holy See, madam." He fell silent and looked at Rashida meaningfully. She noticed he had not addressed her as either "Lady" nor "Massri". No assumptions, I see.
"Greetings, Cardinal Mancini. I am known as Rashida Massri in this place. I bring warning and counsel regarding a grave threat to this world and others." She didn't know precisely what Ma'at would say, but that seemed a politic enough thing to begin with.
"Indeed? I was informed that you insisted upon speaking to God." The man was polite, but taciturn. Rashida could not blame him. This was as much a game as the poker she used to play in college, but with much higher stakes.
"There are forces in play that will require all the gods of this world and their adherents to work together to save Earth, Cardinal."
"Excellency," growled one of the guards, "You will address the Vicar General of the Holy See as Excellency."
Startled, Rashida paused for a moment, barely able to wrap her mind around the concerns of formalities when all of reality could hang in the balance. The Cardinal waved one heavily-veined hand slightly, almost dismissively. "Peace, Heinrich. The Lady Massri may not be familiar with our customs."
A smile curled the very edges of Rashida's lips. "Indeed, Excellency, I meant no disrespect. You may address me as..." She paused, letting the silence grow to uncomfortable length, then completed her smile. "Rashida. The matters I would take up with the Church are far too important to stand on formality. You know my family and its reputation. I am one of the... newer members and am not here lightly. You must hear me."
"Do you speak for your family then, young lady?" the Cardinal asked warily, trying to find his political footing.
Golden light grew around Rashida and the voice that issued from her echoed strangely. "Young? I was ancient before your kind walked on two legs, Cardinal. Convene your high council, quickly, and summon your God. We have no time to waste with formalities and games."
The guards knuckles whitened as they held their halberds ready.
Ma'at had returned.
The silence stretches into what seems like forever. No music touches the audience's straining ears, only the thrum and rattle of the ship's systems and the pulse of blood through their veins audible.
Gradually, one after another, they become aware of the rhythmic sounds of the ship's life, engines rumbling in a basso thrum that pulses through their bodies like a giant heartbeat. The whine of the propellers rises and falls in eerie counterpoint. Gradually, the heating system begins to hiss and rattle, but in perfect time to add a percussion line to the melody of the great ship.
A white paw appears in the spotlight.
Little lights appear on the stage, dancing flickers of flames, as something moves through the darkness, whirling and spinning until it becomes obvious to viewers that there are several discrete units of multiple lights moving about the stage in the dark.
Another white paw appears in the spot.
The lights on the stage stop their whirl and become stationary as odd plinks and plunks of string and percussion rise, joining with the ship's systems to provide melodic lines and more filler percussion. The lights slowly come up to reveal an odd assortment of machines, all hunkered on the stage as little balls shoot from steam vents, striking parts of the mechanisms to elicit the music. Each is bedecked with a multitude of tiny oil lights which slowly burn out as the stage light brightens.
Kittington von Meowselsworth's face appears in the light, slowly sliding into existence as it enters the bright area, great round eyes glowing under the helmet, which is working to what seems to be its full extent. Soon, though, the vocal mechanisms stir to life as the helmetcat produces a light, haunting tune over the now full steam orchestra. The cat's mastery of her helmet swiftly becomes clear as the voice rises and falls, then splits into self-harmony, all the ranges of the human voice and more emanating from one single mechanism.
As the music crescendo's into a climax, Meowselsworth's mouth opens and her natural feline voice slips into the mix. Suddenly....
The day passes with pleasant chatter between the French dancer and her protege, the ladies seeking the sun in the chill high-altitude atmosphere as the great airshift drifts over Lausanne and Geneva, passing to the west of Grenoble to avoid the mountain updrafts. Finally, the Mediterranean opens up before them, sun setting past the Iberian peninsula as they pass between the airspaces of Marseille and Monaco.
The crew serves lunch al fresco, then calls the nobles for dinner in the dining room before Duchess Meowslesworth's performance.
The dapper gentleman looked up from his conversation with the bartender, blue eyes taking in the divine tantrum in the lobby. Typical entitlement of the rich. No consideration for the people doing the work. He gives his waitress a bright smile, not oblivious to the effect it has on the young woman. Such a shame, but there are always unavoidable casualties in war. He watches as the Massri scion enters the elevator, chats a while longer, finishes his drink slowly, and pays, leaving a generous tip for all his servers. Then he takes up his cane and top hat, tipping it to the ladies and gentlemen alike, and drifts into the festive streets. Strolling to a nearby park, he watches the fireworks for a few minutes, then smiles and twists the head of his cane. Time to show the people some real fireworks.
The distant booms of fireworks end with a mighty concussion which everyone on Phantom can feel in the pits of their stomachs. The ship jolts sideways, rocking in the wake of the pressure wave. The deck watch gazes at the town in awe as the top floor of the Grand Hotel erupts, flaming debris flying in graceful, dreamlike arcs to land in the crowded streets below. From those streets, the sound of screaming swells, audible even at the shipyard.
A siren adds to the klaxon blare as another announcement thunders from the speakers.
"DRAGON ATTACK. DRAGON ATTACK. IMPLEMENT IMMEDIATE ANTI-DRAGON MEASURES. THIS INCLUDES ALL REPTILIAN LIFEFORMS SINCE WE REALLY CANNOT DISTINGUISH BETWEEN THEM. DRACONIC CONFUSION MEASURES ACTIVATING."
After a pause, it continues, "DRAGON ASSASSINS ARE IN REAL TROUBLE NOW."
Outside the theater, there are several greasy flares as the Tesla field activates without warning, zapping a few unfortunates who are in the path, loitering near the theater for an evening stroll. Indoors, there's an ominous groan throughout the theater as the doors, walls, and automated scenery begin moving, reconfiguring the theater every few seconds to confuse and trap the invading sinuous reptiles.
The Serv-Bot regards Clousuk with its telescopic eye, gives the kobold a little salute, and, before the investigator can do anything, hops down and flees from the scaly detective's vicinity.
A sigh emanates from somewhere above them. "Silly Satyxis, did you think we didn't know what you were when we called you by name?"
A circular window opens in the air and Doctor Zarnos peers down at them, only his head and shoulders showing. "Did you think you were the first through the Rift? The first we've seen or had to deal with? EEEEEEH! Wrong!" He imitates the sound of a warning buzzer and giggles at his own joke, then turns to Ralph and Cassie, goggles glinting colorfully in the light of the variegated streams of steam.
"Do you know what you're allied with? Vicious, brutal, bloodthirsty predators, that's what Satyxis are. If they're not killing you, it's because they think they can get something more from you." He smiles, showing odd metallic-looking teeth.
"Money, yes, and plenty of it, my dear," coos crazed Doctor Zarnos, "And more, so much more. Tell me. How much are they paying you?" He jerks his head in the direction of Cassie and Ralph. "Is it what you're worth? I doubt it. They don't even see your value."
He attempts to trace a finger down Ysillith's rapidly healing calf. "Fascinating. But know, too, that we have many more interesting things than the simpleminded Arachnos. Many many more. And a fully functional workshop. I'm certain with your knowledge of mechanika and ours combined, we could make a fearsome force, indeed."
He rises and bows briefly, clicking his heels together. "Here is my proposal. Whatever they are paying you, I will double it. You have a full share of any - shall we say, acquisitions - we make along the way. You have access to our workshop for your construct if it is in disrepair. All you have to do is agree to join us. Oh, and take care of your former associates there." He waves a careless hand at Ralph and Cassie. "I'm sure it won't be at all difficult for someone of your considerable talents."
Frau Stuptsman stares down Drake for a moment, then finally hisses in frustration. "If the Massri wished for privacy, she should have brought her own bodyguards! Far be it from me to interfere. Incur her wrath if you will. I have more important things to worry about," she spits softly, then whirls on her heel and stomps off - quietly.
Rashida is seated in the ornate central chair of the Massri box with a tall, thin man seated in a much lower chair at one side. Nobody else is on the box, the usher and waiter having accompanied the Clockwork Theater's owner from the box.
Frau Stuptsman bustles over to Drake while the ushers with her fade into the passageways, motioning for Drake to hush.
"The opera has started. You will disturb the patrons with such shouting. Nothing must disrupt tonight's performance. Lady Massri has already been significantly bothered. I have men searching for the kobold. Lady Massri is most concerned about it. As for that dreadful 'energy-mail', I'll have none of it. I want no exploding gizmos in my office, thank you very much. Send it by courier as usual if you want me to receive it."
Eleanor titters, voice running crazily up and down a scale that would make an opera star wince. "Oh Vorian, you play coy so adorably. Your status may not be sufficient, but alliance with a League member - becoming one of the family, as it were - certainly is. And I am a League member, thanks to my dear, late, sadly departed Laurence. His death has left such a void in my lonely life, dear Ritter. It is something to consider now that you are getting to... shall we say, that stage in life where one ceases to adventure?"
Plucking two glasses of wine from the waiter's tray, she hands one to Vorian. "Oh, what shall we drink to? I know... strategic alliances!" She clinks her glass with his and drains it, one ruby drop slipping free of the bright red lips to slide slowly down the white-plastered cracks of her jowls.
Eleanor, Dowager Duchess of Montresor, sighs happily as she pats the arm of the unfortunate man beside her, each sausage-like finger leaving a sweaty imprint on his sleeve. "Oh Vorian, dear Vorian, what a wonderful night this is. What shall we do after the opera, hmm? Oh, I wish we were in Paris where there's no need for a Tesla field so we could sneak out early, as the Duke and I used to do. We were so naughty! I'm certain you know how to be naughty, if half your press is accurate." She chortles fruitily, then gives Vorian a shrewd look.
"You should stick with me, Lord Ritter. We could use men of your mettle in the League. It will be a new day for us soon. Why tonight will see another step forward, however small! You won't be included on your own, you know."
The girl closes her eyes and holds her breath as Drake writes, then gazes at him with worship shining in her eyes, lips parted breathlessly at her idol speaking to her, while she quickly tugs her dress front up over his signature. It's uncertain whether she actually comprehends what he said. Fortunately for him, she quickly picks up her tray and curtsies.
"I'm so sorry, I have to get back to work or I'll be in such trouble. Thanks very much. It's such an honor to meet you, Mr. Khoth... Lord Khoth... Joey!" She turns and bounces off to refill her tray. She slips into a side room of the atrium, where several dancers are whirling together to lilting strains from a chamber orchestra playing popular dance tunes. As she hands drinks around, she keeps her eyes on one particular couple, stopping only to watch the Massri and the Brigadier General enter. It is hard to tell whether her eyes are more drawn to Ralph or Cassie.
As Drake meanders through the corridors, a breathless young lady approaches him with a tray containing a single glass. "Oh, Mr. Drake... here, I brought this for you. I've been a huge fan, huge fan! I hope you like this. I swiped it specially from the best stocks." She hands him the glass, which is fragrant and very strong-smelling, then sets her tray aside. "I had this made." She opens a locket and shows him the contents - his portrait on one side, hers on the other, looking radiant with her tilted green eyes and pale red hair.
"Not to be creepy, but would you... could you... sign an autograph for me?" she breathes, holding out a pen and pulling her uniform down to expose even more cleavage, offering the curved surfaces to him to sign.
Don Giovanni, Act I Scene II:
Scene 2 – A public square outside Don Giovanni's palace
Giovanni and Leporello arrive and hear a woman (Donna Elvira) singing of having been abandoned by her lover on whom she is seeking to wreak her revenge ("Ah, chi mi dice mai" – "Ah, who could ever tell me"). Giovanni starts to flirt with her, but he is the wretch she is seeking. He shoves Leporello forward, ordering him to tell Elvira the truth, and then hurries away.
Leporello tells Elvira Don Giovanni is not worth it. His conquests include 640 in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain, 1,003. ("Madamina, il catalogo è questo" – "My dear lady, this is the catalogue"). In a frequently cut recitative, Elvira vows vengeance.
When she leaves, a marriage procession with Masetto and Zerlina enters. Don Giovanni and Leporello arrive soon after. Giovanni is immediately attracted to Zerlina, and he attempts to remove the jealous Masetto by offering to host a wedding celebration at his castle. On realizing that Giovanni means to remain behind with Zerlina, Masetto becomes angry ("Ho capito! Signor, sì" – "I understand! Yes, my lord!"). Don Giovanni and Zerlina are soon alone and he immediately begins his seductive arts. (Duet: "Là ci darem la mano" – "There we will entwine our hands").
Elvira arrives and thwarts the seduction ("Ah, fuggi il traditor" – "Flee from the traitor!"). She leaves with Zerlina. Ottavio and Anna enter, plotting vengeance on the still unknown murderer of Anna's father. Anna, unaware that she is speaking to her attacker, pleads for Giovanni's help. Giovanni, relieved that he is unrecognised, readily promises it, and asks who has disturbed her peace. Before she can answer, Elvira returns and tells Anna and Ottavio that Giovanni is a false-hearted seducer. Giovanni tries to convince Ottavio and Anna that Elvira is insane. (Quartet: "Non ti fidar, o misera" – "Don't trust him, oh sad one"). As Giovanni leaves, Anna suddenly recognizes him as her father's murderer. (Anna aria: "Or sai chi l'onore Rapire a me volse" – "Now you know who is the one having trying to rob me of my honour"). Ottavio, not convinced, resolves to keep an eye on his friend. ("Dalla sua pace la mia dipende" – "On her peace my peace depends")
Leporello informs Giovanni that all the guests of the peasant wedding are in Giovanni's house, that he distracted Masetto from his jealousy, but that Zerlina, returning with Elvira, made a scene and spoiled everything. However, Don Giovanni remains cheerful and tells Leporello to organize a party and invite every girl he can find. (Giovanni's "Champagne Aria": "Fin ch'han dal vino calda la testa" – "Till they are tipsy"). They hasten to his palace.
Zerlina follows the jealous Masetto and tries to pacify him. ("Batti, batti o bel Masetto" – "Beat o beat me, handsome Masetto"), but just as she manages to persuade him of her innocence, Don Giovanni's voice from offstage startles and frightens her. Masetto hides, resolving to see for himself what Zerlina will do when Giovanni arrives. Zerlina tries to hide from Don Giovanni, but he finds her and attempts to continue the seduction, until he stumbles upon Masetto's hiding place. Confused but quickly recovering, Giovanni reproaches Masetto for leaving Zerlina alone, and returns her temporarily to him. Giovanni then leads both to his ballroom, which has been lavishly decorated. Leporello invites three masked guests to the party: the disguised Ottavio, Anna and Elvira). Ottavio and Anna pray for protection, Elvira for vengeance (Trio: "Proteggra il giusto cielo" – "May the just heavens protect us").
Eleanor was delighted to spot Vorian Ritter just as the lights dipped three times to signal the laggard patrons to find their seats before the curtain rose. She managed to show him off to most of the right people on the way to their seats. "Why yes, darling, this is the real Vorian Ritter! The one and only!" Even more delightful was the way he took her hand and escorted her to the recently refurbished box, which was sure to impress. The wine was excellent, and she ordered the server to close the curtain behind them on his way out. She was torn between wishing for darkness and hoping that everyone in the house could see her with her escort for the evening.
The Massri might be here or might not. If she was, he'd be free to act. He smiled and charmed his way into one of the boxes near enough to the Massri's private space to be able to see into it when the stage lights were on. Unfortunately, there was no evidence of the 'divine' one. He'd simply have to suffer through the first act and she if she showed up later. In the meantime, his companion needed tending to, to keep up appearances and keep her distracted from the real focus of his attention.
The server's outfit was simply perfect for anonymity. Nobody looked at the nameless numbers who labored in anonymity for the comfort of the high and mighty. And the high and mighty were an interesting lot tonight, though that little kobold certainly didn't look comfortable among them. Duchess Montresor had captured another helpless victim, Herr Justicia was his usual sweating, snorting self, there was an extraordinarily tall lady on the arm of... could it be? Joey!?
She set her tray of drinks down for a second and slipped a thumbnail into a locket to pry open the halves and check the picture within. Yes, that most certainly was Drake! She wasn't dreaming! She quickly snapped the necklace shut and returned to serving, only to have a ruggedly handsome young man and his date walk by and nearly make her drop it on the floor. The guy was cute enough, but his date? THAT was Cassie DuSollier. She'd cut her hair since the last sighting, but that was definitely her. What could she be after tonight? And the jewels dripping down her back? Oh, wouldn't it be a coup if she could lift those from the woman whose exploits had inspired her own career? That would teach her to have another protégé. But she had her duty, too. Sighing, she handed round more drinks, straining to see where her idols sat for the performance... just in case.
After a Long and Bumpy Ride:
The great mecha-carriage squeaks and grinds to a halt in front of the ornate opera house as the crowds outside are thinning and heading through the front doors. The footman descends from his post and opens the door for the occupants, who immediately spill out onto the pavement, the dowager duchess looking flushed and slightly out of breath whilst Vorian Ritter, though still elegantly (and fully) dressed, appears a bit more distressed.
"Dear Ritter, you'll join me in my box, won't you? Surely that brief carriage ride is merely the delectable appetizer to the fine banquet that tonight will become in each other's company!" Duchess Eleanor warbles appealingly, one bejeweled claw outstretched affectionately to Vorian, "The music, the society, the wine, and after.... ah, what a triumph! Do come, Lord Ritter, we shall have such fun!"
A Carriage Ride:
The dowager coos a delighted little laugh like a greatly overstuffed pigeon as Vorian's lips brushed the back of her hand and beams when he moves towards the carriage. "Well I should hope so, Vorian. It's long past time you stopped all this running about and settled down, you know! I'm so glad to hear you have changed your ways."
With the assistance of Vorian and her coachman (who gives Vorian the kind of pitying look which a noble should never receive from the help but which demonstrates the underlying sympathy of all mankind), the Duchess is heaved back onboard the sturdy mecha-coach, which steams, clanks, wheezes, and rattles into motion once the coachman closes the door solidly behind Vorian, trapping him with the elderly woman.
His question is apparently startling and turns the voraciously hungry expression on her face to a less threatening but equally repulsive one of puzzlement. "The Americas?" The bubbly bulldog snort which follows leaves no doubt about her opinion there. "Why on earth would I want to visit that land of savagery and horror? Oh Vorian, you rascal, I do believe you are trying to shock me! You little rogue!" Her trilling laugh fills the carriage with the sound of a thousand insane canaries. She leans forward to pat his knee, but the hand remains after the pat, slipping slowly up his thigh.
Vorian's New Threads:
Unfortunately, the familiar face also sees Vorian.
"Yoo-hoo! Vorian! Yoo-hoo!"
The monstrous mecha-coach sways and lurches as Eleanor, Dowager Duchess of Montresor, flings open the door and descends to the street in an enormous flurry of lace and feathers, powdered wig set firmly above the heavily spackled face with one determined beauty mark on the upper lip doing its best to look, well, beautiful. She grasps Vorian firmly by the arm, beaming into his face and sending vast clouds of brandy fumes swirling about his head.
"Oh DAHling, how lovely to see you! In town and you don't look me up, hmm? Naughty naughty." One elderly claw slips down to firmly pinch his bottom, then she stands back to look him up and down as a lion might admire an especially plump gazelle.
"Oh my, you've been to Elodin's! That man can make anyone look marvelous, but you don't need his help, you know. But what have you been up to, dear Ritter? You must have missed my invitation to spend the summer at my little summer palace near Oslo? What a shame, we could have had such a good time!
Her pendulous jowls wobble as she nods towards the gaudy mecha-coach. "You look good enough for the opera, my dear! I have the most marvelous box now, you must come share it with me! We'll be late if we don't hop in the coach now, though. Come ride with me, darling Vorian, and tell me what you've been up to? You know how your adventures always leave me breathless!" She spreads a wizened claw over her vast expanse of exposed bosom, wielding her fan with the other.
Ellis dashes off and returns a few moments later, lugging a long, brass staff with some difficulty, as if it is far heavier than it looks. He snaps to attention before Ysillith and offers it to her. "Ma'am!"
Once relieved of his burden, Ellis salutes and backs away, then briskly approaches Ralph, offering the remaining item in his posession. "Sir! This is what I could find, sir. I hope it suits?" It is a black velvet top hat with a silk band, a jaunty red plume sticking up from the band on one side. It is definitely rich and hoity-toity, though of rather unusual style.
Darkness deepens in Friedrichshafen as the sun sets. The gaslights lining the streets begin to glow, shedding light enough for travelers to see their steps, but making shadows seem even darker. In one of those shadows, a figure moves quietly, shinnying up a heavy metal downspout on the side of a tall stone church. It hauls itself up over the guttering at the top and onto the canted slate roof where the scent of a thread of Turkish tobacco leads it to the perch where another waits, seated on the slate and leaning back comfortably against the bell tower. The newcomer slides into place beside the other, looking out over the sparkling city and the deep black of the Bodensee. The other hands the newcomer a slender brown cigarra, already lit. They sit a moment in silence.
"I gave Cassie hell a while ago for smoking these," Rashida says quietly, and the other chuckles, "And climbing up the drainpipe? Showoff."
"I doubt you smoke very often. I don't. This is a childish prank in rememberance of times past. And why shouldn't I climb? I always wanted to. I suppose you clambered out of the bell tower like we used to."
"Of course. I always loved coming up here, though the bodyguards hated it. It seemed the perfect place to meet."
"The guards hated it when they found out. And yes, I remember this well, and fondly. It's not like we did any harm."
"No. I just had to get away sometimes, to feel free."
"I've come to the conclusion that none of us are ever free."
"That's a depressing thought. I don't buy it. We're as free as we want to be."
"Such an optimist. It's because of him, isn't it? Personally, I don't see the attraction."
"Just as well," Rashida growls through clenched teeth.
The other chuckles again. "I'll leave it alone, not caring to try to learn to fly on the way down to the cobblestones tonight." They sit another while in silence, orange dots glowing as they draw on the dwindling lengths of tobacco.
"Why won't you tell me where they are? I can't believe you don't trust me."
"You're one of them now. All ascended and apotheosized. How can I trust you? You've been fundamentally corrupted. And taking up with a Rorenson? Oh, that earns some trust points! Well done!"
"Scheiße, that was the plan," Rashida hisses in frustration, "You know it as well as I! Somebody had to get to the inside. I've finally done it, found out what the plan is from that idiot brother, and now you don't trust me! As for Taraz, that was... an accident. I needed his help. Von Ryuko was trying to kill us and I knew he could help protect me. Then it... became something more. Much more."
"Did it," the other asks softly, "I wasn't certain until just now. Must sting that he's run off with that sexy little repli--" There's a soft cry as the other finds Rashida's fist gripping the back of their jacket, their weight now shifted from their seat to the bottoms of their feet as Rashida hauls up and out with all her might.
"You said you'd leave it alone," she hisses, "I may not be strong, but I don't need to be to send you to the pavement!"
"I'm sorry, sorry. I'll stop. Think this through. You need me. I know where they are. I know where he is. I can help you. If you're still true to the cause. If you're not just another Massri." There's a sigh of relief as Rashida relaxes and releases the jacket.
"I'm true. I'm also a daughter of Ma'at. She... I wish you could feel her presence. She is committed to justice. What the Massris plan is unjust and she is very much opposed to it. When you find them, tell them so. She needs help. She cannot take on the whole pantheon by herself. Some will stand with her, but now that they believe they can identify whose body each mummy is, well... they're not going to bring back any more who might oppose them. And if what Gahiji said is true, the one they have found now - the one Vorian found - will show no mercy to the people of this planet. It will become a charnel house. Do you think they will stop at that? Once they have all the resources in their possession, this will be the capital of their empire. No planet will be safe. Tell them that. The revivification must be stopped. Once he reaches apotheosis, we are doomed."
The other sits in stunned silence for a moment. "Fantastischer. Worse than we thought. I will tell them. But... what if they no longer have anybody inside the labs? The Massris still need to be fought. It may take a direct assault. How long do we have? Six months? A year, maybe? We'll need to gather enough support to take on the Massri revivification facility. I... can we do it?"
"That's not all," Rashida continues, "Vorian Ritter's soul was... shredded somehow by the touch of one of the mummies. It was not revivified. But it was active, somehow. What if they don't need time to revivify?"
The eventual reply is in a rather shaky voice. "Then we are all doomed. Still, you were revivified. I have to believe they must do the full process for the apotheosis to work. I wish we knew more about this tinkering around with bodies and souls that seems to be everywhere. Massris, helmetcats, replicants... why, I heard that even Serv-Bots can become sentient! Something is going on, some tinkering with nature that I don't like one bit."
"Neither does Ma'at. She... I... wish to find a remedy for the defilement of Ritter's soul, for that is another injustice. If one of our group is still inside a Massri lab, we must get them to figure out what happened, before it spreads. As for replicants, I have examined one - Mimi, the one with Taraz - and she has a soul, a full, real soul. She is not just a machine. Neither was Gahiji's bot."
"It's getting late. I have to go." The other's clipped reply cuts off the conversation abruptly, finality clear in the tone of voice. Rashida's lips part to reply, but close again as a metallic stomping noise becomes audible and grows louder. "Can those things smell?" one whispers urgently, and the other shrugs. Both conspirators quickly flick the butts of their cigarras over the edge of the roof then freeze as the mech walker enters the street directly below.
"Litterer. Show yourself. Litterer. You are in violation of section 13.8 of the municipal code. Show yourself," the peace-mech intones flatly auf Deutsch. There's a soft sound of metal scraping on cobbles as it picks up the discarded butts. It repeats itself in French, Italian, and English, mechanical voice booming, before it creaks into motion again, clanking down the street in search of the malefactor.
The two figures on the roof stay still for many minutes, until the sound of the peace-mech has dwindled to nothingness. Then Rashida sighs and opens her bag, pulling out a long object sheathed in velvet. "Here. This is what you wanted, right?"
The other slips the velvet sheath off part of the golden length of the staff inside and nods. "This is it. Thank you. You've acted in good faith."
"We both have the same goals. It's easier to trust you now that I know more."
"Same here. I'll expect the information at the drop?"
They both nod and rise, standing rather precariously balanced on the sloped roof regarding one another warily.
"Are you sure you want to do this? It seems rather reckless."
"With no real trust between us, I don't see any other way."
"Take care of yourself, and good luck. If anything happens, at least one of us should survive to keep the cause going."
"Exactly. I wish you luck with your endeavor as well."
They nod in unison again, then one dark figure pulls itself through the bell tower window while the other drops lightly over the edge of the guttering to grasp the downspout and descends silently from the roof to the street below, vanishing into the shadows.
A group of sailors carrying duffels straggles along the airfield towards the Phantom. The lead sailor stops at the foot of the gangplank and salutes, then proceeds aboard and, with some hesitation, presents a letter to Mittens. Realizing from the level stare of the helmetcats that they cannot open it, he pulls out the enclosed note and holds it for their perusal.
Dear Captain Mittens,
I present for your approval the crew of the Ament. Please assign as many as needed to crew the Phantom; the rest may return to Ament in its berth.
Please tell your mother that I have been detained on business and will return later tonight. I look forward to seeing you all then.
"Madam, you shame both of us with such an implication. And in front of my men! I cannot understand why you would wish to avoid simple registration, unless you had been to this planet before and had something to hide. If that is not the case, please come along. If you insist on refusing, I am forced to assume you cannot bear scrutiny."
"Madam Captain, it is the will of our King that all who walk his lands be known to him by the simple means of passports and registration. I am a loyal servant of His Highness and seek only to do his will. His laws are simple and the burden light. I have told you what is required and you now state your intention to ignore His Majesty's will and follow your own. You put me in a difficult position, Captain Mearlleux."
"I do not know what business you have with the Massri clan, but surely it can wait until after you have your papers - a matter of half an hour at most, if you do not delay further. I am trying to do this the easy way, Madam Captain, as it is also the will of His Majesty that we be courteous and hospitable to visitors. It seems to me that you wish to make this difficult, for reasons I cannot fathom. Why would you wish to do that, pray tell?"
The lieutenant's handsome face has gone cold, his eyes wary. The policemen have not drawn any weapons, but stand ready for action.
Nobody is in your vicinity, and there is only one of this group who is likely to be eager to mix it up. She is inside a shop right now and has no idea of what is happening.
The lieutenant signals his men with his free hand and comes to a halt. "Madam Captain, you are going the wrong direction. If you refuse to come with us, we will have to insist upon it. We prefer to be courteous to guests, but if they resist, well, they leave us no choice."
There are tiny *snap*s from behind as the holster covers are loosened.
"Captain Ysillith Mearlleux, we must bear more to the right to get you properly registered, after which you will have the run of the city, to explore as you like. Of course, since you arrived alone, I would be pleased to show you around and take you to dinner tonight, to help you become acquainted with the city and its customs," Lieutenant Kurtz says smoothly, as he gently tries to correct their course.
Marital status: 1/2=single 3/4=married 5=married+straying 6=widower. Marital status: 1d6 ⇒ 2
1/2=xenophobic 3-5=courageous 6=gay. Preference: 1d6 ⇒ 2
Lt. Kurtz glances warily at the tall woman's impressive rack (the horns, of course) and answers a bit uneasily.
"That? That's one of the Massri airships, I'm not sure which one, because they're all gilded like that. Biggest show of wealth on this planet, and nothing but trouble for those of us who are charged with protecting the peace. Of course, gold may not be precious wherever it is that you come from, Madam Captain Ysillith. It just arrived this morning looking rather tattered. I assume... yes, there it goes. I'm certain it will be docked at one of the yards for repairs. It's not often you see a Massri ship damaged like that -- cannon fire from the looks of it." He grimaces slightly at the last. "Sorry, Madam Captain, I don't mean to bring up bad memories. Who was it that was attacking you? And what happened to your crew?"
"You've no cause to complain of discourtesy, Madam Captain, having been offered information, aid, asylum, and help in bringing those who harmed you to justice. I am Lieutenant Kurtz in service to His Majesty and the people of this country to keep the peace, but a humble civil servant and of no real importance. If you'll come with me, we can get you everything you need." The lientenant's face is impassive and his voice crisp.
The gendarme glances at the water and back to Ysillith, nodding. "Your pardon, madam. You are standing in the city of Friedrichshafen, in the Kingdom of Baden-Württemberg, in the Empire of Germany. Your ship is at the bottom of the Bodensee, also called Lake Constance. This is the continent of Europe on the planet Earth. We are currently ruled by King Frederick II of Baden-Württemberg, though other jurisdictions also border this lake."
He flicks a nonexistent speck of dust from the sleeve of his impeccable navy blue uniform, keeping his hands away from the odd pistol slung on the belt at his right side, the left having a dark wood baton suspended in a sort of sling. He clicks the heels of his shining black boots and gives Ysillith a quick salute.
"We are the largest airport in the world and as such, have an embassy to deal with unexpected visitors from other worlds. If you would accompany me, my lady, we can get you properly processed and you will most likely be free to do what you wish here on Earth." He fixes his eyes on hers, trying not to look at the long leg peeking from her garments nor at the bejeweled horns sprouting from her head.
Now that the interdimensional squall has passed, the lake has returned to its normal balmy blue condition, fresh breezes painting ripples on the surface. The pier ends on a boardwalk over a shining beach, where crowds of chidren are darting into the waves, pointing at the area where the Bonnie went down while their parents call anxiously from higher up on the sand. Beyond the boardwalk is a neat and clean city of obvious wealth with a huge white hotel sprawled along the road opposite the lake, palm trees on its grounds swaying in the breeze. People wear all manner of dress and jewelry, obviously comfortable with displaying their wealth.
"Understandable in the circumstances, but most irregular," he says in accented English now that Ysillith has spoken, "We can escort you to your embassy for a replacement. Also, you were under attack when you arrived and your ship was destroyed. Do you wish to apply for asylum or to press charges against the aggressors?"
His eyes flick to her hand and the hilt of her pistol. "Do not be foolish, madam. I can see you were under assault, but this is a civilized and peaceable land and we intend to keep it that way."
Taraz jogs quietly through Ament's halls, flicking his fingers once at a loitering Serv-Bot, which hustles off in response to the signal. Once he is sure Mimi is following, he releases her wrist to scramble up the ladder to the open deck where the ornithopter is secured. Tossing his bag in a stowage compartment, he starts freeing the anchoring cables. "Get in and get it ready to fly," he orders brusquely.
A row of Serv-Bots forms next to the 'thopter while Taraz casts off. A few clamber into the ornithopter in response to his imperious points in their direction, vanishing into nooks and crannies in the body of the machine. The rest scatter back into the Ament.
Taraz then climbs quickly into the passenger seat. "I have things to consider. Take us north. Once we get visual bearings, I'll direct you further." He fastens his harness, frowning, and settles down to brood while Mimi pilots.
The hallway was dark, lit only by dim emergency gaslamps, when the door to the Massri suite cracked open quietly and Taraz slipped out noiselessly, dressed in dark clothing and carrying a small bag. He stopped short when he saw Mimi standing motionless in the shadows.
"You are Mimi." The whisper was a statement, not a question, and he stood a moment staring at her, obviously deep in thought, then seized her by the wrist. "Yes, you could be... useful. Come with me. We're leaving right now. The rest will be fine, and I've left a note explaining everything." With that harsh whisper, he strode off, tugging Mimi along behind. "We're close enough to land that the ornithopter will carry us both there safely. We have things to do, my young friend, things that will only endanger the rest if our alliance with them is known."
The guards take the baffled scientist gently but firmly into custody, ignoring all protests and settling him in the modest brig of the Ament. Once all the luggage is loaded, the crew casts off and the golden ship flares brightly as it turns to face the rising sun, ornate, gilded wings and 'oars' pushing the buoyant craft through the air.
As the aristocrats slumber through a well-deserved rest, the cobbed-together ship's crew goes about their duties as ordered, Virago's crew supplementing Ament's.
When the wandering nobles awaken, they find a note slipped under their stateroom door. A light repast is available in the dining room whenever you are awake and hungry. Lady Massri requests that everyone convene there for a planning session at their earliest convenience. If you need anything, simply ring the bell in your chambers and someone will attend you shortly. Welcome aboard. -- Captain Janais, acting captain, The Ament