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May 22, 2010 / benrovik

“The Mask And The Master” sample

Enjoy this sample of the first four chapters of The Mask And The Master: Book Two of Mechanized Wizardry!

If you haven’t read The Wizard That Wasn’t yet, consider picking up a copy or at least reading that sample before you read this one, so you get to know the characters.

If you’d like to read the rest, pick up a copy for your Kindle on Amazon, or purchase a DRM-free copy from me for your Nook, tablet, or computer. Thanks! –Ben

Chapter One: New Beginnings
Horace Lundin was not crying.

Obviously not, he scoffed, setting the great hatbox-shaped canister on his new workbench.  The metal disks inside clattered against each other like cheap cymbals, noisy despite the padding.  If I were crying, it would be because there were some reason to cry.  And because there’s not, then, obviously, I’m not crying. It’s not like I’m the kind of person who has emotional responses at the drop of a hat without any—

“Are you all right?”

“Of course,” Lundin said, swiping his eyes fiercely with the back of his hand.  He turned to the tall, dark-skinned man and cleared his throat.  “Just a few more packages to bring in,” he said, tapping the canister with forced heartiness.

The man reached out and touched Lundin’s arm absently, his brown fingers giving a gentle squeeze.  “Glad you’re joining us, Horace,” he said with a smile, of sorts.  Lundin had seen that smile from almost everyone today; warm, but perfunctory, as if ‘make Horace Lundin feel welcome’ was just one more item on a mental to-do list.  One look at the other man’s flickering eyes convinced Lundin he was already thinking about his next task long before the smile faded from his face.

“You’re getting one of the biggest spaces here,” the man said, removing his hand.  Lundin brushed his hands against his stomach as he looked around, shaking his head in disbelief all over again.  The immaculate workroom assigned to him, just one tech out of dozens here, was nearly the size of the Recon squad’s entire second-floor workshop, which the four of them had shared—

Had shared.  Lundin swallowed, closing down that line of thought.  “Lucky me,” he said.

The Board of Governors has reached a verdict on reassignment, in light of the new royal priorities and the testimony presented today by—

“—need a hand getting your workspace arranged, just call out.  Otherwise, see you in the morning,” the man was saying, heading for the door.

Lundin blinked as the memory flashed past his eyes.  He shook himself back to the present and raised a hand in farewell.  “Thanks… Martin?”

“Martext,” the other man corrected flatly.  Martext Goolsby gave his long black hair a little toss, placing an errant lock back behind his ear where it belonged, and adjusted his glasses.  Everybody here had glasses, Lundin had noticed, in the same squished trapezoidal frames.  Why would they choose to order lenses in such an odd, narrow shape?  The frames had to cost a fortune, and for optometry purposes, getting the appropriate curvature on a thin trapezoid of glass sounded like a lens crafter’s nightmare.  Vertical peripheral vision would be curtailed too, relative to normal circular lenses.  Odd-looking; more expensive; less functional; and yet everybody has them.  Lundin’s heart sank as he gestured self-effacingly at the well-groomed tech.  Spheres help me, I work with trendy people.

“Horace!” a jovial voice rang out.  Lundin turned just as a hand started pawing his shoulder.  There was, apparently, another entrance to his workroom, and his new superior had just used it to sneak up on him.  Lundin tried not to squirm as Dame Dionne beamed into his face, her eyes disappearing behind her high, puffy cheeks (and her trapezoidal glasses).  She slapped him on the back as the big finish to her full-contact welcome, and he gasped; he was sure he’d find the indentations from her rings still visible in his flesh when he got home later tonight.  “Our newest technician,” Dionne crowed proudly.  “Martext, have you met Horace?”

“Oh yes, Dame Dionne.  What a pleasure.”

“An absolute pleasure,” she agreed.  “We’’re all just thrilled to have you joining the Civics.  Are you looking forward to shaking things up for your new squad?”

“Ha ha,” Lundin said, baring his teeth in a smile.  Nothing else came to mind.

“Ha ha!”  Dionne jumped in, saving the moment with a full-throated laugh.  She pressed her fingertips against Lundin’s arm.  Does everybody touch everybody here? Lundin thought, trying again to stand still.  Do I have to touch people too?

“Well, we couldn’t be happier that you’re working with us now.  Listen, Horace,” Dionne began, slipping an arm across his shoulders and turning him away from the workbench.  Martext swept out the door, his long hair swishing across his back as he made a beeline for the next task on his agenda.  Dame Dionne clenched her fingers around Lundin’s far bicep and pressed her arm along the length of his back, giving him a one-armed hug.  Her tone became low and serious.  “How are you?”

He cleared his throat.  “Sorry?”

“I know that hearing with the Board of Governors last week must have been hard for you.”

When the heir to the throne takes personal interest in a project, changes must be made—

Lundin shrugged, his shoulders tight against his body from the force of her hug.  “No, no.  It’s all professional.  It’s the best decision.”

“How long were you with the Recon squad?”

“Going on three years.”

Dionne frowned and nodded with profound understanding.  “You get attached to people in three years.”

—and, in light of the interpersonal and disciplinary issues raised in testimony, it is clear that reassignment would be advisable even without the royal—

“Oh, I don’t know,” Lundin said, eyes downcast.

“You went through a lot together, especially in the last month.  From LaMontina’s death on sounds like it was a whirlwind for you.”

“We worked together, but, you know, that’s what Petronauts are here to do.  To work.  Doesn’t really matter where, does it?”

She looked at him.  “Does it?”

—are therefore in the happy position to solve two problems with one single action; the reassignment of junior technician Horace Lundin from the Reconnaissance squad to the Civil Improvement and Development squad, effective—

“Nope,” Lundin shook his head.  His eyes definitely were not watering.

Dame Dionne gently released him and stood in front of him, forcing him to look at her.  She took off her trapezoidal glasses in a calm, easy motion and brushed a wisp of blonde hair out of her face with the back of her hand.   The only people who take off their glasses for emphasis are people who only wear glasses so they can take them off for emphasis, Lundin thought uncharitably.  Her vision didn’t seem remotely affected as her blue eyes crinkled away into a smile again.

“I’m glad you’re looking at this so professionally,” she said.  “I know some ‘nauts have unhealthy attitudes about us here on the Civic squad because we don’t ever go into the field.”

“No,” Lundin protested.

“It’s all right, Horace!  I hear the jokes too.”  She looked over her shoulder, then grinned wickedly.  “What’s the war-cry of a Civic rushing into battle?”

Lundin knew exactly what the war-cry of a Civic rushing into battle was, but tilted his head inquisitively.  Dame Dionne raised an imaginary ream of papers over her head and put on a fearsome face.  “Fill these out in triplicate!” she roared.

She laughed.  He laughed.  Please leave, he tried desperately to project into her mind as she touched his chest with her fingers, throwing her head back with laughter.  Finally, the waves of her mirth died down, and he cooled down his own forced guffaws at just the right rate to trail off a beat later than she did.

“Don’t let any of the other squads know,” she said, wiping her eyes and putting her glasses back on, “but I’d hazard a guess that Civics have more fun than any other ‘nauts in Delia.”

“Anything’s possible,” Horace nodded, swallowing.

“And I want you to have fun here, Horace.  I know you’re a professional, and that you’ll be getting attention from the Regents themselves from time to time on your magic project.  After all, Petronauts are here to work,” she said with a mock-serious face.  “But I hope that once you’ve been with us for a while, you won’t see your fellow Civics just as people to work with.”  She put both hands on his upper arms and squeezed again.  He looked down into her blue eyes, wide and shining beneath the frames.  “You’ll see us as your family,” she whispered.

Please leave!

“Thanks, Dame Dionne, thanks, I feel—I feel so welcome.  Really,” Lundin said, one hand reaching up to awkwardly pat her on the wrist.

“Oh, good!” she said, brightly.  She let go of his arms and turned to go.  “If you need any help setting up today, don’t hesitate to ask.  Can you be settled in by tomorrow morning?  I’d love to bring your team in for a full briefing as soon as possible so you can put us in the loop on this wizardry project of yours.”

“Yes.  Wonderful.  I’ll look forward to putting you in the loop.”

She stopped in the doorway, one hand high on the frame, and looked back at him. “I’ll look forward to you putting me in the loop,” Dame Dionne said, a smile playing across the edges of her mouth.  As she walked away, her manicured fingers lingered on the doorframe, trailing behind her body until the hand, too, went out of sight.

Lundin stared after her.  He leaned back against the high work table, wracking his brain for loop-based double entendres he might have unwittingly stumbled into.  His brain came up empty.  “I don’t understand Civics,” he whispered aloud.

“You’ll get used to us,” Martext said, standing in the other doorway with another box from the Recon workshop.  Lundin leapt up.

“Thank you.  I’m, uh—just put it there, I’ll get the rest.  Thank you, Martext.”

“Horace,” the man said, quietly, inclining his head.  He dusted off his hands and glided out of the room again.

Lundin looked up to the high ceiling as beams of cheery sunlight shone down through the skylights.  He looked out across the long array of drills and lathes and machining equipment Dame Dionne had assigned to his exclusive use on his high-profile royal project.  He ran his palm over the smooth, freshly sanded worktable in front of him, and thought back to the pockmarked slabs of wood they’d called tables at the old workshop, and the cluttered wall of well-worn tools, and the musty old shutters that were such a pain to open the place stayed shady as a cave almost year-round, and the rickety stools they’d sat on as they shared beers at the end of work.  Sir Mathias, his huge hands enveloping his stein, shaking his head at Lundin and grinning; Samanthi, snorting happily into her mug before she hurled invective at him; and Sir Kelley—

Sir Kelley, do you have anything more to add?

Kelley looked out at Lundin from the stand, his green eyes flat and unblinking.  I believe I’ve made my case, he said, with just a hint of triumph.

Lundin fished through his satchel until he came across the flask.  Samanthi had given it to him a year ago, the fine steel hand-etched with an image of a wet rooster she found amusing for reasons she refused to explain.  Its current contents had been a gift from Sir Mathias.  Lundin stood, listening to the brandy swirling in the flask as his fingertips traced the lines of the design.

“To new beginnings,” he whispered.  The brandy stung on its way down.

Chapter Two: On The Hunt

In Summation, the Board of Governors finds that:

One: being a Petronaut project that has attracted the direct interest of her Royal Highness, Princess Naomi Elizabeth Galidate Haberstorm, Heir to the Delian Throne, the “Mechanized Wizardry” line of research should be pursued with all appropriate resources and speed;

Two: inasmuch as the Reconnaissance squad has a mission of field service, not research, and lacks the designated resources and equipment to carry out the “Mechanized Wizardry” project to the satisfaction of this body, the project must be transferred to the Civil Improvement and Development squad with all prudent haste;

Three: being that Reconnaissance technicians Samanthi Elena and Horace Lundin conceived of the “Mechanized Wizardry” project and have unique and non-transferrable knowledge of its progress to date, one or both of them must travel with the project to provide continuity of research;

Four: whereas Samanthi Elena is the senior technician for the Reconnaissance squad and receives consistently favorable performance assessments from Sirs Kelley and Mathias, junior technician Horace Lundin has a thoroughly, perhaps irredeemably sullied disciplinary record with the squad, having committed infractions against his superiors ranging from the impulsive to the flagrantly malicious, e.g. using an untested technology to cast a magic spell on Sir Kelley for purposes of mental control, as we heard Sir Kelley describe in testimony;

Five: while expulsion from the Petronauts of Delia would normally be an appropriate disciplinary action for such acts of insubordination to his knighted superiors as Horace Lundin has committed, and testimony from Sir Kelley proves that retaining him in the Reconnaissance squad is untenable, his knowledge and vision vis-a-vis the “Mechanized Wizardry” project are instrumental to its successful progress;

We, the Board of Governors of the Petronauts of Delia, are therefore in the happy position to solve two problems with one single action; the reassignment of junior technician Horace Lundin from the Reconnaissance squad to the Civil Improvement and Development squad, effective the twelfth day of Joon, in this year 876.

The “Mechanized Wizardry” project will thrive with one of its founders spearheading research in an appropriately staffed and equipped setting; and, in the absence of Mr. Lundin and the interpersonal friction he caused, the Reconnaissance squad will henceforth enjoy smoother functioning and higher morale…

“I hate you,” Samanthi grumbled.

The Snoop hissed back a steady stream of static in response.  Samanthi rapped her knuckles on the domed lid of the cylindrical machine, exhaling through her teeth.  She turned the pickup knob up higher and adjusted the noise-cancellation sliders, trying to get a handle on the chaotic torrent of sound.  But the static from the surveillance machine only got louder.  She pulled the listening trumpet away from her head, scowling.

“Is it working?” the hapless field agent whispered, her freckled face worried as she look over her shoulder at Samanthi.  The Delian agent was holding the Snoop’s ear awkwardly in both hands, pointing it towards the targets as directed.  The ear was almost a yard wide and looked like a butterfly impaled in a collector’s box, with a foot-long pin—an antenna— extending perpendicular from its center.  The round-tipped antenna drew sound towards itself voraciously, and the two great swooping curves of the ear helped funnel sound from the target through the pin.  The captured sound travelled along the thick cord connecting the ear to the Snoop, where it was processed, filtered, and piped to Samanthi through the listening trumpet.  The effect was like listening with her ear to a door, where the door was upwards of three hundred yards away.

The effect right now, however, was like sticking her ear in a nest of baby snakes.  Samanthi fiddled with the connections between the ear and the Snoop, and from the Snoop to her trumpet.  No visible problems anywhere.  “No, agent, it’s not working,” Samanthi said, choking back the more biting response that had come to the tip of her tongue.  This poor woman’s not a Petronaut, she thought.  I’ve gotta keep my damn language clean.  It’s not her fault she’s useless.

She wiped her forehead, cursing the heat instead.  Most of the year, the Tarmic Woods were lush, temperate, and tranquil.  The huge forest covered nearly half of the Anthic Thrust, from west of Kess to the foothills of the Flinthock Mountains at the peninsula’s eastern edge.  But in late Joon, overcast skies and oppressive, muggy heat were the norm.  Between her constant perspiration and the sputtering, sporadic rain they’d endured since leaving Delia four days ago, Samanthi felt like she’d never lose the slimy, amphibious film that had become the new normal for her skin.  As she pulled open a too-small access panel to inspect the snarl of wiring inside the Snoop, she felt acutely that this forested ridge was one of the last places in the world she wanted to be.  She didn’t even care what the small knot of suspicious men and women at the bottom of the steep hill were talking about anymore.  The targets could walk away this instant for all she cared, service to the crown be damned.  The only thing keeping her focused was her ingrained Petronaut imperative; when faced with a malfunctioning machine, she had to fix it.  Samanthi Elena could no more walk away from the broken Snoop than she could drink only half a beer.

“You’ve been at this for ten minutes,” Sir Mathias whispered next to her as she worked, his voice muffled through the visor of his helmet.  Kelley was off to the side, arms crossed over his breastplate, impassive in his black Recon armor.

“Because it’s broken.  Sorry if that offends you,” she snapped.

“We need to act now,” Sir Kelley interrupted, as Mathias raised a huge hand to placate her.  She struggled to keep her voice quiet.

“Well, it’s not working now! This is going to take time.”

“Too late,” Sir Kelley said.  “Agent?  Set down the ear, please.  We’ll need to advance on the targets.”

The field agent shot a quick glance at Samanthi.  She spread her fingers wide across the metal dome and leaned heavily on top of the Snoop, staring down into the loamy earth and clenching her teeth.   She let the listening trumpet drop with deliberate carelessness, and it thumped into the grass.  She held out her hand to the timid agent, who passed her the ear.  Samanthi grimaced as she held its weight with one whipcord-strong arm, flicking the row of power switches down on the far side of the Snoop.  The background hiss of static through the trumpet died away.  She looked into Sir Mathias’ imposing visor.  “Ten minutes is as long as I get for any problem, huh?” she muttered.

“You did good, senior tech,” he said quietly, handing her the fallen trumpet.  She looked away.

“Sir Kelley,” the agent whispered, adjusting her mottled skullcap as she moved to the Petronaut’s side.  She brushed a cobweb out of her freckled face.  “Won’t advancing on the targets increase the chance they’ll detect us and escape?”

“Just like relying on bad equipment increases the chance they end their meeting and we learn nothing.  Alert the Aerial and the rest of your team,” he ordered.

The agent bobbed her head and dashed away through the underbrush, making no more sound than a deer.  Sir Kelley swiveled his wrists, shaking his firing tubes clear.  “Senior tech,” he said, his flat voice carrying softly through the trees.  “Activate the Communicator and monitor any transmissions coming out of the target site.  Report immediately on any broadcast they make through the ether, no matter the content.”

“Sir,” Samanthi said tightly, unplugging the cords from the Snoop in fierce yanks.

She watched Mathias and Kelley slink down the hillside, unnaturally quiet in their thick armor.  Only the faintest whine of motors was audible as they disappeared from her view down the steep ridge.  She finished coiling the coarse cable and set it in its padded case.  Samanthi stopped for a moment, her brown eyes far away.

‘Senior tech this,’ and ‘senior tech that,’ as if we still had a junior…

Samanthi Elena was definitely not crying as she slammed the lid of the case shut.

Sir Mathias hung back, moving his feet carefully among the ferns and fallen twigs.  He took momentary cover behind a wide-leafed rhododendron, its blossoms vibrantly pink this time of year, and watched Sir Kelley creep his way further down the hill towards their targets.  He could see three men and two women in low conversation, with another man hanging back as a guard, a long musket ready in his hands.  Pistoles and swords were visible on every hip.  Bird-watchers they are not, he thought, muscles tensed to spring at the first sign of their detection.

Approaching this group felt like a mistake.  It was common knowledge that the long miles of forest between Delia and Kess, its neighbor city-state to the north, were full of smugglers and brigands.  The overworked guards at the sawmills and the furriers who found their traps prematurely emptied could attest to that.  Some criminal bands traced their heritage back to the Warlord years, claiming they were the elite remants of this army or the descendants of that conqueror, with grandiose mythologies that only inflated  as those dark days on the Anthic Thrust receded further into legend.  Most of them, however, were just gangs of hardscrabble drifters doing business on the wrong side of the law.

The black market trade in Kessian wine and art for Delian cloth and technology was a costly nuisance for the city-states, depriving them of a small fortune in tariff income every year.  But patrolling every inch of the Tarmic Woods would have required an enormous armed police presence, and much more cooperation than the two coolly tolerant nations could typically muster.  So small-scale criminals who were cautious with how they fenced their goods on either end of the trade route were largely ignored.

Just like we should be ignoring this scruffy gang, Sir Mathias thought, slinking as quietly as he could to the next tree.  The odds that these individuals know anything we need are tiny.  And if we had Abby along to run the numbers, that’s exactly what she’d tell us.  But Mathias knew as well as Kelley did that the Regents were desperate for information, and that in their eyes any lead—no matter how tenuous—was worth pursuing.  More than two weeks after the magical attack on Princess Naomi, Delia was no closer to knowing who was behind it, or why.

The wizard Jilmaq had been more than willing to talk (and plead, and rant, and weep) to questioners on a variety of topics, but his desperate testimony only proved how little he knew about the plot.  By contrast, the traitorous steward Davic Volman spoke barely a word after his confessions on the feastday. He had stolen her Highness’ braid, recruited Jilmaq to the cause with a pouch of coins, and killed a serving-boy for coming too close to the truth; but as for his motives, his accomplices, or any other traitorous acts performed in a lifetime of service to the Crown, absolutely nothing was known.  The heartbroken old man carried his silence to the grave, since Princess Naomi categorically forbade the Regents from having Volman tortured.  Five decades of tireless, faithful service to the Haberstorm family had earned him the right to face his execution with some dignity, she argued.  The four Regents raised an uproar, but she’d remained unmovable.  Ignoring the whims of a child princess was one thing, but openly defying an heir who had completed the First Ordeals —especially if the heir went to the press with news of the Regents’ disobedience—was a much graver risk.  So they relented, and the heir and her council watched, one gray morning, as a firing squad took Volman’s life behind the gatehouse in a moment of private violence, away from jeering crowds and stone-throwing patriots.  The best potential source the investigation had was buried in an unmarked grave in the royal hunting grounds.

A bird warbled overhead as Sir Mathias pressed his broad back against a tree.  He exhaled through his teeth, his warm breath filling his helmet.  There’s one other person our questioners should bring down to the dungeons, he thought grimly.  The four—well, three—members of the Reconnaissance squad were the only people in Delia who even suspected that the royal sorceror Ouste had been a part of the plot.  Lundin and Samanthi were convinced that she’d set up phony magical trappings on the feastday, intending to let the Princess die while going through the motions of an arcane defense.  Only some hasty magic from the squawk box had charmed Ouste into doing the right thing and Warding off Jilmaq’s spell.

Mathias believed his techs completely; but Ouste was incredibly popular, since, as far as the rest of Delia knew, she had saved Princess Naomi’s life.  Convincing them that the sorcerer had only protected their Heir because she’d been under the influence of a sing-song spell of friendship cast by a squawk box in a linen closet would not go well, the squad had decided.  So Ouste was untouchable, for now, which brought the investigation back to an empty slate.

While information about the plot in the Palace was hard to come by, there was also the matter of the thugs and the Petronaut who’d been guarding Jilmaq in Drabelhelm district.  Dame Miri and Sir Sigurd had barely survived their ambush.  Sir Mathias repressed a shudder, imagining himself going up against a band of killers like that with nothing but flimsy, glitzy show armor to rely on.  Ever since the feastday, the low-level insults the Parade squad typically had to deal with from other ‘nauts—“lightweights,” “dabblers,” “loafers” came to mind—had fallen silent.  He suspected that the sniping would stay away long after Miri and Sigurd’s wounds healed.

The sole surviving thug had been hauled to the palace dungeon for interrogation.  He was a highwayman with a few murders to his name on the winding roads between Delia and Kess.  He was also apolitical, and, the questioners quickly decided, completely ignorant of the larger importance of the guard mission he’d been paid handsomely to undertake.  Any hope for meaningful intelligence would come from the dead ‘naut’s body, which had been hastily whisked away to Workshop Row before the public or the press got sight of it.

The Petronaut’s face had been destroyed by Sir Sigurd’s fireworks, which made identifying her impossible.  Her suit, however, told a fuller story.  The ranine coils in the legs were ingeniously pressurized, following a design that could launch a ‘naut faster and higher than Delian models at the expense of reliability.  The techs estimated that the suit’s coils would likely need serious maintenance or replacement after only forty jumps; a completely unacceptable lifespan, by Delian standards.  The extendable claws were cunningly crafted, but took up valuable forearm space that most suit designs saved for a projectile weapon.  The blank-faced mask was wood, the run-of-the-mill sort any costumer could make. Its varnish was an unfamiliar compound, toughening it significantly against slashes and impacts by its unfamiliar varnish.  Dame Miri and Sir Sigurd had described a sinister yellow glow emanating from the eye sockets, but the flash disk’s detonation inside the mask had removed any traces of the machinery that created it. There was no way to even hypothesize what had created the glow, or what its function was.

Even more head-scratching came from studying the breastplate, boots, and gauntlets, which were made of an incredibly tough, woven, non-metallic compound the technicians couldn’t identify.  Some experimental Delian designs had tried going away from steel in ‘naut armor, turning to ceramics or even layers of dense fabric in efforts to strike a new balance between protective power and mobility.  But they’d never deployed any designs like that on the battlefield, not trusting them to adequately protect Delia’s ‘nauts.  Protection seemed almost an afterthought for the foreign ‘naut, whose woven armor was full of seams to slip a knife into and left critical regions like the neck exposed.  What was more, while Delian Petronauts had full body-suits which mechanically augmented their muscles and joints from head-to-toe, the only meaningful machinery in the foreigner’s suit was in the boots, with their ranine coils, and (presumably) the mask.  This meant that her power needs were miniscule compared to even the lightest Delian suit, and the fuel bladder in the small of her back was correspondingly a fraction of the size.  She was more vulnerable, and her suit lacked the profusion of equipment Delia’s gadgetheads crammed into each suit of armor; but she was tough, light, agile, and could keep fighting for years on a single barrel of ‘tum.

The conclusions were inescapable.  For the first time since the city’s founding, someone outsideDelia was building ‘nauts that could stand toe-to-toe against what Workshop Row could produce.  For the Board of Governors, knowing that someone else on the Thrust had erased Delia’s technological edge was crisis enough.  The fact that that same someone was willing to deploy ‘nauts on Delia’s streets to kill her citizens and threaten her crown elevated it into a nightmare.

And so, here we are, Mathias thought, his arm raised to cover Sir Kelley as the senior ‘naut sank into a crouch behind a fallen tree, forty yards away.  Chasing random smugglers in the woods, on the off chance that they know who’s been supplying tech to a shadowy workshop that’s a decade ahead of the best ‘naut construction we’ve seen from Kess, Svargath, or the Halcyon Territories. What an efficient use of our time.

He shook his head clear.  Useful or not, this was the mission the Board and the Army had assigned them to, at Lady Ceres’ direction; and anything was better than sitting at home and waiting for Delia’s enemies to attack them again.

Sir Kelley was intently listening to the knot of smugglers, his head cocked and his armored body absolutely still.  The men and women were too far away for Sir Mathias to make out their low conversation, but Kelley had closed the distance enough that a single enhanced leap from his hiding place would land him right in their midst.  If they were saying anything of interest, hopefully Kelley was picking it up.

One of the smugglers stabbed his finger towards the ground, leaning in closer to the woman he was speaking to.  As the man moved his arm, a long metal cuff slid down his wrist  Mathias frowned, tilting his head for a better view.  .  It covered more than half of his forearm, but hung loosely, like a bracelet.  The thin man unconsciously pushed it back towards his elbow with his other hand, continuing to speak and paying no attention to the ill-fitting accessory.  Strange thing to be wearing, out here in the forest.  It looked so awkward Mathias had trouble believing it was decorative, but what practical purpose could a too-big bracer on only one arm serve?

The woman moved to a bundle on the ground and untied it with a sharp yank.  Craning his neck, Mathias caught a glimpse of gleaming black fur underneath the oilcloth.  Judging by the height, there were maybe three dozen pelts in the stack.  A heavyset man was arranging another cloth on the ground as she rifled through the poached skins.  The thin man with the cuff crossed his arms over his chest, visibly impatient.  The woman lifted about a third of the skins from the stack, holding them away from her body, and set them into the other cloth.  As the heavyset man tied up the new bundle, the woman put her hands on her hips and barked something to the whole group.  “…want to kill yourselves, then go ahead!” came drifting up the hill to Mathias.

The thin man closed the distance with the woman, his finger in her face.  Every hand went to a weapon as the rest of the smugglers eyed each other.  Far from being a unified group, it was clearly two against four now.  The woman and the heavyset man wanted their cut of the furs, and the others weren’t inclined to give it to them. The heavyset man had a nervous hand on each of the pistoles in his belt as he stood behind the woman, carefully watching as the guard let his musket drift towards the pair.  The thin man gestured angrily at the smaller bundle of furs, then pointed south with one long finger.  Mathias unconsciously drew closer to his tree as the man’s finger pointed essentially right past him, but none of the smugglers even looked up.

The woman raised her palm.  “… to Delia?  Now?” her voice rose, as she looked the thin man and his three cohorts in the eye, one at a time.  She dipped her head and rocked back on her heels with mock casualness, and her mouth moved through a slow series of words.

It must have been an insult—and a good one—because suddenly the air was bristling with guns and swords, and the heavyset man was frantically trying to cover four enemies with two weapons.  Spheres, Sir Mathias thought, shifting his weight.  These idiots are going to kill each other before we learn anything!  The arguing man and woman squared off against each other impassively.  He extended his arm past her, pointing at the furs with an air of finality.  His metal cuff slid out of place again, jangling down at the base of his wrist.  With a lazy motion, she lifted a gloved hand from her hip and flicked the metal bracer, hard, with the backs of her fingers.  There was a metallic impact, then a brief chattering sound—

And three claws ratcheted out of the cuff.

Just like the blades on that ‘naut in Drabelhelm!  Mathias’ eyes went wide, his body tensing up.  This band of thugs just became a thousand times more interesting.

He shot a quick glance across the hillside to Sir Kelley, who was looking right back at him, his body language reading the same anticipation.  Kelley pointed to the northwest, then raised two fingers and indicated the two of them.  Iggy will create a distraction; then we go in.  Sir Mathias nodded, and Kelley blew three quick chirps into his signal whistle.  The sound blended right in among the scattered birdsong in the forest; as Mathias glanced back towards the smugglers, none seemed to have even heard it.  The thin man was sputtering, grabbing at his wrist as he tried to get the blades to sheathe themselves again.  The woman laughed, deliberately disregarding the weapons all around her.  She turned her back on the thin man and walked towards the share of the furs she’d taken.  Furious, he drew back his bladed arm for a blow.

Then a flying saucer came hurtling towards him through the trees.

The smugglers stared up at it, momentarily dumbfounded as the Aerial squad’s impossible machine plowed through the low-hanging branches to their northwest, more than a dozen feet off the ground.  It exhaled a noisy stream of air as it flew, the raspy sound clearly audible to Mathias now, about five hundred feet distant.   The machine was a platform, the bottom third of a hollow cone, ringed with inward-sloping walls.  Its circular base was nearly three feet thick, concealing the mighty propeller inside, and the slanted walls rose up another yard.  Its pilot, Iggy, was crouched out of sight as the machine, visibly tilting in the direction it was flying, powered through the air twice as fast as a man could run.  Every exterior inch of the floating platform was covered with interlocking panes of dull grey armor, studded with hundreds of rivets.  Sir Mathias couldn’t help but smile at the sight of their implausible cavalry, charging headlong towards the frightened smugglers.

Go get ‘em, Ironsides, he thought.

A chaotic volley of shots rang out from at least five guns, sending puffs of white smoke into the air.  Most of the shots went wide, but the guard’s musket ball connected with Ironsides, sending the floating platform into a drunken wobble as it barreled forward.  Half the smugglers toppled to the ground in fear as the machine flew over their heads, far too high to collide with them.  The thin man raised his arms involuntarily to shield his face, and the force of the air column beating down on him drove his own claws into his cheek.  He hollered in pain, sinking to his knees and pressing his other hand to his face.  The claw-blades hanging by his side were tinged with blood.  Ironsides continued gliding through the air past the disoriented mob, leaving a trail of twigs and splinters in its wake.  Only one of the smugglers had the presence of mind to reload, already pouring powder into her pistole for a second shot.

That means we’ll get you first, Mathias thought, stepping out from behind the tree.

“Drop your weapons, by the throne of Delia!” he bellowed.  He fired, his shoulder rocking back with the familiar recoil of the gun in his arm.  The smuggler spilled her powder as she leapt backwards from the shot at her feet.  Then Kelley raced past her in a blur, his metal arm extended, clotheslining her into the dirt.  Mathias lowered his arm and started to run towards the fray as quickly as he could without toppling his heavy suit over on the steep hill.

Mathias watched as the heavyset man drew a massive hunting knife and leapt at Kelley, blade slashing towards the ‘naut’s chest.  Sir Kelley flung his torso backwards and the point of the knife scraped along his armor, just below his pectorals.  He kicked the smuggler in the stomach, his armored greaves knocking the wind out of the big man.  In a fluid motion, Kelley drew his black baton from its loop on his back and brought it down in a great dark arc onto the man’s wrist.  The knife dropped from his shattered grasp and he crumpled to the ground.  Then Mathias noticed the other woman looking at him from behind the gaping barrel of a blunderbuss.  She was the only one who didn’t fire at Ironsides, the ‘naut realized belatedly, swinging his arm up and hoping he could get a shot at her before—

A flurry of gunfire rang out from the west and the woman contorted in agony, bleeding from her shoulder and her leg.  Mathias shot a quick look over at the squad of Delian field agents, advancing into the clearing in two disciplined lines.  He caught the eye of the freckled agent who’d been working with Samanthi, the barrel of her pistole still smoking.  She nodded at him, a curl of auburn hair peeking out of her skullcap and the edges of a smile on her mouth.  Then she grabbed her powder horn and tended to her pistole with the utmost professionalism.  Sir Mathias stifled a smile of his own and picked up the pace, charging across nearly flat ground now towards the terrified two smugglers still standing.

Two?  There should be three left…

“Mathias!  East!”

Sir Kelley’s harsh voice launched him into action.  The thin man was fleeing east, stumbling through the woods with his bloody claw-arm trailing behind him.  Those claws were the prize of the whole operation; there was no way the smuggler could be allowed to escape.  Sir Mathias left the other smugglers behind as Kelley and the agents swept down on them, and broke east after the escapee.  He raised his arm as he ran, gun barrel tracking the man’s legs, but the smuggler was leaping through the underbrush like a rabbit and reliable aiming was impossible.  The Regents would want this man alive.

“Stop, in the name of the crown!”  he shouted out.  The ranine coils were pumping in his legs and his strides got longer and longer, erasing the distance between them.  A beetle splattered against the faceplate of his helmet with a wet noise and a smell like a spill in an apothecary shop, but he didn’t even slow down.  The smuggler struggled through a dense patch of ferns, suddenly turning north and disappearing from view around a rain-smooth boulder.  Mathias jumped, the wind whistling in his earholes as he flew skywards.  He landed on the peak of the boulder, looking eight feet down at the smuggler on the other side.  The man had stopped, fiddling with something on his belt.  “You can’t run—” Sir Mathias began, raising his arm.

“Death to the pretenders,” the thin man wailed, the claw-marks on his face red and wild.

He hurled something through the air at Mathias, his long arm swinging jerkily. Sir Mathias sighted along his wrist and fired, coolly, clipping the smuggler in the thigh.  The thin man crumpled to the forest floor, and then a small black bottle broke against the Petronaut’s chest, and he burst into flames.

The heat was incredible.  Sir Mathias slapped his breastplate unthinkingly to beat the flames out, and his gauntlet came away sticky and flaming.  The temperature against his chest rose astonishingly with each passing second.  The fire was dripping down his stomach towards his groin.  He scraped at it with both hands, his body acting automatically while his mind retreated in shock, until both hands were engulfed in flames.  The heat of his armor was growing unbearable; beneath it, he could feel the layers of thick cloth padding against his skin starting to curl and scorch, and smell the smoke as they went alight.  Staggering on top of the boulder, Mathias looked down at his breastplate.  Some jellied substance was clinging to it—a dark black slime—and everywhere he had spread the ooze on himself, he was a roaring flame.  If he didn’t put the fire out soon, it would find its way along the fuel lines to the petrolatum bladders against his lower back.  If that happened, this boulder would become a crater, and Sir Mathias Mascarpone would be ten thousand bloody morsels for ten thousand hungry vermin on the forest floor.

Fire douser, his mind finally weighed in.  Left arm.

Mathias raised his left arm, fumbling with flaming fingers for a safety ring on the outside of his tricep.  He got his thick fingers around the ring and pulled, a long string ripping free from his armor.  With the separator gone, two chemicals began to react in a rarely-used chamber on his left shoulder, and a hidden epaulet expanded with retardant lather.  He pressed his middle and index fingers into his palm with all his might, and white foam erupted from a nozzle at his wrist.  Mathias bathed his right hand in the foam, then turned it on his stomach.  The chemical stench, on top of the smoke and the pain, nearly dropped him into a nauseous stupor, but he held his breath and kept spraying.  The flaming jelly hissed with each fresh spurt of foam, and a portion of the lather liquefied from the heat, turning into useless white soup that ran down his armor onto the stone.  But ultimately the flame subsided and the jelly, smothered in two inches of foam, was no longer radiating heat into his body.  Sir Mathias collapsed onto his back, lightheaded and throbbing with pain.  The whole ordeal had lasted twenty seconds.

The fire douser works, he thought blandly, his mind far away.  I remember in testing, the nozzle would always get clogged.  And then…

And then Lundin fixed it.

He looked up into the overcast canopy as a rush of wind shook the supple branches above.  There were footsteps from the west, and the breathy roar of Ironsides as Iggy wheeled the machine around for another pass from the east.  He could hear the smuggler groan once in the dirt below.  He was still alive, and he hadn’t run away.  Mathias had done his job.  And Lundin did too, he thought.

As Sir Kelley and the field agents caught up with the two prone men, Mathias’ eyes were full of tears.  “I owe you one, Horace,” he murmured to the blustery sky.

Chapter Three: Mister Leader

“I used to speak Svarish,” Willl said, adjusting his trapezoidal glasses.

Obe Ippe Grubeld Jundermunt!” Elia offered, nodding with each word.  “I speak Grubeld wonderfully.”

“That’s.”  Through the pockets of his smock, Lundin dug his nails into his legs.  It was as close as he could get to the primal scream he wanted to let loose at his new Civic teammates.  He made himself nod, keeping his voice calm.  “That’s wonderful—”

ost jundervul—

“—but all I asked was if any of you speak—”

sprich—

Lundin pointed a warning finger at Elia as he continued. “—the one and only language I asked for, which is Old Harutian.  Know it?  Even a little bit, from school?”

Vom klassen?  Noe,” Elia said with a theatrical frown on her heart-shaped face.  Martext and Willl had the kindness to just shake their heads.

“Okay,” Lundin said with forced heartiness, turning his back on his new team.  He stared at the immaculate worktable, his eyes going unfocused.  His fingers twitched in his pockets.  “Then we’ll start at square one,” he said, barely audible.

“Good morning, all! Good morning, don’t mind me,” Dame Dionne’s voice rang out.  Lundin turned to see her among his three technicians, clapping backs and shaking hands merrily.  Elia adjusted her trapezoidal glasses after Dame Dionne hugged her around her slim waist with one arm.  Willl’s drooping blond bangs flopped over his eyebrows as he scratched his head, which was shaved down to the skin on each side.  Dionne waved at Lundin with her fingertips and took a long sip from the oversized tea cup in her other hand.  “Pretend I’m not even here, Horace.  Just go right ahead.  What’d I miss?”  she whispered to Willl with the three L’s.

“We were talking about languages.  I don’t know why,” Willl with three L’s replied at a completely normal volume. Spheres save me, these idiots don’t even know how to whisper, Lundin thought, heartsick.

“Languages!  Ooh, fascinating.  Can’t wait,” Dame Dionne said, beaming at Lundin over the rim of her teacup.

“Actually, we, uh, just need to talk about one language:  Mabinanto.”

“I don’t speak Mabinanto,” Elia said, raising her hand.

“Never heard of it,” Martext said.

“Well, it’s like Old Harutian—”

“I don’t speak Old Harutian.” Elia waggled her hand in the air.

“That’s okay!”  Lundin spat out, trying to smile.  “It’s completely, perfectly okay that you don’t speak a dead language.  I learned a little Harutian grammar back in school, but if none of you did then we’ll just go from here.  So please just put your hands down.”

Willl with three L’s had raised his hand tentatively above his shoulder when he saw Elia’s fingers stretched high above the tight brown bun on her head.  They both slowly lowered their hands, looking uncertainly into Lundin’s pleading face.  Martext had his arms crossed over his chest impassively.  Dame Dionne took a noisy slurp of tea.

“Mabinanto is the language of wizards,” Lundin said after composing himself, “and all magic spells use it.  So step one for all of you will be to get familiar with the language, so we can start casting some spells.  That is, uh, programming some spells.  So, actually, why don’t we just end the meeting here, and you three can go start learning?  Can’t do much else until you do.  I’ve got, uh, two books I can lend on Harutian declensions and structure.  A little dry, but, well.  And I’m sure the central library’s got other resources.  So,” he said, looking out at the four blank faces.  “Meeting adjourned?”

As one, the other technicians turned to look at Dame Dionne.  She smiled tightly.  “Take ten minutes, guys, then check back in.  All right?”

The trio murmured a chorus of ‘yesses’ and ‘sures’ and swept out of the room.  Martext closed the workroom door behind him, sealing Lundin and Dame Dionne inside with a quiet click.  Lundin leaned back anxiously, resting his palms against the smoothly sanded tabletop.  “Check back in with you, or with me?” he asked.

“With you, Horace,” she said, setting her teacup down on a table by the door.

“I—well, okay, but there’s not too much I can do with them until they know—”

“Do you know what makes a good leader, Horace?” she said seriously, taking off her glasses for emphasis.

“A good leader…?”  She folded the arms in on her glasses and looked at him. “Height?” Lundin said, drawing a complete blank.

Dame Dionne glanced at the floor, shaking her head and smiling.  “If only tall people made good leaders, I’d never have made it this far,” she said.  “What else?”

“I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said.

“Is a leader just someone who tells people what to do?”

This has to be a trick question.  “No?” he tried.

“Exactly,” Dame Dionne said, reaching out towards him.  “A good leader doesn’t tell people what to do.  A good leader is who they come to to ask what to do.”

“And when they ask, the good leader doesn’t tell them,” Lundin said, trying to sort this out.

“What?  No; of course, then, the leader gives them orders.”

“But why not just do that earlier on, instead of waiting for people to come—”

“The point is,” Dionne said, tapping her glasses against the palm of her hand, “that people want to be led by a good leader.  And a good leader doesn’t just tell his or her people what to do.  A good leader tells them why.”  She was nodding like this was important, so he nodded back at her.

“But the leader doesn’t just say why,” she went on, putting a hand on his arm.  Her other hand gestured expansively in the too-small space between their bodies as she spoke.  “The good leader paints a picture of the future.  The leader shows the people how the world will be better when their work is done.  The good leader, Horace, has vision.”  Her palm traced through the air in a long curve.  She looked up into his eyes.

“And should the good leader keep that wonderful vision inside?”

“Yes, until someone asks,” Lundin nodded.

Dame Dionne threw back her head with laughter.  Lundin looked down at his feet and grinned.  She did have a nice laugh; a little loud in close quarters, maybe, but  nice.  “No,” she said at last, through a final spate of chuckles.  Lundin frowned.  I thought I had that one.

“Horace, I think you’re an absolute treasure.  And from all I’ve heard, you’re a brilliant technician.  Now I’m going to challenge you to become a good leader too.”

He had a hunch the conversation was building up to something like this.  “Dame Dionne,” Lundin said, raising his hands.  “I don’t really see myself as the leader type.”

“Well, here’s the thing, Horace,” she said, putting her hard-edged glasses back on.  She ticked a list off on her fingers.  “You’ve got a vision.  You’ve got a staff.  And you’ve got a deadline.  You’re already a leader; so you might as well learn how to be a good one, right?” she finished, flashing him a smile.

His mouth went dry. “What do you mean, a deadline?”

Dame Dionne cocked her head.  “The next sharing is in nine days,” she said, bemused.  He was bemused right back at her, so she went on, “Every other week, Civic project leaders interface with community representatives for demonstrations, public comment, and collaborative networking. That’ll be you, Horace, in nine days.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But I don’t know how to interface,” he said.

“Horace—”

“And what do you mean by demonstrations?”

“We’re going public with the mechanized wizardry project in nine days.”  Dame Dionne put her hands on her hips.

Lundin’s jaw dropped, and dark black shock filled his mind.  Going public?

“You’re a Civic now, Horace,” she went on, “and unlike some Petronauts, Civics don’t hole up in the workshop, doing clandestine research on brand new ways to kill people.  Our mission is to work with the rest of the city to make things that are good for all Delians.  We partner with industries.  Merchants.  We share our designs.  We spread technology outside this compound.  What we don’t do is keep secrets.”

“But I—”

“The Board of Governors transferred you here, which means two things, as far as I see it,” she said, her calm tone cutting through his objection.  “They agree with Her Highness that you’re on to something big; and they think that Delia needs to know what you’ve found.  And you’re going to do it nine days from now.”

She put a hand on his shoulder, looking frankly into his eyes.  “Do you see why I think you might want to tell your team something more than ‘go hit the library?’  Mister Leader?” Dame Dionne said.

Lundin’s head was reeling.  “I don’t know what else to tell them.”

“How about—I don’t know—a briefing?”  She clapped him on the arm and stepped back, blue eyes crinkled with humor.  “Why don’t you start with what you’ve done so far?”

I cast a spell on the court sorcerer to keep her from committing regicide, a fact that will get me murdered the instant it becomes public knowledge.

“Oh, it’s not that interesting,” he said weakly.

“Horace,” she said.  The clouds broke overhead, and the immaculate workroom was flooded with light.  “Do you believe mechanized wizardry can change the world?”

Lundin looked back at her, mulling over the flood of changes in his life since that day in LaMontina’s tent, a few short weeks ago.  “Yes,” he said.

Dame Dionne nodded after a moment, her round face shining in the sunlight.  “Tell your people why,” she said quietly, “and I think you’ll like what happens next.”

The door swung open several minutes later, and the three technicians filed back in.  Their eyes widened at the sight of the squawk box, front-and-center in the expansive room, its side panel pulled back to reveal two turntables and an array of gears and polished resonators.  Lundin was reaching into the mouth of the ornate trumpet on top of the box, making an adjustment to something unseen.  Dame Dionne was crouched by the open panel, lowering a perforated metal disk into place on the lower turntable.  They turned at the sound of the door, making last-minute adjustments before facing the three techs.

“Hey there, guys,” Dame Dionne said, dusting off her maroon slacks.  “Before you dive right in to the fascinating world of Old Harutian, Horace has something he wants to say.”

Lundin fought the urge to swallow as Elia, Martext, and Willl with three L’s turned to look at him.  He laid a hand on top of the squawk box, feeling the grain of the dark wood against his fingertips, and took a deep breath.

“We’re here to fix magic,” he began.

Chapter Four: Fireside

Samanthi squinted in the firelight.  Gingerly, she pressed the tip of her screwdriver against the miniature ratchet, visible half an inch beneath the side of the plundered armband.  With a sound like a brick dropping through a sheet of silk, three thin claws flashed into view, extending forward about ten inches past the mouth of the bracer.  “More like stilettos than daggers,” she mused aloud, flicking the closest blade with a dirty fingernail.  “From what Dame Miri said, the Petronaut they fought back home had bigger claws.”

“Parade squad exaggeration,” Iggy snorted.  “They’d probably be scared of someone with dinner forks for arms.”

“Spheres, I’d be scared of that,” Samanthi grinned, accepting the cup of applejack the older woman handed her.  Expert technician Ignatia Roulande squatted down next to her, absently scratching a mole on her bare, leathery shoulder.  The Aerial squad tech’s overalls were ripe from long days of consecutive wear, and Samanthi turned her head discreetly upwind. Iggy took a sip from her collapsible tin cup and frowned at the trio of razor-sharp claws.

“Spring-loaded, huh?  How do you ratchet ‘em back?”

“This ring twists,” Samanthi explained, gripping what looked like a decorative band encircling the cuff.  She gave it a half-turn and, with a few muffled clicks, the claws retracted an inch or two.  Iggy shook her head emphatically.

“Awkward.  Not a Petronaut in the world who’d want to waste time like that in a fight.”

“Maybe you’re supposed to keep the claws out until the fight’s done.”

“Maybe you should carry a damn gun and leave the scratching to the tomcats.”

“Know what I think?  It’s a model,” Samanthi said, twisting the band until the claws were out of sight.  “A workshop sample of the real thing.  Look how smooth it’s fashioned; no space for fasteners anywhere.  This was never meant to be fitted into a ‘naut’s armor.  It’s just proof-of-concept.”

“The concept that three knives coming out of your arm are better than one knife in your hand.”

“There’s a proverb in there somewhere,” Samanthi said, thoughtfully.  Iggy chuckled as Samanthi drained her cup and reached for the growler of applejack.  The Aerial squad had a reputation for being the most committed alcoholics in the entire Petronaut community; which meant, as Iggy had been telling Samanthi for years, that the younger woman would fit right in with them.  The standing offer was a little tempting, since it was acknowledged that the Aerials had far and away the best toys (like Ironsides, whose armor Iggy had lovingly patched up after piloting her through the smugglers’ hail of gunfire that morning.)  But the best toys also had the greatest tendency to break, which was extremely hard on the pilots who flew them and the techs who had to rebuild them.  Besides, Samanthi mused as she refilled her cup, being an Aerial tech would be all about shop work, with fewer of the Recon squad’s varied assignments, inside and outside the city walls.  She liked being part of a little squad that did big things.   Though our squad is littler than it should be now… She narrowed her eyes and pushed that thought aside, thumping the earthenware jug back into the dirt.

“I think you’re right, Sam,” Sir Mathias spoke up quietly, lying on his back on the other side of the campfire.  Samanthi hissed and threw an acorn at him.  He flinched as it rebounded off the thin linen blanket over his chest.

“Quiet!  You’re supposed to recuperating.”

“I can’t think and recuperate?”

“Not out loud; no, Sir.  You sucked in a lot of smoke today, and the field physician told you to go easy on your lungs.”

“My lungs are fine.  Want to see them?”  Right on cue, Mathias sank into a particularly juicy coughing fit.  Samanthi threw up her hands, disgusted, dismayed and amused at the same time.

“Why is it always the handsome ones who get set on fire?”  Iggy said, sipping wistfully.

Mathias sat up, his big hands resting on his knees as he got his cough under control.  “I figure there are only a few ways these smugglers could have gotten a hold of ‘naut gear,” he said, his normally rich voice coming out as a sad croak.  He ticked off his theories on his fingers.  “Killing a ‘naut and stripping a whole suit; stealing it from a workshop; or trading for it.  If they’d had a whole suit to cannibalize, we’d have seen them using other pieces.”

“And this cuff would look like it belonged to a set,” Samanthi agreed.

“If they stole it, that makes me feel good.  It means our mystery ‘naut shop out there is way more lax about security than we are.  But I bet the armband was part of some trade.”

“If I were a mystery ‘naut,” Iggy said, “and I wanted a band of low-lifes to do something for me, the first thing I’d do is try to pay them in junk like this.  Make it sound all impressive and authentic.”

“‘With the claws of justice, you can slay your enemies three at a time,’” Mathias intoned, making use of his gravelly throat.

“As long as they stand close together,” Samanthi said over the rim of her glass.

They laughed, their voices rising into the night.  Then Sir Mathias had another coughing spasm, bad enough that it brought both women to their feet.  Samanthi snatched a waterskin from her wide-open pack and brought it to her friend, a prone giant under a too-small blanket.  He took a few swallows before lying back on his side.

Iggy laid a hand on Samanthi’s back with a non-verbal ‘need anything?’ in her eyes.  Samanthi shook her head.  Iggy nodded, then made a fierce face and crushed her empty cup to her own forehead, the collapsible tin segments stacking neatly into one another.  Samanthi barked with laughter and shoved the Aerial tech away.  Iggy rode the momentum and turned it into a lazy walk across the camp site to the round, hulking bulk of Ironsides.  Without turning around, Iggy waved the Recon squad good night.

Samanthi sighed, sinking down to the ground.  She listened to the crackling fire for a long moment before patting Sir Mathias on the calf.  “How’re you doing, sir?”

The ‘naut was still for several seconds, his brown eyes lost in thought.  “You know why I’m alive today?”  he said, not looking at her.

“‘Cause you’re a virtuous, Sphere-loving champion of righteousness?”

“Because of Lundin.”

The smile sank away from her face.  She scratched the cup in her hands absently, staring at the ground.

“He’s the one who finally got the fire dousers working,” Mathias went on.

“He’s the one who junked up their design in the first place,” Samanthi murmured, shaking her head.  “The number of times I told him to toss those blueprints… but he just went through to a prototype anyway, and, sure enough, got a faceful of foam the first time he pulled the trigger.”

“That sounds healthy.”

“‘The vapors, the vapors,’” she mock-gasped, slipping into Lundin’s voice.  Mathias grinned.  “‘Quick, boss, get me a towel.’  The closest thing at hand was a certain brown-and-gold scarf, so—”

“Wait, wait.  The double-wide scarf with the gold embroidery, that’s been missing for months?”  He sat up.  “That was my scarf.”

“Well, Sir,” she said innocently, “it saved Lundin’s life.  So I guess you two are even.”

“Burn that!  Lundin wasn’t going to die from any vapors.  You couldn’t have used a rag?”

“It was an emergency.”

Mathias flopped back to the ground theatrically.  Samanthi snorted with laughter.  A log popped in the fire, sending a swarm of sparks up into the black air.  The sparks rose for a moment, shining, before their lights faded away.  She looked back down at him.  “And then he went back to the blueprints,” she said, “and he went back for another prototype, and back to the blueprints; and, finally, during the feastday prep, we got the douser on your suit, and it saved your life.”

She exhaled sharply, feeling an unwelcome tightness in the back of her throat.  “He might be the slowest, densest, most scatterbrained tech in the world.  But whenever he actually finishes a project, it’s a damn work of art.”

The silence that followed made her sad, and being sad made her angry. Samanthi pounded back the rest of her liquor and jabbed a finger at Sir Mathias.  “And if you ever tell him I said so I’ll fill your thrusters with custard,” she growled.

“The Civics are lucky to have him,” he said.

She dug the heel of her boot into the ground sullenly.  “I’d retire before I let them send me to the Civics,” she said.  “Wasting my life in meetings and presentations?  My biggest accomplishment designing a plow that sharpens itself?  Please.”

“It’s the better place for the magic project.”

“That was my project too!”  Samanthi leaned in closer to him, her face reddening with anger.  “And Lundin was my junior tech.  Don’t you rationalize with me!  His transfer had nothing to do with Princess Naomi and what the project needs.  Lundin got booted because Kelley’s a spiteful sack of crap.”

“Don’t go there, Sam,” Mathias warned, sitting up.

“You know as well as I do—”

“Hey!  I said no.”  His brown eyes were flashing.  “Sir Kelley is your boss and mine.  And as long as we’re a unit in the field, there are things that are never to come out of your mouth.  Not to me.  Not to anyone.”

“Don’t tell me what to think, sir,” Samanthi said quietly, her jaw set.

“Think whatever you want.  But if you say things that make me question your commitment to your squad, your superiors, and your mission, then I have no choice but to report you.  And I’ve had my fill of that style of drama lately.”

He sank back onto his elbows.  She tossed the last few drops of applejack from her cup into the fire, where they vanished with a hiss.  “If you didn’t want to talk about Lundin, you shouldn’t have brought him up.”

Mathias rubbed his face.  “We can regret the decision that was made without being insubordinate to the people who—”

“If I wanted to be a soldier, I would be a soldier,” she shot back.  “I would have a uniform, and a musket, and better muscle tone, and I wouldn’t expect to speak my mind.  But I’m not a soldier.  I’m a Petronaut, just like you.  You may be the one who puts the suit on, but I’m the one who makes sure it doesn’t kill you.  Given that your life is in my hands every day, sir, silly me; I thought you might be interested in hearing me speak my point of view now and then.”

“In the workshop, yes.  On almost everything, yes.  But you can’t slander the senior ‘naut—”

“I don’t want to slander him, I want to punch his burning lights out!  Did it occur to you, Sir Mathias, that the scandalous talk you just heard from me was the filtered-down, toothless, strait-jacketed version of what I’ve had going inside for weeks now?  And that the reason I let it out at all was because, with the way those big brown eyes got damp when you talked about Lundin, I thought you were finally ready to be honest about how we both miss him?”

“Yeah, I miss him,” Sir Mathias said.  His voice caught in his throat.  “And I’m terrified about losing you, too.”

She looked sidelong at him, the firelight playing across her face.  “You think Kelly will go after me next,” she said.

“If you give him reason to, no doubt,” he whispered sadly.  “And then the Recon squad will get two new techs, or we’ll just get folded into the Cavaliers.  Don’t think the Board hasn’t talked about that before.  And the next time I’m in battle and somebody throws a bottle of exploding jelly at my chest, I’ll be dead.  Because my life has been in your hands and Lundin’s hands for three years now, and I don’t see how I could ever trust anyone the way I’ve been able to trust you.”

The fire was dying and the shadows were long.  A night breeze stirred the embers, unexpectedly cool, and Samanthi rubbed her hands together furiously for warmth.  She bit her lip, not looking over at the big Petronaut.  “Don’t listen to me,” Sir Mathias muttered.  “Just because I’m scared of Kelley doesn’t mean you need to toe some party line, especially in private.”

“Well,” she said, “just because I’m entitled to my hateful opinions doesn’t mean you have to hear them.  Even in private.”

They looked at each other.  Slowly, solemnly, Sir Mathias raised the sloshing waterskin up to her eye level.  Samanthi’s lips tugged upwards in a grin as she raised her empty cup and clinked it against the soft-sided waterskin.

“Cheers.”

“Cheers,” she said, quietly.

“Cheers,” Kelley said, raising an imaginary glass.

Samanthi drew away from Mathias as he started to raise himself to his feet.  Sir Kelley extended a placating hand, the firelight through his fingers casting red shadows on his pockmarked face as he called out to them from the far side of the fire.  “Please, stay down,” he said.  He tilted his head sympathetically.  “Don’t push yourself.  How’re you feeling?”

“Better, sir,” Mathias said, sinking back down onto his side.

“What do you say, Ms. Elena, since it looks like you’re playing nursemaid?  Is he actually better?”

“He’ll live,” she said, stiffening.

“Well, drinks all around!”  Sir Kelley walked closer to them, his green eyes glinting in the light.  He crouched next to Mathias, resting his forearms on his knees.  “You know who else is going to live, Sir Mathias?  The bastard who threw that burning mess at you!  He lost a lot of blood from the ball you put in his leg, but the master of physic finally patched him up half an hour ago.  Word from the field agents is that he just woke up.”

“Is he talking yet?” Sir Mathias asked.

Kelley grinned, showing his teeth.  “Not yet,” he said.  “What do you say we go fix that?”

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