An Unsettling Development
The young man gazed over the current’s soft folds as the pilot smoothly maneuvered the canal ferry out of the central traffic lanes and brought it toward the end of the dock projecting from the right-hand bank. Thoughtful brown eyes considered the scene from beneath a mop of hair the color of dark cinnamon. He was well-built, though not heavily-muscled. Broad shoulders were offset by a certain wiriness, the product of both physical labor and regime of exercise. The pilot’s task completed, the ferry sidled against the edge of the dock, secured to the moorings by the efficient actions of the crew, and he bent to gather his belongings from where they sat at his feet.
“Ahoy, lad!” a deep voice called out.
Elias Conner looked up as he stepped from the canal boat onto the wide dock jutting into the slow current.
“Captain!” he responded, his face brightening. “What brings you here?”
“Waiting for you to get your lazy carcass back from Barsoom, my lad,” the older man laughed. “Let’s get a move on. Her ladyship had thought you’d have been back before luncheon.”
Elias began moving down the length of the dock toward the man he’d come to know very well in these last several years. “The bankers took their time,” he grimaced. “I returned as soon as I could.”
His employer, Lady Penelope Hillcrest, Fifteenth Baroness Botelier, had sent him to the Martian territorial capital of Barsoom several days earlier on what ought to have been a fairly simple errand: to direct the transfer of a certain sum from her personal accounts to those of Themis Holdings, Ltd, the cargo carrier corporation she owned. He’d been given a travelling allowance for passage and lodging expenses, as well as a letter authorizing him to act on her behalf. Elias had been extremely proud to have been given the responsibility.
But the teller had balked and Elias had been required to speak with a senior clerk, who had desired to refer the matter to one of the junior partners. This delay had forced Elias to return to the bank the following day, when he’d planned on an early departure. He’d forced himself to remain calm that next morning, standing straight while keeping a neutral expression on his face as the partner, a middle-aged man with a narrow mustache, carefully read and then re-read the letter as he periodically examined Elias over the top of the paper. Finally, the man had pronounced everything to be in order and directed the transaction to be carried out forthwith. Elias had heaved a sigh of relief as he’d exited the bank and caught a cab to the aeroport at the edge of the capital city. Somewhat later than he’d intended, he then boarded the canal ferry for the final leg of his return journey.
The contrast with his previous life could not be greater. It had only been four years ago now that his mistress had plucked him from the back-streets of Aphrodite, where he’d managed to survive by petty theft in the years since his parents had died, two steps ahead of starvation and a half-step ahead of the constabulary. But with their encounter that soggy Venusian afternoon, his life had changed forever.
Elias shook himself from his reverie as he walked the length of the dock toward the man waiting at the landward end. James O’Rourke was a merchant captain who’d lost his vessel, his contract, and his reputation in a pirate attack nearly a decade ago. He now commanded Lorelei’s Remembrance, the primary cargo vessel owned by Themis Holdings, Ltd. and thus by the baroness herself. Over their frequent encounters, Elias had come to look upon the captain as something of a second father. The captain, for his part, had reciprocated the relationship and taken Elias under his wing.
For the last two years, he’d been training with the captain, working toward his initial pilot’s license. Six months ago, he’d applied for the required examination, but had been turned away by the attending clerk for lack of adequate documentation. Applicants were required to have attained the age of eighteen years and while Elias and his employer, who was herself licensed to operate modest craft on open-aether journeys between worlds, were both certain he was at least a year beyond that minimum, he possessed no records to demonstrate that fact. In the end, O’Rourke had formally vouched for his student, using his standing as a merchant captain to satisfy the clerk’s requirements. Elias had then proceeded to pass the written examination and the subsequent practicals with solid marks.
His license had arrived in the post two weeks prior to his trip to Barsoom. While he now had the ability to lease and operate a small atmospheric-capable aether-vessel independently, the next step in his plan was to acquire a ship of his own. But this milestone was still many years off, despite the savings he’d squirreled away so far. Even a small vessel did not come cheaply. Meanwhile, Elias’ vision had continued to develop and during his trip, he’d finally settled on a name. The thought made him smile, though he wondered if he’d actually have the courage to declare it when the time came to put pen to paper on the forms.
As he reached the stone-lined edge of the broad canal channel, the gruff captain clapped him hard on the shoulder. “Good to see you, my boy. Now, let’s not keep her ladyship waitin’!”
The two men headed up the switchback path that climbed the embankment. Stairs would have been more straightforward, but the sloped path enabled the movement of cargo-laden carts and were standard features along the canal system. As they crested the embankment several minutes later, the estate lay spread before them: the main estate house in the middle distance, the stables and several storage buildings scattered over the terrain. To the north, low hills rose, segregating the nearer grounds from the broader holdings of estate lands beyond.
It was about a twenty-minute walk to the estate house and the two followed the level roadway leading from the canal. As they approached the estate house proper, Elias was struck by the unusual quiet. The typical bustle from the stables and the kitchens was notably absent. He glanced over at the captain, but the other man seemed oblivious to their surroundings, chatting amiably about the most recent cargo run of the Remembrance. O’Rourke opened the front door himself, which Elias also thought odd. The unusual quiet extended into, even seemed to emanate from, the interior of the house.
“I believe her ladyship said that she would be waitin’ in the parlor,” the captain indicated, waving Elias ahead. Mentally shrugging, Elias stepped forward and led the way down the hall after setting his travel-bag off to one side of the entranceway. He knocked lightly on the closed door. “Lady P?” And pushed the door open.
A flood of light and sound assaulted him and he took a step backward involuntarily. The entire staff seemed to be crowded into the room, every face bearing a broad smile. Elias looked around, perplexed, as the captain prodded him forward.
“Come along, lad. Step lively now.”
“What is going on?” Elias looked over to the other man, who said nothing.
“Elias.” There was only one voice which carried that rich, melodious tone. Only one which struck his heart in that peculiar and impossible way. Penelope stepped from the crowd.
“Are you surprised?” she asked.
“I am, Lady P,” he replied. “I am also very, very confused.”
She smiled brightly. “Of course you are. The explanation is actually quite simple. This is a birthday party.”
“For you, silly.” She rapped him lightly on the arm. “And it’s ‘for whom.’ I’ve taught you better than that.”
“But we don’t know when my birthday is,” he countered. “We’ve never been able to find…”
“I’ve had researchers combing through Venusian census records for years now, ever since our Vulcan mission,” she replied. “Two months ago, they found this.” She handed him a thick sheet of vellum, heavily creased from having been folded quarto.
“This is your baptismal certificate, Elias,” she continued. “Your date of birth is noted on it. Today.”
He looked down at the document, forcing his hands not to tremble as he read and reread the words. Date of Child’s Birth: Eighteenth Day of January in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen Hundred Eighty-Six.
“I’ve been planning this day for weeks,” Penelope said. “The entire staff has been in on the plot, as has the captain here.”
Elias fought back the tears welling in his eyes as he said quietly, “I am twenty years old today.”
“Yes,” Penelope agreed. “That you are.”
“Drinks are on the house!” the captain roared and everyone laughed. “Food’s a-wastin’!”
As everyone began to mill about and sample from the buffet Elias had just then noticed set up against one wall of the parlor, he turned to his employer. “Thank you, Lady P. For everything.”
“You are most welcome, Elias,” she replied warmly. “Happy birthday.”
The gathering went on for some time, but even birthday festivities begin to wind down after a while. When it had become apparent that everyone had had their fill of the delicious spread that the cooks had prepared, Elias figured the evening was coming to a close. But then Penelope stepped to the center of the room and clapped her hands loudly.
“Your attention, please!” The bustle in the room quieted as all eyes turned towards her. “It is now time for the final part of today’s little celebration. If you would all accompany me outside.”
Elias looked over to the captain, his eyes full of questions, but the older man only smiled innocently and motioned toward the doorway. Elias followed as everyone filed out of the parlor and the estate house, making their way as Penelope led them towards the storage barns. Because these were set off a distance from the main house, and at an angle to the approach he and the captain had taken from the canal docks earlier, Elias only now saw that a wide canvas sheet had been strung up between two of the barns, like a sail some stories high.
Penelope stepped to the corner of one barn, where a rope hitched to a stay fastened to the barn wall held the canvas in place. The captain mirrored her on the opposite side.
“And now,” she announced, “with the good captain’s assistance, I’d like to give Elias his birthday present.”
Elias watched, stunned, as Penelope and the captain released the ropes and the canvas sheet dropped to the ground to reveal a weathered-looking but solidly-built dirigible. It took him all of two seconds to recognize the craft he’d trained in these past years.
“You’re giving me the Song?” he sputtered, incredulous.
O’Rourke grinned. “She’s not the Lorelei’s Song anymore, lad. She’s yours now. Bought and paid for. When you’ve got a name for her, we’ll get that filed and it’ll be all official.”
“Oh, I’ve got a name,” Elias blurted before he could stop himself. “But I don’t know--”
“Nonsense, boy,” the captain replied. “What’s it to be then?”
“Her name…” Elias trailed off, suddenly uncertain. It appeared that his moment of truth had come far sooner than he’d expected. What was that old saying? In for a penny, in for a pound. Looking straight at O’Rourke and not daring to watch the woman in the corner of his vision, he braced his shoulders and stood a fraction straighter. “Her name,” he repeated, “is Penelope’s Promise.”
A sudden hush fell on the assembly. Then the captain broke into a loud guffaw and slapped his thigh. “I tell you, a heart of pure gold and balls of solid brass!” The tension broke and everyone began to laugh and cheer.
Amid the commotion, Elias risked a glance at his employer, who was laughing and smiling along with everyone else, but whose eyes bore an expression he could not read.
The next day found Elias and Penelope settling into their suite aboard the liner Jason’s Quest, en route to Earth. While he’d barely unpacked from his trip to Barsoom, over the many years of working alongside his mistress, Elias had learned that sudden departures and frequent alterations of schedule were more the norm than the exception. And so, he’d taken Penelope’s announcement of their pending travel to London in the aftermath of the party in stride.
“The new Hephaestus chairman is certainly making a splash,” Elias commented as he handed his employer the newspaper he’d brought from Barsoom. A photograph of the man, with trademark mustache and pince-nez, dominated the front page. In characteristic form, his top hat was held in one hand, his arms frozen in mid-gesture. The moving-picture newsreels were the better medium, Elias thought, for capturing the man’s powerful presence and the robust movement which punctuated his addresses. Since his elevation at the sudden death of his predecessor several months ago, the man had been everywhere. “Barnstorming,” some in the press had come to call it.
“Mr. Roosevelt’s preferred approach,” Penelope replied, “to use his version of the traditional saying, is to ‘take the bull-moose by the horns.’ Subtlety is not exactly his style.” She took the paper from Elias’ hand. “Any other stories of note?”
“Not much, Lady P,” Elias shrugged. “A wire-service story about another pirate attack near the Belt. The financial markets are holding steady. Ginseng futures are up.” He paused. “There was another open letter from that Leo Populi.”
“I understand that he writes a number of such letters, sent to numerous editors. Most major papers seem to be receiving them.” Penelope’s brow creased slightly. “I can’t say that I agree with the man’s theses, but he constructs his arguments well.”
Elias nodded. His sympathies lay more with the laborers whose blood and sweat supported the system of the worlds than with the industrialists who ran it. His own father had been slain in a police raid on a Venusian labor hall over a decade before, many years before he and Penelope had met, but he could also understand his employer’s perspective. “Utopian visions are well and good,” she’d commented to him in the course of his studies. “But they can also get a great many people killed. Reality is not so clear-cut as these writers would have one believe.”
“What do you think of his arguments, Elias?” she asked, bringing his mind back to the present. She looked up at him from her armchair, her eyes curious.
Her question was not an idle one, Elias knew. Unlike many of the well-to-do, Penelope had a certain sympathy for the laboring classes. She never treated anyone, from her household staff to the maid of a hotel she might only stay at once, with anything less than respect. Elias nodded to himself: she was a rare one, and that only cemented his own admiration for her further.
“I can understand his ends,” he replied after a moment. “The betterment of the lives of the workers is a very necessary thing. I cannot agree with his means -- or at least, the means he appears to advocate. The violent overthrow of the current order will do no one good and could bring much harm to many. A peaceable alteration of the structure of power would be preferable.”
Penelope nodded, gesturing for him to continue.
“On the other hand,” Elias said, “I can understand his frustration. Those in power are generally reluctant to relinquish a portion to those whom they deem inferior. Even the so-called ’progressives’ seem more interested in telling the workers how to better themselves than in giving them the means and the freedom to do so.”
“An interesting observation,” she replied. “And one that I’m afraid is all too accurate.”
Elias had a question of his own. “He argues that there are those among the pirates working to the benefit of the laborers of the worlds,” he pointed out. “Freedom-fighters, he calls them. Could piracy ever be in the right?”
It was her turn to shrug. “Right and wrong are concepts which depend very much on one’s point of view.” She waved toward the companion armchair and Elias took the hint. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter. Take the Americans’ war for independence from the British Empire over a century ago: from the rebels’ side, their leaders were patriots; from the Crown’s perspective, those same men were traitors. Who was correct?”
Elias nodded. “That makes sense. Of course, the outcome of the war decided that question.”
“In many cases,” Penelope agreed, “you’ll find that the line between patriotism and treason is defined by who wins that fight. Now, take this new band of pirates that has appeared on the scene in these last years, these ‘Sons of Eris,’ as they call themselves.”
Elias pointed to the paper, still folded on his employer’s lap. “The story I mentioned refers to them.”
“So you’ve been keeping abreast of things,” she smiled approvingly. “Very good. Now tell me, what is it about these Sons of Eris that sets them apart from their brigand brethren?”
Elias considered the question for a moment. “They appear less ruthless, for one thing. Generally, their victims tend to not end up dead. The Sons seem more interested in cargo and crystals than killing.”
“A fair point,” Penelope agreed. “Anything else?”
“There are rumors,” he responded, “that they recruit from among their victims’ crews. Only rumors, though.”
“The very existence of those rumors is itself suggestive, however,” she pointed out. “That together with their peculiar interest in the vulcanite crystals make for an interesting picture.”
“How so, Lady P?” Elias inquired. “Pirates would naturally loot their victims of anything of value, crystals included. The only peculiar part about the Sons is that they leave their victims alive and their vessels more or less intact, if sorely underpowered.”
“I suspect,” Penelope replied, “that our coming appointment with the prime minister may shed some light on that very question.”
The late winter afternoon was bright and clear when their ferry from the orbiting liner docked at the aeroport outside of London. A cab-ride later, they arrived at Penelope’s townhouse in the city, where her loyal house-staff, the Porters, had prepared for their arrival, a fine supper being ready only a short while later. Elias slept well that night, but wondered what the next days would bring.
After brunch the following morning, Penelope received a message from Lord Salisbury confirming their appointment the next day. Penelope looked up from the brief letter at Elias. “Well, that sets our schedule for tomorrow. I’d like to make another visit today, however, if you’d care to accompany me.”
“Of course, my lady,” he replied, suspecting he knew the destination she had in mind. “I’ll fetch a cab for us.”
A short while later, the cab came to a gentle halt; a request for the driver to wait for their return was confirmed by a silent nod. As the two of them stepped through the lich gate and onto the cemetery grounds of St. Matthew’s, Elias looked over the monument-laden landscape for the structure to which the two of them were headed. He’d been here only once before, two years prior, but the experience was memorable enough that he recalled it with ease. It had been spring on that occasion, and as the light snow and heavy frost crunched underfoot, he considered the contrast.
The structure itself became visible only a short way through the grounds. Penelope’s great grandfather, the Twelfth Baron Botelier, having been caught up in a resurgence of spiritualism near the beginning of the last century, had become convinced that he had been Xerxes the Great in a prior life. He therefore had constructed a mausoleum suited, as he saw it, for such honors. His imagination had been stronger than his scholarship, however, and the resulting building was a mishmash of Persian, Egyptian, and Greek influences: bearded sphinxes, marble columns, and stone braziers flanking the entranceway of the marble structure. Fortunately for his descendants, the Baron’s budget had been more limited than his fantasies, and the mausoleum, while ornate and somewhat gaudy, was of only modest size. Nonetheless, not to allow the extravagance to go to waste, it was deemed by following generations that the bearer of the title would be interred within so long as room remained.
Elias recalled the engraved marble block on the exterior identifying the mausoleum’s most recent inhabitant and his employer’s somber face as she gazed upon it at their previous visit. Half the niches within had been filled; three remained open.
“Hold there!” Penelope commanded, her voice echoing in early winter morning air. Elias caught sight of a boy standing beside the mausoleum, a circular wreath in his hands. The boy looked up, startled, but set the wreath against the stone wall and turned toward them as they approached.
“Who are you and what is your business at my family’s crypt?” Penelope challenged the boy, her voice low and hard.
“My name is John Williams, my lady,” the boy replied nervously. “I’m a florist’s apprentice.”
“And why are you here?”
Young Williams indicated the wreath. “It is a commission, my lady. One wreath of white magnolia blossoms is to be placed by this here marker at or around noon every 30th of January.”
“A commission?” Penelope pressed. “Established by whom exactly?”
“I cannot say, my lady,” he replied. “I know only what Mr. Fenworth, the shopkeeper, told me. This is the seventh wreath, I do know that. And Mr. Fenworth once mentioned it was a foreigner, a French gent, I believe he said.”
Penelope said something under her breath that Elias didn’t catch and stared intently into the distance. Several minutes later, suddenly remembering the boy’s presence, she looked back at the apprentice. “Thank you, young man. That is all.”
“Yes, my lady.” He gave an uncertain bow and scurried away.
Elias watch him depart, but he noted that his employer’s gaze had returned to the circle of green boughs and white blossoms resting against the granite. “My lady?” he inquired.
“Dubois,” she said quietly. “It is something of an apology, I think. Or an honoring of my father.” She exhaled slowly. “It is the symbolism, you see. Magnolia flowers reference nobility and dignity. The 30th of January is the feast day of Charles, King and Martyr. And,” she indicated the engraved marble block, “Charles was my father’s given name.”
Elias pondered the meaning of that encounter as he stood slightly apart to allow his mistress space to sit with her father. The sun was well past its peak and beginning its descent toward the horizon when he heard Penelope come up behind him.
“Thank you, Elias. We can return now.”
He let her be the rest of the day, busying himself in his own studies. Over the years, he’d learned when it was best to let her alone.
The following morn, shortly after breakfast, Penelope and Elias departed for their appointment. Elias found himself surprised, however, when their cab delivered them to a private estate rather than one of the numerous government buildings. Elias looked questioningly at his employer, but she said nothing as the two of them stepped from the cab and made their way to the ornate doors of the residence, which opened at their approach. A tall, thin man in the austere dress of those in the service of the upper classes greeted them with a curt but courteous welcome and bid them to enter. After closing the door, he turned to them and gestured toward a wide hallway to their right.
“Please follow me.”
The butler led the way in silence, his face carefully devoid of all expression. Traversing the length of the great hall, its arched ceiling high overhead, he stopped before a brace of doors at the far end. With the unspoken eloquence and quiet grace of one long in service, he opened the doors and announced them.
“Lady Botelier and guest, my lord.”
A surprisingly weak voice answered. “Thank you, Samuels. That will be all for now.”
Elias followed Penelope into a voluminous study. Lord Salisbury reclined on one end of a small couch flanked by two sitting chairs, this ensemble occupying one end of the room and set before a massive stone fireplace in which an equally massive fire blazed. On the far end of the room, an impressive desk sat before a large window overlooking the gardens. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases framed that window, just as a pair of large oil portraits framed the mantle of the fireplace.
“Come in, Lady Botelier. And you as well, young man. You must forgive me for not rising, my lady. I fear that my health is none too well these days.”
Elias considered the man, arguably one of the most powerful individuals in the Empire and one of the significant players in the great game of chess that encompassed entire worlds. And yet, regardless of that power, ashen and weakened by illness and age.
“Do not trouble yourself, my lord,” Penelope replied, her voice laden with concern. “I hope your recovery will not be long in coming.”
“My death will not be long in coming, I am afraid,” Salisbury responded with a shake of his head. “That may be the only recovery in my future. But I will do my duty unto my end. Even now, my nephew chomps at the bit, awaiting my exit from this stage.” His mouth tightened. “Well, he will just have to wait for a little while longer.”
“My lord…” Penelope began, but Salisbury waved her into silence with a weak gesture.
“It is the way of things, my lady. But before we discuss affairs of state: step forward, young man, and let me see you clearly. What is your name?”
“Conner, my lord,” Elias replied with a bow. “Elias Conner. It is a great honor to meet you.”
“A dubious honor, in some circles,” Salisbury quipped, a wry gleam in his eye. “So, Lady Botelier, this is your man?”
Elias glanced over at his mistress, whose face wore the same unreadable expression it had the evening of his birthday party. “Yes, my lord. Elias is, as you say, my man.”
“Well, Mr. Connor,” Salisbury said, returning his attention to Elias. “I am quite sure that it is unnecessary to remind you of your duty, but as prime minister of His Majesty’s government, I charge you with the protection of this woman; she is one of the Empire’s most valuable assets.”
Elias did not know how to respond. Then he saw something deep in Salisbury’s intent gaze and an unspoken understanding passed between the two men. “Yes, my lord. With my very life.”
“With all due respect, my lord,” Penelope interrupted with more than a hint of exasperation in her voice. “I am quite sure you summoned us for reasons other than inducing my assistant to swear noble oaths of chivalric daring.”
“Allow an old man his indulgences,” Salisbury replied. “But you are correct, Lady Botelier. Matters of great import press upon us. Please be seated, both of you.”
Penelope sat in one of the armchairs, while Elias took its companion opposite.
“You may recall, Lady Botelier, at the time our arrangement began that I spoke to you of the precarious balance and the various forces, both human and natural, which have the ability to destroy that balance.”
Penelope nodded. “I do recall that conversation, my lord.”
“I summoned you here to tell you, my lady, that the balance of which I spoke is in grave peril, perhaps even to the point of being beyond saving.”
“You may also recall,” Salisbury continued, “the problem of Vulcan on which I elaborated at our first meeting.”
“I remember our first meeting quite well, my lord.”
Salisbury nodded. “The problem of Vulcan remains unresolved. Vulcan is in many ways the fulcrum on which this balance rests.
“What I am here to tell you, Lady Botelier, is that we have detected a very small but nonetheless extant decline in the augmentative power of vulcanite crystals. This prompted a review of historical samples; we have confirmed the presence of this trend of decline. Most concerning is the fact that this trend, while still nearly negligible, appears to be accelerating.”
“Has this ever been observed before, my lord?” Penelope inquired. “This variance in crystal power?”
“According to Lord Kelvin, no. To some degree, this makes the phenomenon suspect. The first question in my mind was: by what means could one diminish the performance of a sample of crystals?”
A knowing silence seemed to settle in the room, though Elias felt as perplexed as ever. He looked across at his mistress as she said slowly, “If a small portion of the crystals in the sample had no augmentative power whatsoever, then the performance of the overall sample would be diminished by a proportional amount. If the supply were be contaminated in some manner...” She trailed off.
“You understand my thoughts exactly, my lady,” Salisbury agreed.
Elias glanced back and forth between the two in the quiet which followed.
“I see, my lord,” Penelope said finally. “It seems that the arrangements I’d begun to put into place will prove useful here. May I assume that I have authorization to proceed?”
“Indeed,” Salisbury replied. “I will direct the necessary transfers and provide you a letter of authorization. Expect that letter by tomorrow’s post.”
“Thank you,” Penelope nodded as she rose from her chair. Elias stood a fraction later. “With that, Elias and I will take our leave. Our best wishes for good health, my lord.”
Salisbury waved one hand dismissively. “Godspeed, my lady.”
Salisbury’s coach waited from them outside the residence, a courtesy of which Elias took silent note. But he could not refrain from interrogating his mistress as they took their seats facing one another and the driver nudged the horse forward.
“Where are we going, my lady?” he asked. “What arrangements were you talking about?”
“All in good time, Elias,” Penelope assured him. “At this point, though, I’ll tell you this: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Sons of Eris are more than they seem and I intend to find out what exactly is going on.”
When Elias’ perplexed expression remain unchanged, she leaned forward slightly in her seat.
“You see, Elias,” she said. “I believe I know where the Sons are hiding!”
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF TALES TO ASTOUND.