“Elodie! Don’t do this!” Eitenne pleaded with a dramatic flair that I considered slightly inappropriate, given the current situation.
Flaire’s guards, while quite burly and possessing weapons which I suspected could cause grievous bodily harm, should they get it in mind to attack us, were quite polite as they directed us towards their master’s chambers. As we stepped inside, the room, larger than our suite but quite similar in design, seemed quite innocuous indeed.
The small sitting room area was most accommodating to our small party. I felt quite comfortable and suspected there were far worse places to die, not that I had not many times faced much more dangerous villains than a ringmaster with a clockwork and lived to tell. Beside me, Asher seemed relaxed, though he was often relaxed in even the most extreme, life-threatening situations. I felt his fingers close around mine and was grateful for their warmth.
Elodie ignored her brother. She lifted her chin and strode to Flaire’s side as though to confirm her particular loyalties. Flaire wrapped an arm around her waist. Ah ha. So, I had been right all along. “You should be proud, Eitenne,” Flaire announced. “Your sister has discovered a new avenue of enlightenment. And yet you defy her wishes by hiring these people to spy upon us. You are one of us. This is a grave dishonour and betrayal.”
Eitenne twisted his hands together in a strange contortion that seemed almost impossible. His fingers appeared almost to bend backwards over themselves. “You have done something to my sister, Pietro. I know it is true.”
“I assure you, Eitenne, your sister is quite herself. Are you not, my love?” Flaire turned his head to look at the woman on his arm. For a moment, they peering most dotingly into each other’s eyes.
Then Elodie turned back to Eitenne with a look so disdainful, so venomous, Eitenne flinched away from her. “I told you Eitenne. I did implore you to give up this campaign against Pietro. Why did you not listen to me? I had hoped it would not come to this.”
Asher waved his hand impatiently. “I am afraid we have little time for family tensions at the moment. I am most eager to see that which you claim will be the last thing we see.”
Pietro smiled indulgently. “Ah. Yes. Of course. Allow me to reveal, then, the most unique of inventions. Come.”
He led us into the next chamber, which reminded me somewhat of Morgan Reinhart’s sitting room. Copper wire, gauges, glass bottles, metal tubes, gears, scrap metal and mysterious tools littered the floor. The main attraction was an apparatus in the centre of the room, which stood twice as tall as a man. The dingus was, for the moment, draped in a red cloth. With a performer’s flair, Pietro swept the cloth from the instrument, gesturing grandly as though he expected a great gasp or round of rousing applause.
It was little more than a glass cylinder with a pointed metal tip from which protruded a series of wires and tubes, which extended straight into the floor, as though it was connected to something underneath the ship; the clockwork we’d heard during Elodie’s performance, to be sure. The cylinder was filled with an airy, roiling substance that resembled most closely a golden fog with the consistency of a London Particular. It was, perhaps, very dense gas or some sort of very light liquid. As we watched, the substance swirled and danced, as though reacting to our presence. It moved almost as if it were alive, as if it could sense us outside its chamber.
Asher and I turned to peer at each other uncomprehendingly. If Flaire expected either of us to divine the purpose of the machine or applaud the achievement, he was deeply disappointed. Its nature eluded us completely. We turned back to Flaire. As he realised we had absolutely no idea about what we should be so impressed, his smile slipped, and he grunted impatiently.
“May I present the first ever Empathetic Spirit Resonance Extractor and Manipulator.”
“That sounds completely absurd,” Asher remarked.
Flaire scoffed disdainfully. “But what does it actually do?” I asked.
“It harnesses the human condition,” Flaire replied with a vainglorious toss of his dark hair.
“I beg your pardon, sir?”
“It extracts the energies and emotions of the audience and stores it here, in this chamber.” He lifted a hand to touch the sparkling glass. Inside the chamber, the swirling energy moved towards his fingers, as though trying to get closer to him through their prison wall.
“That is human emotion?” Asher did not seem inclined to conceal the disdain in his voice.
“It is part of all of you.” He smiled a bit wryly. “Well, those of you who did not resist Elodie’s extractor.”
“Is that what the flute is?” I asked, lifting my eyebrows.
“It is, if I do say so, quite ingenious. It conducts the emotion of the crowd, funnels it into the gears of the exquisite machine below and transfers it here, into the chamber.” He peered up at the swirling golden fog with a fevered sort of fondness. “Aren’t they beautiful? They are joy, fear, love, surprise, excitement. Elodie’s performances are…quite visceral. The things you people feel…and it all comes back to me. It’s all mine.”
“But how?” I demanded. “How can a flute possibly move energy through clockwork gears?”
“If you must ask, Mrs Darby, you could not possibly understand the genius of my invention.”
I rolled my eyes, but I did not doubt that he was likely quite correct in this estimation. Xander, Juliana, perhaps, Morgan certainly would have understood the complicated apparatus, but I had little interest in how the thing worked; it was quite obvious that it did. As such, I resolved to turn my considerable cleverness towards smashing it up as quickly as possible. “All right. That is not inaccurate. But to what purpose then? What does it do? Does it power the ship?”
Flaire laughed. “Power the ship? My dear lady, this ship relies on the most mundane and reliable methods of aeronautical propulsion. No, indeed. It is for something greater still.”
I sighed and exchanged a long-suffering gaze with Asher. “Let’s hear it, then. World domination? Political protest? A misguided overture of love or revenge? Do tell. We have, I assure you, heard it all.”
His smile morphed into an angry scowl. “Nothing so banal. This clever contraption can harness the emotions of the people—their most intimate and transcendent feelings—to guide their thoughts and actions.”
“I beg your pardon,” Asher interrupted. “But are you suggesting you can use this machine to control people’s minds?
“Not as such. It simply channels their most powerful feelings. It propels them into a sort of puppet-like trance. People are most suggestible, I have discovered, when they are most vulnerable to their emotions.”
“But that is absurd,” I said. “It would never work.”
“Do you think not?”
“To what end do you intend to put this machine?” Asher demanded.
Flaire smiled. “I am certain being in possession of a vast army of my followers will come in handy. I think perhaps I would eventually like to possess my own country. I have nobles and kings at my command, you know. Without even knowing it, they have all given themselves to me. I rule them all.”
“Elodie!” Eitenne exclaimed. I had nearly forgotten the funambulist was in attendance of the peculiar audience and impromptu monologue. He looked so thoroughly downtrodden that I wished he could have been spared the details of his master’s evil plan. “You are helping him with this nefarious scheme?”
Elodie lifted her chin. Her expression was cold and impenetrable. She was still very beautiful, like an ice statue sculpted by a master hand. She did not deign to explain matters to her brother, despite the pain and shock upon his features, upon which the beautiful metallic swirls had smeared and run together so he looked like a tragic, garish clown. “I am with Pietro. I follow him.”
“You are controlling her!” Eitenne jabbed a finger towards Flaire.
Flaire’s smile was almost pitying. “I am afraid, my dear Eitenne, that Elodie came to me quite willingly. I saw in her a most like-minded and ambitious companion.” He stepped towards her and took her hand. She smiled up at him with a slavish expression in her eyes that did not bode well for her brother’s cause. Flaire looked back around at us. “Now. I have apprised you all of my tremendous achievement. You must know what comes next.”
I turned my head to meet Asher’s gaze. At the same instant, we smiled at each other. His eyes glinted in that keen, audacious way that had so drawn me to him in the past. My pulse leapt. This was, I expected, going to be fun.
“I am afraid you will find it far more difficult to kill us than you suspect,” Asher informed him in a mild, matter-of-fact sort of voice.
Flaire laughed as so many who had come before him. Our foes nearly always assumed they were better than the last failed villain against whom we had battled. He drew a small, gilded pistol from his belt. Just as quickly, Asher’s gun was in his hands, aimed at the startled ringmaster. With a leisurely hand, I extracted Nathaniel’s clever little wave gun from a pocket in my capacious skirts.
The ringmaster scowled around at his guards. “You did not check them for weapons?”
The guards bent low at the waist in identical gestures of deep chagrin. “We beg your pardon, sir,” our guard said in a low, despairing murmur.
“This just proves why it would behoove me to hire real security, rather than circus performers.”
Asher stepped towards the disappointed man. “Flaire, put down your weapon now, if you please.”
Flaire lifted his chin defiantly. I rolled my eyes. It never did do to behave like a child in such circumstances. Though I felt a slight twinge of regret for doing so, I swung my gun hand to aim the small brass pistol at Elodie.
Eitenne gasped in horror. “Mrs Darby!”
“Mr Flaire, I suggest you calm yourself and lay down your weapon,” I told him.
“Indeed. You are under arrest for…” Asher gestured wildly around with his free hand. “Whatever this is.”
“And kidnapping,” I added pleasantly.
“Yes. And kidnapping a Ministry of Defence agent and a favoured friend of the crown.”
“Are you speaking about me?”
Asher rolled his eyes. “Who else would I be speaking of, Astrid?”
“Oh, well that’s very nice.” I turned back to Flaire with a stern look. “And for brandishing a weapon with the intent to kill us.”
“Yes,” Asher agreed. “That also. You are in very big trouble. All of those things are very bad.”
“You ought to be highly ashamed of yourself.”
Asher took another step towards Flaire, and the ringmaster lowered his gun. His shoulders slumped miserably. He lifted his head to meet Elodie’s gaze, and in that instant, I realised our little speech had not ensured our success in his capture. Before Asher or I could reach him, Flaire seized Elodie’s arm and, in a puff of his magnificent smoke, they disappeared.
So close to the smoke, I noted absently that it smelled faintly of flowers.
“Elodie!” Eitenne cried, pressing his hands to his head. He would be of little help in this matter, I suspected.
Asher cursed loudly and spun towards the guards as though they might, too, have escaped him. Flaire had not thought to take them with him. They lifted their hands in surrender as Asher pushed past them into the corridor outside the chamber. There was no sign of the ringmaster or his accomplice.
“So,” I began conversationally. “What would you like to do now?”
“I declare this particular case an official Ministry investigation, and the Ministry does not abide escape artists. We find him.”
“Well, that suits me fine. I have already received my payment for this particular job, and I have performed the task as set before me. I have uncovered the nature of the evil scheme upon the ship and fulfilled my obligations to Eitenne regarding his sister.”
“And how, precisely, have you done that?”
“I have simply facilitated his own realisation that she is quite beyond him and beyond help now.”
“Ah. Not, I expect, what the young man had envisioned as an ideal outcome.”
“No, I should think not. In any case, I am, as they say, square. As such, I am perfectly content to assist you in your cause, as I am certain it shall be more entertaining than yet another a night in with Xander and Juliana whilst they discuss, in excruciating and tremendously dull detail, the latest hair-brained scientific theory by whichever mad physicist or chemist in whom they have taken interest today.”
“We are in accord, then.”
“Who would have ever expected such a thing? Where do you propose we search for the man?”
“He has not left this ship; of that we can be reasonably certain.”
“Indeed, unless he has some sort of matter transporter, which Xander assures me is highly impossible, it is unlikely even such an accomplished escape artist can have overcome the small issue of being currently in the air.” I strode back into Flaire’s chamber, where Eitenne slumped against the wall in a state of extreme dejection. “Eitenne!”
He started so violently, he stumbled forwards. “Mrs Darby?”
“If you would be so kind, we require your assistance in locating where upon the ship your master and sister may have gone. You may possess insight into where they might be hiding that we do not.”
He stared at me, mouth agape.
Asher strode into the room on my heels. “I am very sorry about your sister, Mr Allard,” he said briskly, “but this is now a matter of national security. I require your assistance in apprehending the perpetrators, lest you be considered an accessory to the grievous crime.”
Eitenne looked utterly horrified. “I have nothing to do with any of this!”
“I assure you, Mr Allard, in the eyes of the Ministry, it will make no difference.”
The young funambulist’s mouth turned down in a terrible pout. “I will help you. Just…don’t hurt Elodie. She is innocent. She is misguided and has allowed Pietro to fool her somehow.”
“I understand your feelings,” I told him bracingly. “We will do our best to treat your sister with the utmost care.”
“Have you any ideas where Flaire has taken your sister?”
He shook his head. “I haven’t…when he disappears, it is usually through a trap door beneath. There are several around the ship, mostly in the lounge and the arena areas where guests are about. The smoke conceals the platform mechanism.”
“Ah. Indeed. And so, where does this mechanism take him?”
“There is a galley beneath the ship, I understand, though I have never seen it.”
“Ah, also likely where the clockwork mechanism is located. Can you show it to us?”
“I have never used it. I know not how it is triggered.”
“But there must be a trap door here in this room somewhere, yes? In the very spot into which he and your sister disappeared?” Asher demanded.
“I would think so.”
“A clever one, that Flaire,” I remarked. “He must have anticipated he might require a means of escape. He might have been prepared to disappear at any moment it seemed he might not come off the best in our confrontation.”
Asher nodded perfunctorily. “Show me,” he ordered Eitenne.
The young man dropped immediately to his knees. The floor beneath our feet was smooth. It appeared to be some sort of wood, but I suspected it was of some other lighter substance; some composite or synthetic plastic, perhaps. The funambulist ran his slender fingers across it, as though searching for some divot or trigger mechanism we could not see. His face contorted into a frown of concentration.
Without warning, a small panel of floor fell away. Eitenne nearly tumbled into the vast darkness below. Asher darted forwards to steady him. “Well, I think that explains matters,” I said blithely. “Our villain is not, in fact, a sorcerer. Well done, Eitenne.”
But Eitenne did not look as though he was pleased with the discovery. He scrambled backwards, away from the hole in the floor. He looked up at me with plaintive eyes. “You will not harm her?”
“I promise to do our utmost best,” Asher replied, staring keenly at the opening like a dog scenting his prey in the air. “Mr Allard, I suggest you return now to your room. You have been quite helpful. We will send for you, should we require you again.”
Eitenne did not need told twice. He scrambled to his feet and raced out of the room.
“I believe, Astrid, that this has become a hunt.” Asher smiled and offered me his hand. “Shall we, then?”
“I don’t suppose you have any sort of torch or one of the Morgan’s clever illumination devices?”
“I am afraid not, but I believe we may have a solution.” I plucked a small, gas lantern from a battered, scratched worktable near the back of the slapdash laboratory. Its light was faint, but it illuminated the galley below, which was tall enough for a man to walk upright and appeared to extend quite beyond the reach of the flickering light. “You may do the honours, Ash.”
He grinned at me and lowered himself into the galley whilst I held the lantern aloft to light his safe landing. He stood upright and squinted into the darkness. “I cannot see far. Come down, will you?” He lifted his arms to catch me around the waist and assist me to the galley floor.
When I was safely beside him, I smiled broadly. “Well, this is most intriguing, isn’t it?”
“Indeed. Shall we see if our villainous ringmaster is lurking about?”
“I would like nothing more.”
I glanced at him in the feeble lantern light. He was not looking at me. Instead, his attention was directed upwards, towards the ceiling. He snatched the lantern from my hand and lifted it. Above our heads, a vast array of fine, delicate clockwork gears shone faintly gold in the pale flame. They were motionless for the moment but they seemed to give off a strange, pallid sort of glow, as though the residue of the energies and emotions stored above still flowed through them.
The structure seemed to go on endlessly through the passage, beneath the main floor above without any discernible beginning or end. If there was a mechanism to start or stop the machine, I could not tell what it might be.
“Amazing,” Asher murmured.
“Indeed. Perhaps Xander will have some insight into how it works. He will, at the very least, be quite beside himself with fascination.”
“Elodie’s flute must be the remote trigger mechanism somehow.”
“I am quite baffled as to the specifics of the apparatus. It is, I must admit, beyond me.”
“And me. It is of little concern, at the moment, inactive as it is. Come. Let us find Flaire before this ship goes to port and we lose him forever. Who knows how long he can remain hidden in the secret chambers of this extraordinary ship?”
We moved cautiously through the passage, which wound and dipped unpredictably. The ground beneath our feet swayed and rocked, as though colliding occasionally with the clouds. It was eerily quiet but now and again noise could be heard above our heads as we moved beneath an occupied room. They were soft noises, the tramp of feet on the floor above or murmuring voices.
I most fervently hoped we would arrive at the end or at least discover a means of ascending from the dark, suffocating passage, for, despite the exhilaration of the hunt and the unexpected comfort of Asher’s company, my chest felt tight. I fought to steady my breath, sucking in deep lungfuls of the remarkably thick air lest Asher discover my discomfort. If he did, he did not remark, for he knew of my peculiar aversion to small, dark spaces and was, despite my many declarations otherwise, quite discreet when it came to such indignities.
There was no sign of the ringmaster or his accomplice. Quite the contrary, the passage felt eerily deserted. I was certain now the man and his lady had popped up in some room above and were likely stashed in some clever hidey-hole. It might take all night to discover his whereabouts. I sighed in resignation. Asher was not a man to give up once he had begun a man hunt. He would lock down the ship when it arrived at port if he must and search every inch of the aerostat until Flaire was located. I suspected it would result in little; Flaire likely had numerous escape routes all over the ship. A clever villain often did, and Flaire was proving to be most clever indeed.
The sounds from above grew louder as we moved deeper into the passageway. “Ash, I think we’ve come under the lounge.”
He peered up at the ceiling with a frown. “Yes, I believe you’re right.”
“I think it unlikely Flaire has remained here in the galley. I greatly suspect he has used one of his clever trap doors and ascended back up to the main floor.”
“I had been thinking so myself.”
“Shall we attempt the same?”
It took only moments to locate the sliding panel above, for the clockwork construct flowed around a patch of bare ceiling. My diminutive stature rendered me quite ineffectual, but Asher lifted his hands to run his fingers over the smooth panel. “Ah ha,” he said in a smug sort of voice. He flicked his fingers over what must have been a small lever or divot. The panel slid open, and the bright lights of the lounge flooded into the hole. He turned to me with a smile. “May I assist you up, Mrs Darby?”
“Much obliged, Agent Key.” I allowed him to lift me towards the opening, and I caught the edge to pull myself up out of the hole. Around me, many of the guests still drank their wine, chattering excitedly and declaring their admiration for master Flaire and his players. Few of them noticed me, so wrapped up in their conversations were they, but a number of people gaped open-mouthed as Asher emerged beside me, drawing himself up through the hole with apparent ease.
“Well, that was most enlightening,” he remarked, assisting me to my feet. “I do hope there is a way to close this thing; it would be a terrible shame for one of the guests to wander too close in their condition.”
“Indeed. It would be most tragic. They do not appear to have come back to themselves quite yet.”
He knelt and spent several moments groping around the floor. I peered around us, searching for my young wards in the crowd. They were exactly as we’d left them, sitting with their heads together at Vera’s table. “Ah.” I did not hear the floor panel slide back into place, but Asher rose to his feet, rubbing his hands together as though to dislodge any dust.
“Come. Xander and Juliana will be most interested to hear what we’ve been up to. They are likely quite concerned at the moment with our safety, as they must have expected to hear from us by now.”
“Indeed, and I would like Xander’s opinion on the dastardly Empathy Spirit Stealer.”
“Empathetic Spirit Resonance Extractor and Manipulator,” I corrected him.
“Right. Well, whatever it is called, it’s barking mad and highly illegal, I am sure.”
Xander shot to his feet as we reached their table. “Astrid! Asher! Where have you been? We’ve been extremely worried. When you did not return, we checked the observation deck, but you had simply vanished.”
“We did not simply vanish,” I replied. “That, I am afraid, is a trick we’ve yet to learn, though we are getting to the bottom of the matter.”
“Astrid, what are you talking about?” Juliana demanded. “Did something happen? About what did Mr Allard wish to speak?”
“It is a most thrilling tale indeed, but we simply haven’t the time to enjoy the full and rich detail with which I would normally regale you.”
“Perhaps Agent Key should apprise us, then.”
I shook my head in disappointment at the young lady, but I gestured towards Asher. “The funambulist knew nothing of the clockwork.”
“Aside from knowing a particularly useable bit of information about his master’s trick, he is was most unhelpful,” I added. “Luckily, our curiosity was quickly assuaged by the arrival of Master Flaire himself.”
“Do let me tell it, Astrid,” Asher said.
“Yes, yes, carry on. Deeply sorry.”
“Flaire caught you?” Xander demanded.
“Indeed he did. He led us back to his chambers with a most ominous threat of death,” I said, but I subsided when my companions shot me a collective look of irritation.
“He told us everything,” Asher explained. “The clockwork is part of a vast apparatus, the purpose of which is to harness human emotion.”
“Ah! So it does concern the life energies,” Juliana said with a hint of smugness. “Does it power the ship?”
“Nothing so mundane,” I replied. “It is meant to control the people whose energies it has extracted.”
“You said emotions?” Xander asked, frowning.
“Indeed. At least, he indicated as such. There is no evidence the dingus actually works,” Asher told him.
“But that is absurd. Energy, perhaps. But emotions? I find it highly improbable.”
“What is the machine called?” Juliana asked.
“The Empathetic Spirit Resonance Extractor and Manipulator,” I said with a tilt of my chin. “A most impressive sounding name, is it not?”
“And quite to the point,” Juliana agreed, though I little understood why.
“I would very much like to see this machine,” Xander said. His brilliant blue eyes glittered with the fevered spark of keenness I had seen so many times when he was pondering a particularly interesting puzzle.
“Yes, that would be helpful,” Asher agreed. “And the clockwork in the galley. Perhaps you can discern how it functions.”
“You found the clockwork? Why did you not say?”
“It is beneath our feet. It does seem rather unimportant when compared to the totality of the apparatus, does it not?” I asked.
“It’s all a piece,” Asher said. “In any case, we are more concerned at the moment with locating the ringmaster and his accomplice, Elodie Allard.”
“Ah. The young lady is an accomplice, then?” Juliana asked. “Is she, as her brother suspected, under the ringmaster’s spell?”
“Sadly, no. It appears she is quite in control of her own faculties, at least for the time being.”
“What happened?” Xander demanded, frowning.
“As Asher was attempting to arrest them, they disappeared, quite literally, in a puff of smoke. We determined the trick was performed by triggering a trap door in the floor, which leads into a galley beneath our feet. It is in that very galley that his diabolical clockwork is housed, and it is the way we came to reach you.”
“I see. But he was no longer in the galley?”
“No. It is likely he’s returned to the main floor and is locked away in some hidey-hole. We are confident he is still on the ship,” Asher explained. “And we intend to find him. He is, as of now, of interest to the Ministry of Defence.”
“Ah. So, it was some sort of evil scheme, then?” Juliana asked.
“Yes. Well, it was not a very well-developed scheme, but it was getting there.” I replied. “We are determined to stop it before it is fully-realised.”
“Time is of the essence,” Asher reminded us. “We have wasted quite a lot of time already. Come. Let us get on with it.”
We rose from our seats and discovered we were not alone in doing so. At the same moment, the entire party shot abruptly to their feet. In a single motion, as though choreographed, they turned towards us. Their eyes were glazed and vacant. There was no expression on their faces, but a shiver raced up my spine. They all lifted their arms towards us and took a single, ominous step forwards.
“Oh, this does not bode well,” I said.
“Indeed, I believe we have a slight problem,” Xander added, and I admired his flair for understatement at a moment such as this.
“Flaire must have activated the device,” Asher put in. “Apparently, it does do as he suggested it would.”
We all drew our weapons as the guests converged upon us. “We can’t shoot them!” Juliana said. “They’re beyond their own control. They’re just innocent people.”
“Damn,” Asher swore.
A middle-aged man in an exquisite blue tuxedo plucked at the sleeve of my gown. “If we aren’t going to shoot them,” I said. “I suggest we do run now, as the situation seems to be experiencing a steady downward trend.”
My companions were already in flight as I finished speaking. The guests, though quite outside their own minds, possessed no greater strength or physical ability than they had before they had been transformed into Flaire’s automatons. We shoved past them with little difficulty and burst into the corridor. They turned as one entity to follow us, but their movements were lurching and slow, as though Flaire’s commands were on a slight delay. They did not seem to be capable of acting with any great urgency.
“We must shut down the machine!” Asher shouted.
“But can we find the way back to Flaire’s chamber? It might not have been wise to take the galley way.”
“I remember the way. It is at the end of the guest corridor. Hurry!”
The revellers who’d retired early were emerging from their chambers, their eyes as empty as our laggard pursuers. They swung their arms in wide, inexpert arcs. We ducked their blows without great travail and jostled them aside with as much care as our haste allowed.
Vera Key’s impressive, formidable bulk blocked the corridor ahead. Her expression was vacant. Her curls were wild, as though she’d been recently roused from sleep to assist in the attack. We drew up short in front of her. “Oh, dear,” I murmured, casting a swift, sidelong glance at Asher. A muscle in his jaw jerked as he stared uncertainly at his mother.
“She’s one of them,” Xander said.
She confirmed his suspicion without delay. She darted forward suddenly with a speed I had not realised the automaton people possessed. She brandished what appeared to be a small knife, but which I discovered, as it swung directly before my eyes, was a letter opener. Its blade was, nevertheless, quite capable of serious damage.
“Mother!” Asher scolded, catching her arm. “I am your son.”
She did not respond to this. In fact, her expression did not change in the least. She struggled to extract herself from him as though she was not truly aware of her surroundings. Behind us, the army of guests were closing in, filling the hallway with a mass of pressed, unrelenting bodies. “Asher, I understand your difficulty,” I said urgently. “But we are slightly at a disadvantage here.”
He scowled as he stared down at Vera, who flailed and swung her arms almost mechanically against his delicate restraint. He sighed. “I am very, very sorry for this, Mother. I am certain you will understand when you’ve come back to yourself.” He released her arm but just as quickly pinched the tender flesh between her neck and shoulders.
Asher caught her before she slid unceremoniously to the floor. “Asher!” Juliana exclaimed, horrified.
“She will be quite all right,” he said, nudging open the nearest chamber door with his foot in order to drag his unconscious mother inside. “Let us forget this dreadful incident at once. Come!”
Without further ado, we raced through the corridor towards Flaire’s chamber, dodging and fighting the mindless automatons as they attempted to impede our progress. “Xander, haven’t you any of those clever devices of Morgan’s? Something to knock them out or bring them back to their senses?” I demanded irritably as a young woman struck at my head, setting my lovely new hat askew.
“Astrid, I am quite certain this is a scenario even Morgan could not have foreseen,” Xander replied, dodging past an elderly couple wielding their brass canes like clubs. “Though if he had, it would do us little good. All of his instruments are, most unfortunately, tucked securely up in our hotel room on the ground in London.”
“Oh, that’s just brilliant,” I complained.
“If we can destroy the glass chamber of the apparatus, it will release the energy and set them free,” Asher said. “It is the only way to stop them.”
“We hope, anyway,” Juliana put in.
“At this moment, we’ve little more than optimism,” I told her, drawing up short as the corridor ahead clogged with people moving towards us. I glanced behind to find the inexorable army from the lounge still upon our heels. “It is a bit difficult to reach our destination at the moment, however. The situation is growing somewhat more urgent.”
“We shall do what we must, then.” Asher seized my hand. “Keep your head down, Astrid.”
I nearly stumbled as he hunched his shoulders and ducked his head to barrel directly into the crowd. I tossed aside my ridiculous hat and covered my head. I could hardly see as the automatons around us battered at my arms and legs while we cut a line through them. Behind us, I heard Juliana squeal as Xander pulled her similarly along.
We burst through the cluster of bodies and raced towards the end of the corridor. The throng readjusted laggardly, spinning confusedly to pursue us. “It’s here!” Asher shouted triumphantly, jerking to a halt before Flaire’s chamber door. I sagged in relief and reached for the knob.
It was, most inconveniently, locked tight.
Asher cursed. I glanced swiftly behind us. The mob was converging once again, and their collective might would overpower us, drag us down and trample us underfoot, should they get their grasping hands upon us. I did not pause to consider our options. I drew Nathaniel’s pistol from my skirts and fired it unceremoniously at the door. It blew open in a shower of splinters.
We darted inside the room. “The chamber!” Asher barked.
It was precisely where we left it, in the centre of the small makeshift laboratory. Inside the glass chamber, the energy swirled and danced in high agitation. It seemed almost to be sparking with life. Xander and Juliana stared up at the machine with identical expressions of awe.. The light inside the chamber cast a golden glow upon their young faces.
“Any time now, Xander!” I said.
“But it is such an impressive machine. Such an innovation I have never seen–”
And then, in another puff of yellow smoke, Flaire and Elodie appeared.
They might have been in the room the entire time, somehow invisible and awaiting our return. Xander jumped back in alarm, away from the chamber, dragging Juliana with him. Flaire barely spared us a glare. “Elodie!” he commanded.
The woman stepped forwards, swinging a bronze sword with an expert hand I would not have expected from a circus performer, nor could I suss why she would possess one at all. Xander stepped in front of Juliana, swiftly picking up a chair to defend against the young lady’s strikes. He still carried a gun, but he seemed disinclined to shoot the young lady. His chivalry was, I suspected, misplaced.
Behind us, the mob had reached the blown open door and burst into the chamber through which we had come. Asher and I spun in a single motion, racing towards the sitting room door. We leaned against it, attempting to hold it closed as Flaire’s puppets battered relentlessly but generally weakly against it.
Flaire laughed. It was a wild, gleeful noise that set the hairs on the back of my neck on end. “Yes! Yes! I warned you what would happen if you meddled in my affairs. You see now the power I possess!”
Beside the cackling ringmaster, the floor slid open. He cut off abruptly and looked down at it in surprise. Eitenne’s head appeared, then the rest of him as he pulled himself up into the room. “Eitenne!’ I exclaimed with a blithe laugh.
“Elodie!” Flaire growled, and the woman spun from Xander, who lowered the chair in surprise.
Eitenne stared at his sister in shock. He barely lifted a hand in time to block the swing of her sword. It sliced across his arm, and blood spurted from the wound. He clutched his arm to his chest. “Elodie!” It sounded more of a plea than an admonishment, and for a moment, Elodie hesitated, staring at her brother with a terrible, pained uncertainty.
“Finish him, Elodie!” Flaire ordered. “He stands in our way! You are beyond him. You have no use for him anymore.”
“Come back to me, Elodie,” Eitenne pleaded. “This is not you. You are not his puppet.”
Elodie’s entire body tensed at these words, as though he had deeply insulted her. She tossed aside her sword. For a moment, Eitenne’s face lit up, but then his twin launched herself forwards, swinging her fists at him. He blocked her attack, and the two were suddenly flying through the air in a sort of dance, striking out at each other with an impressive series of kicks and punches of which I would not have expected the delicate funambulists capable.
“Astrid!” Asher shouted, but I had already discovered the source of his concern. The door splintered beside my head as Flaire’s automatons broke through. Asher and I lurched forwards. “It would have been nice if you had not blasted off the entrance door.”
“I had little choice in the matter. We were under siege, after all. Xander!” I called over my shoulder. “Any progress?”
He snapped out of his fascination with the funambulists’ epic, gravity-defying fight and leapt towards the chamber with the chair in hand. Before he reached it, Flaire stepped into his path. He flicked his fingers towards my young cousin. A cloud of black powder engulfed Xander, and I heard him exclaim in pain. Flaire laughed in wild delight. I cursed, assisting Asher as he shoved at the clutching hands thrusting through the splintered door.
Then a loud crash and the sound of shattering glass drowned out all the noises in the room. The grasping hands drew away from the door, through which a sudden buzz of confused murmuring could be heard. Asher and I sagged in relief as the pounding ceased. Xander coughed loudly, waving his hand as the black smoke cloud cleared.
Juliana stood beside the shattered chamber, still holding the chair she had used to smash it. She looked rather pleased with herself.
“Juliana!” Asher exclaimed, laughing.
“Fair play to you, Juliana. Most well-timed,” I told her, grinning broadly.
“No!” Flaire cried, clutching his head in pain as though the broken chamber had somehow been part of him.
“Xander!” Juliana cried, rushing towards him.
“Asher, get him before he disappears again!” I ordered.
Asher did not hesitate. He lurched forwards and seized Flaire, who hardly put up any fight. “Damn. I don’t have any cuffs.”
Xander waved Juliana away. “I’ll be fine,” he assured her, though tears streamed down his face. He fished around in his pocket and extracted a thick strip of plastic, which I realised, upon getting a closer look, was some sort of improvised tie, which tightened as Asher wrapped it around Flaire’s wrists behind his back.
“What is that?” I demanded.
“It’s something Juliana and I fashioned to hold bits of material together. It should hold, as long as Asher’s man does not, in fact, possess any particular magical abilities.”
Asher patted Flaire’s pockets, removing packets of power and the like. “Not anymore he doesn’t. I am afraid, Master Flaire, that you will be unable to escape this particular net.”
Flaire lifted his chin. He smiled. “We will see about that, Agent Key.”
I rolled my eyes. “Pietro!” Elodie Allard exclaimed, reminding us of her presence. Eitenne rushed forwards to catch her shoulders, but she shrugged him off.
“Elodie!” he cried.
I stepped towards the young lady, but she stopped abruptly with merely a glance from Flaire. “Fear not, my love,” he said in a low, intimate voice. “I will be back with you in no time.”
“I would not count so much on that,” I told him and seized Elodie’s arm. She did not fight me, though I suspected she could easily throw me off. Though it would be useless for quite some time until it recharged, I aimed my pistol at her chest. I glanced at my erstwhile client. “I am sorry, Eitenne, but I am afraid your sister will be coming with us.”
“But she—but he is controlling her! I saw what he did to those people!” Eitenne protested.
Asher shook his head. “I think not, Eitenne. Your sister has made her own decisions. When the chamber smashed, she was still fighting you.”
Eitenne’s face fell into an expression of deepest despair. “Elodie.”
She glanced at him. Her features were glacial. “Elodie has nothing to do with this,” Flaire said. “She is innocent.”
“Do not lie for me, my love! I will not allow you to take the blame.” She turned plaintively towards Asher. “It was my idea. All of this.”
“Elodie, no!” Eitenne cried.
“It is a lie.” Flaire’s voice was flat. “I built the machine. Elodie has no expertise or experience in the field.”
“This is genuinely touching,” Asher said dryly. “But I am afraid the chore of sorting it all out falls to our great justice system. You may feel free to regale the magistrate with what I am sure will be a most poignant tale. Juliana, if you would be so kind as to direct my mother and any stragglers back to their beds, I would be quite grateful.”
Juliana stepped away from Xander. “Of course. But how shall I explain it?”
“I am not certain you will be required to do so,” I remarked. “They seem to have all wandered away when the chamber shattered. I suspect they will awaken in the morning believing it all to be a hallucination brought on by excessive drink and the allure of the show.”
“Xander, are you quite well?”
He nodded, though his eyes still streamed. “I shall be quite right soon enough.”
“I believe Eitenne might appreciate a few moments with his sister before she faces the might of the Ministry,” I told Asher.
“Yes. Indeed. Eitenne, we require the use of your room to confine the prisoners until the pilot may bring down the ship to the nearest port,” Asher told him in an inarguable voice. “You may spend these last few hours with her.”
Eitenne’s eyes streamed with tears that smeared his makeup. “I am very grateful, Agent Key.”
Asher reached into a pocket of his fine black vest and extracted his badge. He tossed it to Xander. “Instruct the pilot to land as soon as possible, please, Xander.”
Xander grinned down at the badge as though it was a great prize. “Of course, Ash.”
“And I will be wanting that back.”
“Oh, all right.” He caught Juliana’s hand, and the two hurried from the room to carry out Asher’s orders.
“Come, Astrid. Eitenne, if you would lead the way, please.”
I smiled at Asher’s back as we frog-marched the prisoners through the corridor. The evidence of the attack still littered the passage. Bits of smashed lanterns, broken glass, toiletries and the other improvised weapons the automatons had wielded were scattered across the floor, as though they had dropped them carelessly and trampled them underfoot as they returned to their beds or the lounge to puzzle over the strange hallucinations. We kicked aside the debris as we rounded a corner towards Eitenne’s room. It was not much larger than the one I shared with Xander and Juliana, but it appeared as though a wardrobe had exploded and spray the room with its contents.
Eitenne ignored the disarray. He watched as Asher and I led the diabolical ringmaster and his devoted servant to sit upon the bed. Asher moved about the room, picking up scattered garments from the floor, which he used to bind Flaire firmly to the bedpost in the centre of the room. Flaire did not look at all troubled by this. In fact, he looked quite arrogant, as though he expected to be free to roam the ship in no time at all. He would be disappointed; I had seen Asher tie knots which even the most seasoned of sailors could neither unwind nor duplicate. Flaire would be quite secure.
As Asher similarly bound the young lady to a chair in the corner of the room, where she might experience some privacy with her brother, I faced my former client. He watched his sister with a terrible, forlorn expression. “I am sorry the successful fulfilment of my obligation to you did not bring you the peace you expected, Eitenne.”
His shoulders slumped. “No. It did not bring me what I wished. It did not bring Elodie back to me.”
“It was an outcome impossibly avoided. It is not in our power to change certain circumstances.” I gave him a bracing smile. “I must say, however, your performance was quite brilliant. Most impressive indeed. You are a true artist.”
His mouth wavered as though in an effort to smile. Instead, he grimaced. “Thank you. But it is a small comfort.”
“Perhaps, on balance, it is the best outcome. You sister will soon come back to you. I have found, in the matter of family, even the most grievous of slights can be forgotten once they are forgiven.”
This did not cheer him. “Well. Thank you for taking my case, Mrs Darby. Though I shan’t say I should wish to enlist your assistance again.”
I was not offended by this. It was not the first time I had received such a performance review. “Let us both hope, for yours and your sister’s sake, you will not require it.”
I watched him join his sister in the corner of the room. They murmured quietly to each other, and in moments, they were both in tears. I turned away respectfully and met Asher as he peered down at Pietro Augustus Flaire.
Flaire lifted his chin with a hauteur I thought inappropriate in his present circumstances. “I will find a way to escape, you know.”
“I do expect you will try your best and will be most impressive,” I replied, smiling at him.
“We will not stop until we have you behind bars,” Asher promised him. “It was my mother, you know, whom you directed to attack me and my associates. It is an offence I will not readily forget.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” I added.
Flaire chuckled dryly. Then he closed his eyes and leaned back against the headboard. He did not open them again, and finally, his breathing slowed and steadied until he appeared to be asleep. I suspected he was faking it. It hardly mattered. Neither Asher nor I was going anywhere. I met his gaze and we turned together to sit side by side against the chamber door where we could watch over our prisoners through the night.
“It is a dreadful shame,” I mused after several moments.
Asher did not take his eyes from his apparently slumbering prisoner. “What is?”
“Well, it was a most delightful show, wasn’t it? The bits without the clowns, anyway.”
He chuckled. “It was. Despite the part where the audience was hypnotised, had their emotions stolen from them and were subsequently employed as an army to assail us.”
I laughed. “It was certainly unique in that regard. It was a bit exciting, wasn’t it?”
“It was rather exhilarating, I must admit. Particularly the risk of death or grievous bodily harm. It has been some time since I had to battle an entire army.”
“Since Jordan, I expect?”
“Oh, no. There’s been a number of times since then. But none nearly as fun.” He sighed. “It is somewhat troubling to be compelled to subdue one’s own mother.”
“She will be none the worse for it. I am sure you treated her with the utmost care. But I do wonder if the Cirque du Flaire will be forever grounded after this.”
He considered. “It needn’t be. Perhaps someone else will swoop in to take the helm of the great circus in the sky.”
From the bed, Pietro Augustus Flaire opened his eyes and glared at us. “Never! The Cirque du Flaire is my pride and joy. I would rather see it rot on the ground than allow some amateur to bumble inelegantly in my rightful place as master of this ring.”
“Well,” I continued as though Flaire had not spoken at all. “It will serve as a most interesting and engaging anecdote, do you not think? The tale of the final performance of Cirque du Flaire, the famous circus in the sky. It was, as promised, most memorable, indeed.”