The Red Plague Affair tb&ca-2Lilith Saintcrow
The Red Plague Affair
( The Bannon & Clare Affairs - 2 )
The service of Britannia is not for the faint of heart—or conscience...
Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime in service to Queen Victrix, has a mission: to find the doctor who has created a powerful new weapon. Her friend, the mentath Archibald Clare, is only too happy to help. It will distract him from pursuing his nemesis, and besides, Clare is not as young as he used to be. A spot of Miss Bannon's excellent hospitality and her diverting company may be just what he needs.
Unfortunately, their quarry is a fanatic, and his poisonous discovery is just as dangerous to Britannia as to Her enemies. Now a single man has set Londinium ablaze, and Clare finds himself in the middle of distressing excitement, racing against time and theory to find a cure. Miss Bannon, of course, has troubles of her own, for the Queen's Consort Alberich is ill, and Her Majesty unhappy with Bannon's loyal service. And there is still no reliable way to find a hansom when one needs it most...
The game is afoot. And the Red Plague rises.
The Red Plague Affair
(The second book in the Bannon and Clare series)
A novel by Lilith Saintcrow
To the strangers
I regret to inform the Reader that I have, as they say, played fast and loose with History. Being a subjective wench in several regards, History did not seem to mind, but some who peruse these books may. I can only say that whatever errors and inaccuracies are contained herein, they are for the most part lovingly and carefully chosen; any that are not, are the regrettable result of cracks and defaults that occur even in the best Research For The Purposes Of Almost-Historical Fiction, and the fault of Your Ob’t Servant, namely, the Humble Author.
And now, my best and most faithful darlings, my Readers, let me welcome you once again into Londinium, where the smoke rises, the sorcery glitters, and the clockworks thrum…
Not How Things Are Done
I am too bloody old for this.
Archibald Clare spat blood and surged upward. He gave the struggling fellow opposite him two quick jabs to the head, hoping to calm the situation somewhat. Foul knee-deep semiliquid splashed, dark as sin and smelly as the third circle of Hell. Clare gained his footing, unwilling to deduce what deep organic sludge his boots were slipping in, and retched painlessly. Blood from his broken nose, trickling down the back of his throat, was making his stomach decidedly unhappy.
Where is that blasted Italian?
He had no worry to spare for Valentinelli. For Clare strongly suspected he had other problems, especially if what his faculties – sharpened by coja and burning like a many-sided star of logic and deduction inside his skull – were telling him was truly so. If, indeed, the man in the long academician’s gown struggling in Clare’s fists, spluttering wildly and half-drowned, was not Dr Francis Vance…
… Clare would not only perhaps have quite a bit of explaining to do, but would also have been bested again by the sodding criminal bastard.
The man in Clare’s grasp ceased thrashing quite so frantically. Since he was being held under some of the foulest sewage drained nightly into the Themis, it was not so amazing. However, Clare judged that his opponent was about to drown, and further judged his own faculties were not stunned by the knock on the skull he’d taken earlier that night. Which made his opponent a potentially valuable source of information from whence to deduce Dr Vance’s whereabouts and further plans.
Besides, drowning a man in shite was not, as Emma Bannon would say archly, how things were done.
Now why should I think of her? Clare freed the obstruction from his throat with a thick venomous cough, wished he hadn’t because the reek was thick enough to chew, and dragged the false Vance up from a watery grave.
Choking, spluttering words more fit for a drover or a struggling hevvymancer than the man of quality Dr Vance purported to be, Clare’s bespattered opponent hung in his narrow fists like wet washing. Clare’s chest was uncomfortably tight, a rock lodged behind his ribs, and he wheezed most unbecomingly as his trapped opponent tried gamely to sink a knee into the most tender spot of Clare’s anatomy.
Bad form, sir. So Clare took the man’s feet out from under him and dunked him again, boots slipping in the sludge coating whatever passed as a floor to this foul tunnel. The echoes held a peculiar quality that made Clare think this part of Londinium’s sewers were built of slowly crumbling brick, which made them not quite as ancient as those built by the Pax Latium. Newer often meant sturdier, but not always. The Latiums had believed in solid stone even for a cloaca on the benighted edge of their empire.
An encouraging observation. Or not. He hawked and spat again, grateful he could not see the colour of whatever bodily fluid he had just thrown into the dark. His face would be a mask of bruising upon the morrow.
He hauled the man forth from the sewerage again, and wished his sensitive nose would cease its operation for a few moments. “Be reasonable!” he barked, and the echoes gave him more of the dimensions of the tunnel. Quite large, really, and quite a volume of almost-fluid moving through its throat. His busy faculties calculated the rate of flow and returned the answer that Clare was lucky it was a slurry; he would have been swept off his feet and drowned had it been any thinner. “Vance! Where is he?”
The besmeared visage before him contorted; there was a sharp tooth-shattering crack. Another odd sound rose under the plashing and plinking. What little unhealthy gleaming there was showed a rather oddly coloured face under a stringy mass of black hair, a hooked nose decked with excrescence, and rotting teeth as the man Clare had been chasing howled with laughter.
Dear God, what—
The laughter swelled obscenely, and the man in his grasp went into convulsions. More filth splashed, and Clare swore with a ferocity that would perhaps have shocked even Miss Bannon, who could – he had discovered – let loose torrents of language that would make even the ill-tempered drabs of Whitchapel blush.
Poison tooth, broken open. Of course. And the reek blocked his olfactory capability, so he likely would not discover what variety of toxin in time to halt its progress.
Dr Vance was not above sacrificing a hireling or two. They were pawns, and life was cheap on Londinium’s underside. For the promise of a shilling, much worse than this murderous diversion had been committed – probably several times over tonight, in the depths of the city. Or even in the past hour.
Clare swore again, dragging the suddenly stiff body towards the tunnel’s entrance. He now remembered falling off the lip of the adjoining tunnel, splashing into this fetching summer garden of a place with a bone-rattling thump. The rock in his chest squeezed again, his left shoulder complaining as well. Perhaps he had strained it, in the excitement. He had chased the good Doctor from one end of Londinium to the other over the past two days, and at least denied the man his true prize – or so Clare hoped.
“Eh, mentale.” A flat, queerly accented voice, falling against the thick water without so much as an echo. “You are loud tonight.”
“Poisoned tooth!” Short of breath and patience, Clare was nevertheless gratified to find the Neapolitan assassin, as usual, did not ask useless questions. Instead, sleek dark Ludovico Valentinelli splashed into the muck a trifle more gracefully than his employer had, and relieved Clare of the burden of his erstwhile opponent. A different foul reek arose.
The man had voided his bowels. It was, Clare reflected, almost a cleaner stink. Certainly fresher, though hardly better.
He took in tiny sips of the fœtidness and choked. “Damn the man,” he managed. “Damn him!”
�Too late!” Ludo was, as usual, infuriatingly cheerful. “He has risen to Heaven, signore. Or to Hell, who knows?”
“B-bring the b-body.” Why were his teeth chattering? And his chest was even tighter, iron bands seizing his ribs. “D-dissection.”
Ludo found this funny. At least, he gave a gravelly chuckle. “You are certainly no Inquisitore.” He hauled the corpse to the entrance, heaving it up with little grace but much efficiency. Then, the assassin splashed back to Clare, who was suddenly much occupied in keeping upright. “Mentale?”
How strange. I cannot breathe. Not that I wish to, down here, and yet… “V-v-val—”
He was still seeking to speak Valentinelli’s name when the pain clove his chest and felled him. The thick darkness was full of things no gentleman would wish soiling his cloth, and Clare’s busy faculties, starlike, winked out.
A Duke to Chastise
Inside the stoic, well-bred walls of 34½ Brooke Street, Mayefair, Londinium, a quiet bustle of orderly activity was shattered.
“Strega!” a familiar voice bellowed, and Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, arrived at the bottom of the fan-shaped stairs in a silk-skirted rush. Mikal was there in his tails and snow-white shirt, easing a dead man’s lanky frame to the floor, and the smell hit her.
Dear God, what is this? Her half-unbuttoned dress whispered as she flicked her fingers, a cleansing charm rising with a Minor Word and scorching the air of her parquet-floored foyer. Her dark curls, almost-dressed in anticipation of Lady Winslet’s ball, tumbled about her face as she recognised the long, beaky-nosed corpse who, contrary to her expectations, drew in a rattling breath, clutching at his left shoulder and jerking his limbs in a decidedly odd fashion.
Next to him, pock-faced and hollow-eyed Ludovico Valentinelli was spattered with effluvium as well, but she had little time to wrinkle her nose.
Her other Shield, tall dark Eli, arrived at a run. He was further along in the dressing process than Mikal, since both of them were to attend her tonight. Still, his starched shirt was unbuttoned, and his jacket knocked askew.
Clare’s breath rattled. Angina. It is his heart, she realised, the spark of life in Archibald Clare’s body guttering like a candleflame in a draughty hall. “Fetch me crystali digitalia!” she barked, and Eli leapt to obey, taking the stairs three at a time. Her workroom would admit him, and he knew enough to take care with any experiments in progress – especially the æthericial commisterum. “Ludo, what on earth?” She did not expect him to answer.
“Strega—” The Neapolitan was almost beyond words, but Emma was already on her knees. She was barefoot, too – the ball would not start for some while yet, and she had intended to be only slightly late. Only fashionably so, as it were.
Later than her night’s quarry. It was always advisable to surprise one’s prey.
Mikal, his yellow irises bright in the foyer’s dimness, spared the Italian a single glance, bracing Clare’s shoulders.
A Major Word took shape on Emma’s lips, sliding free whole and bloody, red sparks of sorcery fountaining. The four plain silver rings on her left hand fluoresced as she pulled stored ætheric force from them, heavy garnet earrings swinging against her cheeks warming and sparking as well. She would, in all eventuality, need the force she was expending later tonight – but just at the moment, she did not care. Her right hand, a large bloody stone in its antique silver setting flashing on the second finger, clamped to Clare’s chest and her senses dilated. She located the source of the distress, feeling about inside his flesh with several nonphysical senses, and determination rose bitter-bright inside her.
Not your time yet, sir. Not while I am here to gainsay it.
The heart, determined muscle that it was, twitched under her ætheric pressure. She forced it into a rhythm that matched her own, exhaling sharply as her concentration narrowed. There was some damage, true, but all in all the organ had carried on gamely.
She was not surprised. He could be provokingly stubborn, her mentath. “The golden orb in the library,” she heard herself say, from very far away. “And three surdipped hawk feathers, Mikal. Bring.”
He did not protest at leaving her alone and distracted with Valentinelli, for once. Which was very good, because Clare’s tired heart began to resist the pressure of her will, and the sorceress was suddenly very occupied in keeping Archibald Clare’s blood moving at its required pace. At least her Discipline, Black though it was, gave her sufficient knowledge of the body’s processes to keep extinction from Clare’s doorstep in this instance.
I do hope his faculties have not been damaged. The flow of ætheric energy through her hands intensified, scorch-hot. The mentath, a logic-machine trapped in frail, weary flesh, coughed and convulsed again.
Strange, he looks old now. Perhaps it was merely that his colour was very bad. Then again, he was not a young man. He had been a vigorous thirty-three when she met him, but the years since had kept up their steady wearing away at him, drop by drop.
And Clare was congenitally unable to cease pursuing trouble of the most exotic sort. He was not engaged in a life that would permit much rest, and the wear and tear on his physicality was marked.
A chant rose to her lips, the language of Mending forced to her will – for her Discipline was not of the White branch, and Mending obeyed her only reluctantly. Still, she was Prime, and such a designation required a will that brooked very little bridle – and could force even the most reluctant branch of sorcery to its bidding.
A rolling sonorous roil, the entire house suddenly alive with rushing crackles, its population of indentured servants so used to the feel of tremendous sorcery running through its halls they hardly paused in their appointed duties.
Eli arrived, not breathless but with his dark hair disarranged. He measured out two tiny venom-purple crystals of the digitalia, dropped them into Clare’s fishworking mouth, and clamped the mentath’s jaw shut for a few seconds to make certain they would stay in. Then he settled back on his heels, watching the Sorceress Prime’s face, alight with crawling golden charter charms screening her flesh as she half sang, her evening dress pulled askew and white shoulders rising from a silver and blue froth of gauze and lace. The charter symbols, ancient runic patterns of Wheel and Plough, Stone and Blossom and others less willing to be named or pronounced, invaded Clare’s pasty skin as well, and finally Eli glanced up at the Neapolitan assassin. “Looks as if you’ve had rather a night of it.”
Ludovico shrugged. For once, he did not sneer, perhaps a mark of his agitation. Or perhaps his lips were sealed by the filth coating him, smeared on his face as if he had bathed in a foul-ditch. Under that mask, his colour was very bad indeed – not that his sallow, ratlike features would ever win regard for blooming beauty, indeed. At least the dirt masked the pox scars on his cheeks.
Mikal reappeared, yellow eyes alight as he shouldered his fellow Shield aside. In one hand he held an apricotsized globe of mellow gold; the three feathers, coated with a black tarry substance, shivered in his other. The sorceress, dark gaze full of a terrible blank presence, swayed slightly as she chanted. The charter symbols glowed crimson as they ran down her left side, clustering high under the ribs, crawling over the pale slope of one breast like a cupped hand.
A shudder ran through her swelling song, the mentath’s filth-caked bootheels drumming the parquet as his body thrashed, and Mikal leaned forward, offering the globe and the feathers.
Who knew what objects would be required for any act of sorcery? It was, by its very definition, an irrational art. Many sorcerers were magpies, since one could not tell what physical item – if any – would be required for a Work. Some Primes sniffed disdainfully and said the best sorcery was unanchored in the physical… but those of a practical bent understood that the ease of a Work moored in an object of reasonable permanence was in most cases a desirable thing.
Sorcery flashed, ætheric energy coalescing into the visible for a brief moment, and Ludovico Valentinelli crossed hims
elf, breathing a foul wondering curse in his native tongue. His pox-pocked face, under its splattering of black matter, was flour-pale.
The globe and feathers were gone, their physical matrices picked apart to provide fuel for the impossible. The chant relaxed, swimming bloodwarm through air suddenly prickling and vibrating. Clare, his eyelids fluttering, was no longer ashen. A trace of healthy colour crept back into his lean, lax face.
Easily, softly, the brass syllables wound down from Emma Bannon’s lips. She leaned over the mentath, cradling him, and breathed in his face. His body jerked again and the sorceress relaxed slightly, uncurling her mental grip from the repaired clot of fibrous muscle in his chest. One final stanza, her nose wrinkling slightly as the acridity of some drug burned her sensitive palate, and the language of Mending fled her.
She sagged, and the almost-bruising grip on her shoulders was Mikal’s hands, fever-hot and hard with callouses. Emma blinked, shutterclicks of dim light stinging her suddenly sensitive eyes, storing away the taste of whatever substance had been running through Clare’s blood. Hmmm. No wonder he has looked rather ragged of late. It tastes dreadful, whatever it is.
Mikal’s face was tense and set.
“He will live.” It was a relief to hear her usual brisk tone. For a moment, she had almost been… had she?
Afraid. And that could not be borne, or shown.
“He will live,” she repeated, more firmly. “Now, let us be about clearing up this mess. I have a ball to attend and a duke to chastise.”
Lady Winslet’s dowry had restored the fortunes of her husband’s family, and though she was not taken into quite the highest echelons of Society, her taste and judgement were considered quite reasonable. She had redone a fashionable Portland Place address – one of Naish’s, of course – in a manner most befitting her husband’s title. Of late she had taken to inviting an astounding mix to her Salons, patronising certain promising members of the Royal Society, and had garnered much praise for her dinners. In a few generations, the Winslets would be very proud indeed to have invited such a petty bourgeois into their hallowed family tree.