Legion of Flame – Sample Chapter

Chapter 2 – Lizanne

She was dreaming of the evacuation again when the noise of her father’s latest invention woke her. She bobbed in the chilly swell as the Blue rose above her, water cascading from its coils, eyes bright with malicious intent as it lowered its gaze to regard her as one might regard an easily caught fish, and spoke, “Can’t you make him stop? Just for a few hours.”

She groaned, blinking bleary eyes until the drake’s visage transformed into the red-eyed, tousled-haired and annoyed face of Major Arberus. She grimaced, shaking her head and sinking back into the bed-clothes. “He’s your father,” Arberus went on.

“And you’re a guest in his home,” she replied, closing her eyes and turning away. “If he has one principal occupation in life it’s in the generation of noise. If you could bottle it and sell it we would have been a much richer family.”

Whatever retort Arberus began to voice was drowned out by a fresh upsurge of rhythmic thumping from downstairs. Lizanne bit down a curse and opened an eye to view the clock on the bedside table. Fifteen minutes past ten, and she had a very important meeting at twelve.

“Go on,” she said, nudging Arberus’s naked form with her foot. “Back to your own room, if you please. Appearances must be maintained.”

“Surely he knows by now. Your aunt certainly does.”

“Of course she knows, and so does he. It’s a matter of respect. Now” — she gave a more insistent shove — “go!”

She felt the mattress bounce as he got out of bed, hearing the rustle of hastily donned clothes. She heard the click of the latch then a pause as he hesitated at the door. “You don’t have to go,” he said. “It’s not as if you owe them anything, after all.”

“I have a contract,” she reminded him. “I like to think that still means something in this world.”

She turned onto her back as he slipped out, less quietly than she would have liked, and stared up at the ceiling. It was decorated with a spiral pattern made up of birds and dragonflies, her aunt’s work. The colours were a little faded now but the swirling mass of flying creatures remained mostly unchanged from childhood. She would stare up at them every morning in the days before the Blood Lot saw her shipped off to the Academy. The notion stirred memories of Madame Bondersil and the lingering pain of her betrayal. She had a contract too.

***

She found Tekela at the kitchen table eating an oversized breakfast under Aunt Pendilla’s supervision. “Not healthy for a girl your age to be so thin,” Pendilla said, pouring tea and nodding at a plate of buttered bread. “Eat up now. Never catch a husband looking like a stick.”

“I don’t want a husband,” Tekela responded in her now-near-perfect Mandinorian. “Lizanne appears to get along perfectly well without one. And so, I notice, do you, Miss Cableford.”

Seeing her aunt’s face darken, Lizanne moved quickly to relieve her of the teapot. “Allow me, Auntie.”

“This girl is of too sharp a tongue for her own good,” Pendilla stated.

“An observation you are not the first to make.” Lizanne sat down next to Tekela and poured herself some tea as Pendilla disappeared into the larder.

“She’s obsessed with making me eat,” Tekela murmured. “It’s unnerving.”

“She’s obsessed with making everyone eat,” Lizanne returned. “Something many in the incomers’ camp would appreciate. I’m sure I could find one who would be willing to swap places with you.”

A slight vestige of her old pout came to Tekela’s lips before she caught herself and returned to her breakfast with renewed enthusiasm. “Wasn’t complaining.”

Lizanne sipped her tea and winced as a fresh round of thumping came from the direction of the workshop. It continued for about thirty seconds before stuttering to a clanking halt. “I see they still haven’t fixed it,” she observed.

“Jermayah says it’s the intake valve,” Tekela said. “The Professor says the combustion chamber.”

“Which means they’ll be tinkering with the bloody thing for weeks to come whilst more pressing work remains incomplete.”

“We’re keeping up with orders,” Tekela pointed out. “Producing up to six Thumpers a week now. I believe I could probably assemble one myself without assistance, if anyone would let me. I think I have a way to do it faster too.”

Lizanne hesitated before telling her to stick to their established piecemeal manufacturing methods. The three weeks since their rag-tag refugee fleet arrived in Feros had taught her that a bored Tekela was a very trying Tekela. “You can demonstrate when I return this afternoon,” she said, moving back as Aunt Pendilla returned to set a heavily laden plate before her. “Thank you, Auntie.”

“You’re wearing that, are you?” Pendilla asked, her somewhat critical gaze playing over Lizanne’s rather plain dress of light blue fabric adorned only with a shareholder’s pin on the bodice. “It hardly reflects your current status.”

Current status? Lizanne had puzzled over this particular question since stepping onto the Feros quayside. What was she now exactly? A hero to many. The saviour of the Carvenport Thousands to some. The refugees still called her Miss Blood, showing a sometimes annoying deference in her presence, as if the authority she wielded in fending off the drake and Spoiled assault still held true. In fact, whatever titles or respect they chose to bestow upon her she was officially a suspended agent of the Ironship Exceptional Initiatives Division, an agent currently awaiting the findings of a Board-sanctioned inquiry.

“Sober dress is expected at Board meetings,” she told her aunt, glancing at the clock above the range. An hour to go, and it would be best not to be late.

“Good morning, Major,” Pendilla greeted Arberus with a bright smile as he descended the stairs. She bustled over to pull a chair out for him. Lizanne had noticed before how her aunt tended to do her best bustling around the major. Lizanne assumed Pendilla was worried Arberus would decide to take himself off without marrying her ruined niece first. Both her aunt and her father retained some tiresomely outdated notions.

“You do look smart today,” Pendilla said, patting the shoulder of the overly expensive suit Arberus had insisted on buying to replace his tattered cavalryman’s uniform. Lizanne often thought it strange that a man of fierce egalitarian convictions should care so much about appearance. “Doesn’t the major look smart, ladies?”

“Green suited you better,” Tekela muttered around a mouthful of bacon.

“I thought I should make the effort.” Arberus forced a smile at the veritable mountain of food Pendilla placed before him. Unlike Tekela, he retained a strong Corvantine accent, though his syntax was flawless. “It’s not every day a man steps into the lair of the corporatist cabal, after all.”

“You’re staying here,” Lizanne told him, glancing at Tekela. “The contingency.”

She saw him about to protest before a grimace of reluctant acceptance showed on his face. Their contingency consisted of a bag filled with all the Ironship scrip and exchange notes they could spare, plus a pair of revolvers. There was also a sympathetic Independent ship’s captain in the harbour willing to take them to a friendly port. “You think it might be necessary?” he asked. “The entire expatriate Carvenport population will riot if they lay a hand on you.”

“Desperation may force them to extreme measures.” Lizanne reached for the toast. “I must confess I haven’t the faintest idea of how this day will turn out. But, if there’s one lesson we learned in Arradsia, it’s the value of contingency.” She buttered the toast and took a sizable bite. “There are two Exceptional Initiatives agents in the house opposite and another two playing the role of vagrants in the alley behind the workshop. I believe only one is Blood-blessed, a woman posing as one of the vagrants. If I fail to return by six o’clock and the agents at the front make themselves visible it means I’ve been arrested. You’ll need to kill the Blood-blessed first. Jermayah’s prototype portable Growler should suffice for the task. Assuming the refugees oblige us with a riot, it will provide sufficient cover to make it to the docks.”

She finished her toast and glanced at the clock once more. “Forgive me, Auntie,” she said, rising from the table. “It appears I shan’t have time to finish breakfast.”

“Don’t you want to see your father before you go?”

Lizanne looked at the door to the workshop, hearing the rising pitch of voices as her father and Jermayah commenced yet another argument. “As ever, he appears to be preoccupied with more important things.”

***

Although the Ironship Trading Syndicate had never been overly fond of ostentation in its architecture the early Board members had felt compelled to make an exception for their Feros Headquarters. The building stood five stories tall and had a castle-like appearance, being formed of four corner towers linked by recessed walls. The archaic impression was alleviated by the many tall glass windows behind which countless clerks, lawyers and accountants laboured to maintain the bureaucratic machinery of the world’s largest corporation. Lizanne’s visits here had been infrequent over the years, the nature of her employment requiring that she minimise any risk of identification by agents from the Corvantine Empire or one of the syndicate’s many competitors. Of course, such concerns were now largely irrelevant. She was, after all, quite famous.

Before making her way to the main entrance Lizanne took time to note the building’s enhanced defences; Thumper and Growler batteries placed on the towers and also the  roof-tops of surrounding ancillary offices. Despite Arradsia being a considerable distance away it seemed the Board had not been entirely deaf to the warnings contained in her initial report.

Normally she would have been required to report to the main desk and spend a tedious half-hour pacing the foyer before being granted entry. Today, however, things were very different. Two Protectorate officers, both with  side-arms, met her as soon as she stepped through the revolving door and she was conveyed to the Board’s private,  steam-powered elevator after only the most cursory greeting. They made the journey to the Board-Room in total silence and Lizanne took care to note the pale patches of skin on the hands of her two escorts, the legacy of the Blood-lot. The Board, it appeared, were unwilling to take any chances today.

She had only been granted access to the Board-Room once before, the day she received her shareholder’s pin. It had been a formal affair shared with a dozen other young managerial types summoned to receive their reward for exceeding predicted profits or, in her case, successfully stealing the designs of a competitor. Incredibly, that had been less than a year ago and now here she was, called to suffer their judgement.

She was surprised to find all but three of the Board’s ten members in attendance, unusual for a body that could rarely count on half its number at any given meeting. Ironship’s truly global reach meant that those appointed to lead it were often called to  far-distant climes and would receive a full recording of the Board’s deliberations via Blue-trance before a final vote on any major matter was taken. For practical reasons the day-to-day decisions were made with a quorum of no less than five members. Today, however, was a far-from-mundane matter and it appeared most of the Board preferred to hear her testimony in person before casting their vote.

The Board sat at a semicircular table in front of a large stained-glass window featuring the Ironship company crest. The window’s predominant colour was blue, which gave the ambient light in the cavernous room a strangely surreal cast, reminding Lizanne of a Blue-trance she had once shared with a fellow agent on the brink of death following an encounter with a Corvantine assassin. It wasn’t an encouraging portent. She took her place, a spot where the blue light from the window disappeared to form a small white circle. A chair had not been provided and the two Protectorate officers took up station on either side of her, just far enough back to evade her eye-line.

Her gaze swept over the Board members, recognising them all but searching for one in particular. She found him seated at the extreme left of the semicircle, a large, bearded man of notable girth dressed in a slightly shabby suit Arberus wouldn’t have been seen dead in. Taddeus Bloskin, Director of the Exceptional Initiatives Division, who this day could prove to be either her best ally or worst enemy. She truly had no idea which; he had never been an easy man to read.

“State your name and employment status.”

Her eyes snapped to the Board’s Chairperson. The position changed hands every year and was currently occupied by a small woman of deceptively fragile appearance. Madame Gloryna Dolspeake had spent the bulk of her career in Mergers and Acquisitions, an arm of the Syndicate that tended to foster both a predatory mind-set and a fierce attachment to company loyalty. She stared at Lizanne over a pair of half-moon spectacles, pen poised over her papers with what seemed to Lizanne to be a dagger-like anticipation.

“Lizanne Lethridge,” she stated. “Shareholder and lifetime contracted agent of the Exceptional Initiatives Division, currently under suspension.”

A few pens scratched on paper but otherwise silence reigned until Madame Dolspeake spoke again, “For the sake of the record please confirm that you are the author of this report.” She held up a bundle of papers bound with a black ribbon, the one-hundred-page report Lizanne had compiled on return to Feros. “Board file number six-eight-two, submitted on the second of Harvellum, Company Year two hundred and eleven. Title reads: Report on operations undertaken and events witnessed by Shareholder Lizanne Lethridge during deployment to the Arradsian Continent.”

Before replying in the affirmative Lizanne made a mental note to come up with a more compelling title should she ever decide to publish the report in book form. “I authored that report, yes.”

“All members present and not present having read this report, certain salient points are considered worthy of further discussion.” Dolspeake began to make her way down a list scrawled on her papers. “One: the apparent betrayal of company interests and collusion with Corvantine agents undertaken by the  now-deceased Lodima Bondersil, formerly Director of Arradsian Holdings. Two: the dispatch and progress of the ‘Torcreek Expedition’ to the Arradsian Interior and its apparently successful discovery of the previously legendary White Drake. Three: the successful recovery and subsequent loss of an artifact containing potentially valuable information said to have been produced by the so-called ‘Mad Artisan.’ Four: the attack on Arradsian Holdings by what this report describes as, quote: ‘a combined army of drake and Spoiled I believe to be in thrall to the White by virtue of means unknown,’ end quote.”

Lizanne maintained a placid expression as Dolspeake fell into an expectant silence. “What else is there for me to say?” she enquired as the silence wore on. “You have my report. I have also submitted to Blue-trance interrogation by Internal Security, who I believe confirmed its veracity.”

One of the other Board members spoke up, a gruff older fellow she recognised as the Director of Manufacturing and Procurement. “Memories can be falsified. A skilled Blood-blessed can plant lies in another’s head.”

“Only the head of another Blood-blessed,” Lizanne pointed out. “And there are thousands of former Carvenport residents in the incomers’ camp who can attest to the truth of my report. I would suggest that a brief reconnaissance of the Arradsian coast will also bear out much of my account.”

She saw the Maritime Protectorate Admiral who chaired the Sea Board exchange a brief, but guarded glance with Dolspeake. As commander of the body that exercised control over all Ironship war vessels, he would be responsible for ordering any such mission. “I see such action has already been taken,” Lizanne went on. “Might I enquire as to the outcome?”

Dolspeake waited a full ten seconds before giving a barely perceptible nod of assent to the admiral. “We sent three fast frigates, all modern blood-burners,” he said. “Only one returned, having lost half its crew. They barely had time to glimpse the Arradsian shore before coming under attack by both Blues and Reds.”

“Then the crew are to be commended on a considerable feat of arms,” Lizanne told him before returning her gaze to Madame Dolspeake. “Since you are fully aware of the accuracy of my report, might I enquire why I’m here?”

The woman’s gaze flicked to the far end of the table where Taddeus Bloskin was shaking a match as he puffed on a newly lit pipe. “Your report makes mention of a Corvantine woman,” he said in his decidedly non-managerial accent. Director Bloskin did not owe his position to privileged birth. “A Blood-blessed.”

“Electress Dorice Vol Arramyl,” Lizanne said, suspecting an imminent accusation of corporate treason and moving swiftly to head it off. “She survived the siege and the evacuation, if you would care to question her.”

“We have. She was very forthcoming.” Bloskin regarded her with steady eyes behind the rising pall of pipe-smoke. “You permitted her to trance with the Blood Imperial.”

“Morsvale had fallen to the drakes and the Spoiled. Given the circumstances I decided news of events in Arradsia might forestall further Corvantine aggression.”

“Thereby exceeding your authority in the extreme,” Madame Dolspeake stated.

“We were all very likely to die in the near future,” Lizanne replied. “I had little time or concern for the trivia of syndicate regulations.”

“It worked, in any case,” Bloskin broke in before Dolspeake could retort. “Hostilities with the Corvantine Empire have ceased. Partially, one suspects, due to the fact that they no longer possess a fleet in Arradsian waters, but then”— he turned to favour the admiral with a thin smile—“neither do we.”

The admiral glowered at the spymaster but evidently retained sufficient wisdom to remain silent.

“Although no formal treaty has as yet been agreed with the Corvantines,” Bloskin went on, “we have received an approach via unofficial channels. Apparently they want to talk.”

“Negotiation would seem a sensible course at this time,” Lizanne said.

Bloskin’s grin broadened into a smile, smoke seeping between his teeth. “I’m glad you think so, since it’s you they want to talk to.”

Lizanne took a long moment to survey the Board members, eyes tracking over a variety of faces, men and women of middling years or older. Some dark-skinned, others pale like her, and all sharing a singular attribute she once imagined to be beyond those who have risen so high. They’re all terrified.

“Me?” she asked Bloskin, feeling a warm flush of confidence building in her breast.

He shifted his pipe from one corner of his mouth to the other and she saw a twitch of resentment crease his heavy brow. Of them all he was the least afraid. “It appears the Imperial Court was impressed with your boldness,” he said. “Not to say honesty. The Emperor, or more likely his senior ministers, seem to think they can trust you.” He leaned back in his seat and cast an expectant glance at Madame Dolspeake.

“Lizanne Lethridge,” the Chairperson began in formal tones, extracting a fresh sheaf of papers from her stack, “you are hereby reinstated as a fully contracted agent of the Exceptional Initiatives Division. In recognition of your actions in the recent Arradsian Emergency you are awarded two additional company shares. You are also hereby appointed Special Executive Liaison to the Corvantine Empire and instructed to sail to Corvus at the earliest opportunity in order to establish terms for a shared undertaking aimed at recovering the Arradsian continent. . .”

“No.”

Madame Dolspeake’s eyes snapped up, blinking in surprise. “I beg your pardon?”

“No,” Lizanne repeated. “I refuse your appointment.”

“You have a contract, young woman. . .”

“Hereby dissolved under my own initiative as per section thirty-four, clause B.” Lizanne paused, finding she couldn’t keep the smile from her lips as she enjoyed their shock and outrage. “You. . .” She laughed and shook her head. “All of you, ruling half the world for over a century with paper, ink, ships and guns. Did you really think that’s where your power lay?” She held up her arm, drawing back the sleeve of her dress to reveal the veins in her wrist. “Here is where your power lay. In me.” She jerked her head at the two Blood-blessed Protectorate guards behind her. “In them. And now it’s gone. The product has stopped flowing and your syndicate is a bloated corpse that hasn’t yet acknowledged its own death. My advice to you is to immediately dissolve all company holdings and form a military alliance with any and all willing to join. Forget profit, forget loss. They no longer have meaning. The White is not done, and it will be coming. Survival is the only currency now.”

She gave a formal bob of her head before turning to go. “I hereby resign from the Ironship Trading Syndicate. Good day.”

***

They let her leave, not that she was overly surprised. Ultimately they were just a roomful of scared people at a loss for what to do next.  Besides, Arberus was probably right, had they tried to apprehend her the reaction of the former Carvenport refugees would have been highly unpredictable.

It had become her habit to visit the camp most afternoons, compelled by a sense of duty mingled with a masochistic guilt, for the people she had done so much to save now had very little. A minority, those lucky enough to have relatives across the sea who might take them in, had chosen to sail for other ports shortly after arrival. The majority had stayed for the simple reason they had nowhere else to go or no funds for passage elsewhere. The camp covered several acres of non-arable land a mile or so north of Feros, tents and makeshift shelters sprawling across a series of low hills beneath a pall of smoke and dust. Ironship continued to supply food and fuel, but only enough to forestall an upsurge of trouble and in spite of a rising tide of resentment amongst the native Feros population. Protectorate patrols were scrupulous in hounding any incomers from the port’s environs and only a few refugees had found regular employment.

She made her way through the rows of tents and shacks, greeted by the usual nods of respect or calls from those she remembered from the siege, and many she didn’t. However, she noticed as the days went by respect was often replaced by anger.

“Tell those bastards we need more milk!” a woman called to her from one of the shacks, hefting a skinny toddler in her arms to emphasise her point. “Or d’they want us to starve? Is that it?”

“I no longer work there, madam,” Lizanne told her, forcing a sympathetic smile before moving on.

She found Fredabel Torcreek at the makeshift clinic, engaged in tutoring Joya in the correct method of applying a bandage. Clay’s aunt had taken a protective interest in the girl since the evacuation, partially motivated by the years Joya had shared with her nephew as they lived out a perilous childhood in the Blinds. Their patient was a young woman wearing a clownish mask of white make-up and swearing constantly as they tended the wound in her upper arm.

“Been fighting again, Molly?” Lizanne asked, moving to her bedside.

“Them that don’t settle their bill deserve punishment.” Molly Pins winced as Joya tied off the bandage. “You sure you ain’t got no Green? I can pay.”

“Sorry, Moll.” Fredabel shook her head. “Last of it went three days ago.” She handed over a small wrap of paper. “One half-spoonful in a tincture of clean water twice a day. You get a fever or feel sick at any time you come right back, you hear?”

“Yessum.” Molly swung her legs off the bed, nodding thanks as Lizanne helped her to her feet. “Cralmoor sends his regards, Miss Blood,” she said. “Should I see you, told me to say they saw off another press-gang t’other night.”

Lizanne smothered a sigh of frustration. The Maritime Protectorate had become somewhat desperate to replenish its ranks recently. Pressing vagrants into service was permitted under company law, but the practice had long fallen out of use, until now. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “However, I’m afraid my influence will be even less effective these days.”

Molly shrugged. “He says they didn’t kill any sailor boys this time, but they come round again it’ll a different matter. If you got anybody to tell, then you’d best tell ’em that.”

Lizanne had long given up trying to educate the refugees in her true status. For many of these people she remained Miss Blood, their great Blood-blessed saviour. The notion that she was in fact little more than a minor functionary, and now not even that, didn’t seem to have penetrated the collective consciousness. “I will,” she said instead.

After Molly had taken her leave Fredabel brewed coffee in her small canvas-walled office-cum–living space. “What happened to her customer?” Lizanne asked.

“Didn’t make it,” Joya replied. “Some managerial type fallen from grace. Liked to take his frustrations out on the girls from the Blinds. Should’ve known better than to welch on Molly’s bill though. Don’t worry, he won’t be missed. Cralmoor took care of it.”

Lizanne stopped herself delivering another lecture on the parlous effects camp violence had on the refugees’ reputation. She was now essentially powerless after all and in no position to be lecturing anyone.

“You have news?” Fredabel asked, passing her a mug of coffee. Lizanne was impressed by her self-control in not asking the question sooner. Thanks to Lizanne Fredabel knew her husband, daughter and nephew had survived the search for the White, but the interval between trances no doubt made for a nerve-wracking wait.

“I tranced with Mr. Torcreek three days ago,” she said. “He and the Longrifles are aboard the Protectorate vessel and making for Lossermark. The captain is insistent on replenishing supplies. Also, he remains undecided about the next course of action.”

“Can’t say I blame him.” Fredabel sank onto a stool, clasping her hands together. “But I guess my husband’s attitude remains unchanged?”

“He and the other Longrifles remain committed to this course of action.”

“It’s madness,” Joya stated. Lizanne had noted before how her managerial origins tended to overcome her Blinds accent in moments of stress. “Sailing south through an ocean full of hostile Blues. . .”

“The Blues seem to be concentrated in northern waters,” Lizanne said, recalling the admiral’s words at the meeting. “They have a good chance of making it.”

“If this captain agrees to take them,” Fredabel pointed out.

“Quite so.” Lizanne paused and pulled a bundle of scrip notes from her dress pocket. “For medicine, and whatever you deem fit,” she said, handing the notes over.

Fredabel’s eyebrows rose as she counted the bundle, which comprised a quarter of the profits from the newly established Lethridge and Tollermine Manufacturing Company. “You ain’t making yourself poor on our account, I hope.”

“Business is booming,” Lizanne assured her. “We should be able to take on some more workers soon.”

She stayed for a time, catching up on the camp news, which often made her consider that this place was simply a transplanted if much-reduced version of Carvenport. Although many social barriers had disappeared under the pressures of siege and evacuation, others lingered with surprising tenacity, and the camp had soon evolved a neighbourhood structure that reflected prior allegiances. The former denizens of the Managerial District proved the most strenuous in maintaining a certain exclusivity in their wood-and-canvas dominion, though Lizanne felt there was something pitiable in their attempts to cling to lost eminence. They could strut around in their fine but increasingly threadbare clothes all they wanted, in the end they were all just beggars now.

Emerging from the clinic a short while later, she drew up short at the sight of a tall, large-bellied man in a shabby business suit. “A little overdramatic, don’t you think?” Taddeus Bloskin asked her.

“What do you want?” Lizanne said, acutely aware she had neither product nor weapon on her person, though she took some comfort from the fact that Bloskin had chosen to come alone.

“I want what I assume your little tantrum was intended to achieve.”

Lizanne forced herself to remain still as Bloskin reached into his inside pocket to extract a bundle of papers bound with a black ribbon. “I believe, Miss Lethridge,” he said, proffering the papers, “it’s time to renegotiate your contract.”


%d bloggers like this: