Cover design: Corin Spinks. Portraits Alice and Pip: Heijo van der Werf
Background image: CORIN SPINKS, Heijo van der Werf
THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1871
THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER 1871
The tide’s surf pounded the nearby shingle beach – the crash and crescendo of the waves occasionally accompanied by the whooshing of rushing wind. Alice’s heart drummed in beat with the steady soothing rhythm of the incoming tide. She sensed the invigorating embrace of the wind – and let it carry her consciousness skyward in happy anticipation of the safety she always felt in the wind’s lofty secret domain – that hidden world where so few folk ever came.
Alice twitched in her sleep –
She had sensed other presences in the realm of the clouds before, but only vaguely like distant shadows. This time they were closer – and were coming even closer still.
Alice shuddered in her sleep –
Distant and random noise approached close enough to turn into human voices, calling out to each other. Different people; a woman and a man. They appeared to have found one another, their loud calls transformed into low murmurs. Their shadows now loomed into Alice’s view.
“Qu’est-ce que?” The woman asked, followed by a lightly accented. “What ‘as happened?”
“Pize, but I bain’t got the foggiest, Luv,” the man answered. “Bain’t ever been summoned here before…and don’t ‘preciate it much.”
“Summoned,” the woman said pensively. “Sacré Bleu, but eet is a mess, n’est-ce pas?”
“Drop your French manners, I ken ye better than that,” the man grumbled. “Yer one of us.”
Alice struggled, shaking off a hand on her forehead. It was paramount that she discover who these others were. One sounded foreign. Sussex Wind Readers? Or the Rozzer Wind Readers directing the gallearezzas? Were they aware of her? Could they hurt her up here? She needed to know.
“Naun, naun.” Alice resisted the persistent sounds of the waking world urging her to return –
“SKY-GIRL! Wake up.”
“I tell you what,” The man said in a conversation that was drifting out of Alice’s reach. “Two from Lewes last night. No further word from Seaford. No news from Hastings or Rottingdean.”
“So many, incroyable! Mais there ‘as been some news, from ‘Astings and Rottingdean, two…”
“Sky-Girl! Up you get. Liss!”
“Two what? Naun!” Alice curled up and clenched her arms in front of her. It all seemed far too soon. She had no idea what time it was, but knew intuitively it was the wrong time and there were too many unanswered questions, and she felt disorientated – torn from her dreams far too early. “Need…sleep...”
“Sussex stubborn,” Lady C said in exasperation. “Frigging heck bur t’ locals drive us beyon’ reason some of t’ time. Wasp, can thar try ‘n wake us Kittlin?”
“Sure,” Wasp said. “I will…”
Alice heard metal slide against leather, followed by the menacing metallic sound of a gun being cocked.
Wasp wouldn’t? Would she?
“Thunder! Lightning!” Bramble screeched, his wings flapping as he took to the high ground. “Bang! Bang!”
Alice instinctively moved her hands to the side of her head to cover her ears.
“Ayr daft? Put t’ Colt away,” Lady C said angrily. “Wazzock.”
“I was going to shoot my side of the floor. Honest,” Wasp said. “Not your carpeted bit this time – I learned my lesson last time, didn’t I? Personally, I don’t know anyone what doesn’t wake up when a Colt does the calling.”
“Your Colt would call a whole load of other folk. Thar ‘eard what Bollinger’s clerk said. They’ve come a-looking for Kittlin.”
“Quiddy?” Alice forced herself up, squinting her eyes at the dim light of a single lantern and trying to yank her unwilling mind into awareness. “Who’s come to do what?”
Lady C and Wasp turned to face Alice. Their grim expressions banished the last of Alice’s sleep-fog.
Something is wrong.
“We’ve been betrayed.” Wasp said. “Someone has chaunted and let Altringham know that a Fishgut survivor of the Rozzer ambush is holed up in Hastings.”
The only Altringham Alice knew of was Major Altringham of the 9th Dragoon Guards.
She shot up. “Dragoons!”
“All t’ friggin’ Dragoons in t’ world,” Lady C said. “Get dressed, sharpish Kittlin.”
Alice nodded and set about doing that.
“I reckon there’s none of them left at their barracks in Battle,” Wasp said. “They’ve all come out. There’s a mass of them in Ore Valley preparing to sweep down into Old Town. Many more coming down the roads from Bexhill and Battle, headed this way. Right now is a good time to make a run for it, before they’re swarming all over Hastings old and new.”
Alice tried to lace one of her boots as fast as she could, but it wasn’t fast enough because of the endless laces.
Wasp knelt and reached for the tangled laces of the other boot. “I’ll tackle the other one.”
“But we’re in Tamarisk, bain’t we?” Alice asked.
“Tamarisk will fight if attacked,” Lady C said. “Bur they won’t go ta war over an undersized refugee from Brighton. We need ta get thee away from here. Ready?”
Alice nodded and reached for her top hat.
Wasp said, “They’re looking for a long-haired girl your age wearing a top hat. That’s the description.”
Alice looked at her hat with despair. She needed her hat. Or at least her hatpin. She reached out for the hat, but Wasp was faster, snatching it first and sweeping it far behind her with her arm.
“Don’t be a fool,” Wasp said curtly. “Or you might as well stroll up London Road stark naked singing The Bold Dragoon at the top of your voice.”
“You don’t understand!” Alice protested.
Wasp went to her bed and pulled a square chest out from beneath it. “I’ve always wanted one just like this, tempting.”
“Us’ll keep it safe, Kittlin,” Lady C promised. “’Ere, thar might ‘ave need of this.”
She handed Alice a knitted satchel, woven in white, blue and turquoise spiralling patterns that reminded Alice of Scylla’s dress. Inside was a slender wood box. Alice opened it. Her mouth dropped open. Arranged on a bed of red velvet was a small ivory-handled Derringer, and all that was needed to maintain and load it.
“Widowmaker, she’s called. Aym gifting thee this, Alice. Bloody useful at close quarter,” Lady C advised. “At long distance – as useless as a gin-soaked drunk in bed. Thar’d better be careful with it, or ayl ‘ave it back quicker than Wasp can curse.”
“But this is priceless,” Alice objected. “You can’t just give it away.”
“It’s dear ta my heart,” Lady C admitted. “Which makes it a gift ta treasure. ‘N ta ‘andle with utmost care.”
Wasp joined them. “Lady C’s mother gave it to her as a wedding present.”
“A gun? As wedding present?”
“Us dear mother didn’t like the groom.” Lady C explained. “She told us it paid ta be prepared ‘n it might be useful.”
“We’re wasting time,” Wasp urged.
“Aye, we are,” Lady C agreed. “My mother were reit, Alice, ‘n t’ Derringer came in ‘andy. Meaning I’ve nowt use for it, ‘n us shoots bigger guns these days.” She patted the large holster at her waist. “Come, let’s nip on.”
Alice closed the box, slid it back into the satchel, and hung it around her shoulder.
Spotting her letter to Pip on the table Alice quickly took hold of it, hoping they might still be able to get it to Lucy somehow. Now the words were committed to paper it was only right that Pip got a chance to read them – and not some inquisitive Dragoon.
Lady C gently ushered Alice outside. Bramble swooped out through the doorway before Wasp shut it behind them.
The Pig Sty’s central yard was bustling. Bollinger’s clerk had brought along a score of Mericans who were helping the Sons and Sisters of Steam prepare for departure, stoking the boilers, and loading more fuel and provisions. Despite the large number of people, all spoke in low, hushed tones – occasionally glancing in the direction of Priory Bridge.
Upon the appearance of Alice and the Sisters, the SaSoS gathered around the smouldering ashes in the brazier.
Alice looked at Keto. “I want to ride on Ketonski. May I, Keto? Please.”
“Of course, Sky-Girl,” Keto answered.
“Why on Ketonski?” Black asked.
“Because Keto goes the fastest and he likes to blow things up,” Alice answered.
She felt like blowing things up, sure that it would make her feel a great deal better about many things. It always seemed to cheer Keto up.
Wasp laughed. “That’s Keto summed up.”
“It is a good reason, no?” Keto asked.
“That is debatable,” Black answered. “But Liss, you’re back on Dusky until I deliver you safe in your mother’s hands.”
“I bain’t a postmaster’s package,” Alice protested, frowning. “I can take care of myself.”
“I’m sure you can,” Black answered. “Yet I have strict instructions to keep an eye on you, so you’ll ride Dusky again.”
He casually dipped a hand into a pocket, withdrew his mermaid ring and slipped it on his ring finger.
Alice scowled but surrendered – hardly in a position to argue with a mermaid ringbearer in a country where she had used the power it wielded herself.
They departed the Pig Sty, all the bikes pushed along by the SaSoS and Mericans. Alice let her hand rest on the satchel, hardly daring to believe the Derringer was hers. If she wasn’t allowed to blow things up, maybe she’d get a shot at a Dragoon as revenge for cutting her sleep so short.
They followed the narrow road that led to Polymina Palace, keeping conversation to a minimum at a volume that was barely audible over the patiently growling and grumbling engines of the steambikes. They saw very few people, and those passed by in a hurry carrying guns and cutlasses, their faces set in grim determination.
It was busier around the Polymina. A score or more Owlers stood around the open space in front of the beached brig, holding aloft burning torches that cast a fiery glow all around. A steady stream of armed men and women departed from the main entrance, making their way down various streets. Others had taken positions on the weather deck, which gave them a fine field of fire over the streets below.
James Bollinger strode towards the Steam Riders in the full splendour of a Napoleonic Field Marshall’s uniform, laden with so many medals and gilded braiding that it was a wonder the weight of it allowed him to move at all. Less burdensome was the splendid display of plumes on Bollinger’s cocked hat, easily adding two feet to his height.
Bollinger drew a gold-hilted sabre with a flourish and saluted the Steam Riders. “Liberty or Death!”
“You’re naun going to fight them, are you, Guvnor Bollinger?” Alice asked. “Please don’t do so on my account.”
“Fight?” Haddent sniggered. “He’s got a different outfit for that. This is his strutting gear.”
“Yarr, so it be,” Bollinger admitted, grinning sheepishly. “Naun Liss, we bain’t going to war yetner. Howsumever, I can’t just allow the Dragoons to trot into Tamarisk with no opposition at all. So, we’ll put up a show of defiance. I’m off to Priory Bridge dappen I’ve shown you on your way – and hopefully buy you some time. You ken your destinations, my scribblers have dispatches for the Steam Riders.”
The governor’s two clerks, carrying heavy satchels, began to softly call out names.
Pevensey, Eastbourne, Alfriston, Seaford, Newhaven, Lewes, Brighton, Hove, Shoreham, Worthing…
On it went as far as Chichester and even the Isle of Wight.
They distributed small chalk tablets to the Steam Riders who stepped forward in turn at hearing recipients called.
Alice peered at the multiple scratches on the rectangular upward faces of the tablets. They were Owler Script runes, but being passed around as they were made it hard to read them.
Bollinger saw her examining the tablets. “Congress said ‘yarr’ to the outcome of the Small Hastings Moot. We summon Sussex.”
Alice’s expression changed to one of fierce delight.
A proper Owler’s Moot! Like the ones in the ballads. And I helped make it happen.
“Gaffer,” Lady C addressed Bollinger. “Could thar let t’ Chapmans know ayl be on t’ road?”
“I’ll pass it on,” Bollinger promised. “I reckon the Chapmans will keep an eye out on your animals with their usual pleasure, sureleye.”
“Guvnor Bollinger,” Alice asked, retrieving the folded square of paper. “Can I ask a favour? Do you ken Lucy? She works in the Polymina.”
Bollinger frowned. “Works or worked, that be the question. The lass ran out on a shift today. Gone, just like that. Naun a word, tis unaccountable.”
“Aym ta blame,” Lady C said. “Ah meant ta ‘ave a word with thar ‘bout that, James. Twas my doing. She were troubled by one of thas customers ‘n in tears. I ordered the lass ta leave ‘er post ‘n come ta t’ Pig Sty for propa brew. There’s some vile lads that need barring. Lucy’ll know which ones.”
“Ah!” Bollinger looked relieved. “Can hardly argue with a cuppa Yorkshire, can I?” He addressed Alice: “Yarr, Lucy works at the Polymina”, and then turned back to Lady C: “I’ll have a parlay with the lass, I’ll see her right.”
Bollinger turned towards Alice again, apparently oblivious to the grins all around him as the mass of feathers on his cocked hat shook with burlesque vigour every time he moved.
“Could you make sure she gets this letter, Guvnor Bollinger? And tell her it’s for…Matthew.”
“To Lucy, for Matthew?” Bollinger asked, taking the letter.
“Tis important, Guvnor,” Alice said. “Of uttermost importance.” When she saw Bollinger looking at the letter curiously, she added: “And Topmost Secret.”
Bollinger smiled and tucked the letter in an inside pocket of his gaudy jacket. “State secrets are my speciality, Liss. Consider the letter delivered. Could you, in turn…”
Bollinger glanced at one of the clerks who responded by bringing the governor the last chalk tablet. Bollinger took it, glanced at the message, and then held it out to Alice. “…deliver this for me, to be handed personally to the Fishguts Poet in Rottingdean, from the Mericans of Tamarisk, with my personal compliments.”
“From Mericans to Fishguts,” Alice said, proudly taking the tablet – she wasn’t going back to Rottingdean empty-handed after all. “Consider it delivered. Guvnor Bollinger? Do you ken who chaunted?”
The governor grimaced miserably. “Naun, but I intend to find out.”
“Was it Mus Ru…?”
Bollinger shook his head. “Twon’t do to start rumours now, Liss. Those have an ugly habit of taking on a middling life of their own. Howsumever, I won’t leave a stone unturned looking for the gifty blever. I promise you. Mericans don’t take kindly to blobtits , nor to Code-breakers.”
A shiver traversed down Alice’s spine. The Code was clear on punishment. Chaunters and Code-breakers were rarely granted mercy – and Bollinger had spoken his last words with steel resolution.
The governor stepped backward to face all the Steam Riders. “I’ve sent a few lads out to cut the telegraph in so many places that it’ll take ‘em days to figure out what repairs are needed. That gives you a head start and now tis time. Her Imperial Majesty has sent Dragoons to play and you must be on your merry way.”
One of the Mericans who had accompanied SaSoS from the Pig Sty addressed the governor. “King’s Bottom?”
“Yarr, the King’s very own Bottom, bethanks, Gilham. Then straight back here. Barricade yourself and your lads in the Polymina. Don’t open nothing for no-one until I’m back to tell you so. Oh, one more thing, Gilham. You’ll find Chapman on the weather deck, pass him my compliments and let him know Lady C is to be on the road awhiles.”
The Merican called Gilham grinned. “I’ll tell Chapman. But what if you die in valiant defence of the Republic, Guvnor, and don’t come back to tell us nothing?”
“In that case,” Bollinger shook his head with tragic dignity on his face – somewhat spoiled by the plumes on his hat shaking along with wild abandon. “The sun will cease to shine.”
He looked at the Steam Riders with annoyance on his face. “You lot still here? Go! Before I have you tarred, feathered, and outlawed. Begone!” He waved a hand, gesturing regally at a narrow street by the lean-to shelters at the Polymina’s bow.
The Merican helpers and SaSoS gathered around the bikes and trikes again, heaving to get the vehicles in motion and then pushing them towards the alley. Alice and Black waited by Bollinger for the others to pass.
In front was Keto’s Ketonski SP 444, gleaming green and bronze. Keto had decided let the Mericans do the pushing and had run ahead into the alley to scout, no doubt hoping to find something to lob one of his home-made grenades at. Wasp was on his heels, her Colt drawn. Her trike, the black and red Forsaken, was pushed behind Ketonski. Trailing them came the heavy two-wheelers: Lady C’s NautiLass, Gunning’s Sleipnir, and Haddent’s Coffin Dodger. Closing was the second member of the 1066 Chapter, the old sailor on a mono-wheel called Merde.
Merde consisted of a massive wheel easily seven feet high. The double set of spokes at the wheel’s rim curved outward to form a cage around the short axle which supported the driver’s seat and engine.
Alice had learned that the old man was simply known as ‘Loz’ and that the 1066 Chapter had been more numerous until an unfortunate encounter with exceptionally strong magic mushrooms and the Queen’s 4th Mechanised Guard. She couldn’t remember who had told her, but it wasn’t Loz himself. His vocabulary seemed to consist solely of every English curse word that had ever existed – heavily accented.
Loz gave Bollinger a friendly wave and called out: “Au revoir, arseling.”
“Try naun to get yerself killed, Froggy.” Bollinger advised him. “I’d miss your ugly head no end.” He turned to Black and Alice. He clicked his heels and stood at perfect attention, giving them an elaborate salute. “Fair Winds.”
Black replied. “Less mud would be more helpful. Come on Liss, it’s time to go.”
“Fair Winds.” Alice returned the governor’s salute. Bollinger was more than just a Free Trade chief after all, being the ruler of an entire country – no matter how small – and its treasure of ideas about what freedom really meant – for men, anyway.
Black helped Alice up Dusky’s backseat, then swung his leg over the driver’s seat to settle and start up the trike. The near-silent engine began to hum and Black drove it slowly after the others. Once away from the bright torches, Alice discovered that dawn had made a steady advance, the night’s darkness diminishing steadily.
Departure fell less heavy than Alice had feared, consoled as she was by Bollinger’s promise that her letter would be delivered. The letter had allowed her to say a goodbye – and make a promise to return as soon as she could. She tried to imagine Pip’s face when he read the letter, then felt foolish. Would it be special to him at all? Had she just been imagining things? What if he just laughed at it?
The street became a dirt road, and then a rocky path that skirted the base of the White Rock promontory just above the sea’s high tide marks.
“Free Traders call it King’s Bottom, ” Black told Alice.
King’s Bottom was barely wide enough to take the SaSoS vehicles around White Rock and back into England. There, they spread out on the wide beach that gradually rose to the regimented palatial splendour of the St Leonards seafront.
That’s where the Starlings are from.
The Mericans and SaSoS pushed the bikes into a broad row – after which the Steam Riders mounted and the Merican helpers started walking rapidly back to King’s Bottom. It wouldn’t do to be standing behind powerful wheels spinning on a surface of shells and shingle.
Gilham was the last to leave. Before parting, he advised Gunning and Haddent: “Try naun to get noticed too much.”
Alice grimaced. Gilham clearly didn’t know Steam Riders very well. Based on her previous experiences they would display their fierce joy of hitting the road no matter what.
“You heard the man, 1066!” Haddent hollered. “Subtle take-off! That means you, Loz. SUBTLE.”
“Go eat the shrivelled bottom of a diseased goat,” Loz shouted back.
“Nothing fancy now, South Downs!!” Gunning thundered. “Nice and quiet!”
“I hate all this sneaking around,” Wasp complained.
“Behave I will,” Keto promised solemnly, causing much sceptical laughter.
“BamBam good boy!” Bramble added, swooping in to land on the back of NautiLass, right next to Dusky. “Hello, Mum.”
“Eyup lad,” Lady C answered. “Ready for t’ ride?”
Alice quickly slipped on her goggles and instinctively reached up to secure her top hat, before recalling she’d been parted from it. She stroked the macaw-coloured scarf instead and wondered idly what Pip would have made of her new promiskus boots.
Far behind them, in Bourne or Priory Valley, several shots rang out, followed by blaring bugles.
Just before he disappeared around King’ Bottom, Gilham shouted over his shoulder. “Coast clear! Go! Go! Go!”
In perfect unison Gunning and Haddent bellowed simultaneously: “RUBBER DUKE!”
Alice knew the reply and joined in with the other Steam Riders. All ululated like Herne’s Hunters:
Engines roared into tumultuous thunder, accompanied by horns, bells, whistles, and wild battle cries. Fountains of green and bronze sparks spurted upwards from Ketonski’s specially designed firework antennas. Wasp started her on-board gramophone and the strains of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries competed for attention with Gunning’s booming voice calling on a litany of Norse Gods.
“ODIN! THOR! LOKI! BALDER! TYR!”
“DAMN ‘N HELL!” Bramble added from his perch behind Lady C.
Alice grinned. She hadn’t thought the Sons and Sisters capable of holding back, but to give them credit this take-off had so far been a subdued affair compared to SaSoS’s usual preference for high-profile departures when setting out on Chapter Business.
“HEEHAW!” Wasp yelled. She drew her colt and fired a shot in the air, followed by the frantic notes of the Charge call, blown by Loz on a battered bugle. The bikes, trikes, and mono-wheel jolted into motion and thundered forwards. Spinning wheels kicked up a deadly spray of shells and shingle behind them.
Steam Rider eyes shone with fierce joy behind their goggles – focused westwards as they sped along the beach toward the South Downs.
Liking Alice Kittyhawk? There are two novellas preceding Fair Night for Foul Folk that may interest you, available as paperback or Kindle.