The tavern was dark and cramped, like everything on the Imperial Skystation. Space had to be preserved when you were trying to keep thousands of tons hovering in the air, but there was always room for ale and wine. The whole place hummed, the walls and floors vibrating constantly with the force of the engines far below.
Praetorian Marshal Lia Song strode through the door into the claustrophobic room, hailed by a gust of icy wind from outside. Her heavy grey overcoat flapped as the door closed behind her. She pushed her goggles onto her forehead and glanced around in the gloom, poorly lit with gas lamps.
An Ethiopian woman sat in one corner, a cup of something in her hand, her feet on a chair. She caught Lia’s eye, then set her cup down. Her finger extended from the handle to the other side of the room. Lia acknowledged her only by turning to where she pointed.
A man huddled at a table, looking like a worried rabbit, nursing a honeyed wine. A typically Roman drink. Lia pulled out a chair and sat on it backward, her arms resting on its back, confronting the man. The rifle slung over her shoulder settled nicely. He looked up, startled.
“Septus Duronius?” Lia said. “You’re a tough one to track down, given that you’re supposed to be in jail.”
His eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Who are you?”
“Praetorian Marshal Lia Song.” She held up a badge, smiling. “Let’s skip the part where you pretend not to understand what I’m talking about. You’re the captain of the pirate ship Red Raven, recently captured, and yet here you sit. You want to tell me why Legate McAvoy let you go?”
“The authorities were told to leave me alone,” Septus said. There was a hint of contempt in his voice — alongside a hint of worry.
“My authority is broader,” Lia responded.
Septus didn’t even glance towards the door before leaping from his chair and bolting for it.
Lia watched him go.
He pushed open the door — and was clocked upside the head by a burly arm. A muscular man with an eyepatch and a green-dyed mohawk bent down and hauled Septus back to his feet, marching him inside.
Lia finally stood, as did the woman in the corner, converging on the pirate.
“Thank you, Brendan,” Lia said to the green-haired man.
He smiled back jovially.
“I was trying to make this easy for you,” Lia said to Septus. “Just answer my questions and you can go, just like the Legate said. The cargo in the Raven’s hold is gone. You were hired to steal it and to get caught. What did you steal, Septus? What was the cargo?”
Septus looked up at her, and she detected a sudden resigned look in his eyes. “Why don’t you ask Vivarius yourself?” he said. And then there was a click, and he gasped, his whole body jerking before falling limp in Brendan’s grasp.
“Jupiter’s ass-crack,” Lia said.
Brendan lowered him to the floor, and turned him over. “Some kind of clockwork thing stuck on the back of his neck,” he said. “Shoved a needle into his jugular.”
“Death collar,” the Ethiopian woman said quietly, looking around the bar. “Someone was watching.”
Lia nodded. “Turner, see if you can find them. Walk soft. Brendan, get rid of the body. We have a banquet to attend.”
She pulled her goggles down over her eyes, and walked outside into the icy wind, thousands of feet above Londinium.
Senator Vivarius. All her investigations kept coming back to him. It seemed only appropriate: it was his involvement in the Imperial East India Company decades ago that introduced opium to the Chinese Empire; her parents had relayed stories to her from the friends they had left behind in China of how it was even now destroying the lives of millions. Now that he was a senator, his influence and his greed had only spread.
She wrapped her overcoat around herself. The sky was grey all around them; the Imperial Skystation Munimentum hovered near the clouds, imposing its presence over all Londinium below. Its massive engines rumbled far beneath her feet, powering the four giant propellers that kept the station aloft. It wasn’t a particularly efficient use of energy, but it was a demonstration of the empire’s power. Several were used in the southeast as flying fortresses, patrolling the Ottoman border, each holding a legion of soldiers and all the services they required.
She wondered if it was just greed that drove Vivarius. The more she saw, the more she thought there might be something else going on. But without more information, she had no way of knowing what.
Of course, as Fortuna’s luck would have it, he was aboard the Munimentum for the special Ides banquet in honour of the recent appointment of Legate McAvoy, new commander of the Skystation.
She frowned. No, probably not luck.
The Skystation was constructed like some cross between an airship and a castra — a military camp or fortress. A single road ran up the centre from bow to stern, the via principalis. At the end was the aftcastle, which was the Praetorium, where the Legate lived and worked. On either side of the via, other buildings sat to house and entertain the legionaries; each extended below deck as well, and their roofs formed the upper deck where the main fortifications were.
Brendan rejoined Lia as she walked down the via principalis towards the Praetorium.
“Handed off to the vigilia to deal with,” he said. “They didn’t seem to want any trouble from the Praetorian Guard.”
“Good,” Lia said. “It’s looking like we’ll have enough trouble.”
Brendan nodded. “I’m looking forward to a break after this. A nice evening at the baths, maybe a night or two with some young nobleman or something. You know, someone who’s not constantly involved in Imperial security.”
Lia grinned. “A visit to Bath does sound nice. Don’t know that we’ll have much time for a break, though. Let’s see how this plays out.”
“Just a chance to get clean and look at naked men, that’s all I ask.”
“Maybe I’ll put in a requisition for you. ‘To the requisitions officer: For my current mission, I require three naked men. It’s a matter of imperial security.’”
“Think they’d buy it?” Brendan asked.
Lia smirked. “I’d love to find out.”
By then, they’d reached the entrance to the Praetorium. The building rose above them, an imposing edifice of authoritarian architecture. Statues of Augustus and Emperor Geminius flanked the large black oaken doors; above them, an eagle extended its wings, meant to make those below feel small, powerless, defensive.
Brendan pushed open the heavy door, and Lia swept inside, her overcoat billowing behind her in the rush of warm air.
“Ah, Officer Song,” a steward said, bowing. “Welcome. The ceremonies are to begin shortly. Agent Turner Lane is already seated.”
Lia nodded, and the steward led them onwards and into a banquet hall. It was small for such a hall — space on a flying fortress had to be preserved, after all — but still impressive. Three large oaken tables ran the length of the room, one raised slightly for the Legate and the other officials. Lia, Brendan, and Turner were at one of the side tables — Lia had been invited when Legate McAvoy learned that a Praetorian Guard would be aboard. It was likely politeness only — the Guard was officially the arm of the Emperor, so keeping on their good side was a priority. And though no one spoke of it, the Guard also wielded power beyond the Emperor. After all, whomever guards the Emperor’s sleeping quarters has the power to change the Emperor.
Lia was not a huge fan of the current emperor, Geminius, who allowed his senators and provincial governors far too much freedom, but her dislike came mostly from his ineffectualness rather than actual corruption. Corruption was Lia’s focus.
She scanned the room as she entered, doing a quick analysis of the guests. There at the head of the central table was Legate McAvoy, an imperious woman who had proven herself as an airship captain on campaign against the Ottomans. Immediately to her right sat Senator Vivarius, who always looked in control of the situation. He was in his fifties, and had been a senator for a decade. He still looked hale and strong. Held himself tall.
The tribunes sat nearby, along with a collection of centurions. The rest of the room was filled with minor noblemen from Londinium, visiting captains, and anyone who wanted some extra social credit by showing up to such an event.
Turner sat in a far corner, with two empty seats beside her. Lia and Brendan joined her. Brendan drew a few looks as they passed — muscles, green mohawk, eyepatch, pretty face, all attention grabbers. Still, it meant the Ethiopian and Chinese women with him drew less notice than they might otherwise.
They took their seats as Senator Vivarius rose.
“Welcome, everyone, to the Imperial Skystation Munimentum. We are here to celebrate the appointment of Fiona McAvoy to Legate of this fortress.”
He went on for some length on McAvoy’s military exploits against the Ottomans and her political affiliations. Lia tuned out and gazed about the room; not too many people she recognized. Doors in the back of the hall led to the kitchens and on to the private living quarters of the skystation’s commanders.
She tuned back in as Vivarius was finishing. “The lamb slaughtered for this feast went without a sound or protest. This is an auspicious appointment. May Legate McAvoy serve the Empire for many a year.”
There was a smattering of applause, mostly from the military attendees. McAvoy stood.
“Thank ye, Senator,” she said in a thick Irish accent. “As commander of this skystation, it is my honour and privilege to welcome ye all to the feast. Imprator Geminius diu vivat.”
The assembled people toasted the emperor’s health. Then McAvoy continued, her voice rising with rhetoric. “The problems of the Empire are many. For centuries, the Ottomans have clamoured at our gate, with ever-improving technology. We are forced to trade with other nations for the bare necessities of life, and to deal with ‘corporations’ like the East India Company. Some, like the Aztecs, continue to refuse trade, and threaten our western colonies. And here at home, provinces shout for ever more power and resources. Even below our very feet, rumblings of protest and revolt creep through Britannia against Roman rule.
“The plight of the colonized, they say. Has Rome not brought us prosperity? Health and technology the likes the world has never seen? For a thousand years and more we have been part of the glorious empire and benefited. And yet those who have not raised themselves up with us blame Rome for their misfortune. It is a sad delusion, but it threatens all we stand for. Therefore, I am pleased that my friend Senator Vivarius is here, and would invite him to announce our new initiative.”
There was a slight murmur through the room — no one had been expecting any official announcements. McAvoy sat as Vivarius stood again.
“Thank you,” he said. “The Senate considers the problems of Britannia very important. Here in the seat of industrialization, you are the heart of the empire. Therefore we have pledged to prioritize the health of the province. And it is my honour to announce that the Senate has decided to station the Munimentum… here, above Londinium. Here, your legions will best be able to provide the safety and security that Britannia needs. Here you will guard not against the barbarians at our borders, who fling themselves helplessly against our walls, but the very heart of the empire. This is an honour of the highest degree.”
Lia frowned and glanced at Turner and Brendan.
“If you have to say it’s an honour, it may not be,” Turner muttered to her.
She nodded. This felt like an insult to the legionaries, but moreso it felt like a disproportional response to Britannia’s problems. There hadn’t even been an actual rebellion yet. Lia didn’t like it.
But the speeches had come to an end, and with a final toast to the Empire, the gathered guests drank and began to feast.
Brendan dug into the food with gusto; Lia and Turner ate more sparingly, and didn’t touch the honeyed wine or British beer.
“I didn’t catch your names,” someone across from them said, helping themselves to some meat pie.
“Lia Song, Praetorian Guard,” Lia said. “This is Brendan Kansky, my lieutenant, and Turner Lane.” She didn’t mention Turner’s official position, since it was best to keep that quiet — she was a member of the agentes in rebus, the Empire’s intelligence web.
The woman raised her eyebrows. “We’re honoured by your presence. I’m Elizabeth Ryan, just the captain of a merchant ship currently docked for a supply run.”
Lia smiled amicably. “Upon the wings of the merchants does the Empire float.”
Elizabeth chuckled. “The helium merchants, perhaps. With the East India Company declaring their independence from Rome, likely only the Americans are doing decent trade these days.”
“I’m sure you heard of the capture of the Red Raven,” Lia said. “What’s the scuttlebutt among the merchants?”
“Faked, of course,” Elizabeth said, leaning in. “Likely a ploy to make the new Legate look good.”
“Anything about the cargo that was confiscated?”
She shook her head. “Plunder from some caravan, I suppose.”
Lia nodded, smiled, and raised her cup.
Turner glanced at Brendan as he forked sausage into his mouth, before returning her gaze to keeping an eye on the room at large. “Hungry?” she asked.
“Always. Anyway, the British know how to cook.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen a green vegetable all evening.”
“I know!” He took another bite of a shepherd’s pie. “But you know how I like my meat.” He winked at her. It was a strange effect, the wink of a one-eyed man, but you could always tell somehow.
Turner just shook her head, trying not to smile.
There was a short break after the first course, as plates were collected and drinks refilled. Several people took the opportunity to stand and mingle, chatter filling the room. Lia stood to casually make her way towards the back of the building. Turner touched her arm — under the table she held a key ring.
“Found these. Might find them handy.”
Lia smirked and took them. “Thanks. I’ll be back.”
“Take your time.”
She walked towards the back, passed a servant — slave — with a confident smile that said “of course I’m allowed to go back there,” and pushed through the door. Cramped hallways led to the kitchen, meeting rooms, and then stairs to a second floor. She took them two at a time.
Her hope was to find Senator Vivarius’s room before anyone noticed her absence. She was unsuccessful.
“Officer Lia Song, what a surprise.” A man stood in the hallway, arms crossed, a coy smile on his lips. He was young, and lithely handsome, and wore the red sash of a centurion with a star on the breast that indicated special status; he wasn’t assigned to the Munimentum but here on special duty.
“Destin Stormcloud,” Lia said, unimpressed. “I would have expected you to be at the feast, with the alcohol, and the pretty women.”
“That would be Centurion Stormcloud,” the man said. “What are you doing here, Praetorian?”
“My job,” Lia responded.
“Snooping into other people’s business?” Stormcloud said. “Such an honourable job it is.”
“Careful,” Lia said. “I can arrest you.”
“I’d like to see you try.” He said it with a hint of lascivity. “But I’m not here to get arrested. I should warn you, though. Drop this investigation.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Trust me. You’ll be better off.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
Stormcloud leaned his shoulder against the wall. “I’m serious, Lia. You don’t want to touch this one. Of course, you could just forget all about it. Touch something else instead.”
Lia snorted. “Not with a ten-foot pole. Anyway, that doesn’t work with me.”
“Ah, of course,” Stormcloud said. “Officer Lia Song, Ace Praetorian. Your loss.”
Stormcloud frowned. “Tell me, who gives you your authority, Song? ‘The Empire’ as if it’s a thing with will? You supercede the Senate, who are elected officials — you ignore the will of the people!”
“We haven’t been a republic in almost two thousand years, Destin,” Lia said. “Besides, who gets to elect those senators?”
“All citizens of the empire.”
“Citizens. Do you understand that I am not a citizen? Less than ten percent of the empire’s inhabitants are ‘citizens.’ The senate is not the will of the people.”
“At least they have someone to check their power. Even the emperor does in the form of the Praetorian Guard; isn’t that your stated purpose these days? But answer me this, Song: who guards the Guard? Who makes sure you do not overstep yourself?”
“And right now, you imagine that’s you?”
“No. I’m just here to give you a message. I can’t stop you, Song. But you should stop. It’ll be better for your health.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Not from me.”
With that, Destin Stormcloud swept past her, and took the stairs down.
Lia frowned when he had gone. What was his warning supposed to mean? She had full authority to investigate corruption in the government — that was her job. The Praetorian Guard had long been protectors of the emperor — but they were also protectors of the empire. In the past, they had even been responsible for “removing” dangerous and ineffectual emperors for the good of the nation.
Their powers weren’t limitless, though. And it would be entirely possible for an “unfortunate accident” to befall her if she stepped on the wrong toes. Which she was sure she was doing. But such were the risks.
She moved on.
It didn’t take long to locate the room Vivarius was staying in. It was the only one with a guard standing in front of the door, in a red jacket uniform, plumed ceremonial helmet under one arm.
Lia walked up and showed her badge. “You’re needed downstairs.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the guard said. He rushed off without question.
Lia waited until his footsteps had faded, then withdrew the keys Turner had handed her. She flipped through them until one fit the lock on the door, and entered the senator’s room.
It was well-appointed for a military fort — opulent even. After all, it wouldn’t do for a senator to sleep in anything less than luxury. A large bed covered with pillows sat against a wall, Chinese silk sheets draped over it. A mahogany desk took up much of the rest of the room underneath an elaborate clock, along with a plush chair covered in Eqyptian linen — quite the commodity since the Ottomans had taken Egypt centuries earlier.
Lia went straight for the desk. A few papers sat neatly on it, waiting for the senator’s attention — minor notices and orders awaiting signatures. A quick glance told Lia they held nothing interesting. She opened the desk drawer, but it just contained spare paper and ink, wax and a seal.
She scanned the room. A trunk by the bed would hold the senator’s clothes and effects, but not likely anything of note. She bent down to look under the bed — aha. She pulled a fine leather satchel from underneath. His personal possessions. She opened the flap. Inside was mostly papers, a book, a scroll, some minor clockwork knickknacks. Quickly, she started scanning through the papers.
One caught her eye, a letter addressed to the senator, the seal already broken. She pulled it out to read.
The cargo has been secured and is on the way to its destination. I trust all is arranged on your end. I’m sorry to hear you won’t be attending the senatorial summit in Rome, but I understand you have duties elsewhere. I hear the sittings promise to be quite fiery.
Inform me when you are ready for the next step. I look forward to receiving your shipment. You know how to reach me.
The cargo — so Vivarius likely did have something to do with it. What was it though? And who is Servius? Lia racked her brain for someone of any import with that praenomen, but only minor officials and soldiers came to mind.
She read over the letter again, to commit it to memory, then slid it back in the satchel. The meal would be resuming soon — she had to get back to the banquet hall.
She carefully replaced the satchel under the bed, took a quick look to make sure the room was as she had found it, then quietly slipped back into the hallway.
…where a half dozen legionaries stood waiting for her.
“Lia Song?” the centurion at the front said. “You are under arrest.”
Lia narrowed her eyes and pulled her badge from her coat. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’m a Praetorian Guard, and I have full authority here.”
“A missive arrived an hour ago,” the centurion said. “There is no Praetorian Guard named Lia Song. You have been impersonating a guard, harassing citizens, and now breaking into a senator’s quarters. Come with us quietly, or we will take you by force.”
Lia blinked. “What?”
The centurion laid his hand on the pistol in his belt. “I said, come with us quietly—”
“I am a member of the Praetorian Guards,” Lia repeated. “I have been given authority to investigate—”
“You are a fraud and a criminal,” the centurion interrupted. “Please put your hands on the wall.”
What in Dis was going on?
You should stop. It’ll be better for your health.
Lia turned and placed her hands on the wall while her mind raced. Clearly Vivarius was involved. She had stepped over some line, and it wouldn’t be hard to convince people she was a fraud — unless she could get access to Praetorian records in Londinium or Rome, it was the Senator’s word against that of a woman of “the Orient.”
But if the Senator was pulling this big of a move, it could mean nothing good for Lia. It was unlikely she’d ever get the chance to access the Praetorian records or contact her friends in the Guard — not that she had many. She’d always pursued her missions with more fervour than was usually deemed appropriate — after all, there could be just as much corruption in the Guard as the Senate.
In the middle of the Praetorium, her only option was to go quietly. She cursed the fact that they were on an Imperial Skystation — without a ship, she was stuck here, at Vivarius’s mercy. And he didn’t have much of that.
One of the legionaries took her rifle while another briefly searched her, removing her knife and the badge she had shown. Then her hands were bound behind her back, and she was forced to turn and march back down the hall towards the banquet room.
A hush fell over the guests as she emerged with the guards. She looked around the room. Vivarius was looking at her intently, the look on his face radiating exultation, though he refrained from smiling. Brendan was being pulled from his seat by another pair of legionaries, protesting until he saw Lia. His face fell, and he acquiesced quietly. Turner Lane was nowhere to be seen.
The guards marched Lia towards the exit. When she came abreast of Brendan, she murmured, “Where’s Turner?”
“Disappeared shortly after you left.”
“Good. Don’t do anything rash, OK Brendan?”
Brendan cast her a glance, a half smile on his face. “I just follow your lead, my dear.”
The guards poked them in the back with guns to get them to hush. As they approached the exit from the Praetorium, they passed Destin Stormcloud, standing with his shoulder against the wall, watching them. His look said I warned you, but there was something else mixed in there. Lia frowned, unable to put her finger on it.
The biting cold of the outside air hit them like a fist. The via principalis was wide, the wind rushing along it between buildings. There were eight soldiers in front and behind them.
There would be no trial, she thought. She’d either be let go after some indeterminate time, with the whole thing passed off as a misunderstanding, but the warning clear — or she’d simply be made to disappear. She thought the latter was more likely.
She sighed. Brendan glanced at her. She didn’t know yet how she would get off the Munimentum. But she knew she couldn’t let Vivarius get away with this.
She glanced back at Brendan.
Then she dropped to the ground, shooting her foot out at the guard behind her with the gun pointed at her back. He tripped, and the gun fired into the sky. Brendan whirled, clocking the guard behind him upside the head with his bound fists.
The guards rallied, pulling guns and swords, but Lia was on her feet and running, ducking into an alley. Brendan ran in the opposite direction.
A pistol fired, and a shower of splinters rained over Lia. She ducked, weaved, and turned down another alleyway.
The skystation was big, but not big enough to lose herself in. Guards were chasing her, and before long a grid search would be organized to flush her out, even if she could hide. But she knew one place where she might not be found — at least long enough to come up with a plan.
She made for the edge of the skystation, around wooden buildings that housed the legions and supported the upper deck. The alleys between them were like a warren, the main ones wide enough for two soldiers walking abreast, others barely big enough for one. Above her head, planks served as bridges for guards and deckhands. Above those, ropes and masts supported the giant helium balloons that helped keep the station aloft.
But the majority of the power that kept the station in the sky came from six huge propellers on either side of the massive fortress. And the force that kept them spinning boiled away in the gigantic engine beneath their feet, sending vibrations throughout the station.
Lia reached the edge of the station, where metal-reinforced walls encased the whole thing. There was a door here — INGENIUM written across it.
She had only moments before guards caught up to her. She sat with her back to the wall, keeping an eye on the entrance to the little access alleyway, while she maneuvered her bound hands past her feet and in front of her. Then she awkwardly pulled the keyring from her pocket, and slid to her feet.
It took four tries to find the right key, but the door opened, and she slipped into the echoing darkness beyond.
She stood at the top of a tight staircase. As soon as the door closed behind her, it was almost pitch dark. She took a few slow breaths to calm her heart rate and allow her eyes to adjust. She could barely make out the outline of the railing. She placed her bound hands on it, and carefully made her way down into the vibrating, rumbling depths of the skystation.
Through another door at the bottom, and Lia emerged into the Complex, the labyrinthine maze of pipes, catwalks, access hatches, and storage rooms that made up the greater part of the bowels of the station, dimly lit by tiny portholes looking onto the greyness of the sky beyond. This was the beating heart of the skystation, the gigantic steam engines that kept it aloft. After the cold of the outside air, the heat from the engines was stifling. She was sweating in seconds.
The guards might suspect that she came down here when they couldn’t find her above. Luckily, it was easy to get lost in the passageways of the Complex, formed more from the space between huge pipes than any architectural intention to make a hallway. They were access points, meant only for engineers. Lia wasn’t sure how they stood the heat; there were many reasons Lia had never become an engineer — not the least of which was her general incompetency with mechanics. She had only the vaguest understanding of how the huge fortress even remained airborne.
She started jogging forward, entering the maze, and started taking turns at random. She tried to remember the turns she took, but it soon became impossible. It was entirely possible she wouldn’t be able to find her way back out again, but evading recapture was top priority right now.
After ten minutes, she finally grew too tired, sweat pouring down her face. She sank to the floor, back against a cooler pipe, and closed her eyes while she caught her breath — and her thoughts.
What had even happened? One moment she was investigating the senator, and the next she was being arrested by people who didn’t have the authority.
Who guards the Guard?
She was being framed for something, that was for sure. She had stepped over some invisible line, and now the senator needed to make her disappear.
That meant she had been on to something. Something big, to warrant her disappearance. They could have just killed her and passed it off as an accident, but that might get too much attention. If they tried to make it so she was never a Praetorian Guard to begin with, they became the good guys.
Something big. But what? Who was Servius? And what was the cargo in the hold of the Red Raven?
It had been a long day. In the warmth of the engines, she felt herself nodding off. She hoped Brendan was okay.
She was thirsty. That was her first conscious thought upon waking. Sweat drenched her body, and her tongue was parched. Years of training brought her mind to focus quickly with regained consciousness, and she started thinking of ways to gather water — condensation, leaks perhaps —before she even opened her eyes. Then she heard a clang, and remembered what had woken her up.
Her eyes shot open. It was dark among the pipes, but light filtered through from unknown sources — gas lamps were spread throughout the Complex for the engineers. A pair of forms were moving through the pipes towards her.
She scrambled to her feet. Had the guards found her already? How long had she been asleep?
Another clang. But it wasn’t the sound of swords. Metal on metal, reverberating through the area despite the constant loud humming. Then voices, indiscernible in the noise.
Engineers, probably. Even they couldn’t find her, though she thought she could convince them not to give her up if it came to that. Lia made ready to run again.
Then one of the forms passed by a stray shaft of light. A form Lia recognized — like out of a dream.
Two figures rounded a corner and into the passageway Lia had slept in. She simply stood still, watching them.
The figure in the lead started.
Sydney was thin, though muscular, wearing loose linens and a leather work belt. Their dark hair was cropped short, their face androgynous.
“What in the name of Vulcan are you doing in my engine?” Sydney asked, aghast.
“Your engine?” Lia said. “You work here?”
“What does it look like? I’m on vacation? After that thing in Paris, I needed a job, I’ll remind you.”
“But an Imperial Skystation, Syd? Really? I never took you for a government worker.”
“These things are masters of engineering!” They grinned. “Anyway, the money’s good. But what are you doing here?”
Lia glanced at the man behind Sydney. He was muscular, dressed in protective leathers, and carrying a large crate. A badge on his shoulder marked him as a slave.
Sydney glanced back at him, following Lia’s gaze. “Joey’s harmless,” they said.
“I could use some water.”
Sydney nodded. “Fair enough. Let’s go back to my office.”
“You have an office?” Lia asked, walking forward as Sydney motioned down the passageway.
“Of course I do. I’m the head engineer.” They moved through the maze of pipes like they had a map in their head.
“Head engineer? Wow.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. I flew your ship through that storm in the Austrian province, and it badly needed repairs at the time.”
“I remember. You saved our lives.”
Sydney glanced at her. “Like that was the only time.”
Lia snorted. “Well, it’s just been Brendan, Turner, and me for a while. We still get in our share of trouble.”
Sydney nodded quietly, then said, “How is Tur—how are they?”
“She’s good,” Lia said.
Sydney nodded, then changed the subject. “I can only imagine why you’re in the underbelly of a skystation.”
“Seemed like the place to be.”
They’d emerged from the pipes and valves, past an enclosed chamber that must have held one of the massive steam engines, and stood at a door. Sydney waved the slave off somewhere and brought Lia through the door. The office was protected from the worst of the engine noise by heavy insulation. A number of instruments of various kinds — compasses, clocks, sextants, clockwork abaci, an elevation meter — sat strewn across a desk, all rendered useless by the incessant vibrations of the engines and propellers.
“Something’s happened,” Lia said. “Something big.”
“Is this going to be a conflict of interest for me?” Sydney asked. They poured some water from a jug and handed it to Lia, who took it gratefully.
Lia explained what she had been doing on the skystation — and the events leading to her being asleep in the Complex. Sydney raised their eyebrows.
“I don’t know. Safe, I hope.”
“Shit. All right, we have to get you off the station.”
Lia nodded. “If I can get away, maybe I can figure out what in Jupiter’s ass crack is really going on. But as long as I’m stuck here, I’ll be too busy trying to stay alive.”
Sydney absently tried to steady the sextant on their desk, to no avail. “And they’ll find you eventually. If it’s as bad as you make it sound, they’ll chase you a long time.”
“I’ll deal with that when I get there. And I will deal with this. There’s something big going on, Syd, bigger than I thought. Senator Vivarius is making some kind of play. I would say he’s going for Emperor, but I don’t know. My gut tells me there’s something else. You ever heard of someone named Servius?”
Lia shook her head. “I don’t know. Just Servius.”
“Sure. It’s a common enough praenomen.”
“Yeah.” Lia frowned, thinking. She needed to get to safety… but she also needed clues. And she needed them before she escaped — after all, the evidence was on this skystation, and would be unreachable once she left. “Where would they take captured cargo?” she asked.
Syd frowned. “Here? Probably just to storage, beneath the Praetorium.”
“Not to a secure vault or anything?”
“It’s a giant flying fortress, Lia. How much more secure could it be?”
“Fair point. Is storage accessible from down here?”
“Can you take me there?”
Sydney hesitated. “You need to get out of here, Lia. I can’t hide you forever — and if they find out I’m helping you…”
Lia turned to look at them. “Sydney, I need to figure out what’s going on. I was just arrested, told I was a fraud. This isn’t some petty senatorial corruption. Something is happening, and it’s happening — to some extent — right here. I need to find out as much as I can. The empire could be at stake, here.”
“It sounds like that isn’t your job anymore, Lia,” Syd responded, unsure.
“The job just gave me the resources. I can root out corruption without it. Are you going to help me, or not?”
Sydney sighed. “You always were driven. All right, let’s go.”
Sydney grabbed a small oil lantern on their way out of the office, and they re-entered the twisting pathways of pipes and steam. Sydney moved assuredly through the maze — Lia was lost in seconds.
It didn’t take more than a few minutes to reach the end of the pipes and engines, on the other side of the fortress, where there was a large metal door with STORAGE written across it in pristine white paint.
“It’ll be locked,” Sydney said.
Lia pulled out her keyring. “Turner already got that covered.”
“Of course she did.”
The room beyond the metal door was dark. Sydney held up the oil lantern, casting dancing shadows across the walls. It was an enormous storeroom, filled with stacked crates of nonperishable foods, casks of wine and beer, shelves of folded uniforms and spare equipment. Lia strode inside, Sydney behind her, and began searching up and down rows of crates for anything that could be the cargo of the Red Raven.
A shadow caught her eye. It moved independently of the patterns from the dancing flame. Lia whirled and crouched low behind a crate — and saw Turner step into the light.
Sydney jumped. “Jupiter’s balls,” they said when they saw who it was.
“Cargo’s over here,” Turner said, as Lia stood again. Then she tossed a rifle towards Lia, who grabbed it out of the air. Her rifle.
“How’d you get this?” she asked.
“Stole it from the guards. When I saw you head towards the walls, I figured you’d meet up with Sydney and get here eventually.”
“Wait,” Lia said, “you knew Syd was on board?”
Turner nodded. “Of course I did. I did my research before we came.”
Sydney frowned. “Good to see you, too, Turner. Didn’t think to come say hi?”
“We were busy—” Turner started to say, then stopped herself. She sighed. “Sorry, Syd. It’s been a while. How are you?”
“Helping a criminal, apparently,” Sydney said. “You?”
“Being a criminal, apparently. From what I can figure out, all of our records have been erased — or at least, McAvoy has papers suggesting our records never existed.”
Lia was moving toward the crates Turner stood by. She tried to pry one open — it was nailed shut. She took the butt of her rifle to it. Wood splintered.
“Where’s Brendan?” she asked as she levered the top off.
“Keeping watch upstairs.” Turner peered into the crate as Lia opened it. Sydney came over too, holding their lamp above it.
The crate was filled with metal parts — from large sheets of steel to tiny gears and screws, brass pipes and valves.
Lia immediately moved to the next crate as Turner and Sydney looked in.
“Clockwork supplies?” Sydney said. “Steam engines?”
“Remaking supplies, perhaps,” Turner said.
“No,” Lia said, prying off the next lid and looking in. She reached down and pulled a paper-wrapped package from the inside. It was labeled Caution: volatile equipment. “Weapons. Bombs.”
The crates were branded with the seal of the East India Company.
“So they apprehended pirates carrying illegally obtained weapon material,” Sydney said. “That seems… like exactly what they should be doing.”
Lia shook her head. “There was a letter in the senator’s quarters. This is… payment. For someone called ‘Servius.’ The senator is deliberately arming someone.”
A door at the far end of the storage room burst open. Lia whirled, hand on her rifle.
“They’re coming,” Brendan called from the door.
“Let’s move,” Lia said.
“We have to get off the fortress,” Turner said.
“They won’t let any ferries leave while they’re searching for us.”
“They won’t stop searching for us until they find us.”
“Then we hide well.”
“It won’t be enough.”
“I have to get out of here,” Sydney said.
Lia turned to them. “We could use you.”
“What for? A meat shield? I don’t think so, Lia.”
Turner watched them, but didn’t say anything. Sydney glared at Lia.
“They’ll find us in the Complex eventually, and we don’t want to implicate Syd. Brendan, where were you hiding?”
He’d pulled a pistol from his belt, looking back up the stairs he’d come down. “The Red Raven. There’s just a couple guards by it, and it’s off the fortress itself, I figured—”
“That’s perfect!” Lia said. “That’s our ticket out of here. Commandeer the impounded ship!”
“Fly a pirate ship, that’s very low-key,” Sydney said.
“We’re already criminals,” Turner said, nodding to Lia.
Lia turned to Sydney. “Syd — there’s just three of us, and none of us know engines like you do. We need you if we’re going to get out of here.”
“What?” they said. “No way, Lia. You’re going to get shot out of the sky.”
Turner turned to them. “Not with you piloting us,” she said. “Syd, you can pilot a cargo ship through a hurricane. You don’t think you can escape an ill-prepared skystation in a tiny pirate ship?”
Sydney looked at her, then looked at Lia.
“It’ll be like old times,” Lia said, the corner of her mouth lifting.
“Do you know how many times I almost got killed in the ‘old times’?”
“How long on a skystation before you get bored?”
“They pay well!”
“We don’t. But we’re more fun.”
Sydney scowled. But it was a scowl of resignation.
“Let’s move,” Brendan said.
“I hate you,” Sydney said.
“At least wait until we almost get you killed,” Brendan replied, grinning.
“Back up the stairs will be cut off,” Lia said. “Syd, can you get us through the Complex, and bring us out close to the Raven?”
“Of course I can.”
The sound of pounding feet came from the staircase out of the storage area.
“Now, please,” Turner said.
Everyone dashed toward the door to the Complex. The far door burst open again, and Imperial legionaries swarmed into the storage room. Rifles fired, bullets ricocheting off the walls. Sydney ducked and yelped — Lia grabbed them from behind and pushed them through the door while Brendan crouched behind a crate and fired back to cover their retreat.
“I hate you!” Syd called back to him.
Then they were in the Complex and running. Sydney’s mind was like a difference engine: they knew every turn through the pipes and steam while the others were lost in seconds. But that meant whoever chasing them would be too.
“They know we’re down here, they’ll have the exits guarded,” Turner said, jogging up next to Lia.
“I know. Be ready to fight. Brendan, give me your pistol.”
Brendan tossed her the pistol; she tossed back her rifle. Then they arrived at the door leading to the upper deck.
“Ready?” Lia asked. The others nodded. Sydney was panting.
They reached the top of the stairs. Then Lia grabbed Sydney from behind, put a gun to their head, and pushed through the door.
“Don’t move or the engineer dies,” she yelled at the legionaries encircling the door on the deck.
They held their fire, looking to their centurion.
“Lia Song and company, you are under arrest!” the centurion said. “Let Engineer Irons go or we will be forced to fire.”
“I’ll kill them!” Behind her, Brendan and Turner were slowly moving into position to run.
“Don’t do it!” Sydney cried. They weren’t a great actor, but the genuine threat of bodily harm lent some authenticity.
“We have been authorized to take whatever measures necessary for your apprehension,” the centurion said.
“They want me that badly?” Lia said. “I’m touched.”
“Dead or alive.”
“Less touched. So be it.”
Lia pushed Sydney behind her and fired at the guards. Brendan fired from behind her as well, and they ran. Shots rang behind them. Lia felt one bite into her side, a spray of blood on the inside of her coat.
“They were willing to kill me!” Sydney said, aghast.
“And you wanted to stay?” Lia gasped.
Brendan and Turner leapt up a ladder to the uppermost deck, then pulled Lia and Sydney up behind them. Soldiers were giving chase. A few on the upper deck spotted them, but they were too far away. Cold wind whipped at them, out in the open; the skystation’s huge balloon loomed overhead like a stormcloud. The sound of shots firing was muffled by the rushing air.
The Red Raven floated nearby, tethered to the side of the skystation on one of the many docking platforms. All its guards were on the skystation looking for them.
Lia checked her side. Blood matted her clothes, and pain pulsed with every heartbeat — but it hadn’t hit anything vital. As long as she got it bound soon…
“You OK?” Brendan asked, at her side, then saw the blood. “By Apollo’s pretty face…”
“I’ll be fine. Let’s go!”
Another volley of shots rang below them as they crouched as low as they could. Staying low, they moved towards Turner, who squatted beside an exterior ladder heading down to the Raven. She waved them through, first Lia, then Sydney, then Brendan, following close after.
The Raven was a small ship, only sixty feet from bow to stern. Its balloon was dyed a worn red colour. They leapt onto the deck.
“Brendan, Turner, get her ready,” Lia called back to them, while she and Sydney headed below decks.
It was a relief to get out of the wind. The relief was short-lived.
“Lia Song.” Centurion Destin Stormcloud stood on the lower deck in front of the helm, arms crossed, fingers of one hand tracing the butt of a pistol in his belt. Two legionaries stood at attention behind him, rifles in hand.
“Centurion,” Lia said.
Sydney looked from one to the other, unsure what they should do.
“Go start the engines, Syd,” Lia said.
Sydney looked at Destin, but the centurion didn’t even acknowledge her. He stared at Lia. Sydney bolted for the stairs to the engine room.
Lia crossed her arms. “Congratulations, Destin,” she said. “You can apprehend the fugitive. That’s what you wanted, right? To guard the Guard?”
“It’s over, Lia,” Destin said.
“We’re going to fly out of here in a minute. With you on board or not. Brendan’s fond of throwing people off the edge of airships.”
The legionaries shifted their grips on their rifles.
“Yes, threaten me,” Destin said. “We don’t already have enough reasons to arrest you. Your little crusade is over. I hear you’ve been stripped of your authority. I guess someone does guard the Guard.”
“You think that’s what this is?” Lia said, stepping forward. “You think I so overstepped the ethical responsibility of the Guard that someone above me kicked me out?”
“I’m sure they’ve just been looking for an excuse.”
Lia snorted. “So someone sent them a message from this skystation, delivered it to Rome, got me fired, and delivered the message back here. In, what, a day?”
“Must have crossed the line a long time ago, Lia.”
“You were the one who delivered the warning, Destin,” Lia said. “You said not to look into the senator. Here. Now. And then I’m suddenly a criminal. You’ve known me a while, Destin. Have I been lying about being in the Praetorian Guard this entire time? What, forged my badge? Faked my relationships?”
Destin stared at her.
“Vivarius pulled some trigger. Here. Now. Because I got too close to something.”
“Because you overstepped your authority—”
“It’s my job to,” Lia said. “I guard the empire. From whatever threat, whether that’s the Ottomans or whether that’s the Emperor himself. I get close to something involving the senator and suddenly I was never even in the Praetorian Guard. Does that seem right to you? Do you honestly think there’s nothing strange going on?”
Destin toyed with the handle of his pistol. Below them, the engine rumbled to life. Outside, propellers began to slowly turn as steam flowed through the pipes of the ship.
“I’ve never liked you, Song,” Destin said.
He pulled out his pistol. Lia tensed. The legionaries brought their rifles up a bit.
Destin glanced at them, then her again.
“I’m not always one to play by the rules,” Destin said, looking at his gun. “So I’m sure you don’t like me much either. But this?” He looked at her again. Paused. “I like this less. You have far too big a stick up your arse to be the criminal they say you are.”
Brendan appeared at the top of the stairs, a question on his lips.
Then, suddenly, Destin leveled the pistol and shot Lia in the leg. It wasn’t a direct hit, but the bullet tore through the muscle of her thigh. She gasped, and fell to a knee. Brendan stepped forward, ready to charge.
“Unfortunately, you got the ship ready to fly before I could stop you. I didn’t have time to get more than a shot off.”
He waved to the legionaries, and the three of them walked toward the stairs to the top deck.
Brendan looked at Lia, who nodded to him, and he let them pass.
Destin stopped at the top of the stairs, and turned back to Lia. Brendan was helping her stand. “I don’t know who guards the Guard,” he said. “But you’re going to have to guard yourself now.” He took the last step, and added, “Good luck.”
And then he and his legionaries were gone.
Sydney emerged from the engine room, looked from Lia to the retreating figures. “What—”
“Get us out of here,” Lia said.
They nodded, and went to the helm. Brendan sat Lia down, then ran above deck to cast off.
There was a lurch as the Red Raven left berth and floated free of the Munimentum, suddenly tethered to gravity once more. The engine roared, thunder accompanied by the cracks of gunshots, like rain on a tin roof, half-drowned by the rushing wind.
Lia looked out the front window, at the grey skies, at the twinkling lights of Londinium far below, as Sydney piloted them away from the skystation, swerving left and right to avoid the fortress’s cannons. Millions of people down below them. Even below our very feet, rumblings of protest and revolt creep through Britannia against Roman rule. The plight of the colonized, they say. Was that the disease destroying the empire? Or was it the immune system, instinctively fighting against a cancer rooted deep in the nation? The subconscious guards of survival.
The Empire was broken. It had been for centuries. It was crumbling around them. But it was crumbling from the inside. Cancerous.
Was it worth saving?
Lia stood, keeping weight on the uninjured leg. Sydney glanced at her, but she stood strong. She was a Praetorian Guard. The first and the last line of defense. For the Empire.
No. For the people of the Empire.
That’s who mattered. This wasn’t about some idealized State; ideals were dangerous. Vivarius was a man of ideals.
Lia fought for the people. And as the airship flew into the clouds above Londinium, she was starting to see that a war was brewing against them.
About the author
Lucas J.W. Johnson is a writer, game designer, and entrepreneur. He’s published several short stories, including Remaker Remaker in Fireside, a companion piece to A Clockwork Heart. He also founded Silverstring Media, a narrative design and digital media production studio, where he’s consulted and written for award-winning games like Extrasolar and Crypt of the Necrodancer, and developed original games like the critically-acclaimed Glitchhikers and the coffee-themed horror game Morning Rituals. Lucas has spoken about digital media and storytelling across North America, and been designing narratives since Grade 3, when he was first introduced to tabletop RPGs. He lives with his soon-to-be-husband in Vancouver, B.C.