High Adventure in the Steam Age

Friday, August 16, 1872- Part III

In which little is as it seems

Is it too terribly selfish of me to confess that my overriding thought at the moment is that I am starving?

Of course, I could be eating instead of writing, but again I may not be back to finish this later, so pen to paper as time allows. We have succeeded in making the Todesco’s Ball quite memorable, though I fear we may be left off the social schedule for the remainder of the summer.

There is a tendency, even among those who think themselves broad-minded, to refer to ladies as “the weaker sex,” even when we do not bar them from most careers. Whether it is swooning or Worth gowns or even vague flutterings about childbirth – a topic that, in my experience, disquiets men far more than those who must undertake the process – we continue to treat ladies as though they are forever one step behind. To such ignorance, may I submit the cure of tonight's adventure and the heroic endeavors of Mlle. Bechard, Mlle. Glass, and Mlle. Penneg.

Dressed in my out-of-fashion French costume, I made my way into the ball as the partygoers were just beginning to gather. Certainly, the Todescos like to draw in the great thinkers and artists within their reach – Anton Bruckner and Frederick Von Emmerling shored up the musical and painting end of the arts community, while Professors Botzmann and Bileroff added an air of impossibly long phrases from physics and the physick to the conversation. Lady Cecily made her own entrance from within the Palais, Herr Clockmaker ever the vigilant guardian. It was only after some mixing that I noted her doppelganger, Mlle. Glass, perched and watchful as a peregrine on an overlooking balcony.

Then it was time for the first entertainment of the evening – Mlle. Bechard’s magic show. Had I not had some time to get to know her and the time to observe some of Mlle. Penneg’s preparations, I should likely have thought her an enchantress of suspicious facility. As it was, I was still as amazed as anyone at the perfect coordination between her and her phoenix, a blaze of color that swirled across the stage and gave the whole affair an extra note of wonder.

As the floor cleared for dancing, I dutifully made my rounds to place my name on a few dance cards. I tire easily, but can keep up a waltz, given sufficient rest periods. The crowd was making it harder to see who was looking at whom, but there were only a handful of ways to circulate through the room. Hence it was time for my first (and last, as it would happen) waltz.

I am delighted to report that Mlle. Glass waltzes with grace and style, and that her perceptive powers rival my own long training. We swirled around the room, looking to see who may be put off or discombobulated by the presence of two Lady Cecilys on the floor. Both of us caught the confused flashes of several of the additional staff hired for the evening, including one rather large fellow favoring his shoulder where Mlle. Bechard had been unkind enough to put a knife in earlier in the day. I began unfurling a plan to put these ruffians aside for later management, but fate was to take matters in hand and sweep us all along for the ride.

Mlle. Bechard, apparently alerted to the presence of magic, had taken a pause from indulging her own vast queue of suitors to search the mystic winds for signs of what may have been afoot. Unfortunately, something went amiss, producing the first shocking scene of the evening as Adelaide collapsed, blood pouring from her nose and ears. Mlle. Glass, Mlle. Penneg, and I worked to reach her, as did Professor Billroth. I was all at sea in my mind when I heard a voice call my name.

I turned to see Count Navarre, still all in black, striding forth and demanding satisfaction for some imagined slight. For a split second, I wondered if he had done something to Adelaide, and my hand drifted toward my drop pistol, prepared to show the man what sort of swift justice my old self was perfectly capable of meting out. But the deductions flew thick and fast to draw me back into the pantomime – he would not present himself in such a way if he had somehow harmed our companion. He had challenged me, knowing that I carry no sword, but giving me the right to choose arms. Finally, the white of his knuckles as he gripped his glove of challenge spoke of a fear that belied the anger of a man wronged or a villain in control of the situation. My conclusion made, I left my pistol in place and got on with matters.

I may have been more offensive than was strictly necessary, given the circumstances, but it was time to put on a show. Choosing Penneg as my second drew a murmur from the crowd, but she dove into the role with the imperious dismissal of my foe for which one can always depend upon the French. I must have appeared mildly comical to make use of my derringer for a pistol duel, but the extra appearance of offense was worth it. As we walked out in front of the Palais, my mind raced for a way to put Adelaide’s prepared button of fake death, which would give the Count the appearance of death without the attendant moldering or inability to recover, onto the Count’s person. Unfortunately, the crowd had separated us. I noted that Mlle. Bechard, despite her earlier injury, was even now endeavoring to put her talisman on our mark by magic, and so I stalled for time, encouraging the Count to do the same. He asked the Baron to inspect our pistols, which was faintly hilarious to me, since I wondered over Baron Todesco’s reaction should he discover that I had overlooked the small matter of bullets in mine. If he did, he said nothing. The Count’s face when he discovered that his pocket had a new and different occupant informed me that it was time for one last magic act.

I have been involved in two duels in my life, both as part of confidence games at the behest of the Professor. It is the strangest thing to march away from another person, your back to them even as you are aware they intend to kill or injure you. My criminal instincts collide most strongly with the rules of “civilized” behavior in these moments. We turned to face one another and the Count hesitated, waiting for me to act. I indulged him. My derringer, for all its deadliness, issues a somewhat insignificant pop when it fires, but the Count triggered Mlle. Bechard’s magic button, setting off an unfortunate flash of eldritch light, and tumbled to the ground. Mlle. Penneg raced forward to inspect my foe, and I started to make some to-do over how he clearly meant to use magic to cheat and won’t you all please look at me while my faerie friend puts fake blood on the Count (Truly, Mlle. Penneg’s collection of oddities on her person beggars the imagination). I need not have bothered, however, for our ruffian friends chose that moment to strike, to their sorrow.

Mlle. Glass, ever diligent to her duties, had placed herself next to Lady Cecily while the Count and I engaged in our duel. The scoundrels, faced with a pair of Lady Cecilys, and lacking sufficient illumination to tell them apart, resolved to make off with both of them. This proved to be their downfall, for as Lady Cecily is retiring and biddable, Mlle. Glass is…not. A fracas exploded in the back of the crowd that turned heads everywhere. Mlle. Bechard momentarily dazed one, which proved more than enough for Mlle. Glass to demonstrate her facility at assault and battery in decisive form. Before they could attack her enough to get themselves killed, the ruffians found themselves restrained by party-goers who thought to “rescue” the lady from assault by hooligans. I suspect they inadvertently accomplished the other way round. Like any good party, the outbreak of broad violence seemed to signal the end of the evening, and the Baroness swiftly and elegantly brought the evening to a close.

I had to inform Professor Billroth that he was correct when he observed Count Navarre’s lack of a mortal wound, but that an explanation would then lead him down a rabbit hole he might care to avoid. We took the Count inside as the guests made their way to their carriages, and the hooligans, one with a broken leg, courtesy Mlle. Glass, had their way made to the wine cellar to await the law.

As the Todescos, Herr Clockmaker, the ladies, and I reviewed events, the catatonic Count Navarre returned to the land of the living. He finally unveiled the missing piece of the puzzle – he had been blackmailed into attempting to kidnap Lady Cecily by none other than Count Iglio Cagliostro.

Bother.

I had encountered the Count in my past life, and his clockwork soldiers were even now making mischief across the continent. Now the unimaginative jobsworth sought to snatch Herr Clockmaker’s masterpiece in order to make what would no doubt be a very fine clockwork assassin, should he be able to puzzle out the dwarf craftsman’s labor. Worse, Cagliostro had seized the Count’s husband as a guarantor of his good behavior, which meant that an innocent was still under threat.

So it is time for one more plan. This one is, interestingly, a bit more straightforward than the caper at the ball. Somewhere in Vienna, either Cagliostro or one his odious minions is waiting for a group of hooligans in rented livery to show up with a captive in tow. I suppose that’s simply what we’ll have to give them.

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