Excerpt for The Illustrious (The Sublime Electricity Book #1) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








The Illustrious





a novel

by Pavel Kornev





The Sublime Electricity

Book #1





Magic Dome Books



The Illustrious

(The Sublime Electricity Book #1)

Copyright © Pavel Kornev 2016

Cover Art © Vladimir Manyukhin 2016

Translator © Andrew Schmitt 2016

Editor: Barbara D. Jenkins

Published by Magic Dome Books, 2016

All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 9788088295587




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Table of Contents:



Part One


Part Two


Part Three


Part Four












IN THIS WORLD, THERE WERE no Dark ages; they were called Bloody instead. In this world, the skies were once obscured by the wings of the fallen, striking fear into the hearts of mankind. In this world, science has freed society of its shackles, and the Second Empire, the empire of humanity, stretches from sea to sea. In this world, combat steamships furrow the waters, armored trains await their hour, and army dirigibles float through the heavens. And yet, the delicate balance this world has achieved hangs by a thread. The age of steam is on its way out, and the era of the Sublime Electricity is just beginning. In this time of dramatic transition, even the tiniest deviation in course could topple the world into a vortex of chaos.












"I WILL CUT OUT MY OWN HEART. I WILL GIVE MY HEART TO YOU!"


Phillip August, Steamfonia









Part One

The Fallen


A Titanium Blade and the Power of Imagination


1


IS IT TRUE THAT ALL WHICH is born to crawl cannot fly? Indeed!

People simply were not made for flight, so any attempt at it is doomed to end in a fall. And the faster the ascent, the more disastrous the consequences. Consider, for example, the fallen...


I OPENED MY EYES. I immediately slammed them shut, but it was too late. When I opened them again, I caught a glimpse of the gray-smoke-shrouded sky spinning and whirling above me, creating the illusion that I was lying on a rescue raft in the middle of a giant whirlpool. The mere thought of having to stand to my feet was painful, though, so I stayed where I was, sprawled out in a cowardly fashion on top of the rubbish pile that broke my fall.

I took a timid breath, and my ribs were instantly pierced by a sharp pain. But, when I inhaled a second time, the unpleasant sensations were already on the decline, letting me know that I had been lucky enough to get away with nothing more than a bruise to the back. No pieces of brick, nor broken bottles, as luck would have it, were to be found among the trash heap that took me in its sweet embrace.

That brightened my mood. Overall, I still wasn’t feeling too great, considering the circumstances of my fall but, nevertheless, I did have something to be happy about.

I opened my eyes again.

Gloomy building walls rose up all around me, giving the impression that I was at the bottom of a deep well. Above them loomed a gray sky, hostile and ugly like everything else around. Suddenly, the darkness grew even thicker, foreshadowing the coming of an army dirigible. Its cabin was lined with tightly battened-down square weapons hatches. After that, I saw the tail stabilizers, keel, and Gatling-gun barrels, reflecting back a solar sheen. But next thing I knew, all trace of the airship was gone, as if it had never been there at all.

No matter! It wasn’t as if I’d tumbled out of the cabin of that flying monster. Not at all: I had been sent on a short flight out the snarling maw of a shattered second-story window.

Though, to be frank, saying I was "sent" is rather overstating it.

"Leopold!" the echo of a far off scream rolled over the courtyard. I heard a booming clatter, and a moment later, the voice was closer: "Leo! Curses, where are you?!"

The beam of an electric torch swept over the area; its bright light ran across the walls, sidled off in my direction and went out. Only when my eyes began getting reaccustomed to the darkness did I see a short constable step into the courtyard. He was wearing a police-issue cloak and service cap. His high-caliber lupara was giving me an ugly snarl with the muzzle-end of its quadruple barrels.

"Don’t point that thing at me!" I demanded, frowning in annoyance.

Ramon Miro dallied for a moment, then tucked his weapon into the crease of his left elbow.

"Are you alright?" he asked, looking around apprehensively.

"I will be," I answered tersely but concisely.

"Are you sure?" My hulking black-haired partner doubted, extending his free hand.

I batted it away, irritated. Mustering my strength, I rolled over onto my side, and even managed to lift myself up on an elbow before hearing the jingle of broken glass ring out above me.

A round-faced gentleman of middling years wearing a three piece gray suit and an equally unassuming bowler appeared behind the glass-shard-toothed smile in the window. With the handle of his cane, he knocked yet another piece of broken glass from the frame, then looked at me, his face acquiring an expression of extreme disapproval.

"What happened to that damned succubus, Leo?" asked Inspector White.

I turned my head, first in one direction, then the other, surveying the entire garbage mound I was sprawled out on and smirked unhappily.

"Well... I can say for sure that I don’t see her here, inspector."

"Detective Constable Orso!" Robert White rapped off, letting me know that jokes were entirely unwelcome. "Answer me now. Where the hell is she?!"

"I don’t know," I then confessed. "It’s just... I don't remember much after being thrown out that window."

"A particularly regrettable turn of events," the inspector winced, retreating from the window.

I lied back down and sighed helplessly, then looked up at Ramon and asked:

"Well, what are you staring at?"

The constable gave an ambiguous snort and turned away. On his imperturbable ruddy face there was not a sliver of emotion, but his ostentatious indifference could not deceive me – my colleague's disappointment could be felt almost physically.

No matter! There's still the boss to appease...

I sat up among the rubbish and suddenly turned my head. I hadn't yet managed to come to my senses in earnest. Nevertheless, the back door swung open, and Inspector White appeared on a high staircase.

"Leo," he said with uncharacteristic tenderness, looking around the darkened courtyard with a fastidious grimace. "Leo, what the devil happened here?"

I didn't rush to answer. I first stood to my feet and pulled my split-end telescoping stun baton toward me by its rubber-coated cord, then shrugged my shoulders ambiguously.

"A real calamity," I announced when the extended pause became entirely indecent in length.

"Is that right?" The inspector snorted, and his gray eyes drained of their color, losing the last trace of their already faded shade.

The Illustrious Robert White possessed a talent that was exceedingly valuable in our line of work: he could smell lies. He couldn't always tell when he was being lied to but, like a trained bloodhound, he could easily sniff out the conscious intention to mislead when being spoken to. His very, very useful talent was left to him by his parents, who had marked themselves with the blood of the fallen...

That was the very reason I didn't even try to wheedle, and simply lifted my stun baton.

"The shock is weak," I told the inspector.

"You don't say?" asked Robert White, perplexed.

Just then, two constables wearing police-issue cloaks walked up to us with their new-fashioned semi-automatic carbines at the ready. The gun's box magazines stuck up in a way that gave them a silly appearance, but people who really knew guns weren't bothered by that in the least; in small skirmishes, the short-barreled Madsen-Biarnoff rifle spoke for itself quite eloquently.

"I think there’s something wrong with the electric jar," I posited, not paying any mind to the skeptical gazes of my colleagues.

"You've got something wrong with your head, Leo!" the red-headed constable squealed out just then.

"No, no, Jimmy!" intervened the other young man, his teeth brown from chewing tobacco. He immediately clarified his observation, though: "His problem is that he’s got messed-up arms."

The red-head laughed with a satisfied look:

"Billy, old boy! I see no reason why both couldn’t be true at the same time!"

"I think you've hit the nail on the head there, Jimmy! In his case, they seem to amplify one another!"

I didn't get offended; Jimmy and Billy were notorious wisecrackers. Just give them something to mock, and they're off to the races. But the inspector wanted explanations, so my idea to give Billy a jab with my stun baton and put a cork in his yapper doing so seemed like killing two birds with one stone.

So I did just that.

A blinding flash of sparks blazed forth. The constable jumped back jerkily and rubbed his chest.

"Have you gone totally batty?" he bared his teeth.

"Forget it!" I said, waving it off and turning to the inspector. "Like I said, the shock is weak!"

Infernal creatures were particularly sensitive to electricity, but a zap as weak as I was packing would do nothing to stun a succubus or any other hell-spawn for that matter.

Robert White came down the stairs, his cane hanging from his arm, and set about unhurriedly packing his pipe with strong Persian tobacco.

"This morning, you should have been checking the shock instead of reading your yellow rags!" He reproached me.

"But I checked it three times! It was working just fine!"

"Come then, give it here," the inspector demanded, taking the electric jar that I'd pulled from my pocket and looking at the little label on its base. "Des Prez Electric?" He read out and flared up: "Leo, where'd you dig this clunker up from?!"

I answered with the pure truth:

"I got it from our stockroom."

"Curses!" The inspector cried, ripping the cord out in a fit of anger and tossing the electric jar onto the rubbish heap. "Leo, we'd been tracking that beast for two weeks! Two weeks! And it all came to naught because of this piece of junk!"

"But..."

"Silence!" Robert White demanded and set about taking furious puffs on his pipe. "Ramon!" He raised his voice after a few deep draws. "Who manufactured the electric jar in your lupara?"

His gun, with four short ten-caliber barrels, was manufactured by Heim, and used electrically ignited rounds as ammunition. After a cursory glance at its folding stock, the constable reported back:

"Edison Electric Lights, inspector!"

"Do you see, Leo?" My superior scolded. "Remember that for the future: only Edison Electric Lights will do, Tesla forgive me! Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

"And by the way, why did you go in without waiting for the others?"

"The door was open. I decided to do some reconnaissance."

"Oh you did? And where’d that get you?" The inspector frowned, shrugging his shoulders in annoyance and starting off out of the courtyard. "Let's go!" he called, but immediately stopped us and patted down his pockets: "Jimmy, where are my gloves?"

"I don't know, inspector," the constable answered, poking his partner in the side. "Billy, where are the inspector's gloves?"

"What are you asking me for?" he snarled, looking around.

"Forget it!" Robert White called for order, creeping under the archway.

Jimmy and Billy sized me up with unkind gazes and rushed off after our boss; I wiped the dirt from my back and shuffled off behind them. Ramon Miro was walking next to me in silence, trying to match my uneven gait.

It should be said that the Catalan constable was a surprisingly taciturn man. Incidentally, he was only Catalonian on his father's side. His mother's origins were among the natives of the New World. As a matter of fact, in temperament, Ramon had more in common with his mother’s people than his Mediterranean father’s.

Just then, a terrified rat jumped up from under our feet. Ramon just kicked it away with the tip of his boot and kept walking calmly. I went over the heap of rubbish lying in the entryway and ducked my head to avoid the soot-coated underside of the arch.

Being tall isn't nearly as glamorous as some envious pip squeaks suppose. It just is what it is.

That silent courtyard was replaced by another, just as dirty and unsightly as the one that came before it. From there, we emerged onto an unpeopled alley and stopped to wait for further orders from the inspector. He unhurriedly tapped his pipe out on the wall of the building, fished a silver pocket-watch out of his vest and pursed his lips, deep in thought.

Taking advantage of the moment of peace, I stomped the rest of the trash off my rubberized cloak, folded the telescoping stun baton back up and took my round tinted glasses from my breast pocket. I clipped them onto my nose and finally felt comfortable again.

Unlike the inspector, I didn't enjoy attracting the attention of locals with my unnaturally colorless eyes. That was why I found it impossible to bear looking directly at someone when talking. Of course, there was also the fact that I didn't especially enjoy people in general. They are usually so obtuse!

"Let's get back to the Box!" Robert White decided just then and, waving his cane unevenly and even nervously, he began walking toward the nearest Metro station.

New Babylon was a surprising city! It was always awake and alive, day or night. Here, the wonderful and the horrible were so closely intertwined as to be indistinguishable. And there were no angles or sharp edges, either. It was all just shades and blurred half-tones blending seamlessly into one another.

Ancient palaces, their marbled siding having long since grown dark with soot, butted up against new buildings, which were still clean, though their plainness detracted from any beauty that could have lent them. Avenues, wide in the downtown, got lost in a rat's nest of little winding streets in the outskirts, though it wasn't clear exactly how. Age-old trees in the Emperor's Park were thick with rustling foliage, but their leaves were more-often-than-not yellow and dying from the constant smog. The azure waters of the harbor rolled into shore in unctuous breaks, and the endless sky was constantly packed tight with clouds of smoke from factory smokestacks.

That's how everything was in New Babylon. Even the granite sett paving stones were reddish, not because of the stone's natural coloration, but because they were now permanently stained with the blood of the fallen...

New Babylon was the capital of the Second Empire; at once the heart of government and an ulcer, eating it from the inside.


THE NARROW LITTLE STREET with soot-covered walls, interspersed with the odd hazy rectangular window led us out to an intersection. There, I could see smokestacks, mountainous and crested with long clouds of smoke. Fortunately, the wind was carrying the fumes away from the suburbs today, so it was less smoggy than usual.

Soon, we'd left the shanties behind. The street grew wider, and the stench of reeking factory runoff began drifting up from the grates of the storm drains. We were now going downhill and, a few blocks later, we were nestling up to Yarden Embankment. The silvery expanse of water was shackled by a railroad bridge that stretched from one bank to the other; clumsy tugs and barges looked like toy boats on the backdrop of its pillars, making all the freight dirigibles drifting into port also look less striking than they were.

"Hurry up!" The inspector rushed us along.

I placed my palm on my forehead, noticed a wisp of smoke crawling slowly in our direction and increased my pace, rushing after the others.

With our heels clacking on the paving stones of the embankment, we paraded to the train station past the fence and the ticket booths. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait in their never-ending lines. Once on the platform, it was too crowded to even push our way through the workers from the surrounding factories. Thankfully, the grubby proles gave a wide berth to our well-armed division, no prodding necessary.

A powerful whistle blew, and a gargantuan train rolled in under the awning, enshrouded in clouds of white steam. The room suddenly filled with the smoke pouring from its stacks. With a metallic clang, the brakes screeched to a halt. The train stopped, and its passengers gushed out onto the platform, pushing against the working rabble on their way home after the night shift.

The inspector was in no mind to knock elbows with commoners, and took a decisive step into a first class train-car; we all followed behind our boss. At the entrance, Robert White used his cane to shoo the conductor, who was taken aback at his lack of manners, then took a seat next to the window, looking collected. There weren't enough places for the rest of us to sit but, that didn’t stop the Metro attendant from practically having a fit while the distinguished public looked askance at us with barely restrained indignation.

Two short horn-blows rang out. The train shook, and columns and dejected fences began flittering by out the window, gradually increasing their speed. Soon, the tracks dove into a tunnel, and the train bolted beneath the earth, leaving the hustle and bustle of the streets with all their speed demon cabbies and day dreaming pedestrians somewhere far, far above us. Now, the train was flying along at full steam, shaking us around mercilessly. We had to latch firmly onto the handrail and clench the back of the nearest seat just to remain standing.

A few minutes later, the steam train slowed its pace and, with a deafening blast of its horn, rolled out of the tunnel onto the platform of an underground station lit only by the uneven flame of gas jets. Some got out, some came in, and the train rolled onward.

The Metro was great! Nothing could compare with it. Not steam trams, and not the new-fangled self-propelled carriages. It did make a lot of smoke, though – it was impossible to breathe...

Three stations later, we got off the train and walked up onto the street. The colossal Newton Markt was towering over us on the opposite side of the square. The inspector could only stand to look peevishly at the marble columns of its portico before walking off in the opposite direction.

"I need to wet my whistle," he grumbled, having gotten wind of our inquisitive looks with his back.

No one objected.

And what was there to object to? After such a major fiasco, returning to the Box, as everyone called police headquarters, was something none of us wanted. And me least of all.


WE USUALLY GOT DRINKS at Archimedes' Screw, a small public house, known for its huge selection of Flemish beers and primarily law-enforcement clientele.

"Morning edition here!" burst out from the hoarse throat of a boy holding a thick packet of newspapers near the door. "Tensions rising in the Sea of Judea! More troop movements in Alexandria! Get yours here! Only in the Saturday edition! Split in the ranks of the Sublime Electricity! Tesla versus Edison! Full-page article!"

Robert White threw the lad a ten-centime coin, grabbed an edition of the Atlantic Telegraph and walked into the bar.

"Hello, Almer!" He said, greeting the bar’s corpulent owner, and taking a seat at his regular place by the window. "The usual."

The fat Fleming took out a small decanter of red port and placed it in front of the inspector. After that, he poured a glass of white for Jimmy and Billy, who retired to a far-away corner with their drinks, a plate of bread, and a few slices of spicy pork terrine.

When Ramon Miro walked away with a glass of white wine, which he drank fairly diluted with soda water, I took a seat on a high stool and leaned against the bar on my elbows.

"Lemonade?" sighed the barkeep.

"Lemonade," I confirmed, looking with no particular interest over the array of beer bottles, each bearing a technicolor label tied around its neck with thick twine and a wax-sealed cap.

"I can't stand this new trend!" Almer shook his head. "Soon, people will be drinking beer mixed with lemonade!"

"Ugh! No thank you," I chuckled in reply.

"They will, though. Mark my words!" the proprietor announced confidently and set off for the ice-cellar. Soon, he was back with a condensation-covered pitcher of lemonade. He set it before me and pieces of ice started jingling around joyfully in it.

I filled my tall glass, took a few sips and nodded:

"Great!"

Almer took the praise as a matter of course and set about drying one of the beer mugs with a towel.

"I can never recall you ever having ordered a real drink," he said, not stopping what he was doing.

"That's right. I've never touched the stuff," I confirmed.

"Surprising."

"Why's that? I would've thought it commonplace."

"For a moral-crazed reductionist, sure," the Fleming said with a smirk, "but you’d have an easier time finding a churchgoing hooker than a constable that doesn't drink."

"Alcohol gives me sleeping problems," I explained my refusal, not especially bending the truth.

The owner of the establishment burst out in booming laughter:

"Do you think many of your colleagues are concerned with such trifles?"

I just shrugged my shoulders, not planning on disputing his assertion. To be perfectly honest, I personally knew people, who could only be stopped from drinking by a shot to the head, preferably from a high-caliber rifle.

Talking with my drunk colleagues sober didn't make me feel any less close to them, though. After all, people are usually pretty open and honest after a few drinks.

Alcohol allows people to forget about their fears, at least for a time. Who was I to judge?

I took the pitcher of lemonade and slid off the chair, intending to join Ramon, but I was suddenly called over by the inspector, who was leafing through the newspaper.

"Leopold!" He said, not tearing himself from his reading. "Won't you join me?"

Curses! That was the last thing I needed!

I swore mentally and, in no particular hurry, walked up to the table, taking a seat opposite my boss. After I'd filled my glass with lemonade, Robert White twirled his fingers before his face and asked:

"Would you please remove your glasses?"

After completing his request, I breathed out onto the round black lenses, wiped them with a linen cloth and placed them on the edge of the table. After that, I finished the lemonade and shifted my gaze to a blueprint for an Archimedes' screw that was pinned to the wall, one of many.

"You don’t ever look people in the eyes, do you Leo?" the inspector asked unexpectedly. "Is that right?"

"As a rule, I do not," I confirmed, turning my gaze back from the yellowing drawing to my superior officer. I evaluated the cut of his made-to-order suit, his ideally cropped hair, and the fanciful pattern on his silken handkerchief.

I did not look him in the eyes, though.

Between the inspector's eyes, there was a deep wrinkle. He finished his fortified red wine, wiped his thin pale lips with a napkin and, only after completing the procedure, said:

"I know of your illustrious talent. I'm sure it isn't easy looking in peoples’ eyes, if all you see is fear."

"There's little to enjoy in it," I answered. "Looking into someone's eyes is still climbing into someone's soul, after all. I prefer... to keep my distance."

"That won’t work on me."

"Keeping my distance?" I joked.

"Climbing into the soul," Robert White answered, totally serious. He then wiped his chin and remarked in contemplation: "It was supposed that your talent would be a bit more useful around here..."

More useful? His words gave me a nasty impression.

Sure, my talent could have been of more use at work, but I simply couldn't bear digging around in others' fears, allowing them into my own head and bringing them to life. Though I could do it without any particular strain, actually using my talent left me feeling like I'd just had a wallow in a mud puddle.

Then again, this conversation wasn’t about my delicate psyche...

"Inspector!" I shuddered. "With the succubus..."

"Listen to me, Leopold!" Robert drummed his fingers on the edge of the table, calling for silence. "This isn't about the succubus! You just aren't getting it! You aren't settling into the job! You cannot work with people and you don't want to. In our line of work, that is half the battle. What made you want to become a policeman in the first place? You could've been a librarian!"

"I need to pay the bills somehow," I made away with a half-truth, as usual.

If the inspector noticed my understatement, he didn’t make it known.

"Well, alright, people!" He frowned, getting to the main point. "This city is so packed with thieves, they’re like sardines in a can. Arresting burglars, robbers and murderers has been business as usual for a long time. Separatists and Anarcho-Christians? That whole restless brotherhood is of little interest to anyone. And the inspector general wouldn't even give you a hand-shake for catching an Egyptian agent. Infernal creatures, though – that's serious business! That’s how you get on the front page of newspapers. We'd been tracking that succubus for two weeks, Leo. For two weeks, we’ve been ignoring all other assignments! And now, that's all down the drain. All because of you."

Trying to justify myself would have been at the very least stupid, which is why I fixed my gaze on my glass and jingled around the pieces of ice that remained.

"I thought it was a coincidence!" the inspector continued his excoriation. "A simple coincidence! But I read the papers and I realized: no, it is no coincidence. Point blank, Leo, you've been nothing but trouble."

"What do you mean?" I grew confused, thrown off by the unexpected turn.

Robert White slid the morning edition of the Atlantic Telegraph to me and hinted:

"The society page."

I took a look at the headline he was pointing at and winced dolefully but, all the same, read the article in its entirety, only sighing afterward:

"What a pest..."

Robert White took the newspaper, shuddered, sitting up straight, and read aloud:

"The famous New-Babylon poet Albert Brandt, in conversation with our correspondent, alluded to the fact that he has recently written a poem for his good friend, the Viscount Cruce, dedicated to his beloved, the Illustrious Elizabeth Maria N." The inspector pressed the newspaper to the table with his palm and burned me with his hateful gaze. "Well, Viscount Cruce, what do you think the Illustrious Elizabeth Maria N.'s father will do to you after reading that little tidbit?"

"Hold up!" I jumped in. "You aren’t understanding this right at all!"

"Is that so?" the inspector screwed up his face skeptically. "You don't have to have the wisdom of Solomon to guess what it’s talking about. A blue-eyed, red-headed girl by the name 'Elizabeth Maria N.!' Do you know many people, who fit that description? I know only one! And that is the daughter of Inspector General von Nalz! Curses! That geezer caught many of the fallen himself! Rumor has it that he smeared himself with their blood from head to toe! And now, he is striving with every bone in his body to get his dear little daughter married off to the nephew of the Minister of Justice. If this whole thing goes belly-up over one little article..."

"You've got it all wrong..."

"No, I don’t!" Robert White frowned. "If this goes badly, the old man will challenge you to a duel, and he will kill you. It wouldn't be the first time for him. And, Leo, whether you know it or not, he would have every right to do so." The inspector finished his port and threw himself back into his chair. "I personally would like to just wash my hands of this, and would do so with the greatest of pleasure. The problem is that the incident will reflect deplorably on my career."

"It’s just a coincidence," I repeated obstinately. "They aren’t connected..."

"Come off it!" Snapped my boss. "Your excuses won't change a thing. By midday, even the floor-polishers in headquarters will know about your affair with the inspector general's daughter. The old man won't even be listening!"

"I could..."

"There’s nothing you can do," the inspector cut me off, but immediately snapped his fingers. "Actually, there is! Disappear for a week. Two would be better. Hand in your weapons, don't come in to work. After that, we can decide how to proceed."

I was categorically not in favor of whatever he meant by "proceed," but any attempt to convince my boss to try another way was sure to fail. He'd already made up his mind. An unpleasant sour sensation appeared in my mouth. My eyes began to sting from the injustice of being.

Albert! What a bastard you are! Well, who was it that got your tongue wagging?

"Now make yourself scarce," the inspector ordered, putting up his newspaper to block me out.

I made no effort to carry out that order quickly. I felt like a beaten dog, which was very unpleasant. In a pitiful attempt to retain my last shred of dignity, I first finished my lemonade, only standing from the table after I was done. I then took my rubberized cloak down from the hook and turned to the bartender:

"Almer, put it on my tab."

"So soon?" confirmed the quirky Fleming, who knew our employees’ payment schedules at least as well as our actual accountant.

I waved farewell to everyone, went out onto the street, and looked up at the sky. In it, there were scant clouds mixed in with wisps of smoke from factory smokestacks. I started shouting curse words helplessly. Next, I snapped my dark glasses to my nose in a habitual motion and started off toward the Newton Markt.

I'll hand in my weapons and change clothes at the same time.

Even though, as a detective constable I was not required to come to work in police uniform like most rank-and-file, I usually did not abuse that privilege. They didn't give me a stipend to clean or mend my own clothes, and the Viscount Cruce hadn't had much money lying around as of late.

A stiff wind roared up from the Viscount Cruce's pockets, as a matter of fact. My home had been remortgaged three times, and the only thing allowing me to look on the future with even cautious optimism was the fund I had been willed by my grandfather on my mother's side.

Why cautious, though? Because the current executor of the fund, my uncle the Count Kósice, was not exactly burning with desire to part with the twenty thousand francs of yearly income it provided him and was drawing out the procedure in various ways, keeping me from me from my rightful inheritance as long as he could. I had turned twenty-one a month ago, but the fiduciaries hadn't even yet managed to compose the asset register, which was to say nothing of material transfers. And it was totally unclear just how long it would be before that confusing procedure was completed. I doubted that my uncle would take it to the point of legal battles, but I was sure I wouldn't be able to avoid the remaining "charms" of splitting up the estate.

On the other hand, what did I need the money for now? I was lucky not to have just lost my head...


2


I ENTERED THE NEWTON MARKT, the whole-block police headquarters building, through the back service entrance. I let an armored car pass by as it left the garage to the measured claps of a gunpowder engine before it rolled unhurriedly down the alley. I took a look around and ran up the stairs. I flung the door open confidently, nodding to the sleepy sentry on my way and walking through the empty halls into the armory.

There, I handed a sergeant my stun baton and took an electric jar from my pocket, still wrapped in this morning’s edition of the Atlantic Telegraph. I threw the crumpled newspaper into the trash can. The item collector handed my things to the arsenal warden.

"Stun baton, one," and made a corresponding note in the registry. "Edison electric jar, one..." And immediately shuddered: "And where is the second one? The Des Prez?"

"Put it down under irrecoverable losses."

"And why on earth would I do that?"

"Any questions should be directed to Inspector White."

"Alright, we'll figure it out," the sergeant frowned, dipping his iron quill back into the inkwell.

I walked away to the table in the far corner and set two loaded cartridge clips on it, then took my Roth Steyr from its holster, and removed the bolt all the way from the head, which was affixed with a titanium barrel extension. With its side stock open, I pressed the round eject button, collected the ammunition that flew out onto the table in an empty clip and turned to the sergeant.

"Semi-automatic Roth Steyr pistol, model eighteen-seventy-four, one," the man grumbled. "Eight millimeter bullets, thirty. Is that all?"

"That's all," I answered and walked to the changing room. There wasn't a single living soul to be found there.

And that was to be expected. It was the dead middle of a shift right now. Our boys would still be out pounding pavement 'til nightfall.

I opened my locker with a certain amount of relief and kicked off my cloak, uniform and boots. I changed into a light-colored linen suit and a pair of lightweight half-boots, tied my neckerchief, and smoothed my hair before a mirror. Lastly, I took a cantankerous look at my reflection and donned my dark glasses.

Damn it! Damn all this inner turmoil! I need to live in the present.

After transferring a kerosene lighter and titanium-bladed jackknife from my uniform to my new clothes, I hesitated briefly, but still clipped my Cerberus holster to my belt. It was a thin and compact pistol. I slipped a backup clip with three ten-millimeter bullets into the pocket of my jacket.

This gun was an invention of the weapons genius Tesla. He had decided that the barrels should be a detachable cluster of cylinders, like a pepper-box. For that reason, the Cerberus wasn't, to put it lightly, known for its accuracy. That said, in close-range firefights, it was simply indispensable. Its firing mechanism used an electric igniter on a gunpowder round, which launched an aluminum-plated bullet. All those bells and whistles were to make sure this weapon would work against both malefics and hell-spawn, alike. Common weapons, due to peculiarities in their design, were of little use against them: over many centuries, evil spirits had managed to develop an invulnerability to iron, copper and even lead, while experienced conjurers had learned to put out the spark of a punched primer and hamper the complex trigger mechanisms in semi-automatic weapons with a single wave of the finger. For revolvers, shooting blanks at such monsters was also anything but a rarity.

The Cerberus, on the other hand, was a different story! Its electric jar and total lack of moving components left no chance for either malefics and infernal beasts to prevent a shot getting off. What was more, in comparison with my one-kilo Roth Steyr, this pistol weighed practically nothing.

I took a light gray derby hat from the upper shelf of my locker, locked the door and left the changing room. On my way out, I ran into an unfamiliar gray-mustached sergeant, who was accompanied by two uniformed constables.

"Detective Constable Orso," the sergeant said as he walked, "follow me! The inspector general would like to see you."

My heart practically jumped out of my chest, and I took a heavy sigh in a none-too-successful attempt to calm myself down.

The experienced public servant noticed my utter bewilderment and clarified:

"Will you be coming with us, detective constable?"

"Naturally!" I squeezed out a sour smile with a bit of effort and repeated, this time more confidently: "Naturally!"

The sergeant nodded and headed for the stairs. The constables, though, let me go in front of them initially, but moved around behind shortly thereafter, forcing me with an artless maneuver to cast all thoughts of fleeing from my mind, panicked and disgraced.

Calm yourself!

Weren't you expecting this? Well, weren't you?

Yes, devil take me, I was! I was expecting this, but not so soon. The old man was most likely diabolically angry, if he had sent someone to keep watch for my return.


THE ILLUSTRIOUS FRIEDRICH VON NALZ was old, but not decrepit. Seven decades had done nothing to weaken this veteran of the force. In fact, they had only steeled him; the inspector general looked like a big, strong tangle of pine roots. And his eyes... his deep-set eyes shone back in the partial darkness like two angry flames, like flickering candles in the slits of a wrinkled jack-o-lantern.

His surprising longevity was simply astonishing. Most of those who had actually touched the blood of the fallen had long since bid this world farewell. After all, the Night of the Titanium Blades was fifty-three years ago – in December of the year eighteen hundred twenty-four after the Divine Retribution, or in usual parlance, of the Common Era.

Despite his advanced years, the Illustrious von Nalz was not only a leader of the metropolitan police, but also a member of dozens of clubs and charitable societies, and a man who started every morning with a review of the morning's papers, demonstrating an enviable working stamina. And now, there was a towering stack of newspapers on his table but, as could have been expected, he had stopped reading precisely upon reaching the Atlantic Telegraph.

Curses! Ugh, who asked Albert to stick his long tongue out!

When I arrived, Friedrich von Nalz tore himself from the paper and stretched his lips out in something resembling a smile.

"The Viscount Cruce! I don't believe I've ever had the honor of making your acquaintance..."

In reply, I could only lower my head.

The old man readjusted the cuff of his black uniform. His wrinkled wrist, which looked like a bone picked clean by vultures, was protruding just barely. He then asked me:

"Are you acquainted with my daughter, Viscount?"

"I was introduced to her at the autumn ball," I answered, struck with horror.

In the office, it became hot and stuffy all at once. And it had nothing at all to do with the fireplace. It hadn't been lit today. Hot air was emanating in waves from the old man sitting across the table from me. It was his illustrious talent revealing itself. I had already seen its terrible effects before, and I in no way wanted to become a victim. A few years ago, I had caught a glimpse of the dried-out mummy of an anarchist after he made an attempt on the inspector general’s life. The sight of a man after being baked alive had left me sick for the rest of the day.

"You were introduced at the ball, and that was all?" clarified the Illustrious von Nalz, making no external signs of the rage seething inside himself.

"And that was all," I replied, diligently making sure not to make eye contact.

Just looking at him was very, very scary.

But then, the old man suddenly broke out laughing, crumpled the paper and threw it into the paper bin.

"You know, Viscount? I believe you. Implicitly," the inspector general surprised me with his unexpected proclamation. "I simply know my daughter too well. Elizabeth Maria would never go for someone like you..." He cringed fastidiously and threw himself back into his high-backed armchair. "That isn't important! What is important is that your loose-lipped rhyme-peddler's idle talk will start rumors. And I cannot have that..."

"Inspector general!" I tried making an excuse. "They were talking about a different Elizabeth Maria! Not your daughter! It’s just a coincidence!"

But Friedrich von Nalz could only shake his head, sending another wave of transparent heat wafting toward me.

"Viscount! I can imagine you in the role of a secret admirer, but never that of a lover," the old man cut-in with cold ruthlessness. "Don't lower yourself to such base lies."

"My fiancée is named Elizabeth Maria Nickley. Her family is from Ireland. She’s named after her grandmother on her mother’s side. I am preparing to present her at tomorrow's ball."

The inspector general started to think, as if solving a complicated charade, then nodded.

"That would be nice," he said slowly, with detachment, but immediately turning his eyes on me in rage. "Just know, Viscount, that if you drag some cheap actress down there and bring shame on my daughter, I will destroy you myself, my-self! I will make the blood boil in your veins and cook you alive!"

"I assure you, inspector general, it will not come to that!"

"If the poem was in fact intended for my daughter, it would be best for you to admit it, here and now," continued the Illustrious von Nalz, already absolutely calm. "In that case, I would have to challenge you to a duel, though at least you would die with dignity. And not in such torment..."

"There’s no reason for..."

"You could, it stands to reason, hide, but I do not advise that at all. I really do not."

"I wasn't even thinking of it!"

"Get out of my face," the highly placed officer then rasped, ending my hearing.

With a furious speed, I jumped out into the reception. The air there seemed simply icy by comparison. A trickle of cold sweat started running down my back. Somehow, I slowed my panicked breathing and went down to the first floor, but before I'd managed to close the entrance behind me, I was called out to again.

"Detective constable!"

I gave a surprised shudder and turned to see a constable getting up from his desk with an envelope in his hands.

"Correspondence for you!" he said.

I took the unexpected letter and nodded:

"Thank you," and went out into the colonnade-enclosed portico courtyard, where ancillary workers were trying without particular success to wash away the soot that had accumulated last winter on the white marble of our Themis statues.

With a heavy sigh, I lowered myself onto one of the benches placed around the fountain and took a look inside the thick paper envelope addressed to me only by name, no address, stamps or mention of who'd sent it. After giving an uncomprehending snort, I took my jackknife from my pocket, cut open the seal and shook out a laconic invitation to visit the Witstein Banking House to discuss the issue of my gaining access to my inheritance.

I reread the letter two times and furrowed my brow in consternation. My attorney hadn't managed to beat any paper from my fund in the past month, so why then would my uncle move the situation forward so easily? And what did the Witstein Banking House have to do with my inheritance? The Kósice family had never had many dealings with the Judean community.

After looking at my massive timepiece, new-fashioned, meaning it was worn on the arm, I decided I still had time to visit the Banking House before it closed for lunch, and if I didn't make it, no matter, I could wait. I didn't have anything planned for today that couldn't be rescheduled anyway.

I jammed the envelope in my jacket pocket, and left of police headquarters' courtyard. Then, in no particular hurry, I stepped off down Newtonstraat toward Ohm Square.

For the beginning of April, today was shaping up to be an unusually humid day, and the sun hanging over the roofs of the houses was heating up the city everywhere I went, like a steak thrown into a smoking pan. Even the black clouds billowing on the horizon were no guarantee that the freshness of evening would soon be arriving; most likely, they would simply disperse over the ocean.

Ducking away from the muggy air, I turned down a sycamore alley and began walking further into the shade of the trees. Five minutes later, I came out onto the rear of Ohm Square and happened upon a mercilessly smoking steam tram. I was barely able to grab onto the handrail before its iron wheels started clanking around the bend where the rails had a juncture, causing the tram to rock palpably.

On the other side of the windows, buildings drifted by at a snail’s pace. Puffs of smoke came into the open door from time to time, stinging my eyes unbearably. We couldn't even dream of the speeds of the Metro, though. To get from the nearest underground railroad station to the Judean Quarter, you'd have to spend no less than a quarter hour slogging through the confusing little side-streets of the old city.

And what was the point of that?

Bit by bit, my view of the city was beginning to change as we left the newly constructed high-rises behind us. Dilapidated commercial buildings and office buildings with slanted roofs started closing in on one another while the tram traveled down the narrowing road. The tiny, damp alleys between buildings flickered by, and the steam tram rolled on.

Cabbies looked on with unhidden disapproval at the passengers now filling the tram-car to the brim. Their horses were sneezing and shaking their heads, caught in the smoke trail the tram was leaving behind. A few times, we were passed by open self-propelled carriages, their chauffeurs wearing leather jackets, leggings and goggles that covered half the face. The carriages shot off into the distance, but the loud chirruping of their gun-powder engines continued to carry down the street for some time.

When we reached Mendeleev Boulevard, I jumped out of the steam tram and swerved off the sidewalk into a passage between two buildings, both scuffed and uncared-for with narrow windows on the second story and above. I got a bit lost in the back alleys and soon came out onto a large thoroughfare. The nearest building on it was sporting a fresh sign: Mihelson Street.

The first floors of the solid stone building were occupied by many shops and stalls, but it all looked like one solid mass now, with the storefronts shuttered behind security doors in preparation for nightfall. Based on my impression, it seemed as if one of the liveliest trading streets of the Judean neighborhood had suddenly died out. I walked a whole block, and not a single living soul crossed my path.

Only on the corner next to a barber shop did I see someone: a long figure standing motionless in a long-skirted black frock and hat to match.

Sliding my gaze over the dispassionate peyos- and beard-framed face, I walked alone up the stairway of the detached three-story building with a solid signboard reading Witstein Banking House and pulled the door handle toward me.

It didn't yield. I jostled it – still stuck.

Then I gave a few hits of the knocker on the iron sheet door, waited a few minutes and again pulled on the handle, but suddenly froze, struck by an unexpected thought.

"Saturday!" I slapped my palm on my forehead. "Today is Saturday!"

Shabbos!

In our enlightened society, any manifestation of religious thought was viewed in a dim light, and all forms of mysticism were mercilessly rooted out and eliminated. Orthodox Judeans, though, had been steadfast in bearing the incessant accusations of the reductionists. As a matter of course, these threats were rarely acted on: the buoyant financials of the group allowed them to grease the right wheels of the state apparatus if need be, so any talk about massacring them remained just that – talk.

Though science had completely extricated religion from mainstream society, our top power brokers had a healthy pragmatism and held holy the principle of "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." Money was the lifeblood of the Empire, and everything else came second.

I took a tin of sugar drops from my pocket and threw the first one I happened upon into my mouth.

So then, today is Saturday; the Banking House is closed. Tomorrow as well. Sunday is an official day off.

What a shame.

At that very moment, a covered wagon rolled through the intersection with a screech. The driver, his cap thrown down over his eyes, was hurrying the truck into the barber shop’s back courtyard, and the lanky Judean was rushing to open the gates. As soon as the cart was out of view, the gate closed just as quickly.

Very interesting.

I took a quizzical look around, then pressed down a button on my wristwatch, setting a countdown, and tossed another sugar drop into my mouth.

I can wait...


THE CART ROLLED BACK OUT onto the street twenty minutes later, but this time, the haulers were obviously straining themselves, and the cart was leaving a dust cloud in its wake. The lanky man stood in front of the gate and tried to unlock the entrance to the barber shop, but the key just didn't want to turn in the lock; he even had to remove his thick canvas gloves and hold them under his armpit.

I popped another sugar drop into my mouth, slipped the tin into my jacket's side pocket and stepped across the road.

"My good man!" hailed the Judean, standing up in the middle of the carriageway.

The lanky one turned, shot me a worried glance and croaked:

"We’re closed!"

"I'm not here for that! Can you tell me where the nearest Metro station is?"

"Over there," the lanky barber waved me down the street with his left arm; his right arm, bearing an old bluing tattoo, he jammed into his frock pocket, acting casual.

I bowed my head slightly and pressed the very tips of my fingers to my derby hat.

"Thank you," I smiled and walked off in the direction he pointed, not asking him to specify the route.

After all, that wasn’t why I was asking.


3


I FOUND ROBERT WHITE in Archimedes' Screw; based on his untied neckerchief, he clearly hadn't limited himself to just the one little decanter of port. That said, the inspector's drinking had done nothing to improve his mood.

Some people are like that – they know perfectly well that they have no business drinking, but they still drink, and when they do, it doesn't make them feel relieved, just all the gloomier. Robert was definitely one of those types so, before my boss had time to open his mouth and have me thrown out by the scruff of my neck, I decisively took a seat opposite him and, without delay, announced:

"A bank robbery is being planned."

"I told you to bugger off," the inspector mumbled, letting my words pass by unheard, as expected.

"I did what you ordered," I reminded him, removing my dark glasses and, exerting a certain amount of effort to look my boss in the eyes. "Inspector, bank robberies are serious business."

"And what of it?" Robert White frowned skeptically. My confidence hooked him in, though. His fire-filled eyes went dull, taking on a colorless gray shade. "Tell me about it!" He gasped with a wave of his hand.

"I think there's trouble brewing at the Witstein Banking House."

"You think so? What gave you that revelation?"

I gave a two-word description of what I'd seen in the Judean Quarter and, when the inspector fell into deep contemplation, I turned and called a server over. It was lunch time, and my boss was now being waited on by a pair of nimble girls.

"Saturday," Robert White muttered. "An Orthodox Judean cannot work on Saturday, right? So then he must have not been working. Or does opening and closing a gate count as work? Perhaps they're just doing some repairs?"

"So you're saying the Judean brought in outside workers?" I snorted, filling my glass from the pitcher of lemonade placed on the table. "He'd never hear the end of it! No, I do not think this man is part of Judean society."

"You're thinking again," White screwed up his face.

"The tattoo," I reminded him. "There was a snake on his right fist. Or a long fish, I couldn't quite tell."

"And what of it?"

"Orthodox Judeans are forbidden from getting tattoos. 'You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves.'"

The inspector stared at me with unhidden surprise.

"You know the Torah?"

"No, I just know a lot about tattoos."

"Even if that is so, what makes you so sure that the bank is their target?"

"What other options are there? On one side, there's a grocer's stall, and on the other there's a shoemaker's. It’s got to be the bank."

Robert White finished his port, and barked with his whole throat, drowning out the din that had been ruling over the pub:

"Jimmy!"

The red-head hurriedly stood from his corner table and walked up to us.

"Yes, inspector?" He uttered ponderously, readjusting his uniform. The constable was a bit sotted, but he could still stand up straight and wasn’t wobbling.

"Take a seat!" Robert White ordered him, and asked: "Have you heard any rumors recently about a bank robbery?"

"Nothing, total silence," the constable shook his head after a moment in thought.

"Can you tell me anything about a tall, hunchbacked Judean with a tattoo either of an eel or a snake on his right arm?"

This time, Jimmy answered without hesitation:

"Uri Katz, alias: 'the Loach.' He was sentenced to five years breaking rocks for robbing a store. He might already be out."

"Is that so?" The inspector said in surprise, then ordered: "Find out about him, Jimmy. And that's enough drinking. It’s looking like we have plans tonight..."

I took advantage of the pause and took a few sips of my tomato soup. It was salty and hot.


WE MADE FOR THE CRIME SCENE with the city already enshrouded in twilight. We walked quietly and unnoticed, like spies from an enemy nation. Our field team was rolling down Newtonstraat, which was illuminated by streetlights. All you had to do was turn off it, though, and the murk grew impenetrable once again. The darkness was somehow dispersed by nothing but the meager light of the gas lamps, just having finished being lit by the lamplighters, who ambled with their ladders under-arm from post to post before themselves disappearing. In the dark alleyways of the older neighborhoods, Nix reigned unchallenged, despite the fact that every restaurant was adorned with a flickering lamp, and dull beams of light shot out from the odd slit in cracked blinds.

Jimmy was driving the carriage; he had lit the kerosene lamp, but it wasn't lighting our path so much as it was advertising our coming in the darkness. Without it, we might just run into someone or run over a drunk laying in the street. We also, naturally, were carrying electric torches, but using them would have been equivalent to loudly announcing that a police division was rolling down the street.

And there was no reason to do that. Now, our carriage was visually indistinguishable from a private car. Jimmy had even changed his uniform out for a pair of scuffed-up trousers and a checkered jacket, while the others were hiding inside the vehicle from the immodest gazes of passers-by.

Robert White was sitting on a bench, straight as a bayonet. Only his fingers running incessantly over the top of his electric torch betrayed his discomfort. Ramon set his still-unloaded lupara butt-first on the ground, leaned on it and started dozing off. Billy, though, was holding onto the semi-automatic carbines left near the wall, one for him and another for his partner, chewing measuredly on a wad of tobacco, which occasionally gave his already high-cheekbone-d face, with its wide slit of a frog-like mouth, a totally grotesque appearance.

I took the tin from my pocket and threw a sugar-drop into my mouth; it was mint flavor.

"You'll ruin your teeth," Billy smirked with an uncommon calm, like a neurotic after taking opiated patent medicine.

"Look at your own," I retorted, pulling a face.

There was no tooth powder in the world that could get rid of the brownish shade left by tobacco, but aficionados of the simple pleasure were left with no other choice since the manufacturer of patented rubber chewing gum had ceased operation due to lack of raw materials. And there was no reason to expect the rubber supply problem to improve in the next few weeks: the plantations in Ceylon and Zuid India couldn't satisfy all the demand, and there was no discussion at all of renewing trade with the Aztecs. What was more, if there was another flare-up in the Sea of Judea, merchant vessels would have to be sent all the way around Africa, because the military fleets of Great Egypt and Persia were capable of covering both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Even air-superiority wouldn't be able to provide adequate support to the merchant fleet, in that our dirigibles would need to stay within range of our fortresses on the north of the Island of Arabia.


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