All it took was a little ingenuity, really. Ingenuity, some partially-animate heveaform substance, incredibly delicate wiring and advance radiometry techniques—all right, not “ingenuity” so much as brilliance. Tarvek was rather pleased with the result, when he finally go the communicators working. They couldn’t do more than pulse weakly, but they did it in perfect synchronicity, no matter how far apart. When one was touched, the other reacted. That was enough for a simple code. Flat, flexible, and flesh-colored, they were virtually undetectable to see or even touch, unless someone knew what hey were looking for. The signals were nigh unnoticeable as well.
So one went on his outer thigh, an inconspicuous place to tap, and one on Violetta’s left arm, because when didn’t she have her arms crossly crossed. And lo, the conspiracy had stealth communication.
17 cartwright daughter, low spark. Dead in chair.
“—so they never did find out who started the fire,” Tarvek finished without missing a beat. It took a great deal more than learning that Aaronev Sturmvoraus had killed another girl to get him to break his company face, particularly when he was having tea with Grandmére. “The whole class had to help rebuild the lab, every evening last week.” He sipped his tea. “If word gets out it was Andreovich, she can expect twenty odd scorpions in her bed, or worse.”
The matriarch of the scattered remnants of House Valois leaned back on her fine velvet parlor sofa, china cup held delicately over her saucer. “Is that particularly useful information?”
Tarvek shrugged from his own, slightly less comfortable chair. “Not really. She doesn’t even have a very usefully placed room in the dormitory.” Like he needed anyone’s help to break into the dorms. But he always tried to bring Grandmére at least one interesting anecdote or new gossip from school when he made his monthly check-in over tea.
Technically speaking, she was his great-aunt, and only half at that. But she had always been kind to him and Anevka, as much as she was kind to anybody. Even before they broke through.
She certainly acted like a grandmother, with the sharpening of an inquisitive gaze. “Do you have a reason to be sneaking into the women’s dormitory?”
“No!” It wasn’t quite a yelp. A defense of his capability, maybe. Tarvek got invited into the women’s dormitory.
And he didn’t have any idée fixe, so it was a safe topic to which to draw attention.
But Grandmére’s amused smile fell away before her eyes dropped their piercing evaluation. Tarvek fought and lost to the instinct to straighten his posture. Grandmére passing judgment sent him right back to Smoke Knight training, before and after he had broken through and dropped out of the for-life program.
“Yes.” She leaned forward and set her cup and saucer on the table with a gentle clink, that set the alarms buzzing in Tarvek’s reflexes like a gunshot. He kept ahold of his own cup, in case he needed to throw it in somebody’s face. There was a Smoke Knight behind the window-drapes, per usual.
Grandmére folded her hands in her lap and watched him neutrally over her own pince-nez. “Tarvek, I’d like to know what you think you’re doing with Violetta.”
That was enough to break his company face, and nearly spill his tea. He steadied both quickly, but it was far too late. “I’m sorry?”
(It was over. He’d barely started—it hadn’t been a year yet since Anevka; he hadn’t floated the idea with more than a handful of people other than Violetta. But it was a miracle he wasn’t dead yet if Grandmére knew. However it was that she did. She had always been one of Martellus’s staunchest supporters, adamantly against any pretenders. He wasn’t sure why he wasn’t dead. Or Violetta. What game—)
Grandmére raised one hand, calling a halt to Tarvek’s frantic thoughts. Theoretically. His hand tightened on his tea. It wasn’t a particularly good weapon, but of course he also had knives and poisons, and there was only one other Knight and then the window. And Grandmére, of course; he’d never seen an assassin foolish enough to attempt her, but he’d heard stories, and of course undergone training. But she was slower than she used to be, with the arthritis…
“Before you contemplate the window too hard, dear,” she said calmly, “I’ll say something frankly, and expect you to return the favor.” She dropped her hand again, and pursed her lips. “The situation is…difficult, right now. I’m sure you’re heard they’re trying girls for the Heterodyne Heiress ploy—”
She waited to continue until Tarvek nodded. He hadn’t, actually, heard that, but he’d assumed, and it never did to pass up a chance to appear informed.
“And that’s all very well,” Grandmére continued. “I’ve met one myself. She reminded me of her aunt. She’ll manage. But we are going against Wulfenbach, and there is some concern that Martellus will be…insufficiently delicate.”
A brash, overbearing mess at public relations, she meant, and Tarvek knew that. He was—he had been—banking on it, and the family’s concern.
“Additionally, look past your nose for a moment and consider: the temperament of a woman who grew up during the Long War with the blood of kings in her veins, but was forbidden, by sex and lack of spark, from seeking the throne. So she got married, and watched her daughter, a spark but still a woman, do the same, to a man who…well. And now sees her granddaughter…”
Tarvek hoped his eyes weren’t as wide as they felt. “You have a grudge.” And there was acid in that ‘She’ll manage’.… “They’re resting Demonica Mongfish’s daughter for the Heterodyne Girl?”
Grandmêre picked up her tea again, took a gentle sip, and repeated, “So what do you think you’re doing with Violetta?”
“Legally, it’s Salic Law,” he said quickly. “Obviously. Practically, it could be an entirely in-the-family thing, no…other alliances.”
She nodded at the implication and he plunged on, leaning forward as he pitched.
“Like you suggested, Violeta would do much better publicly than Tw– Martellus. She’s patient, compassionate, and actually knows how to smile without looking like a pompous…person. And privately, she’ll actually listen to advice, from—”
“You?” was Grandmére’s dry suggestion.
“People she trusts,” Tarvek said firmly, and carefully without a trace of smugness.
It was very difficult to hid things from Grandmére. “And why does Violetta think she’s involving herself?”
“She wants to help,” Tarvek said truthfully, and thanked the heavens that even the whole truth was apparently the right argument to make: “And she doesn’t want to be scared of her father anymore.”
The slow tapping of her toe was the judge’s gavel, somehow loud and firm despite the thick carpet. Tarvek felt transported back five years, to sitting quietly while tutors posed Anevka and Martellus political hypotheticals and they made cases in response and defended their positions. Anevka had generally done better, in his memory, though she rarely disagreed with the prince. Just argued more eloquently. Tarvek had remained silent because he was only twelve and not supposed to be studying on their level yet. But one didn’t hire an extra political tutor for a member of the serving branch of the family, even if he was a spark.
This was not a classroom. He reminded himself to breathe while she considered. Per the Yellow Codex, even when silence was called for (silence was always called for,) only a fool gave up the advantage of a fresh lungful of air.
Finally Grandmére stopped tapping her foot, and took a slow swallow of tea. Her blue gaze still pieced. “I want more specifics, but I shall write to Aaronev and invite Violetta to stay with us here a while. She needs to make some sort of peace with Seffie.”
Tarvek’s inward crowing was stifled by confusion. He blinked. “Seffie will never leave Martellus.” Also she was barely fourteen, but then, so was Tarvek’s candidate for the throne.
“You underestimate Xerxsephnia’s self-interest, I think.” Grandmére’s lips thinned. “And I would like to keep as many of my grandchildren alive as possible.”
Tarvek nodded. “I understand.”
She raised her hand in warning again. “If you get her wasped, boy, then God must help you because I will not.”
“I’m working on it,” he said earnestly, and mentally added it to the very long list of things to do. In fact, it was a potentially significantly longer list than it had been ten minutes ago. Tarvek stifled a smirk. “What other information do you want?”
Just get along.
Violetta would have gone over Tarvek’s advice in her mind if he’d given any that was remotely useful. ‘Just get along.’ Yes, and if they asked very nicely, maybe Baron Wulfenbach would just give them Europa, and then everybody could have cake and ice cream to celebrate!
She pointed to a mannequin at random. “What about this dress?”
Seffie looked up from the chemise she was examining and wrinkled her nose. “Don’t you think that’s a little tall for you?”
The anxious boutique manager darted over to hover at Violetta’s side, leaving her sales clerk with Seffie. It was just them in the store (and a couple Smoke Knights around somewhere, of course); a pair of princesses warranted personal attention from even the most fashionable Parisian boutiques.
“Perhaps her highness would like a gown with a lower waist?” the woman offered, taking Violetta’s arm and leading her to a doll with a frilly pink thing. “This one is a brand new design, from a young spark at the Université d’Art. The corset is built in, of course, and as you can see the layers cascade…”
She kept talking. She looked and sounded like a particularly nervous chipmunk. Violetta made sure to look like she was listening. She loathed dress shopping.
A messenger boy in a green cap slipped in and handed Seffie a note, bowing apologetically.
“Ugh!” she cried, and nearly hit him in the nose when she crumpled the paper into a ball and dashed it to the floor.
Violetta rolled her eyes at the dramatics, but wouldn’t decline the chance to escape the shopkeeper. “What?”
Seffie glared like she’d been offered a mortal insult, though it was unclear whom from. “Collette isn’t coming after all. Apparently she’s busy with that new university adventurer, the Holzfäller’ girl.”
Violetta was prepared to join the adventurer’s fan club just for the way Seffie’s petticoats twisted, but—“Holzfäller? Zeetha Holzfäller? She’s here in Paris?”
“Yes, for about a week—a couple days before you got here, I guess.” She rolled her eyes. “She got into the newspapers on her very first day for this thing with giant squid in the sewers.”
“Typical,” Violetta grumbled.
Seffie narrowed her eyes. “You know her?”
“She’s the one who got me kicked off Castle Wulfenbach,” she spat.
“Really?” Seffie grabbed her arm like they were best friends. “You must tell me more.”
“Oh, I don’t actually know…” Violetta hadn’t thought about Zeetha in years. She’d considered trying to find out the real story behind her parentage once—something never really fit right in the pig farmer story. But why bother? And Violetta had suffered a lot more disappointments since she was five years old. Just because she’d thought the older girl was her friend…
But apparently their business wasn’t done after all. And Violetta was supposed to be getting along with Seffie. And they could stop talking about dresses.
“...I mean, I haven’t heard anything about her in years. She’s just a random orphan.” Violetta lowered her voice conspiratorially. “She used to pretend she didn’t care who her parents were, but the truth is, even she doesn’t know.”
“That sounds exciting,” said Seffie, sounding disappointed.
Violetta put on her best smirk. “Yeah, but the most common theory is that her father was a village spark killed by his own sausage-making clank.”
“Yes! Oh, you should hear about some of the ways she got in trouble, when she was just a kid…”
Are you okay?
Tarvek tried to ignore a budding lump in his throat at the informality. Of course, as far as Violetta knew—as far as anyone in the Order knew—he’d been missing for nearly two weeks. They would have found the ship in the Wastes by now, cannibalized for parts and all hands missing, even stowaway one Knight. No wonder she was anxious enough to get sentimental.
“See, it moved again!”
Gil leaned over Tarvek’s shoulder, avidly watching the communicator bump against the laboratory table. As much as this could be called a laboratory. There were experiments in everything from kinematics to arboreal biology, and a considerable amount of aeronautical engineering, and, as had been demonstrated on Tarvek’s first day, the floor could be opened with a pull of a lever. But it was still a modified pirate cargo hold. There were skulls on the walls, and everything down to the beakers seemed to be jury-rigged from the remnants of less fortunate ships.
“How does it work?” Gil demanded. A barbarian with an accent Tarvek couldn’t place, he wore nothing but loose trousers and an open vest, and pressed asusual too close against Tarvek’s bare back. “Is it alive? Does it take in your radio waves? I put it with the radio broadcasting on many different frequencies, but it didn’t react.”
For the hundredth time, Tarvek considered lying, because teaching this strange foreign pirate proper Europan science was unlikely to be in anyone’s interest, even if it became Wulfenbach’s problem first. It was also Tarvek’s immediate problem: the more he explained, the fewer tricks he had to get away. Not that any of them had worked thus far. For a non-Smoke Knight, Gilgamesh, son of Chump was alarmingly good at catching Tarvek’s escape attempts. He never seemed to sleep. And if he didn’t somehow see through Tarvek’s schemes, his mad captain picked up the slack with unnerving glee.
Twinging scars on Tarvek’s back reminded him that there were worse fates than glorified tutor and lab monkey. And Gil was too strong a spark to fool for long, stronger than anyone Tarvek knew save himself. He’d figure it out on his own eventually, and then…probably Captain DuPree again. And her knives.
“It wouldn’t. The frequency on which it operates—sends and receives—switches every half second, randomly according to an algorithm fixed into the nerves.”
“So it is alive! And it thinks?”
“Barely. Like a plant, really. But I was inspired by—”
“Barnubas trees! Yes! With the somasympathetic branches!” He picked up the communicator and peered at it. “But for radio signals, you must need to make gears and wires very very small. But this is light. How did you beat the condensation principle?”
Tarvek grinned, and grabbed the nearest scalpel. He was allowed that in the lab, for all the good it did. “Let me show you! If we’re very delicate, we won’t disturb the mechanism. See, I modulated Prioram’s Theorem against the curve of the electric constant—”
Gil passed him the communicator, and a piece of chalk as well. “Draw the math. Prioram’s Theorem?”
Tarvek started outlining a proof on the table. “The postulation—idea—that an inversed density can be recognated for hypovolumization. See, if you take the atomic dynamics…”
“And move them into the meta-body! Yes!” Gil seized the chalk back. “So what if you rotate the figures through a—” He frowned. “Center of a wheel?”
“Yes!” He sketched furiously. “The line, of the derivative vortex. Would that be like your Dr. Mnemeusod’s engine?”
“Ooh, with the hyperreactive gas? Yes!”
“And if we invert it another 48º, with a current through the idodine, we could create a blast radius of…”
“Gimme that,” said Tarvek, the chalk already in his hands. He scribbled down numbers. “Thirty decameters! Brilliant! But see, for the miniaturization, you have to take the alkine substitute and reduce the radial derivative of each wheel…”
He’d admit: he didn’t mean to worry Violetta, and he started to twitch if he dwelt on how awry his plans might go without his hand on the tiller, but it was so nice to have someone to talk to.
Muses in Master Payne’s Circus of Adventure, Sturmhalten now. Moxana and maybe Tinka. Road to Mechanicsburg.
Nobody else thinks real but I swear. Go look.
Tinka finished her dance with a spin that became a curtsey to the audience, and smiled into the tumultuous applause. As tumultuous as this little town could supply, at least. But it was something. She knew when she had made an impact, had gotten their feet tapping and their shoulders swaying. This was what she lived for, in every sense of the phrase.
But the smile slid shut as she made her way backstage, as Master Payne announced the next act.
“Marie,” she whispered, grabbing their able stage manager’s arm. “Would you look out and tell me if anybody is still looking this way?”
The Countess didn’t even ask, just twitched aside their makeshift curtain—a stray bolt of wide cloth, really; they were preforming in the town square with a pair of bonfires and the circus’s own effects for light. She closed it again, and shook her head at Tinka. “I don’t see anyone. You think you were being watched?”
Tinka loved circus performers. She particularly loved these circus performers, but in general she loved people who understood the difference between being watched and being watched.
It hadn’t been particularly strong tonight, just an extra sense of focus from somewhere. It could be nothing.
“I think so, yes.”
“I’ll tell Payne,” the Countess said immediately. “We’ll leave as soon as it’s light.”
Tinka particularly loved these circus performers. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Countess Marie assured her. “You’ll be going back to Moxana now, I expect?” She had schedules and charts in her hands but she didn’t need to check them. “We don’t need you for the rest of the show. Do you want me to send someone with to keep watch?”
Once upon a time, the Muses had been respected, revered. They had walked and sparks and humans alike had moved aside, not quite daring to touch. Tinka had learned to accept small kindnesses since then.
“Thank you,” she repeated, and gave the Countess’s hand a grateful squeeze. “I’ll go now.”
Tinka adopted a stiffer gait as she left the light of the square, and walked through the town to the empty field where they’d left most of the wagons. No fine grace here, no artistry of the ages (once upon a time…) Just a particularly clever dancing clank returning to her props wagon, where she belonged. She walked in straight lines without a single skip and kept her eyes wide and ears open for any movement in the shadows. It was a small town but one never knew, and a single misstep could mean their final fall.
There was a flicker to her left, too close, but Tinka kept her eyes straight ahead until she reached the door of the props wagon.
Then she spun with a lunge that would have made Otilia proud, grabbed the young man at her heels by the collar of his cloak and bore him down to the ground, kneeling on his chest, her other hand raised threateningly with a palm full of ready lightning.
There she paused in surprise. “A smoke knight?”
The young knight gaped up at her with obvious delight, for all that he must be smarting from the fall. His pince-nez had gotten crooked. “Amazing,” he said with fervor, and enough spark to nearly make her pull back. “I’d heard the Muses could see through most of the obfuscations and skips, but I didn’t know—”
He caught himself quite consciously. “I beg your pardon, madam. I just…”
“Who are you?” Tinka demanded. She hadn’t dropped her fistful of lightning, nor her hand from his throat. He didn’t seem bothered by either. “And what do you want?”
He had a deep purple cloak and knew how to move like one of her creator’s students, and his horsetailed red hair was clearly from her king, some time long, long ago. But not all of that family were to be trusted, nor their knights. Tinka had learned that, too, over the centuries. Particularly not the sparks.
“If, perhaps, you could let me up?” he said hopefully.
“I understand.” He moved his arms and Tinka tensed, but all he did was place his hands near his head, empty and in plain sight. “I’m Tarvek—ah, Lord Tarvek Mondarev, technically. I don’t suppose you’ve…”
“I’ve never heard of you.”
“No, of course not. You’ve just been with this circus? For how long?”
Tinka remained silent, and tried not to look back at the wagon. Prende would be best of them at this, seer of truth, but Moxana was good with secrets. But Tinka could move and Moxana could not, not anymore. It was best she remain hidden.
“Fine, fine,” said Tarvek Mondarev, hands still in plain sight. If that meant anything with one of Master Van Rijn’s Smoke Knights.
“I just wanted to see you,” he continued. “I thought I might say…the Knights of Jove are still around. We’re going to put a new ruler on the Lightning Throne. You don’t have to stay in hiding much longer.”
He seemed so dreadfully earnest that Tinka almost let her grip slacken. The electricity faded from her raised palm. It was dreadfully difficult to keep that up anyway.
“Tinka! Are you all right?”
The shout was Yeti, hurrying towards her across the field. Something shifted under her hand and she looked down to find herself holding nothing but a dark purple cloak.
She sprang to her feet. Tarvek Mondarev gave her a silent courtly bow from the shadows beside the wagon, and pointed to her hand. Then he turned and disappeared into the tall wheat of the next field over.
Tinka glanced down at her hand. Along with the cloak she held two calling cards, discreet and elegant. She didn’t need light to read: “If you need help,” was scribbled on the one for Lord Tarvek Mondarev, with a Parisian address. The second was for Princess Violetta Sturmvoraus of Sturmhalten, Balan’s Gap. The same tight handwriting warned, “Not her father.”
Yeti jogged up. He clearly hadn’t seen anything. “You okay? Did you…” He looked around for a reason she might have been kneeling.
“I am fine,” Tinka assured him, and smiled at his easy assumption that she would not have simply fallen. Of course she would not. She was the Muse of Dance, hiding in plain sight though she was, just as Moxana was Mystery, and they could only hope the rest of their sisters were equally whole somewhere safe.
She palmed the calling cards as someone had taught her years ago, a young actress in Buda-Pest at the turn of the century. “I am fine,” she repeated. She would have to show them to Moxana. She would want to add new pieces to the board. “I just found this old cloak. Perhaps we can use it for costumes.”
I can’t make Refuge after all. Test clanks anyway. Should be keyed to your voice, simple commands only. Tell me how it goes.
The hanger was dark, of course, though that did not preclude emptiness. Violetta let Veilchen enter first, and waited for him to flicker back into easy sight and nod before she followed. He held up two fingers and dropped neither, so both guards on duty were hers. As they should be, though it had been tricky enough to arrange in the Refuge of Storms.
She waited until the door had hissed silently shut behind her to put her hands on her hips and stare up at the giant knight clanks, and click her tongue against her teeth. It seemed to echo in the vast, silent hall. She stopped self-consciously.
Then, with a cross-eyed glare at herself, deliberately resumed, and walked purposefully down the line of ranked knights. She wasn’t here to be quiet.
There wasn’t an iota of light in the hanger—Smoke Knights were expected to see just fine in the dark, after all—but even still the clanks’ pearly skin was visible. All shut off for the night, they were effectively metal statues, three floors tall and as stern and majestic as one would expect from the army of the Storm King.
Violetta was here to test that last component of the equation.
She walked until she judged she was about halfway down the line then stopped, facing the clanks. They stared back impassively, stories above her head. She cleared her throat—another echo.
“Um…turn on!” she called.
The shout fell flat in the darkness, nothing to the mighty statues.
“Turn on!” she repeated more loudly, firm and clear as an elocution lesson.
Still nothing happened. Violetta’s shoulders started to fall, and her fists bunched in the loose fabric of her trousers.
Veilchen appeared again at her elbow. “Lord Mondarev must not be as finished as he claim,” he consoled. He eyed the clanks with practical consideration. “Or do they need to be turned on first?”
Violetta shook her head. “That wouldn’t be much use in an emergency. No, this is Tarvek.” She chewed her lip, meaning several things at once. First, her cousin wasn’t the one who made mistakes. Though false promises, sure, but not generally to her. No, this was…
“Oh!” She stepped forward, pulling herself up to her best height and cupping her hands around her mouth. Channeling every Romantic, overdramatic bone in her body. “AWAKE!”
As one, the clanks lit up, their skin softly, luminescent, and their eyes bright and fierce. The crowns and fleur de lis shone golden. There was a grinding like thunder as their internal mechanism all came to life at once, and each moved one foot sideways to stand at something more battle-ready than frozen attention. Violetta knew she only imagined the mountain quiver as two dozen giant metal figures stepped at once, but she imagined it all the same.
“Oh wow, Tarvek,” she breathed.
She glanced back to find Veilchen looking satisfactorily impressed as well—that is, his eyes were a little wide, and he was still as if on the verge of flight. Violetta grinned, and turned back to her army.
Simple commands. “Turn left!” she shouted, trying to sound authoritative.
As one they turned ninety degrees, a storm of growling gears and blazing armor.
“Turn right! Ready to fire!”
The clanks turned to face her again, raising their left arms, levers ratcheting as a faint glow grew in the base of each cannon. The entire second row took a step to the left, targeting between their fellows. Violetta stared into the burning muzzles, aimed meters and meters above her head, and jumped up and down with a glee entirely unbefitting a princess of seventeen years. Tarvek complained about being the Order’s odd-jobs spark, but he sure used getting his hands into every project they had. Sure, he’d almost certainly set it up so he could override her commands, but…
She almost regretted not wearing a gown—she would have spun the skirts out in delight. “Ha! We’re so going to kick Martellus’s butt!”
Tarvek was so deep in his work, he barely noticed the tapping on his leg. If he combined the acedomenathol with iambic acid, the result would….It was several coded letters into the message before he started even subconsciously interpreting.
He was out of the lab with his toolkit before Violetta stopped sending, before the vials he’d been holding hit the floor. Though there was no way he could make it to Sturmhalten any sooner than dawn. The Girl! Now?