Copyright 2011 by Shelley Adina. All rights reserved.
London, August 1889
They were too small to be airships, and too ephemeral to be bombs. Glowing with a gentle orange light, each the size of a lantern, they floated up into the night sky powered by a single candle and the most delicate of tiny engines.
One didn’t, after all, simply release such dangerous things without a means of directing where they were to go.
“They’re so pretty,” Maggie breathed.
“Sh!” Her twin sister Lizzie, both of them having no surname that anyone knew, nudged her with urgency. “T’Lady said to be quiet.”
“You be quiet! Since when d’you listen to the Lady at the best o’ times?”
“Mopsies!” Lady Claire Trevelyan, sister of a viscount, formerly a resident of Belgravia and now a resident of a hideout in Vauxhall gained at the price of a brigand’s life, glared at both girls. They’d been on many a night lookout. What were they thinking, to risk giving away their position by whispering?
Though Claire had to admit that the beauty of the balloons’ dreamy flight hid the fact that she, Jake, and Tigg had constructed them out of a rag picker’s findings: a silk chemise, a ragged nightgown so fine she could draw it through her grandmother’s emerald ring, a pair of bloomers that a very broad lady had thrown away because of a tear she was too wealthy to mend.
Add to this a little device Claire had been working on that would act as a steering and propulsion mechanism, and you had a set of silent intruders that could go where she and her accomplices could not.
Hunching their shoulders at the reproof, the girls settled behind the tumbledown remains of a churchyard wall to watch the half-dozen balloons sail away with their cargo over the width of a street and up over a two-story stone wall as impregnable as a medieval keep.
The spider takes hold with her hands, and is in kings’ palaces. Well, tonight she was the spider and the inhabitants of “The Cudgel” Bonaventure’s fortress were about to learn a lesson in manners. One did not jump the associates of the Lady in the street and relieve them of the rewards of their night’s work in the gambling parlors without reprisal. The candles that caused the balloons to rise would not set his fortress on fire, but the chemical suspended in a single vial from each certainly would.
An owl hooted, rather more cheerfully than one might expect. “They’re over the wall,” Snouts McTavish translated. “We can move in when you give the word, Lady.”
“I think it will be safe to wait for Mr. Bonaventure in the street. Jake, do you have the gaseous capsaicin devices should he prove foolish?”
She had known Jake for several weeks. Even now, she was not sure he wouldn’t use such a device on her and challenge Snouts for lieutenancy of their little band of the abandoned and neglected. However, if someone were to prove himself trustworthy, he must perforce be trusted. Leaving him in charge of the satchel with its clinking contents was a calculated risk, but it was one she must take. Especially since he had compounded the devices himself.
“Right, then. Let us offer advice to the distressed and homeless, shall we?”
The glow over the wall was bright enough to light their way into the street as the buildings behind it caught fire. The contents of each vial suspended beneath its balloon had ignited on contact with air as the candles burned out and they dropped out of flight, higgledy-piggledy all over the roof of The Cudgel’s headquarters. Wood that had been dried out during the hot summer—old wood, that had been standing since long before their glorious Queen’s time—ignited and in seconds the oldest part of the building had gone up like a Roman candle.
Claire regretted the loss of the steering mechanisms—a particularly nice bit of engineering she was quite proud of—but at least they had gone in a good cause.
The Cudgel would think twice before picking on her friends again.
The entire house was engulfed in roaring flame by the time the single gate creaked open and a small crowd of men and boys tumbled through it, gasping and slapping smoldering sparks and holding bits of clothing over their faces against the smoke.
Hmph. And where were the women holding positions in The Cudgel’s hierarchy? Her opinion of his leadership dropped even lower.
The wailing of the fire engines in the distance told her she must be succinct.
“Mr. Bonaventure!” she called, stepping into full view in the middle of the street. She had dressed carefully in raiding rig for the occasion, in a practical black skirt that could be rucked up by means of internal tapes should she have to run or climb. She had dispensed with a hat for the evening, choosing instead to simply leave her driving goggles sitting in front of her piled hair, a gauzy scarf wound over it and around her neck. A leather corselet contained a number of hooks and clasps for equipment, and instead of her trusty rucksack, which Jake was wearing, she now wore a leather harness with a spine holster specially made to the contours of the lightning rifle she had taken from Lightning Luke Jackson three weeks ago. She was pleased to see that her lacy blouse remained pristine white, despite the half-hour spent huddled behind the wall.
She slid the rifle from its holster over her shoulder and held it loosely, her index finger hovering over the power switch.
In ones and twos, the small crowd of smoked criminals realized what she held—and therefore, who she was. Slowly, they backed against the wall, leaving The Cudgel exposed to her aim.
Hmph. So much for honor among thieves.
The Cudgel eyed her. “I know you. Wot business you got ’ere?”
The sirens sounded closer. They would be crossing the Southwark Bridge over the Thames even now. “Just this,” she said, enunciating crisply so that there would be no misunderstanding. “Last night your men set upon four of my friends returning from the gaming halls, and took everything they had. This is a warning to you that I do not tolerate abuse of my friends or the fruit of their honest labor.”
“Izzat so,” he drawled. “Can’t say as I know wot yer babbling on.”
She hefted the rifle and pushed the power switch. “I suggest you apply your limited intellect to it.”
His head thrust forward like that of an angry bulldog whose bone has just been ripped from its teeth. “I say you go back to your needlepoint like a good little girl and think about wot I’m goin’ to do to you for—”
The gun hummed happily, its pitch and frequency announcing that it was ready for work. Claire’s index finger now rested on the trigger.
“If I hear that you have stepped foot in Vauxhall, with or without evil intent, your own yellow belly will be the last thing you ever see.”
Yellow belly? Goodness. That was a line straight out of one of the melodramatic flickers she and Emilie had been addicted to centuries ago—two months ago—when she had been a green girl.
“I’d say you owe me, then, girlie—”
“You may address me as the Lady.”
He started across the street. “And you must address this. Creeper! Hiram! Hold her down.” He fumbled with the buttons on his trousers, while Claire stared in astonishment. Really. With the fire engines nearly upon them and his house burning to cinders as they spoke, he thought he could threaten her by means of his disgusting person?
Creeper and Hiram, whoever they were, did not, in fact, hold her down. However, two shadows detached from the main body of the huddle and slipped away down the alley at the corner of the wall. Snouts, Jake, and Tigg formed an immovable mass at her back.
Claire sighed. “Really, Mr. Bonaventure. You should not, as my mother often told me, use a pin when a needle is called for. Particularly so dull and short a pin.”
She pulled the trigger and a bolt of lightning shot across the street, singeing him neatly between the legs and burning the inner seams of his canvas trousers clean away.
The Cudgel screamed and leaped back six feet, the scent of burning flesh overlaid on the smoke that filled the air. Hysterical, no doubt in pain at least equal to that he had hoped to inflict upon her, he capered and screeched so that Claire could hardly distinguish between him and the sirens of the engines as they roared up the cobbled street.
“Billy Bolt!” With the signal to scatter, her friends slipped into the shadows with her before anyone in authority could say they’d been there.
Snouts waited until they were nearly back in their own neighborhood before he said, “Been gettin’ a little target practice in, I see. It’ll look like ’e got burnt by the fire and none o’ that lot will say different.”
“I have indeed.” The furthest corner of the garden wall was scorched and pockmarked as proof. “There is no point in being considered armed and dangerous if one cannot actually hit anything.”
“Lucky that gun is accurate.”
“It’s more than accurate, Snouts. You’ve seen yourself how it practically feels your aim. Even Willie could hit a target with it, I’m sure.”
“Lady, please tell me you ent gonna—”
“No, certainly not. No one touches this rifle but me … or you, when you are acting in my stead. It’s more than just a weapon, you know. It stands for what we’ve accomplished.”
Snouts said no more, just kept pace with her, one eye on the others to make sure no one fell behind and no one was in pursuit, and the other on the street ahead, watching for danger.
Claire was the first to admit that keeping order in a band of thieves and cutpurses would be nearly impossible without the rifle—or rather, without their belief in what she might do with it. The truth was, she had only fired it outside the garden three times: Twice on the night it had come into her possession, and tonight.
Clearly she had inherited not only her father’s aptitude for firearms, but also his belief that one did not need to speak much, only to say what was worth hearing when one did. Or, as Polgarth the poultryman at the family pile in Cornwall was wont to say, Walk soft an’ carry a big stick.
She was thankful that at least Snouts, Tigg, and the Mopsies followed her lead without coercion. Since she had lost her home in the Arabian Bubble riots and fallen in with this street gang that was no more than a rabble of desperate, hungry children, they had taught her how to survive—and she had taught them how to thrive.
Between lessons in reading and mathematics, they rehearsed new and confounding hands of Cowboy Poker, the current rage they had fabricated in the drawing rooms and gambling halls of London. Those with a bent for chemistry and mechanics assisted her in the assembly of her devices. Food appeared on the table with heartening regularity now, and they all had more than one suit of clothes each. Even Rosie, the hen she had rescued, who ruled the desolate garden behind the cottage with an iron claw, had begun to put on weight.
And to top it all, tomorrow she was to begin employment as assistant to Andrew Malvern, M.Sc., Royal Society of Engineers.
The watchman on the roof platform above the river entrance whistled, and Snouts whistled three notes in return. The door swung open, allowing a wide bar of warm light to spill onto the planks that had been repaired after a series of unfortunate explosions caused by the previous inhabitants.
“Lady! You’re back. What happened?” Lewis asked eagerly before he was fairly through the door.
Weepin’ Willie, a mute boy of five, pushed through the legs of the boys crowding the porch, and flung himself into Claire’s arms. She hugged him, a warm rush of gratitude spilling through her that here, at least, was one person in all the world who loved her without reservation. The others respected her, perhaps even liked her. But this small scrap of humanity had stuck to her like a burr from the moment she’d met him. Because of him—well, because of them all, really, she’d kept to her course and not gone down to Cornwall beaten and defeated, to be the bride of some country squire chosen by her mother.
“The Cudgel will not be waylaying any of you in the future,” she told them, setting Willie on his feet and getting up. “He has a permanent reminder to mind his manners henceforth.”
Snouts made a gesture in the vicinity of his pants that caused the boys’ eyes to widen in horror and admiration.
She was committed to her new life now, for good or ill.
Of course, The Cudgel aside, avoiding ill was at the top of her list of priorities. For that reason, she had allowed her new employer to believe she was the governess of five of these children, and part of their agreement was that they might supplement their education in his laboratory on occasion.
Surely she would be able to keep her secret. After all, he had not inquired too closely about her place of residence or who, exactly, would allow their children out with her to perform experiments in a riverside warehouse. She would just have to remain pleasantly vague about certain details, and trust that his natural reserve and politeness would prevail.
It would never do for him to know that he was harboring the infamous Lady of Devices, inadvertent murderer of Lightning Luke Jackson and reigning queen of the south side underworld.
Her reputation in society would never recover.
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