Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Problems Escalate

Oh, where to begin - I suppose where the concierge of the hotel woke us with tea and pastries, just after 6 o’clock. “Good morning, sir and miss. Please be assured you both still have your heads.” Not a hint of censure, and a little bit of humor, served with breakfast. Even fully dressed, it was a night spent together, and I blushed a bit as Perun smiled down at me. “You could have gone up to your room, my heart. No need for you to be so uncomfortable.”

I shrugged, “I was so comfortable I dinna remember falling asleep.” and handed him a cup. It seemed silly to be so nervous about the night, in the morning with sun streaming in the windows. Perun stayed only for one cup, and then dashed out of the lobby. I thanked the concierge for his kindness before going up to my room to prepare for the day. The though struck me as I left my room to meet the others traveling to the office, I had not told Perun of the ring again.

Reports have been coming in from all over, and I helped transcribe some of the ones written in Romanian to English, for the Baron to share with the sheriff and managers. The dreams are related, heralding something that was fond of heads. I got to read bits of Madame Kitlalmina’s report, and if I thought things were uncanny before, this made my head hurt. My higher maths are in accounting, but this looked like the figures and formulae that the madboys use in the reports to the Baron. A little bit of physics here, and something here that was like the formula for compounding interest, but the period shortened by a regular interval? It made no sense to me, I hoped the Baron would get better use of it.

The report from the Quester made a little more sense to me. They found fingerprints in the tar, but is seems they were mostly people poking at the graffiti. Measuring the height from the ground to the angle of the brushstrokes (more formulas here, but not as arcane as Madame Kitlalmina’s) showed the person to be a certain height. The footprints in the soft ground (where it was preserved) were for a rather large man, size-wise, but his weight did not seem to be steady, the calculations showed that the person had been losing weight from the first of the findings to the most recent ones.

The rumors were bad as well, there were a few more people reported missing, and the hysteria in certain quarters made it dangerous to travel there even in daylight. The terrace district of Shanghai was marginally safe, but the docks were not to be dared without a full patrol.

Later that evening, Perun dropped by to let me know he found the ring in his waistcoat pocket. “Sorry to disturb you, my heart. I just had to thank you for your gift.” He did seem better for the rest, but there were still dark circles under his eyes, just barely visible through his goggles.

“I hope you do not think it was forward of me to give you the ring, but I ... erm... I asked one of the uncanny ones at the office to ... help.” I had a sudden thought and paled, ducking my head to hide it. What if he refused help from that sort?

“Mo cridhe, I gave you a ring, and that was forward. I hardly think,” then he paused, catching what I had said, “ of the uncanny ones?”

“Well, she does a lot of investigating work with Madame Kitlalmina, and when I told her I was worried about you, she said she would make a shield for you like the rest of the staff,” I was suddenly not so sure of myself, and focused on the floor, “...I mean, with everybody having nightmares except for the sisters and suchlike.”

He took some time to digest the news. “Ah, so - this is something ... supernatural? The problem and the cure?”

I nodded, “Doamnă says that's the leading theory. Since it has been working so far... you aren't angry, are you?"

Thankfully, he seemed surprised, “Angry? How can I be angry with you, my heart? I may not understand it, but I do believe that there are things we can't explain. And that your gift has helped me sleep, I cannot deny!”

“I - I didn't think about it might go against your beliefs, just that... I was worried.” I was still staring at my toe, twisting a hole in the floor in my nervousness. “...just wanted you to be a little safer.”

He gently raised my chin with one finger, "Sweet Mary, thank you! I am not upset, I am grateful. I wish to understand more about this, but I am not angry -- please believe me!”

“I dinna understand it much, either... But it was a bit like - like some madboy's force-shield, only quieter.”

He smiled, releasing my chin, "Much quieter. Those things hum rather deafeningly."

I smiled up at him, blushing, "I would ask you in, but I think that sleeping in the lobby is the extent that we should get away with for now."

He glanced up and down the hallway rather obviously, and winked at me, "Yes, indeed. That's why I'm standing here in the hallway, attempting to be inconspicuous."

I grinned mischievously, “If I were a naughty girl, I would have dragged you in already. But you were shorter of sleep than one night would repair, I think. So I really ought to let you go.” When his chuckle was interrupted by a surprising yawn, I reached up to kiss him goodnight. "Sleep well, dragul meu."

"Sleep well, my heart, mo cridhe, my sweet." He walked down the hallway to the stairs, where he turned and lifted a hand in farewell - and I saw a glint of brass on his finger. So he was safe for now.

The next morning, we had the reports of the bodies being found. Reading the news, I scoured the descriptions, noting that each of them were abroad the night before alone... until Mr Messenger mentioned seeing Perun at the tea-cart down the hill from the hotel that morning. I nearly cried with relief.

More reports this morning, this time from Miss Ama. I got her tea and a scone, while we waited for Doamnă to finish with the courier just in from Italy. The folder of laboratory requests from the Quester was handy and she was able to dictate her report for the Baron on her observations during her last patrol. More uncanny stuff, I just typed what she said, and only had to ask for spelling once or twice this time.

Everything was filed properly as she finished her tea, and the courier left. Someone sneezed, and I wished whoever it was “health” out of habit. When it was Doamnă who responded, I was confused for a moment. Doamnă does not get sick. Miss Ama immediately started quizzing her, and issuing orders. She framed them as requests, but she was suddenly very authoritative. She said to get the Captain, so I hurried through the places he might be, ending up at the door to the barracks. I got as far as “Miss Ama needs you to see Doamnă...” and he was off like a shot, running back to the offices.

As they bundled Doamnă out of the office, I quietly asked if we were to cut off all reports to her, and Miss Ama agreed she could do some reviews. Watching the three of them walk towards Harborside, I wondered how I got to the point of not even noticing Miss Ama’s wings.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Shared Dreams

The staff briefing the morning I returned to the office was one of the odd ones. Mr Messenger seemed to be the only one who was chipper, and there were a lot of angry grumbles about the graffiti. Doamnă gave us the information she could, what the investigators had released for general consumption, and the angry grumbles became confused murmurs. We understood why we were advised to travel in pairs, and the usual safety precautions for a city under Incident Log Watch. The request to report all out-of-norm dreams to Madame Kilta or one of her assistants was new.

The part where we were having similar dreams did cause me to stop and think. I don’t know what Miss Ama did to allow me to sleep, but I knew Perun had written to let me know he had returned late the night before. The note arrived while I was sleeping, and if this was affecting everyone, I needed to get help to him.

I found Miss Ama in the kitchen area. It was easier for me to talk to her there, with Mrs Parks making sure we had scones and tea in the nook by the door. “I - I don’t want to know how, really, as uncanny things don’t seem to stick in my head, but is it.. could you... can you make a ring for someone else?”

She nodded, adding more lemon to her tea, “You want to make sure your young man doesn’t wear himself out like you were?”

I blushed and nodded. I brought out the brass gas line fitting I had found in the lab reject bin, “I think it might be large enough, and I filed the rough spot out. It won’t be useful for the lab, but maybe...”

She smiled, then took the fitting and examined it closely. I had never noticed her eyes were a brilliant purple until she was focused on the fitting, then there was a flash of blue reflected in them before she took my hand and placed the ring in my palm. Covering my hand with hers, the brass seemed to warm suddenly, then she nodded. “That should do it. If it doesn’t fit him, have him keep it within arms reach, ‘specially when sleeping.” She added more lemon to her tea (I wondered if it was more lemon than tea by now) and downed it, pocketing a scone as she rose, “Must dash, have a few more people to catch. Good idea with the ring, though.” She was gone swiftly, the door almost shutting off her last words.

Mrs Parks was busy at the other side of the kitchen, and did not seem to notice I was there. The fitting felt a little heavier, now, and I caught a glimpse of engraving inside, where the threads had been before. The block script shone through the Damascus-like swirls of metal, Inima mea bate alaturi de a ta... well it was true, but how.... I shook my head, cleared the table for Mrs Parks and headed back to my desk.

After work, I joined the group of clerks lodging at the hotel as they headed home, listening to them chatter about the news from the docks with half an ear. Meeting Perun as he came from the telegraph office, I was struck by how gaunt he seemed. His smile could not hide the circles under his eyes, and I finally convinced him to join me at supper in the hotel. The other girls giggled, but I was worried enough I did not acknowledge their teasing.

He drank far too much coffee at supper, and though obviously fatigued, he seemed loathe to leave. When he suggested we continue our visit in the lobby, I was torn. It had been a very long time since I had seen him, but I did not want him walking alone late at night, not with the uncanny goings on. He seemed to have lost weight. I could not tell if it was lack of sleep or just not taking care of himself when he traveled.

“Not to worry, mo cridhe, it is only je- I am just tired from the last journey.” He smiled at my worry and asked about the news in town. When I began relating the incidents of the nightmares, he flinched, and I asked if he could take something for sleep. Shaking his head, “No, that is not a possibility, my heart, I have... not good results with laudanum, nor with the usual medicines... here.” He quickly changed the subject to next year’s calendar, I did not have the chance to offer him the ring Miss Ama had worked on for him. I was unsure of how to present it.

When I finally ran out of the news that had happened since I last saw him, we sat in companionable silence. I know I should have brought up the nightmares again, but just sitting with him, staring into the small fire the bellhop had lit when the lobby had gotten chilly, was very home-like. He had draped his arm across the back of the davenport, and I was seated perhaps a little too close for the customs at my home village, but it was very comfortable to snuggle with him, as I had done in my dream the night before. When I heard him snore softly, I smiled, and tucked the ring in his waistcoat pocket.

The night manager stopped by, checking to see if we needed anything. Weeks earlier, he might have chased Perun out as a visit this late was unseemly, but now it seemed everyone understood the need to have someone to watch while one slept. He nodded his understanding at my wish to not disturb Perun’s sleep. After pointing out that his desk was within shouting distance if we needed anything, he left us alone. I might not have slept as well as if I was in my rooms, but he seemed to need the rest, and I was content, snuggled into his shoulder.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Sleep is not welcome

I cannot sleep. When I am able to drift off at all, the dreams are suffocating. I have never seen fog in Steelhead this thick, and the fireplace does not warm me as it should. The unreality follows me through my daily routine, to the part when I rise to find I have lost my head! Then I wake in reality, and the terror grips me until fatigue draws me in...

It has been growing slowly for the past week, but last night I could not manage a moment's rest. If I slept, it was in that terror-filled fog, and awake, I was not really aware. The haze of fatigue made me not realize how late it was.

When the knock at my door came, I was gripped in fear that I did not know what was real anymore.

"It's Ama, from the office - I came by to check on you."

I quickly opened the door, hoping for an anchor in reality, "Do I still have my head?"

Well, what followed was not exactly what I thought reality would be. I slowly began to feel I was normal again as the medic poked and prodded, and shone bright lights into my eyes. Then she did... something. One of the uncanny things that I would not have believed if someone told me. It felt like I was wrapped in a warm, soothing blanket, and then she said she linked it to Perun's ring.

I worried that it might have changed things, but she laughed, and teased me much as Miss Davies would do when I was being doubtful.

I am afraid I yawned in her face, incredibly rude of me. She was very practical about it and told me to sleep myself out. Then she was gone.

The whole day had begun to be impossible to believe, and yet, I did feel more relaxed. I curled up in bed, and as soon as I fell asleep, the fogs rolled in again. This time, I was not alone. Perun and I found our way to the inglenook at the hotel lobby fireplace, and the fog receded. There was still the feeling that there was something *out there*, but the odd woman in the courier's uniform appeared. Miss Ama laughed and told us not to worry, so I didn't.

I slept through to the next morning, and was refreshed enough that the news of the grafitti did not frighten me as much as make me angry that whoever did this, they *wanted* us to be afraid.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Summer Afternoon Surprise

I am often surprised by the heat in the flatlands during the summer months. It makes me glad that my postings here so far have been seaside towns. In the late afternoons, when the sun has baked the streets, the cooling breeze from the ocean makes proper office wear for the town bearable. Leaving the office after the sun touches the trees to the west of the civic plaza means I can spend the heat of the day catching up the archival files in the basement, and still have light to work by in the late afternoon, and a breeze as well.

Doamnă Loewenstein remarked this was good schedule management, and a positive note in my interim review this week past. So I was already in a cheerful mood as I strolled towards my lodgings at the hotel, when I chanced to meet one who cheered me even further. He hailed me, “What luck, meeting you here -- just got off the train. How are you, mo cridhe?”

I managed to remember to behave myself in the public street, “I am well!”, and blushing, murmured, “I missed you.”

"And I you, my heart." He smiled down at me, “Do you have plans this evening? Whatsay to a spot of dancing? Once I've changed out of this outlandish garb, that is. Unless you mind dancing with a vagabond, smelling of sand, sweat and engine oil?”

I grinned, and then ducked my head, "I would not have noticed the dirt, if you had not mentioned it... just the man under it."

He laughed, and doffed his pith helmet in a sweeping bow, “Shall I call on you this evening? I saw a lovely place in Harborside just before I left. Waterfalls, cavorite, scenic beauty that would pale next to your own radiance....”

I giggled at his exaggeration, and we made plans to meet later that evening. When he escorted me to the ballroom, balanced precariously on a free-floating hill of cavorite ore, I did have to admit it was beautiful. It was odd to find such a fantastic setting could feel familiar, but it did somewhat resemble the lake at the schloss. My confusion ended when I noted the signature. “Oh! this the the Doamnă's work?”

“Yes, indeed. She has quite a grand touch, and she's a dab hand at dance machines.” He muttered, "Who would have guessed?"

His tone caught my curiosity, and I asked, “What, that such a straight-laced organizer would be good at dance things?”

He chuckled, “Ah. Something like that, yes.”

“I think she must be sitting in the corner, scribbling, with all the notes she has for me the mornings after dances.” I sighed, “She often puts in full day at the office before a ball, and the day after. Sometimes I think she does not sleep.”

Perun asked, “Perhaps she is one of those who needs little sleep? History has known such. Usually quite brilliant in their fields... office, dances, lab. Does she have any hobbies?”

That gave me pause. I realized I had no idea what she did when she was not on duty. “I... am not sure.” I giggled and pointed to the waterfall backdrop, “She builds a bit.”

He glanced over his shoulder where I had indicated, and smiled. "A bit, yes."

Still, his comment had me thinking. "If she does not enjoy her work, or the dances, I do not think she does have a hobby."

“Building and dancing are certainly creative work, they could be hobbies if she enjoys them, of course.” He looked thoughtful, “Some who seem driven are in reality changing constantly between things which give them joy.”

I bit my lip, thinking hard again. "Her husband has been away a long time. I don’t even recall seeing him during Master Wolfgang’s troubles. Perhaps she is filling time."

I was still deep in thought when he asked, “And how do you fill your time?” When I looked up, he caught my gaze with his and smiled.

I sighed, "Work, mostly... some research for the Doamnă... and unseemly dreams." I blushed scarlet, but did not turn my eyes from his.

Perun quirked a small grin, eyes twinkling. “We're alone, Sweet Mary, quite alone -- what manner of thing would be ‘unseemly’, pray tell?”

“Well, sometimes we are dancing, and sometimes, “ I flushed deeper, "....y’ canna really mistake it for dancin’...."

He chuckled, “... and yes. Quite often I believe I dream the same.” and he winked.

Searching for a change of topic before I embarrassed myself, I murmured, “I was glad you were able to write, this time.”

“As was I -- you got them all, then?”

“I think so, one about every four days?” At his nod, I continued, “It didn’t keep me from worrying, but it made the worry less sharp. I did write back, but I fear they are waiting for you at your lodgings.”

“Ah. Not to worry -- awkward to find me while travelling, regardless. And I can enjoy them at leisure now.” He then distracted me by asking, “ So tell me what you think, Sweet Mary: I've changed one outlandish garb from another, fished it out of my pack before I called on you -- thought I should have something appropriate to wear in Shanghai.”

I smiled at his sudden preening, “It is a lovely blue, close to what the Baron wears to the Shanghai festivals. His is patterned with birds, I think."

“Ah! Of course. Wulfenbach Blue, very old traditional.”

I nodded, "One of the many costumes he has that give Mrs Parks fits with the special laundry steps." When he chuckled, I said, “She was hired locally, when it looked like the school and the office staff were going to need a household manager. I have begun to help out in the kitchen, now and again. Mrs Parks has been learning to cook things from home, and I am learning what to do with some of the local foods.”

“Oh, capital! A versatile cook who is also a patient laundress is worth her weight in gems.”

“The stories that Mr Messenger tells about the ‘local specialties’ she served when she started are very funny.He's a bit of a food snob, but then his home village was outside the Wastelands.” I smiled, "He’s been a bit like an older brother to me here, helping me learn the assistant’s duties."

“Then I should make a point of meeting him, wouldn't you say?” I giggled, and he continued, “Are you still happy in your work, then?” His tone sounded as if he was trying to distract me, or himself.

“I am happy. It is work I can do well, and with good people...”

He smiled into my eyes and lightly squeezed my hand. "I'm glad."

I sighed, “ ...well, most of them are good co-workers.” At his prompting, I continued, "There is a courier, she isn't one of the good ones..."

I felt him tense slightly, “Dangerous? Or merely annoying?”

I shrugged, “Nothing threatening, just - she has been harsh to me at times, but I have friends in the office to help.” Giggling, I said, “She has called you my imaginary beau, before...”

His eyebrows were expressive above his goggles, “Ah! Yes, the phantom, the figment, the elusive....”

A sudden memory made me exclaim, "Oh! Mr Messenger has seen you, though you have not been introduced."

“Has he, by Jove? Where were we when we met?”

I blushed again, “He spotted us on your balcony, when we were, ah - very distracted.”

He chuckled, then frowned and muttered, "Messenger, Messenger .... ah! You mean my neighbour, of the opposite balcony!" I nodded, and he continued. “We haven't spoken, but each knows the other is there, I believe. I've admired his curtains. In fact, I've added curtains, you know! It quite opens up the flat, counter-intuitively enough.”

“That does seem backwards.”

“Ah, well! I'm able to block off the windows, you see, so I'm no longer having to use furniture to the purpose. One large room, instead of three smaller ones. Enough room to waltz now, I daresay.” At my blush, he chuckled again, “I did indeed mean waltzing, mo cridhe.” Then he whispered in my ear, "Other things need less room."

We danced a few moments longer when he cleared his throat, and said, “I heard the newsboy at the train station say the city had raised an impressive total for the Relay. Did I hear that the Sheriff would be shaving his head in celebration?”

I nodded, “They say it will just be his human head."

He frowned a bit, “Ah, the werewolf rumours?”

I shrugged, "He is the one who took charge during Master Wolfgang's problems, so I canna say what is rumor or no."

"Regardless, a quarter million lindens is noteworthy for a city the size of Steelhead."

“It is a growing city, but still manages to not be... overbearing.” I shivered a bit, thinking how lost I felt whenever I had duties that took me to New Babbage.

“Mo cridhe? Are you cold, then?”

I shook my head, “Ninini - I - I just don't care for big cities.”

He nodded, "Children of the country, you and I, yes. Although cities have their use, and appeal ..."

I shook off the feeling and went on, “We have been busy in the office, but I heard there were insane amounts of money raised at auctions all over since you have been away.”

“Insane? How insane?”, he chuckled.

“Several thousand lindens for several of the auction lots, by themselves.”

He let a little surprise show on his face, “Indeed? What manner of lots went so high?”

“Some gowns and dates, though the doamnă was very upset that the Baron was the first one on the block for New Babbage. He volunteered, but still, the first lot is always low.” Perun raised a skeptical eyebrow, but I continued, “He went for only L$4000 this time, and she was furious... not so anyone outside the office would notice. She only broke four pens the day after.”

He raised both eyebrows in surprise, “They auctioned off Baron Klaus Wulfenbach?”

I nodded, “It was for a dance at the ball. The date auction two years ago was much more.”

He was perplexed, and he slowed his steps in the dance. “I .... see. How much more?”

“Office rumor is all I have to go on. I think someone said it was at least L$30,000. You haven't been to many of the big state balls, have you?”

He looked as if someone had smacked the back of his head with a board, which is understandable, for that amount of money. “And this was for charity? Hmm. No, I have not had that pleasure.”

I nodded, “Da, the charities are a lot of what they do, especially summer and fall.”

He seemed distracted, still, but went on, “Do they really? How odd, I wonder why ...”

When he did not say anything else, I went on, “Anyroad, from the reports I have seen while filing, the big state affairs can have a 3 to 1 ratio of women to men in attendance. So, having the Baron dance with someone as long as they care to have him is a selling point.” I did not realize I had sighed until Perun asked me about it. I explained, “I would have to be up on my hand-to-hand if we were to attend one of the Babbage affairs. Even though they haven't really have a fistfight on the dance floor in over a year, from what I have heard, the single girls can get pushy.”

“And if I choose to dance only with the most beautiful woman in the Steamlands, they would try to cut in, would they?”

I nodded, ignoring his exaggerations again, “They would try, da - I do not share well.”

“Good. Neither do I.”

“I might need some steel-toed dance slippers to make my point,” I said with a grin, and snuggled into his arms.

“Ah, my formidable flower! Trained with your auntie, am I right?” I nodded, and he continued, “It does my heart good to know you have such training, mo cridhe.”

“She did not have time to teach me the full combat dancing forms, but she did give a few pointers.” I looked up at his chuckle, and he dipped his face in to mine for a quick kiss. Well, it started as a quick kiss, but the embrace was no longer pretending to be a dance. After a few moments of eternity, I sighed contentedly, "Missed you terribly, mi dragul."

“And I, you, mo cridhe... I... should see you home. Before I am any more tempted to take you home with me...”

"Before I am tempted to let you, da," I agreed, softly.

He kissed my cheek, “Someday. And that doesn't help the moment, does it?"

I quietly said, “Promise.”

He nodded, taking a deep breath. "Promise. And now, shall I see you back to your lodgings, my Sweet Mary?”

I wrapped my arms around his neck and breathed softly into his ear, "Best do it now, before we get carried away."

He growled a little as he stepped back, “I would like to get carried away. But... you're quite right, my heart, mo cridhe...” and he held out a hand for me, smiling. When I took it, he tucked my hand into the crook of his arm, and walked me back to the hotel. In the lobby, I took him by the lapels and kissed him soundly, under the disapproving eye of the front desk clerk and the concierge. He chuckled softly when I released him, “Sweet dreams, Sweet Mary.”

Blushing, I nodded, “See you there, mi dragul.”

“Always, mo cridhe,” then he stepped back and kissed my hand. Halfway up the spiral stairs to my floor, I noticed him speaking quietly to the concierge, their hand movements suggesting a surreptitious gratuity being passed. I quickly moved on before they could notice I had paused.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Unsettling Times

I never know what to expect here.

Doamnă has been shut in her office most of the day, not even coming out for tea.

I dropped off some files for her review, and she barely said anything. She usually has questions for me.

I hope there has not been bad news from home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Spring, Memories and Thoughts

Spring has come to Steelhead, yet I find no joy in the season this year.

In my home village, spring brings relief from winter's grip, and at the schloss it was the signal that the caravans would be mounting up as soon as the roads dried out sufficiently. Travel by airship is dangerous to mountain holdings, due to the capricious winds, so it is reserved for only the most dire emergency, though passing over the mountains is safe enough by air. And if spring means the bandits start oozing out of their foul dens at snowmelt, it also means more sport for the Jaegerkin.

Things are a bit softer here. The area around Mt St Helen is still wilderness, but if one of the neighbors has troubles, help reaches them quickly. The one place that gets more dangerous once the weather warms is Shanghai, but I have not had occasion to go there. He has not been back long enough to visit. If it were not for the brief notes he drops off in the dead of night at the hotel front desk for me, I would not know he had returned at all.

Luckily, the teasing of my co-workers in the clerks' den has found another target. No longer do I have to hear jests about my imaginary beau, thanks to Mr Messenger's courtship. I have only listened to the gossip with half an ear, partly because of my assignments for research my doamnă asks of me. Truth is, I am envious of his arrangement, where his beloved is safe here.

The sniping back-and-forth between him and Miss Davies reminds me much of the bickering between my older siblings, so I am able to tune much of it out. It is harder to not notice the spells he has when he grins foolishly at the pictures of Miss Burton that he keeps on his desk, and writing notes to her, slipping out to the post-box at the corner at odd times.

I keep Perun's picture in my desk, it keeps the teasing from having a focus. However, tuning out the bickering meant I did not notice when it slowed down. I thought I was keeping quiet enough I would escape notice, when that rather odd courier breezed through yesterday. Miss Bialowsky is one of the more... blatant and aggressive women here. Back home, she would have been mistaken for one of those fast British girls. She stopped at my desk and asked in a loud and snide tone how my courtship with my imaginary beau was progressing.

It could not have hit at a worse time, as I had been fretting over not hearing from him in the past two weeks. I sat in stunned silence, looking up at her sneering grin, and all I could think of was that I was not going to cry in front of her. My rescue came from an odd quarter. Miss Davies tore into her for her attitude, "Don't you start that garbage here again! I suppose your loose ways are better? It's embarrassing to us all the way your escapades reflect on the rest of us!"

Then, of all people, Mr Messenger stepped in. As the Baron's secretary and personal courier, he ranks the rest of us, but I had never seen him use it before. I was afraid he was going to dress down Miss Davies, but he addressed Miss Bialowsky instead. "There is a reason why you have not been assigned a permanent office, here or at any other outpost. Your manner is too familiar to your betters. Your attitude to your co-workers is too superior, even though you have the highest number of lost packets of anyone in the courier service. You are already on report for falsifying expense accounts, assaulting Consulate allies and inappropriate behavior. Do you want to add insulting the Vice Consul's assistant to that list? I am sure there are quite a few here that would not have any trouble filling out the report."

Miss Bialowsky stared at the circle of people that had gathered around my desk, then turned an ugly shade of red and stalked out of the ring of observers. Mr Messenger nodded, and said "That will do for now, let's get back to work." Then he sat down at his desk as if nothing had happened. I found the files that needed to go to the archives and hurried off before anyone could say anything.

An hour later, Miss Davies found me at the card-catalog desk near the cold storage. It was the least-used office in this peaceful posting, and the drafts could explain my sniffles. "She's gone now, and the others have mostly forgotten her, except the ones filing harassment reports. You might want to let Missus Lowey know what happened, though." She handed me a handkerchief, and continued, "At least you have someone, which she doesn't, no matter how many assignations she might say she has had. She's envious of your devotion to your beau, figment or not."

"My neighbor is not a figment of her imagination." The voice at the door was Mr Messenger, shrugging a bit in apology for eavesdropping. "Though I did not think it was best to tell the entire office you two were snogging on the balcony last month."

I blushed, "Thank you both. I hope you can meet him, he is supposed to come see Doamnă Lowey soon." Mr Messenger coughed, shuffling his feet, and I blushed harder. Miss Davies was confused, until Mr Messenger said, "Yes, well - at least he is following the forms. Now that I know you are still researching, I can report you are all right."

She turned to me, "He hasn't given you a ring, has he?" she asked, looking at my left hand. I showed her my right hand, saying, "It is a promissory ring, until he has official permission to court me."

"That sounds... complicated." Miss Davies looked doubtful.

"It is a little old-fashioned, and some might call it backwoods, but I think I like it that way." I touched the ring again, smiling.

Mr Messenger chuckled, "Even if his picture in your desk is not that old-fashioned." I blushed again and laughed as Miss Davies threw a paper-wad at him. It felt almost like home.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Feast of St Valentine

I stopped by to deliver a present for Perun, to commemorate the Feast of St. Valentine, which is admittedly much more raucous here than at home, but still quite fun. Since I do not have kitchen privileges, I cannot make treats myself, so I hoped he would not mind something from the bakery. My intention was to drop them off at his doorstep, but has he had both doors open wide to the unseasonably early spring, he invited me to take in the view. I handed him the pasteboard box from Rosehaven, and let him escort me to the balcony, where he does have a wondrous view of the harbor.

He grinned as he set the box of pfeffernuesse on the window-ledge, and drew a card for me from his jacket. Tucked inside the card, I found a gift as well, a necklace with a delicate pendant, depicting a crowned double-heart. "Do you like it?", he asked.

"Yes, I do," I nodded, fingering the intricate design. He explained some of the history of the design to me, and I felt as if he was telling me history of a place where he had lived, though he made no mention of a home.

He concluded with, "I understand they became quite the trade item with the natives of this continent. It is an old symbol, and one I feel suits you. Suits us. But its beauty pales next to yours, mo cridhe."

"It is beautiful," I murmured, colouring as I put it on, "I feel a bit cheeky for wearing a wedding symbol before time."

He chuckled, and helped me with the clasp. "Ah, these days it's not as strict when one wears that. But please, Sweet Mary, remember to wear it on your wedding dress? I looked for a brooch, but could only find necklaces. Perhaps we could have a pin set on it instead? Up to you, of course, mo cridhe."

"I will keep it close to my heart, in any case." As he smiled down into my eyes, I felt very warm, and ducked my head, scanning the horizon. Desperate for a distraction, a new building on the street caught my eye, "They have rebuilt the dry dock as a mercantile?"

He moved to stand behind me, apparently to have a better look at where I pointed. "I believe you're correct .... funny, they must have done that while I was away."

Away, odd how that one word can give me such a feeling of dread, now. I nodded and turned to look out over the harbor. When he asked what was wrong, I simply said, "I just enjoy being here with you while you are ... not travelling." I was still avoiding speaking of my fears, just for the moment. He nodded, thoughtfully. I changed the tangent of the conversation, if not the subject. "I... I visited my parents this week, during the courier run... actually, I was ordered to take the time to see them."

"Oh? Are they well?"

"I told them about you."

"Ah..." he frowned inwardly, then said, "I should have asked for your hand before getting above myself. Are they very angry?"

I shook my head, "They are hoping to meet you someday, but know how hard it is to get leave, especially enough time to travel as far distant as our village is." Then I paused, and finally admitted, "The thing is, I sort of hedged about whether or not you had been introduced to my doamnă ."

He smiled, "Ah. Yes. I believe we have met, at various functions. Perhaps?"

I smiled at his attempt to put a proper spin on the situation, "Well, she might know you as a neighbor, but not as a suitor. She has said she does want you to stop by for luncheon some time when she is in the office. I am... not quite in trouble, but she is my family's representative here."

"I would not have you in trouble on my account, mo cridhe."

I shrugged, "I explained you are on call and travel a lot, so you might not be able to match schedules. I... I have been a bit selfish, wanting to keep you to myself when we are able to meet. I don't want to miss any time with you."

"Nor I with you, mo anam cara. But there are duties that must be performed, to both lieges and family. We should arrange for me to meet her properly."

I nodded, taking his hand in mine, and whispered, "I dance with you because we get to touch, as much as we dare before the paperwork is filed." He gripped my hand firmly, and with my other hand, I reached up and touched his cheek, trembling. "I know you cannot tell me about your work. I do not want to know, just let me pretend," I lightly touched my fingers to his lips, "I can almost believe you are not in danger when you are gone, that way." He covered my hand with his, lightly kissing my fingertips. I closed my eyes, and put my head on his chest as he wrapped me in his arms. I sighed, and said, "I know, I am not supposed to talk about it, but... being so far away from the places we share this week made me think too much." I slid my hands over his waistcoat to circle my arms around him.

He chuckled in response, "Is there such a thing as thinking too much? What conclusions did you draw from this too much thinking?"

"That even if my parents had forbidden me to see you again, I could not stop. They have told me I think too much about this sort of thing, but with my youngest sister having the peţitoare ask after her, they were expecti-", I froze, as my hand encountered the hard item at the center of his back. I took a deep breath and resolutely moved my hands up to his shoulder-blades, and continued as if nothing was odd, "they have been expecting me to find a husband pretty soon anyway."

He noticed my hesitation, and reached a hand behind himself, bringing it forward to display a small gun in the palm of his hand. I looked at it, then up to his eyes. "Sweet Mary, I'm not the only one to go armed in this part of Steelhead. But please, it would comfort me to know you had something to protect yourself. Please take this as a gift -- you are the first to ever find it there." Then he smiled at me.

I blushed, and nodded, "All right. I am more used to rifles, though." I looked it over, checking for a safety, and tucked it into my bustle. "Now I have more reason to be graceful when sitting." At his chuckle, I smiled up at him and murmured, "I will find a place to practice away from town."

"Perhaps we can practice together? I'd love to see how you handle weaponry." I blinked and blushed, to which he raised an eyebrow and chuckled again. "You seem to know your way around guns. The more I know of you, the more I love you, Sweet Mary!"

I shrugged again, "Well, the schloss was a military post, originally, and it does guard a trade center, even if it is a small one."

He nodded, "And the duties of a clerk include training in small weapons?"

"Everybody has weapons safety, that was on the orders of the Doamnus ever-so-many-greats ago. The one that got the title awarded for service to the Heterodynes, he made sure that one of the rules for staff was to be able to protect the village-that-was-then. Of course, my doamnă's grandda, Magister Horatiu served during the Long War, and found out it was handy to have a staff that could hold the schloss at need. So everybody was encouraged to find something that suited them so they could help defend if the bandits got bold while the full-time soldiers were out taking care of another problem."

"Of course. That's only sense, really, but many who fear for their own position prefer to keep weaponry in only certain hands."

I paused, not sure of his meaning, "...I don't think the current Doamnă of the schloss quite understands that. She is more about knowing everything."

He nodded, "... and this is your doamnă's mother, correct? Or grandmother?"

I shook my head, smiling slightly at my doamnă's mother being mistaken for the Old Bat. "The current Doamnă of the House is her papa's mother. She is... kind of slimy-sneaky. I was quite happy to be assigned to my doamnă. She is a lot more honest with me and the rest of the staff."

He nodded, "You've found a good mistress, then. I'm glad."

"She sometimes forgets to tell me all of the steps, sometimes, but most of the time it is because her head is so full of things. I think... there are some who say she is with the Baron because she is a Spark. But she says no, and I don't see her in the big laboratories, except during inventory or staff reviews. As far as doing Sparky things, I haven't seen it. The only time I ever heard of her getting angry, much less in the madness place, was when Master Wolfgang had his troubles."

"Ah, the werewolf incident? How is the boy now?"

I shivered, thinking of what might have been if he had not come out the other side of his troubles, "He's back to being a Sparky boy, and runs with the Jaegers. I do not see him much, because he is one for the lab." I paused, and murmured, "He spends most of his time in the school and with the uncanny ones, lately."

"The uncanny ones?" he asked.

I shrugged, and said, "Da, you know how the town has all sorts in it, and they are not all local sorts, y'ken?"

"Well, there are the werewolves, and the Jagerkin. The cat people, the rabbits and foxes who walk upright. Elves I've seen, and Faeries ... Who else?"

I nodded, and murmured, "There's a mort o'fae and fae-touched about. People who're just tales back home... and then there's the ones what used to be in the Foundation off on the west side o'town."

"Ah, yes. I've heard rumours ..."

I shivered again, "The ones who are left seem to be nice folk, when it comes down to cases, but the way summat *looks* at you and you wonder if you have any secrets from them ever. Most the time, they seem like normal humans... and they work with the Sheriff and the Order of the SWAT, so they seem to be on the side of order."

He looked at me, very serious, "We all have secrets, love."

I looked into his eyes, and nodded. "We all do, some secrets bigger than others, and I know you canna tell me ... some things."

"Someday, mo cridhe..." he said, and I stopped him with a gentle finger on his mouth, "I'ma pretending ort, ne?" I smiled, blinking back tears. He kissed my fingertip and managed to distract me with an embrace and a kiss. As he gathered me closer, letting one hand drift down my back -- to be brought up short by my bustle.

I muttered, "Careful, that might go off, now."

He started chuckling lightly, and hugged warmly. "And here we are, not even formally engaged, spooning in sight of all of Shanghai. Sweet Mary, you do make me forget everything but you!"

I snuggled against his chest, "Right now, I don't care. I am tempted to go into the office to fill out the paperwork."

"Would that you could, mo cridhe! Soon, I hope."

I sighed, resting my head on his chest, "Soon."

He rested his cheek on the top of my head, "The sooner the better!" A few more moments of cuddling, and he said, "Right, distractions. Tell me more about your doamnă -- what am I up against, for her approval?"

My first reaction did not require thought, "Be honest with her. She has had to deal with politics getting in the way, with the Fifty not helping when it does not profit them." I thought a bit more, "I don't know how she manages to keep all the appointments she has straight, but I do know she hates to be late, or deal with someone being late for no reason. So if you canna tell her something, tell her that you cannot, don't lie to cover it, and if you say you are going to be somewhere, be there when you say."

He nodded slightly, "And how does she treat you? You say she's fair and kind?"

I moved back from his embrace a little, putting my hands on his chest. "It isn't like she is family, exactly. I would not go to her to ask something I would ask my aunt, or my sister. But she is understanding of family ties. She seems to take loyalty very seriously. It isn't an empty speech when she says the oath." I looked down at my hands, "She has not given me a task that is impossible, yet. Only improbable, but she told me where to get help. It might look like she is not working all the time, but I usually have a stack of notes to file for her whenever she gets back from a ball."

"So: hardworking, caring, subtle, honest, realistic yet challenging of her assistants, understanding of family, a believer in loyalty. She ... seems to be someone quite admirable." He seemed a little confused by the assessment.

"Oh, she isn't a saint, by any measure. She's pretty scathing of people who don't even make an effort. I'm pretty sure she has a few people she would not mind if they had a horrible accident. But she wouldn't arrange it unless the Baron needed it to happen... I think."

In my pause, he asked,"Or unless the Baron were in danger?" He raised an eyebrow, "If loyalty is as strong as you say, that would be reasonable."

I frowned, and tried to find the words I needed in English. "If anyone was a serious threat to the Baron or family, I am not sure they would ever be found. She might mislabel the body parts in storage to hide the body, and she's the one in charge of the system, so I am not sure anyone would know."

He chuckled, "Now there is a brilliant idea."

I shrugged, "But that is just my first impression. I think she would be careful enough to make sure it never rebounded on the Baron. Or if it did, she would take the blame."

"And you believe her to be that loyal to him? Hmm." Now it was his turn to frown.

"He is a very hard man to work for, but he has had to do some hard things." It was difficult to explain the difference to people who had never visited home to understand.

"One hears rumors, of course, about both of them ...."

I frowned, "What sort of rumors?"

He spoke lightly, with a chuckle, "Oh, the usual that follow rulers and their leftenants about: that he's an unfeeling tyrant, that she's a bloody tool in his hands, that the oppressed long for freedom. That sort of nonsense ...."

"Ppfft, like he don't make sure the town councils are taking care of the people or she won't tell him how the cow ate the cabbage if he's turned about." He chuckled, and I was quick to say, "She's respectful, and all that, but there was that tone she used during the New Babbage Election, sounding kinda like Ma askin Da if he was sure that goat was tame enough to be saddled." At his chuckle and nod, I went on, "T'werent a big secret how relieved she was when he dinna win the election."

"Well, yes, I'd imagine it would have been far more work for both of them."

"No lie, and the rest of us as well." I sighed, and said, "I wish she would get more exercise than just dancing, though. She gets too pale, sitting behind her desk all the time."

"Not everyone can be a sun-kissed country girl, mo cridhe!" he said, tapping the tip of my nose, and I giggled. Then he jokingly said, "I hear she works out with the Jägers."

I giggled again, "She probably would if she had the time. Her sister-in-law nags her about it sometimes."

"Sister-in-law? Oh, the Sergeant?"

"She and my auntie served together a bit, I think."

"Oh? Was your auntie in the town guard?"

I wrinkled my nose, "Na, she was on patrol for a century or so before she mustered out. Had some madboy's thing chew her foot off while she was killing it."

He looked surprised, "Your auntie is of the Jägerkin?"

I felt that twinge of fear, that he would react the same as the others, but his expression was just surprised, not disgusted, and I told him, "She decided she liked my Unchi Radu when he was fitting her footspike. That was... hm, maybe five years before I was born."

He was curious, but not morbidly so, "And they've been happy together ever since?"

I nodded, "She keeps the pigs in the village, and he's the blacksmith. My cousins are serving with an artillery unit in the Baron's service," and I grinned a little. "They say it is quieter there."

"Hmm. I haven't met many of the Jägerkin, perhaps the rumors about them are incorrect as well?"

"Well, tough as nails, enjoy a good fight, have a little different perspective on tactics, that's all true. The only ones that are stupid as 'kin were the ones dumb as a box of hammers before they got the 'brau."

"I ... see. And the tales of blood-soaked cheerful murderers who snack on babies?"

"Tcha, ne - sure there are tales from when the Heterodynes were the evil tyrants, but the babysnacking is just what stupid people tell their children. Auntie Ecaterina likes baking for kinder, not baking of kinder. She told me all the tales they told of the 'kin, so I would not be in trouble for fighting when I went to the schloss."

"For defending your Auntie, you mean? Hmm."

"There were tales that back in the first days there might have been tales told *by* the Heterodyne, to make the armies facing him unnerved when the Jägerkin were the front line, but none of the Jägers I know like babies to eat. They eat anything that does not talk back, sure, but..."

"But the rumors of diabolical inhuman monsters is exaggerated?" He seemed to actually want to know, not just needling me into an argument. "And the Jägers are better than they're painted?"

I shrugged, saying, "I will say there are some of the Jägerkin that were not nice people before they got the 'brau. They were soldiers for a madboy centuries ago when the world was more brutal than now, it's expected. But over the centuries, a lot of the really crazy ones got weeded out, killed dead enough that they could not be put back together. I think... maybe some were left dead for a reason."

"That ... speaks well of the ones doing the repairs."

"I do know that there are some here, like Greegar, who still think Tinies look tasty, but he's one of the ones to patrol with Master Wolfgang."

"So, he is trustworthy enough to watch over the Vice Consul's only child?"

"She trusts him. I think he's a big goof, but there is that banishment from Raglan, so who knows? A lot of the Jägerkin here now are the thoughtful types, in their own way." He chuckled at me, and I rolled my eyes. "You know what I mean, like soldiers who survived." My laughter faded as I heard his watch chime.

He sighed, "My apologies, mo cridhe. Duty calls, eh?"

I did not stop to think, I just grabbed him by the lapels of his jacket, saying, "You *WILL* come back to me," and kissed him hard.

He paused in stunned silence for a split second, then returned the kiss. "That I will, Sweet Mary. Bet on it." Then he smiled, kissed my nose lightly, and vaulted the balcony, rocketboots igniting almost instantly.

I watched him fly off, then locked the doors as I left. I do not want to know. I just want him to come back safely.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Doamnă is Advised

The work I was sent here to do has not been very heavy. The work that my written orders cover, that is. As there are several here from the home district, as well as our Assistant Magistrate, there is some paperwork to be filed. Not really enough for me to be here, honestly. My interview with the doamnă of the schloss was laced through with hints and half-suggestions that I was to funnel the news and gossip back to her. She doesn't seem to be the sort for actionable intrigue, so I didn't report it. She is spiteful enough to want to know all the latest news before her neighbors, though.

That spite is one of the reasons I tried to get transferred. It's hard for me to be that sneaky, because it makes me uncomfortable. I was happy to find out the Assistant Magistrate knew some of what Doamnă Florescu-Loewenstein tried to slip into my orders, and let me know they were optional. She may forget that people are not following where her thoughts lead her, and forget to use enough words so we follow the same thought-track she is travelling at times. But it isn't that she is intentionally withholding information. Security rules aside, she has been very open with me, I think. I was glad that my contract was transferred to her from her grandmother.

So while I am officially here to take care of the Magistrate's paperwork, I am usually able to pitch in on the Consulate work, where I am cleared for the information.This week, with Herr Messenger back in the office after the latest courier run, the workload was such that all of us in the clerk's den had some spare time. I was taking a few moments with an old issue of the Primgraph, looking to see what gowns might be in the second-hand shops this spring. A clerk's pay is not much, even with room and board allowances, besides the fact I also got a good office suit every spring and fall as part of my contract. But sometimes you want something more than work clothes, and I hope someday to need a very special occasion gown.

The staff in general had caught up with everything on hand, because we had word the crates from the printers might arrive soon. All hands would be needed to sort them out for Herr Shilling to take them to the vendors. Not quite the sort of thing we would ship home, even if the Baron and the Assistant Magistrate were among the models. Even my beloved had participated. I blushed whenever I thought about the proof shot of him I had hidden in my desk after the finals had come back from the printer. Though he had not taken his goggles off for the picture, his gaze was... arresting.

Early in the week we were waiting for the books, the Assistant Magistrate called me into her office. I had not received anything from the courier pouch, and it was too early in the year for my interim evaluation, so I was curious. It was even more curious that she had a corpsman set a comfortable afternoon tea for us, a treat that she did not often request for herself. She usually asked me to bring a pot from the staff galley, if she was too busy to get it herself. The capper was she was not sitting behind her desk. That meant this wasn't an official meeting, and she had not had me close the door, so it would not be bad.

She dismissed the corpsman with her thanks, and began serving. This time of year, it was not the blueberry tea that was my favorite, but by the scent I guessed it was the local Shanghai Quarter blend. The rich black tea was a preference among the staff, and not too bad when made carefully. She paused, and before I could remind her I took my tea with one and cream, she proceeded to make it the way I preferred. "So," she began, "You seem to have settled into the post, and have been seeing the local sights?"

"Da, doamnă," I said as I accepted the teacup from her." The work is interesting, and the people here are very nice."

She nodded, sipped her tea (no sugar with lemon), and waited until I had set my teacup in the saucer before asking, "One person in particular, da?" I blushed, and nodded, while she continued, "One I have not met." Her eyebrow elevated, and I realized I had made a mistake.

"I apologize for not telling you sooner, doamnă. Our schedules have not been such that I see him at a certain time each week. His work has irregular hours, and sometimes requires him to travel." I stared into my cup, momentarily worrying about where he was, and that I had not heard from him since his rapid departure New Year's Day.

"You care very deeply for him." I looked up at her, her eyes reflecting blue light, and she smiled, though it seemed a little sad. She then murmured, "Yet I still do not know who he is... or if he is a suitable suitor."

I blushed, remembering the picture in my desk drawer, "Da, I think you have seen him or at least a picture of him, he modeled for the fundraiser." I set my cup down, "I can go get his file for you?"

She waved me down, "In a moment. If we have a file started on him, he is not as much a stranger as I thought. Tell me about your ring."

I held out my right hand to show her, and said, "He gave it to me saying he could not ask for my hand yet, but that he wanted me to know he would ask as soon as we could be allowed to be engaged."

She chuckled as she inspected the enameled band, "Ah, your intended intended? Sensible of both of you. We will have the security staff review his file, interview him, and send a report to your parents." I was puzzled, and she smiled at me, "It will most likely be a formality, and help your parents feel better about not being able to grill him themselves. Besides, he will need at least basic clearance to visit you in the office without an escort, ne?"

I nodded, "The next time he is available for tea, or maybe lunch, I will bring him around to introduce him?"

"Since he has an odd schedule, yes. I usually have luncheon free, and I can arrange another time, with some warning. We might also be able to have the Captain interview him then, as well." She sat back in her chair and selected a petit four from the tray, idly asking, "Have you given thought to the chapel for your ceremony?"

I fidgeted a bit, but had to admit I had been thinking of it long before he gave me the ring. "I haven't found a House of the Builder here, and the only one I have heard about is in a town that the uncanny folk might not be comfortable in." She raised an eyebrow, thoughtfully, and nodded for me to continue. I shrugged, "I have looked at some other places, but... though they are all pretty, and they seem to be for some aspect of the Builder of All, but... I almost think I might have to build my own."

"There seems to be a bit of a tradition in Steelhead for the bride to build the venue, if not the couple." She sipped her tea again, and said, "If you need help, either building or running interference, do let me know. If I cannot help, I can find someone who can."

We chatted a bit longer, about the venues I had seen, and the new buildings going up as the Managers kept introducing improvements to the area. She was steering the conversation back to my beloved, when a shout came up from the clerk's den greeting the arrival of the crates from the printer. "We will continue this when we are at ease again," my doamnă said with a grin, and we went to help the others unpack.