A third Victoria has ascended the throne of a steam-driven country where enormous clockwork giants walk the streets and airships carry news of the Ottoman threat in the East.
In the wake of a calamity that engulfed all of Europe, Inspector Vanessa Hargreaves of Scotland Yard is given the dubious task of policing steamcraft crime. Along with flamboyant detective Arturo C. Adler, she stumbles upon a conspiracy to use a horrific plague in an effort to prevent war.
But even as dastardly forces converge upon her, our high-heeled detective struggles with her devotion to Queen and Country, and the shadows under the Union Flag grow ever deeper.
Can she put a stop to this new disaster before her country is devoured by a Spectre of War?
SPECTRE OF WAR is at once detective story, political intrigue and giant robot fantasy in a fabulous, international, and multicultural steampunk riot!
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The Chambermaid of Scotland Yard
Inspector Vanessa Hargreaves sighed, fidgeting at her Norwegian pine desk. Her straight-backed chair made an easy scapegoat for her discomfort. Eventually she picked up a lighter from one of the bundles of notes and photograms spread over the otherwise-neat workspace. It was one of the old flint wheel ones with a wick, none of the newfangled liquid apertures, and it caught every time. With her other hand, she held the letter out and watched as the open flame lapped up the sparse words.
Sorry, Vanessa, you're beautiful and a wicked good time, but I can't wait for you forever. I'll remember our night in Dover, how beautiful you looked silhouetted against the sunset, the smoke of the rail and the surf on our toes.
Her stomach gurgled, painfully. Bad beef? Not likely.
She'd absconded from seeing Martin four times — twice for work, once for her ward, and the last because she couldn't bear to tell him the experience was par for the course. He ought to write a book about it: Seeing Vanessa Hargreaves, a Fruitless, Lonely Endeavor. Martin was a good-looking one, too, just an inch shorter, so she was always looking into his mussed night-clerk hair. A good shag.
Worse still, he had been nice.
She simply hadn't the time. Two days without sleep left her arms slack in their white cotton sleeves and her stomach prone to upset. Her office was small, and shelves of intelligence and constables' reports crowded in on either elbow. By the light of her wall lamp, her flaxen strands glimmered where they escaped her neat bun. Her corset's cheap stays dug into her back, even though she'd made it a point of fashion and progressivism to wear it on the outside, loose enough so she could avoid a stabbing if she saw one coming. Work was a weight that wrung the blood from her brow, but not one she could easily place aside.
The ghosts of profanity constantly haunted her lips. But she just let the flames lick closer and closer until the bite touched her copper rings. Then she opened her hand and let the wisp be sucked out the window.
The only consolation was the view. Victoria Embankment was a bustle of steaming hansoms, their lights rivaled by the boats on the Thames and the zeppelins drifting by overhead. Sometimes Hargreaves liked to sit on the benches and watch ladies and good-looking gentlemen come drifting by, cycling in the brisk evening. But not tonight. Tonight's entertainment consisted of overdue reports and a plethora of cases. She picked at them halfheartedly. As true night came to the streets below rattling traps and horse-drawn carriages replaced the cycling folk. The steam engine and clocked equine were the preferred mode of travel; they were symbols of wealth and power clopping past on steel hooves, their flanks liveried to match their owners' elegant greatcoats and modish bustles. Night blurred all the handsome lines of the vessels now, and every conveyance glittered, a constellation of gliding stars.
After five minutes, she cast aside the report with a sigh of frustration. She didn't care what people called them, automata, gears, or steam golems, to her they still looked like Mordemere's terrible kobolds, with their scissor claws.
Hargreaves' thoughts drifted back to her adventure on the Huckleberry, together with the reckless Albion Clemens. Apart from a chance sighting in the paper, she hadn't seen any of them since. Just as well — their airship had flown under no banner, which made all of them pirates. If they hadn't also saved all of Europe, the crew would have been liable to be hanged, despite their status as cult heroes in the back rooms of pubs, picture houses, and penny dreadfuls. They had stopped a madman from ... what exactly? Hargreaves wasn't sure. Destroying the world? From the reports scattered before her, the world had not changed an iota. Far from being saved, it seemed the world was having a grand old time destroying itself.
It had only been two years. It was two years since steamcraft mogul Valima Mordemere opened the door to a Copernican revolution. Though Mordemere's magical machine, the Nidhogg, had been lost over Eastern Europe, the alchemic madman had already sold a number of weapons to the militaristic Ottoman Empire. Much reduced by the advent of airships choking their trade, the former crossroads empire was mustering to retake its former glory. The Knights of the Round were Pax Britannia's only edge. Still, Her Majesty would have to prepare for things to go pear-shaped.
The blueprints of Mordemere's clanker armor, his kobolds, and various other strange inventions were on file in his old atelier in Leyland, and her boys were making a killing from the shadow of the Ottomans looming over the horizon. In the London Times at her elbow, Vanessa Hargreaves could just make out the adverts for Doctor Adams' Miraculous Fuel Additive and Professor Dahl's Spectacular Coal-Saving Spirits. She threw the paper aside, only for it to land with Elric Blair's latest novella glaring at her from an ad. The air pirates were up to their old tricks, it seemed.
In a word, the world was changing. People were finally selling their horses and filling their stables with clean-puffing sedans and mild-mannered steel steeds. London's air was cleaner than it ever had been, but it was not without a cost. The coming of the automata reminded everyone the wonders at hand were wartime steamcraft. Those iron giants, two stories tall and fearsomely strong, were essential to the rebuilding of Westminster and the other parts of Europe devastated by Mordemere. With them lumbering about even in civilian capitals, it was believed the Ottomans dared not infringe on the West.
The automata were also a double-edged sword. Clever criminals could overpower the Metropolitan Police Service simply by possessing one of these large, powerful machines. Despite the Ministry of the Interior's adamant insistence on strict controls, one Leyland automata had already been involved in a sensational robbery. Highgate Bank's steel vault had been emptied a month ago, the culprit making off with more than a hundred thousand pounds of notes and coin. The Highgate bank job had been done with punctures of the vault's hinges, then ripped away with incredible force. It was an unprecedented and hence unprepared-for event. Constables arriving on scene reported the managers simply stood there, staring in a befuddled manner at their impenetrable steel door lying on the bank's marble floor like a crumpled toffee wrapper.
Hargreaves drank deeply of her cold tea. It helped, but not by much. The night was muggy, the beautiful metropolitan cityscape in a Turkish bath. Sweat dripped down her graceful neck and pooled unladylike in her bosom, steaming up the new badge at her shirt pocket — the badge that read Scotland Yard, Metropolitan Division Six.
"Your Majesty, Your Majesty, Your bloody Majesty," Hargreaves blasphemed casually, a daughter bemoaning a mother popular at the pub.
The fact of the matter was, Her Majesty Queen Alexandrina Edwardia Victoria III was directly responsible for the mountain of work all about Hargreaves. The queen had commissioned MD6 after the Calamity Over Europe to address steamcraft crime. What it meant, in practice, was Hargreaves had become the chambermaid of Scotland Yard. Whatever refuse the other units could connect with a newfangled steam engine or automata misuse was directed to her for disposal. Every cuckoo clock that sprung into someone's eye was shoved at MD6. It was all she could do to document the cases, and dole out what enforcement she could under the sorely lacking framework of British law. If she could just hang one perpetrator, she would feel a bit better about her job.
A pile of documents shifted on her desk, and Hargreaves pounced on the stack of criminal case files to keep them from toppling. When they were straightened again, a fresh London Times article lay revealed, earmarked that very morning. She cursed — this should have been brought to her attention right away.
The story read: Witnesses at Paddington reported the arrival of the ten-thirty Montmartre Express, a fifteen-car passenger train from Paris, sans one car. When the Gallic engine glided through the glass-and-iron wall of the station, only the platform and wheels remained of a missing car, leaving a gap where Scotland Yard's vigilance ought have been.
"My word, what a lashing," Hargreaves sighed. It represented an odious amount of monetary damages, and bore all the marks of a golem crime. The French insurance companies had been quick to pay, but not without a smirk tangible in their telegraphed paperwork. France did not as yet possess automata craftsmen, although their engines were excellent for the purpose. The spite was thicker than Vacherin Mont D'or.
Unfortunately the case would have to wait — it was too late to call on Temple Mills, where the victimized engine had been sent. Suddenly aware of the dwindling embers, the inspector yearned for a comfortable fire. Perhaps a good book to take her mind off the case. Thankfully, there was something almost as good nearby, so she grabbed her riding coat and goggles to go to it.
Stepping into the smoothly tiled, utilitarian corridors of the Yard, she took the back stair and descended into the bowels of the building. The smoothly plastered walls became raw iron pilings and mortared brick. Damp dripped from every crack in the wall. This close to the Thames, it could not be helped. The training rooms were down here. With guilt, she remembered she hadn't been keeping up with her judo instructor's sparring sessions.
Past the padded practice rooms and locker areas, she finally reached her destination. Hargreaves breathed deeply. The scent of lift compound took her back to the refreshing showers aboard the Huckleberry. Camouflaged behind an old archive door, Scotland Yard had secretly hollowed out two levels of concrete and pipe. Some cheeky monkey had scribbled "You Must Be" on the office's temporary window plaque, over the mysterious anagram:
The inspector turned the tumblers to the clockworked lock, and opened the door to the cellar rooms.
"Oy, don't you be standin' there, lass!"
Hargreaves had to duck and roll in perfect, Yard-trained form, over her shoulder so her corset didn't break her back. Just in time — something enormous buried itself into the wall behind her ...For one madcap moment she wondered who had let a freight train into her department. But that notion dissipated as a cloud of mortar and dust blossomed, glinting here and there with the touch of chrome.
"Cid!" Hargreaves shouted, but the grizzled figure stuffed in a set of work overalls was already bumbling over to the disheveled inspector.
"I was just patching her fanny and she up and waltzed away from me, Inspector. Blasted heap of junk," the gruff old mechanic said, one thick hand massaging away a stitch in his side. He looked through a dense, salty beard and tinted goggles to behold a foot-long wrench in his other hand, as if he had forgotten to put it down. "These tinkers think they've the measure of Mordemere, and stuck all sorts of rubbish in this big fella. The madman's forgotten more than they ever knew!"
"Peace, Tanner, peace," the inspector soothed. She gently nudged the aged mechanic away from the twitching piece of machinery embedded in the cinder wall. Two stories of whistling, hissing steamworks continued to scrape green paint and sparks from itself until, quite suddenly, a billowing cloud of steam vented into the lofty chamber. The titan ground itself to a halt, one steel claw coming to rest against the wall.
"From the case on Friday?" the inspector asked. "I thought we were scrapping it for parts."
"We were, Maman, only Hallow saw ze big one had a tougher chassis."
The explanation came from behind Hargreaves, in the form of a raven-haired youth in dirty work clothes. Her grubby linen skirt ended at the knees, where slender copper sculpture took over for the girl's shins. In places, Hargreaves could see completely through the tubing and fluted metal. Even after two years, she sometimes caught herself staring at the slender French girl, thinking about the day she pulled Cezette Louissaint from the belly of an abomination.
Cezette had been reborn covered in ichor and maimed from the knees down. She had been small, seeming at first to be no more than nine or ten, but after two years of decent food and clean baths, the girl had blossomed into a young woman, and now looked closer to fifteen or sixteen. If asked, the girl couldn't tell for sure. She had spent too long locked away before her transformation to know.
Cezette did not seem to mind her predicament. If anything, she was fond of showing off her clockwork legs with elaborate ballet extensions and pirouettes, albeit only to the crew down in this garage. There was a necessity to sequester Cezette underneath Scotland Yard and off the London streets, lest she be kidnapped for her beautiful new limbs. Steamcrafts were worth a lot in money and innovation these days. Cezette had taken this isolation in stride, but sometimes Hargreaves felt she was stifling the young lady. Besides the regular tutoring Hargreaves provided, Cezette expressed a distinct interest in automata. In that spirit the inspector had arranged a place for her in M.A.D. working with the best mechanic Hargreaves had ever known. The girl had taken to the machinery like a duck to water.
"I did try to stop the child and madman," said a reedy male voice joining the discussion. "But I think I set them off instead." The pasty complexion of Jean Hallow appeared like a ghost out of the cavernous dark. Born of an Englishman and some species of white bread, he seemed indigenous to the caves, part of it.
Hargreaves had found Jean in a dusty records room. She had been investigating a larceny case at the start of her new appointment. Jean Hallow had, uncannily, produced a trio of unsolved robbery cases off the top of his head. From those files they had deduced the locked room cases had been accomplished through the strategic deployment of street urchins, not some elaborate engine or apparatus. They fit much better through the chimneys, were cheaper to acquire, and were easily replaced when they died of groin growths.
Hargreaves had requisitioned Jean Hallow's service at her earliest convenience. With one of the Yard's difference engines at his disposal, the archivist was invaluable at staying on top of the endless stream of rubbish from the other offices. Invaluable, if a bit private. Hargreaves did not care to pry into the man's affairs. He had plenty to teach Cezette and that was all that mattered.
Hargreaves constantly found herself grinning at the motley crew. Cezette Louissaint, Cid Tanner, Jean Hallow. Here was the Yard's newest section, the Mobile Automata Division, tasked with maintaining and deploying heavy steam support to MD6. Despite the overwhelming necessity for automata in all sections, the top brass had deemed the entire department Hargreaves' jurisdiction, deferring to Her Majesty's judgment.
"What have I said about firing up the gears when I'm not around? You lot are lucky it's one in the morning, or I'd have the Commissioner down here cracking some heads. Bloody great shock, you'd think it were Mordemere back from the dead!" shouted Hargreaves. She breathed deeply, trying to slow her heart. Her aitches were showing. Her stomach twitched, unsettled.
"Sorry, Maman," Cezette said sheepishly. "But there's so little to do 'ere! Jean brings me all ze books I want, but it is très difficile to be not two blocks from la bibliothèque. If I were allowed to stroll Hyde Park I might not feel so ... existential!"
"Good word," said Hallow, but quickly turned away when Hargreaves shot daggers out of her eyes.
Cezette's tutor was right to feel proud, but Hargreaves didn't need his cheek. Besides, she felt guilty about not being able to allow the youth to wander just anywhere due to her valuable legs. Cezette had been under the thrall of the alchemic madman Mordemere. Who knew what secrets still lay beneath her skin, behind her eyes? M.A.D. seemed as good a place as any for the precocious child. At any rate the automata kept her stimulated ... It was a costly diversion, Hargreaves saw now, but she didn't have a better answer for her ward yet.
Excerpted from "Spectre of War"
Copyright © 2017 Kin S. Law.
Excerpted by permission of City Owl Press.
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