Shadow of the War Machine
“THIS PLAN IS ILL CONCEIVED.” The dark streets of London flew past the windows of the carriage, illuminated by the brief flashes of light given off by the streetlamps. I glanced at David. “And I wish you’d informed me of it at an earlier hour.”
It was difficult to stay on the shallow seat as we bumped and jolted along. I didn’t know why I had chosen to trust David. My reputation was at stake, and as we careened closer and closer to the docks, I feared my life was as well. There were too many risks.
“How else do you propose we discover the whereabouts of your grandfather?” David leaned back against the hard seat
of a coach decidedly beneath his usual standard as an earl. In truth, I suspected David had bought a used cab off the street. I also questioned the sanity of his driver as the vehicle lurched over a cluster of broken stones in the worn streets.
As for his question, I had no answer, and that was the only reason he had convinced me to join him on this escapade. My grandfather had gone missing four years ago. Then my parents both died in a fire in our clock shop on Oxford Street. It was the greatest tragedy of my life. And later I learned it had been no accident.
Only then had I discovered that my entire family was part of a secret society of inventors, the Secret Order of Modern Amusementists. I had now joined their ranks as an apprentice. But being an apprentice didn’t help my situation if it couldn’t restore my grandfather to me.
I knew who was behind it all. He had nearly kidnapped me at the end of the summer but had escaped into the docks. With the help of David’s men, we had tracked the ships he had used to escape.
Tonight we hunted the man in the clockwork mask.
“Both the ships are in dock?” I asked.
“Yes, and I’ve taken measures to ensure that the crews are distracted. We can search both ships if we’re quick and
careful.” David’s normally sly expression turned serious. The light from the lamp swung, making the shadows play across his face. His blue eyes seemed to catch the light and glow in the darkness.
There was an energy in him, and an excitement, and I worried he was caught in the thrill of the adventure and not nearly fearful enough of the consequences. At one time I had felt as he did, as if all of this were a daring challenge, like a game, or something from a storybook. However, I had learned that this story could cost my life, or worse, the life of someone I loved.
But David was an earl and unaccustomed to fear. His gilded life seldom handed him evidence that he was less than invincible, either in body or reputation. I, on the other hand . . .
I didn’t need to be killed to have everything I cared for stripped away from me. All it would take would be a single person witnessing me in the company of the young earl, unescorted in the middle of the night in a part of town known for its seedy taverns and worse.
I had disguised myself as well as I could in a simple black servant’s dress and wool cap with a thin petticoat that wouldn’t impede my movement and a black shawl I could use
to cover my head if I had to. I would be well concealed in the shadows and hopefully unnoticeable.
We rolled to a stop.
My innards dropped to my toes as David leapt out and offered me a hand. “My lady?”
I took his hand even as I admonished him. “I’m not a lady, David.”
“Not yet,” he murmured as my boots hit the uneven cobblestones. I really wished he wouldn’t presume so much.
The coachman leapt down from his high seat, and I recognized his gangly limbs immediately.
“Michael! What are you doing here?” I rushed forward and took his hands. The ginger boy tipped his hat and smiled.
“Preserving your reputation. David didn’t trust his driver not to talk. Couldn’t have you expelled from the Academy for this—I fear my marks might suffer.” His easygoing smile flashed in the dim light. No wonder the horses hadn’t been handled properly. Michael was no coachman. He was a fellow apprentice and like a brother to me.
“You are intelligent enough without me,” I said.
“That is up for debate,” another voice called with a distinct Indian accent. I turned quickly to a trio of young men emerging from the shadows.
I recognized two more of my friends, Manoj and Noah, immediately, but the third surprised me. “Samuel?”
We hadn’t exactly been cordial. Our relationship was fraught at best. He gave me a nod and gave another to David. “I’ve come to make amends. My family has much to repay, and if I can help restore your grandfather to the Order, I will.”
Noah and Manoj looked at me as if they were uncertain whether or not they should trust him. Samuel’s father had nearly ripped the Order in two. If he wished to restore his family’s reputation, it was going to be a difficult road. But I knew what pressures he faced, and I felt for him in spite of how poorly he’d treated me. “Thank you for coming.”
“So, where do we stand according to the plan?” David asked, naturally falling into his role as a born leader.
“The ships are deserted,” Manoj informed us. “All the crews are taking advantage of the free-flowing gin across the way, thanks to the Strompton coffers.”
“Samuel and I are taking the watch,” Michael said. “If we stay on the corner here, and the one there, we can keep anyone from leaving the pubs or stealing the horses.” He pulled up his sleeves, and I gave him a sidelong glance.
“Don’t start any fights on my behalf,” I said.
He gave me a wicked grin. “Don’t worry, Meg. We’ll be gentlemen.”
“Noah, you and Manoj have The Triumphant. Meg and I will search Méduse,” David said. “We have only twenty minutes before we meet back here.”
“Do we need to steal the proof?” Manoj asked.
“No, we only need a name. Search for passenger manifests or a ship’s log. Note any passengers’ names and the dates,” David explained.
A shudder passed through me. “Remember that the man in the clockwork mask is an unrepentant murderer. Beware of anyone with a covered face. He may hide his mask in public. Take these.” I handed my friends small brass globes. I had invented them as part of an alarm system at my shop after the man in the mask had planted a bomb in my home. “Turn the top half a quarter turn, then press both halves together. It will let out a loud wail.”
“Good luck,” Michael said as we dispersed from the alley.
David pulled me along by the hand as we snuck through the shadows toward a slippery gangplank. Though the stench of the river wasn’t as fierce as it could be during the heat of summer, the sickly air hung around in the cold mist. We
scuttled aboard the French trading ship like the rats scampering along the mooring lines.
“We should have told Oliver,” I whispered. Oliver was older, and a mentor to me. I felt so exposed, and almost like I was betraying his trust by pursuing the man in the clockwork mask. But I was tired of hiding and waiting to be snatched away—or worse, killed. Sometimes in the moments just before I woke, I felt as if I were locked in a steamer trunk again, trapped and helpless. I couldn’t live this way for the rest of my life. “Oliver knows what is at stake.”
David glanced furtively right and left before ducking behind a stack of crates on the cluttered deck. “Oliver is headmaster of the Academy now. He’s bound by certain constraints. It’s not worth the risk. You’re too valuable.”
I let my tongue slip out to wet my lip. I wished I could trust that David only saw me as a friend. As it stood, I wondered at his words. Yes, I was the last of the Whitlocks, and our family name was now the most powerful in the Order, but my personal value within the Order was up for debate, unless one saw me in only a single light.
I was a valuable woman to marry so long as my name remained unsullied. Any man who did marry me would
increase his standing among the Amusementists by an order of magnitude.
David put his finger to his lips and pulled me to the door of the cabin. He tried the latch. It was unlocked.
With caution we stole our way inside.
I nearly choked on the odor of mildew and stale rum. The cabin was a small affair, with a thick desk and some large cabinets and crates to one side. A weak lamp burned on the desk. I peeked through a shadowy doorway and into a dark bedroom.
“Meg, look here.” David attempted to hold a ledger to the lamp. I skimmed the words running down the page. It was a shipping log.
According to the ledger, the ship was taking on cargo in New Orleans, then delivering it to Le Havre in France. After that it would make frequent stops in London, without accounts for any cargo. “This doesn’t make any sense. What would they have to trade in London, and why isn’t the inventory accounted for? They seem to be unloading all their cargo in France. Are they smuggling?”
“I’m not sure,” David admitted.
I had a clever mind for numbers, and it didn’t take me long to line up the calendar presented in the ledger with the
known tragedies that had befallen me, including the day the man in the clockwork mask had escaped into the London docks. My throat felt dry. For every single date when I could confirm the presence of the man in London, this ship had been at the docks.
“This is the one.” My voice cracked as I said it. “He’s been traveling on this ship.”
“We need to find the manifest.” David and I were leafing through the papers on the desk when a loud snore broke the silence in the bedchamber behind us.
I froze. Then the slow heavy thumps of footsteps on the deck reverberated through the boards beneath my boots.
“Hide,” I whispered.
David wedged himself behind the stack of crates, while I desperately opened the cabinets. One was filled with shoddily stacked linens. I shoved them aside and pushed into the small cramped space I had created. The door wouldn’t fully shut, which terrified me. I could hear my heart pounding. It sounded as if it were echoing off the walls of the cabinet as a man in a dark coat passed in front of me.
“Clément! Wake up.” He grabbed something heavy and threw it at the wall. The crash felt like a physical blow, and my legs tightened. My toes curled with cramping fear. I knew
that voice. It was the man in the clockwork mask.
Whoever had been snoring choked on his own breath, then stumbled loudly into the room. “Oh, it’s you,” the captain moaned in French. “What is it you want? Did you finally acquire your precious package?”
The man in the clockwork mask shifted into my sight, though I could see only a narrow slice of the room through the gap. His entire face had been wrapped in a black cloth, save a slit for one good eye. I knew what lurked beneath the cloth. One side of the man’s face looked like a machine embedded in his flesh. The one time I had even seen his full face, I had been terrified and shocked, both because of the mask and the fact that he looked so familiar to me.
The man in the mask squeezed his fist closed. “Unfortunately, no. My quarry continues to elude me. However, I have something I must deliver. We sail on the tide.” The man rubbed the smallest finger on his right hand. The one I had broken during the summer. I felt suddenly as if I were in the box once more, trapped.
“If you have not forgotten, I am the captain here, and my crew is enjoying the night. We can sail tomorrow.”
The man reached out and grabbed the captain by the throat, then pulled him over the desk.
“Drunk or not, we sail on the tide.” He pushed the captain as he let go.
The captain wheezed and fell back. “Yes, monsieur.”
The man in the mask swept from the room, the long tail of his coat brushing against my cabinet. The captain let out a string of vulgarity before he, too, gathered his coat and stumbled out the door.
I wanted to burst from the cabinet immediately. I couldn’t breathe within it. I had to get out, escape. It was nearly impossible to wait. All my instincts screamed that I should leap out of the cabinet, but I didn’t know if the captain would return. I didn’t feel secure until we heard him shouting for his men from the docks. I opened the cabinet and spilled out onto the floor. David pushed out from behind the crates.
“We must leave here quickly. They’ll return any moment.” I grabbed my thin skirts and ran for the deck, with David close behind me.