The third installment of my winning entry for The Sandy writing contest. Find part 2 here.
As Iris approached the mahogany desk in the Captain’s quarters, Rachel placed the ring and confiscated dagger on its surface. At the sight of the ring, Iris clasped her hands tightly behind her back in an effort to restrain her excited grasp.
Danton strode in with his usual swagger, hands deep in the pockets of his brown, pinstriped trousers, tweed jacket swaying loosely about his waist. At ten paces from her desk, the Master-At-Arms came to a dead stop, his eyes fixed on the hilt of the knife she had taken from the fight.
“Danton?” Rachel said, but he seemed not to hear her. “Monsieur DuSalle?”
Iris laid a hand on his arm and his entire body recoiled. A trained killer’s reflex tightened his face and shoulders, but only briefly. He had not lost himself in thought so much as to lash out at a friend, but the Frenchman’s knuckles were white in his clenched fists.
“Apologies, Capitaine.” He seated himself in one of the guest chairs but remained distracted by what lay on the desk.
In the ten years she had known him, rarely had she seen him react to anything with such obvious hatred. With a quick calculation, she decided she would ask him what he knew of the weapon, but not right away. She would do better to let its presence and possible meanings rest with him for a few moments more.
Iris lowered herself into the chair next to Danton. He continued to watch the knife as though it were a coiled snake.
“You are aware of my regular meetings with Mrs. Tweed in Grimsby, yes?” Rachel asked. They nodded in acknowledgment. “Danton, you are likely unaware she was the woman who cared for me as a child while my father was away at sea. She was kind and thoughtful, though not always supportive of my chosen profession.” She stopped as pieces of memories flitted at the edge of her awareness, threatening her composure. “She was a very dear friend.”
“Was?” Iris asked, worry creasing her forehead. “Rachel, what has happened?”
Ignoring the question for now, she continued. “This ring,” Rachel jabbed a finger at the object in question, “is not a mere accessory. I discovered this shortly after I boarded this morning. What it does exactly, I do not know. I am not at all sure I want to know. When I realized it was one of these objects you seem to have such an affinity for, Iris, I immediately set out to return it to Mrs. Tweed.”
Iris opened her mouth to speak, but Rachel held up a hand to stop her. “In this case I was not inclined to hang on to it to turn a profit. I cannot tell you why, but I have the distinct feeling that this is not one of those innocent trinkets. That sort is positively commonplace. In the five seconds I held this ring between my fingers, its power was undeniable. While true that I hold no love for things capable of Aether Manipulation, the feelings I get from this one…” She shuddered, remembering the strange sound and stench in the air. “No, Iris. Not for this one. Selling it to the highest bidder is out of the question. And no,” she sighed as the First Mate reached a hand forward, “you may not have it. Not until I know exactly what it is and what it does.”
The disappointment was evident on Iris’s face, but Rachel would not concede. She generally overlooked her First Mate’s trading in illegal magical items, but they’d never come across anything so obviously dangerous before. It was because of items like this ring that these objects had been rendered contraband by her Majesty Queen Victoria in 1840. In the forty-one years since, governments worldwide followed suit and became intolerant of any trade in such artifacts, even if the object in question were completely benign.
“When I attempted to return the ring, there were four gentlemen already there, questioning Mrs. Tweed. One of them used this to pin her to the building while the others got out their clubs.” She flicked the dagger in disgust. “From what I overheard before the violence began, they were looking for this.” She indicated the ring, but her gaze was trained on Danton now. “They did their damage before I could intervene, and by the time I’d secured the situation… it was too late.” She closed her eyes, fighting to contain her anger and sadness. “Before she died, Mrs. Tweed told me that this ring had belonged to my mother, and that I must keep it safe.”
Iris sucked in a breath. The First Mate’s honor would never allow her to ask for the ring now, especially if it held sentimental value for her friend. Rachel shared a meaningful look with her. They understood each other perfectly.
“So that is what I know.” Rachel studied them each in turn, brushing a lock of dark brown hair from her face. “I look to you to help me fill in some of the blanks here.”
Iris said nothing as she pondered. Danton looked like he would rather crawl out of his skin to leave the room than discuss the items before him. “You are a fool, Monsieur DuSalle, if you think I will believe you know nothing of at least one of these articles.”
“I…” He paused, then seemed to resign himself. “You would do best to toss that.” He pointed to the knife. “And I would put as much distance between yourself and that ring as you possibly can.”
“And why is that?” Rachel would not let the matter drop. She did not like being in the dark with regard to her enemies. With a quick motion, she snapped up the dagger and weighed it in her hand, still scrutinizing Danton. “Who, precisely, does this belong to, why did they beat an old woman to death, and why is it that this little piece of metal is of such interest to them?”
“You think I have all the answers to your questions?” Danton squirmed in the chair.
She could see he had no desire to discuss this matter. She did not relish putting him in this position, but she had no alternatives before her. “If you do not have them all, I suspect that what you do know will go a long way in determining the rest.”
He passed his hand over his face wearily, stretching out the aging skin as it pulled downwards. It was times like these that his almost fifty years were truly visible. The wrinkles around his eyes and mouth looked a little deeper, and his dark hair, barely touched with silver at the temples, seemed to fade. “That knife belongs to a group known as the Brotherhood. When the angle is correct, you can see the insignia when the light hits the very end of the hilt.”
Rachel twirled it around and studied the weapon. On the silver, ball-shaped end of the ebony shaft was a crest. She only caught a glimpse of it at first, but as she turned and twisted the dagger more carefully, she was able to study the seal. It was very simple, being only a few words of Latin engraved in an unbroken circle, surrounding a heart with a bolt of lightning piercing it. “Evinco, in toto, cum cor et sententia unum,” she read.
“To conquer, entirely, with one heart and one way of thinking,” he translated, saving her from having to ask.
She set the blade down and waited patiently for his explanation. She never pushed Danton to talk about his past, as much out of respect for him as to avoid talking about her own, but it seemed now she had no choice. If he weren’t forthcoming, she would have to force him. She hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
When he spoke, his accent thickened, the emotion in his story bringing him closer to his French roots. “Back in my youth, I knew my father’s family had ties to them. It seemed a point of fact, rather than anything out of the ordinary. My grandfather was always encouraging me to take their pledge, as he and my uncles had done. I had no interest in causes, so I avoided it for a long time.
“When my parents died and the estate was left to me, there was an assumption I would step into my expected duties. Again I avoided it by making excuses about being too busy with the management of family affairs, and, soon after, settling in with my new wife, Sabine. We had only been married a year before our son was born.
“One evening, as I sat rummaging through some old diaries of my father’s, I came across a strange sketch. It depicted a hidden panel to a safe I had not known existed. Naturalement, I had to investigate, lest there be anything of value I had to account for in the estate holdings. Sabine, the curious thing she was, was at my side the whole time. When I was finally able to open the safe, the things we found inside were not what we expected. I cannot accurately describe everything it contained, but Sabine informed me that all the objects were highly charged with Aether. I had no care for such things, but it was a fascinating subject for my wife. I saw no harm in it, and left her to do as she would with them.
“As you might imagine, this was not a wise choice on my part, but lovely as she was I could deny her nothing. In fact, I had all but put it from my mind when the Brotherhood came calling one evening. There were three of them, dressed head to toe in black, but only one of them spoke. He said I could either join the Brotherhood or hand over the items my family had been charged with keeping. I promptly told him I had no intention of doing either, to which he said no more, and the men departed.
“Time passed, and I forgot the incident.” He sank down in the chair wearily. “One of my uncle’s shops had been struggling, and I went to see if I might lend some assistance in his efforts to save it. It was only a few hours away, so I saw no reason not to go. Five days later, as my carriage passed through the outskirts of town on my return, fire brigades rushed past, nearly running us off the road. I suspected then what I would find when I reached my address, but I refused to believe it.” He swallowed hard. “The flames were visible for blocks before I came to my home. I watched helplessly as men tried to douse the great bonfire. The house and everything… everyone… in it was consumed. There were later, unconfirmed, reports of shouts and breaking glass before the fire started, but nothing could ever be proven. The day I buried my family, I received a telegram thanking me for the return of the items to the Brotherhood.”
Rachel closed her eyes and leaned her chin against her entwined fingers. “My deepest regrets to you, Danton. I did not wish to bring back forgotten pain.”
“Your sympathies are noted, Mon Capitaine, but do not confuse my reluctance to relate the story with having forgotten it.” He did not meet her gaze and his voice was cold. “I remember it every moment of every day. It is why I have trained so hard and for so long to achieve proficiency with weapons. It is so when I meet one of those bastards, I can kill him with the mercy they denied my wife and child.”
Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Then you will have no objection to killing any one of them on sight, should they cross our path in the future?”
A grim smile crossed his mouth. “On the contrary. It will be a nice change to have your permission.”
Rachel’s focus returned to the ring. “Would you have any insight as to why they would want this particular piece?”
Danton shook his head. “Apologies, but no. All the documentation I had on anything to do with the Brotherhood was reduced to ash. There is very little I recall about the journals, although…” he trailed off and leaned closely to the desk. “I do remember seeing a series of sketches that seemed of particular significance to my father. It was some sort of machine, but the various elements were not identified in the drawings. Could be they were still building the thing or searching for parts.”
Rachel looked at the First Mate, who quietly contemplated everything they had heard. “Iris, is there anything you might be able to add? Or perhaps some contact you might know that would be of use?”
Iris looked pensive. “If you don’t mind, could I examine the ring for a moment? It will help to discover what we are dealing with.”
After a brief hesitation, Rachel acquiesced. The First Mate did not pick up the bauble, instead letting her hand hover above it as she concentrated, eyes closed. Rachel and Danton waited in silence for her verdict.
“Very strange,” Iris murmured. “I cannot determine the elemental alignment of this object. However, its power is incomparable to anything I’ve ever felt before. I agree with your assessment that it is dangerous.”
Rachel frowned. Everything about this ring made her uneasy. “And as for anyone who might know more?”
Iris cocked her head, as though paging through her mental list of possible sources. “There might be one…” She trailed off. “Yes, there is one person who might have the knowledge we seek. It will require a trip to Tibet, however.”
“The monastery?” Rachel asked.
Iris nodded. “My teacher at Zhuqing should be able to tell us more.”
“And you feel this is our most viable option?” Rachel watched the stubborn look settle onto Iris’s face.
“I know it is. And yes, I do realize the risk we face in heading that direction.”
Rachel looked at Danton, who only shrugged with upturned palms, indicating a lack of alternative ideas. With a sigh, she decided. “Very well then. We’ll set a course for Singapore after our stop in La Rochelle, and pray Yong Wu doesn’t object to our surprise visit.”
END OF EXCERPT. HOPE YOU ENJOYED THE SAMPLE!