MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
He is falling.
It is over. All over.
The game lost, and his life with it.
The soft, tiny glows of a thousand distant gaslamps rise past Langford's gaze as he falls, despair rising bitterly to choke him.
Below, the dark ribbon of the Thames; around it, London sprawling away in all directions into the fog-shrouded night.
The greatest city in all the wide world, seat of the Empire of the Lion, the throne he's been proud to serve. Its once-impenetrable ocean fogs writhing like churning waves, as they always did these last few years, under the billowing plumes of countless smokestacks, the fires that birthed the steam that moved everything. Mills stamped and shuddered, trains squealed, great cogs clattered, driving the Empire on into a brighter, richer tomorrow ... and with a cruel suddenness, he is leaving it all behind, plunging into death unregarded.
It is all going to go on without him.
Dread Agent of the Tower and Sworn Sword of the Lion he may be-but, in the end, he is utterly unimportant, after all.
The Tentacles assassin clutches at him again, snarling something incoherent, the dagger-tipped fingers of a fanged gauntlet flashing, long and cruel and gleaming.
They clash together in the air, all too close to Langford's throat.
He takes what little satisfaction he can in swinging his cane through them with all the force he can muster, feeling at least one of them snap off, ringing like a bell as it tumbles away through the air. Take that, you foulness ...
The force of his blow spins Langford into a tumble in the air that, when spent, leaves him facing down to watch his death rushing up to meet him. The dark spires and roofs of Lambeth.
At least the assassin is going to die with him, a last desperate hook of Langford's cane toppling him over the same airship balcony rail the Tentacles man had thrust him over.
Or will his killer live, somehow, saved by some infernal new invention hidden on his person?
There should have been no Tentacles agents in the Household Guard-none at all! Is this the only one? Or are there more?
Damn it to the heavens, how far does the taint reach? Into the imperial family itself?
He fights, as the plunge claws the air from his lungs, to get out one last shout.
"For God, the Queen, the Lord Lion, and England!"
Does he manage it all, before the heavy crash that brings oblivion?
The assassin is the only being who might know, and, amid the sliding ruin of cracked and broken roof slates, he cannot say-sprawled as he is, mashed into wet red pulp, and too busy trying to shriek as he dies. He fails.
There seems to be a lot of failure about, in London, these days.
Mister Bleys Hardcastle paused, pipe on its way to his lips but now hanging nigh forgotten in his hand as he stared at the thing that should not have been there.
He took a step back, glancing up and down the dark passage as if several lurking someones were about to catch him in some indiscretion, leaping out with loud jeers to denounce him as a lunatic, a freer of slaves, or one of those wild wits who believes in magic. No, no lurkers. This uppermost hallway at the back of the Lessingham Club was as dimly lit and deserted as he always remembered it being, on his rare glances along it as he hastened across it from the top of the great staircase to the door of the Hargryphon Room.
Hargryphon, that bright-tapestried bower where, until the Lords Temporal had changed the liberties laws, Lessingham's had housed its visiting strumpets for the entertainment of members willing to pay an extra angel or four vintage rose nobles a fortnight. Hardcastle found himself smiling amid fond and vivid memories ...
Not now, b'Jove! Firmly putting reverie aside and returning to the here and now, he cleared his throat as quietly as he knew how and regarded the passage once more.
He'd idly strolled the length of it once, he recalled, and encountered a lost legion of closed and forbidding dark doors, cobwebbed silence-and nothing waiting at the end of it all but a servants' gong on the wall at the head of the narrow and precipitous servants' stair. He could see that gong now, and a choice selection of the doors, too. Nothing had changed, and he was alone in the dim silence, standing before a door bearing a dusty brass nameplate that proclaimed HAVILSTOKE ROOM.
That plate was familiar, but what adorned the upper center of the door was new: a large brass shield from which thrust a flattened but still boldly massive lion's head, eyes closed and jaws clenched around a ring that could have held fast a loaded Thames coal barge.
Surely this knocker hadn't been here before?
Here, on the uppermost floor of a long-established gentlemen's club in Mayfair, five thickly carpeted flights up from the great ground-floor rooms where most members came daily to mutter or snarl over whiskies and cigars.
Beyond the door was a meeting room, all dark-paneled walls hung with dingy paintings-forgettable old masters brought back from the Continent and gifted to the club to pay off whisky debts-a huge round table with chairs, a spittoon or two, and a sideboard with a great stag's head frowning over it. Oh, and a fireplace at one end of the room that would do little to either heat or light the rest of it.
So, why a knocker? Not just a knocker, either; set into the brass shield was a curving row of keyholes to-lock the door shut with multiple bolts?
All this mongery shouldn't be here. Confound it, hadn't been here.
Should he use the knocker? Or just throw wide the door and step in?
Hardcastle shifted from foot to foot in indecision.
Then spun, hands clenching in quickening alarm, at the soft scrape of a hurrying stride behind him.
Close behind him.
"Waiting for me, Bleys? How gallant! We can go in fashionably late, and together," a familiar voice rasped, low and breathless.
Jack Straker was almost upon him, and in as much of a lean and hawklike hurry as usual. More properly Lord Tempest, though he never used his title in Lessingham's, and seldom elsewhere.
Straker, or Tempest, the man was perhaps his best-if most exasperating-friend in all the world. A swift-witted man of many endeavors and more secrets, he now clapped one hand on Hardcastle's shoulder as he flung wide the door of the Hargryphon Room with the other.
"Good evening, gentlemen," he said briskly to those inside, practically charging into the room and dragging Hardcastle with him, his fingers suddenly iron-hard talons.
Thankfully, he just as suddenly let go of the shoulder he was nigh crushing in order to bustle on into the room, dusting his hands as he advanced on a tall, substantial wooden box that was leaning, upright, in one corner.
Thankfully, because Hardcastle needed to pause, swallow, and stare.
"Ah, capital!" Straker informed the room. "They've set it the right way up! Splendid, splendid!"
To Hardcastle, Straker's great wooden box looked like a pauper's coffin.
Not that he spared it more than a moment's attention. He was too busy staring at those seated around the table-some of whom were staring back at him.
Others were beyond staring at anyone.
The chairs, table, walls, and old masters were all very much as he'd expected. Facing him across that gleaming acre or so of dark, glossy-polished wood was no less august a personage than Lord Quentin Staunton, founder and sponsor of Lessingham's. Monocle, gently wry smile, lone wavy lock of white hair slicing through his raven comb-back, lace at the wrists of the hands clasped on the jeweled swordstick: the Old Man himself.
At the lord's left elbow sat a hard-glaring man with a nose even more battered than Hardcastle's own, yet it was a beak one barely noticed thanks to the ragged ferocity of the huge mustache beneath it. The man's balding head looked as hard as a knight's helm, and his bowler-complete with bullet holes-sat squarely on the table before him.
As Hardcastle recalled, this man had only three faces: dour and grim, carefully expressionless, and utter fury blazing forth. They'd met twice or thrice before, not in good circumstances, and Hardcastle had hoped to go to his grave-threescore years or more hence-without ever again laying eyes upon him: Chief Inspector Theo Standish, of the Yard.
On the other side of His Lordship sat a fat, large-headed, bespectacled man whose clothes outshone Staunton's in splendor. A man the wider public might not recognize, even with that vast forehead and formidably bushy eyebrows, but all too familiar to anyone who aspired to wealth in the city. A man of Whitehall whose rank was high and whose chief concern was taxes-gentlemen's taxes, ensuring the prompt and full payment of same. Hardcastle had heard his name spat from scores of lips in the rooms downstairs, at races, and in splendid country houses: Halworthy Burton. Burton of Whitehall was not a popular man, and judging by the venomous, self-satisfied expression on his face, took sour delight in that.
Yet neither the founder nor the poisonous stares of the men seated with him were what so arrested Hardcastle's attention.
It was the rest of the men seated at the table, silent and dust-covered, slumped in the dark frock coats of earlier days, that transfixed his attention.
They were so obviously dead, all of them. Long dead. Leaning in their chairs, mummified, dropped jaws yawning and sunken eyes long past seeing anything. One was quite skeletal, and his neighbor had collapsed, grisly head having long ago departed decaying shoulders and rolled across the table to a stop-on its side, and thankfully facing away from Hardcastle-nigh the near edge of the vast meeting table.
"Our quieter founders," Lord Staunton explained dryly. "They seldom vote these days."
Hardcastle nodded abruptly, trying vainly to think of the right response. He was still struggling when Straker took the need to do so quite away from him.
All lean arms and legs, pantherlike pounce and alert energy, Hardcastle's friend had been unlocking and unlatching like a madman.
He now stood back from the coffinlike box with an air of satisfaction, faced the table with a broad smile, and said briskly, "I must apologize for our tardiness, gentlemen. Even this close to midnight, the streets were crowded. London's traffic-as I'm sure you've noticed-grows ever worse."
"Another bid for your elevated steam tramways, Straker?" Burton's voice was flat and sour. "Some of us have heard more than enough of them."
The hawklike young inventor wreathed his reply with an affable smile. "Do you know, Burton? Settled and successful men always prefer matters to be as they were when they rose to prosperity and rail against the new. Yet the new always comes, however they object and whatever laws they pass to try to prevent it. I'm told your father railed against the post, saying it would enable malcontents to more easily send messages to each other from the docks to outlying counties and the wilds of Scotland and Wales beyond. Yet no one would now be without it! Your father and your uncle both opposed establishing colonies across the Atlantic, seeing no benefit at all in conquering vast and frozen wastes of uninhabited wilderness called Canada-yet the fur coat you take such pride in came from that largest of our dominions, and half the steam boilers across our great empire are now daily stoked with the trees and the coal of that same frigid wasteland! You yourself were dead set against-"
"Enough, Mister Straker," Burton said coldly. "You pursue a strange way of courting my approval, I must say."
"There's a lot you 'must say,' Burton," Standish said heavily. "Yet however young and, well, strange this man may be, he's promised us a weapon against the Tentacles. Let us hear him out-unless you've something more brilliant to offer."
Burton's head snapped around with the speed of a striking adder. "Have a care, policeman! You forget your place, by the Lord Lion, you do! I-"
"Will die of apoplexy some day, Burton, if you don't take things more calmly," Lord Staunton observed firmly, leaning forward to fully interpose himself between the mantle of Whitehall and the swift hand of the Yard. "The Chief Inspector is right. We are here to entertain Mister Straker's proposal, so..." He spread a hand. "Mister Straker?"
The young inventor bowed. "Thank you, Lord. You are most kind." He spun around, hand outstretched. "Behold the box."
"We could hardly help but notice it," Staunton replied dryly. "It contains your new weapon?"
"Some sort of blunderbuss?" Standish leaned forward in his eagerness. "Steam-powered, to hurl out a stream of bullets, as the rumors have been hinting? Silver bullets? I mean to say, the box is rather large..."
"It would hardly serve London and its citizens well," Straker replied sharply, "to go about the streets launching streams of bullets at any presumed man of the Tentacles. This is not, after all, America."
He drew himself up-and with a conjurer's flourish produced from behind his back one of the fastenings he'd removed from the box earlier.
It was a simple block of wood, from around which he unwound a long wire, to lay bare a folded metal handle. Unfolded, this became a crank, and two of the inventor's impatiently swift steps took the wire to hook about a particular broad-headed metal nail among many such that studded all edges of the box. Straker returned to where he'd been standing and held out his contraption. "Observe."
"It's a block of wood," Burton sneered. "Now, what do I win?"
"Patience, it is to be hoped," Straker told the ceiling briskly. "If England is to go from strength to strength rather than declining in decadence, we need ever-open minds at Whitehall."
"Bolshevik," Burton spat.
"Is that your latest leaning, Master Tax Clerk? If so, your mind is weaker than I'd thought. Bolshevist philosophy employs more than a little rather dodgy reasoning; you'd do better-"
Burton rose abruptly, and caught up his walking stick. "I did not come here to be insulted-"
Lord Staunton's swordcane lashed out, sending Burton's stick spinning across the room to crash against the heavy gilt frame of an unoffending Old Master and clatter to the floor.
"You came here," the lord snapped, in a voice of sudden iron, "because the Lord Lion himself commanded you to. Not only to attend here this day, but to listen, and observe-and use your best judgment in this secret conclave as to what Mister Straker is offering England in one of its all-too-many hours of need. Storm out if you like, but be well aware that if you do so, you will also be walking away from your position, Mister Burton. One word from me to the Lord Lion..."
"You'd not dare!"
"On the contrary, I was ordered to. By our Dread Sovereign herself."
The swordstick was deftly returned to its former position. "You've made many enemies by your manner, Burton-the glee with which you persecute citizens, seeking more coins here and yet more there. Their complaints wear down even the noblest of queens ... and Her staunch right arm our Lord Lion is many things, but a font of infinite patience is not one of them."
Lord Staunton added a sigh, then reached up a silver flask from one boot top and held it out. "Now let us set all these hard words aside. Have a drink, and sit back down and listen to young Straker. Madness his weapon may seem to you-but the Tentacle lovers are hardly normal, now, are they? And damn me if I can think of any effective weapon we might use to stop them right now! We must entertain everything!"
"The Lord High Constable's exact words to me, those," Standish said heavily. "We must entertain everything."
"Small wonder," Lord Staunton told him. "The Lord Lion spoke that sentence to me, too-and to Burton, I happen to know. One can hear quite clearly through the peephole in the portrait of Good Queen Alice."
Halworthy Burton had long since gone a sickly yellow-white, but now he turned quite gray. And reached for the proffered flask as he sat heavily back down, looked at the tabletop as his pocket watch gently chimed midnight, and said unwillingly, "I, ah-sorry. I ... tender my apologies to you all. I've not been myself lately."
"Many of us are in that position, sir," Straker said softly. "Yet we must all remember that, even so, we are the fortunate ones."
Burton drank, gasped at the fiery potency of what he'd swallowed, then growled, "How so?"
"The Ancient Order has not yet come hunting us," Straker explained gently. "So we still have our lives."
* * *
The sharp rap at the door was as sudden as it was unexpected.
Lord Hawkingbrooke frowned, turning to glare at the two stolid Household Guards flanking the door as if the interruption was their fault. "Who can that be? I left strict orders we were to be undisturbed!"
Before either could reply, the door between them was flung wide. Their halberds came up in swift menace-and were struck aside by a bared and ready sword whose wielder wore a war gauntlet of ancient style, a splendid tabard, and a glower that outdid Hawkingbrooke's own. It was old Throckmorton, the Imperial Herald.
"Away steel!" he snapped. "All be obedient before His Royal Highness Frederick Villiers Hanover, Lord Lion of the Empire, Prince Royal of England and Its Dominions Low and High, Sword of the Seas and Defender of the Two Faiths, and Most Dread Lord of London!"
Throckmorton was a short man; over his gilded shoulders, everyone in the room could see a familiar trim-bearded face behind him, piercing blue eyes outshining the three sapphires in the circlet upon the Prince Royal's brows. They all went to their knees in hasty unison.
"Rise, all of you," the Lord Lion said rather wearily, as he lowered himself into the vacant seat at the head of the long table. "I've seen enough bowed heads this day. Hawkingbrooke, I'm told Langford is dead. Is this true?"
"It is, Majesty," the gray-bearded Lord Guardian said curtly. "Spattered all over a rooftop in Lambeth. Fallen from the skies. Most likely from the last flight to Calais, yestereve."
"By someone he dragged with him, yes. A Tentacles agent, by the looks of the gore-and the lack of a body."
"One who got his hands fouled, indeed," Lady Iolanthe Hailsham said in dark satisfaction. "I doubt his stomach was strong enough."
"I'm sure knowing that will comfort Langford's daughters deeply," the scarred man sitting beside her rasped.
"Lord Gaunt," Lady Iolanthe said sharply, "I will comfort John Langford's daughters, tonight and henceforth. Before both altars and all men, I'll be their sponsor and their guardian, too, if they'll have me."
The Lord Lion sighed. "It will be years, if ever, before they're ready to serve the Empire as their father did. No trail, I presume?"
"Our best men are searching all Lambeth right now, Majesty," Gaunt said shortly. "Thus far, we've found these."
He pointed down the table at two small and gleaming things that sat on a cloth in front of a gloomy-looking Lord Winter.
"One under what was left of Langford, caught in his clothing," Hawkingbrooke added. "The other in a roof gutter, where it might end up if someone slid-or was dragged-"
"Dripped," Gaunt murmured.
"-over the edge of the roof."
The Lord Lion might have been in the waning days of his thirty-first year, but there was nothing at all yet wrong with either his eyes or his wits.
"Buttons from a Household Guardsman's uniform. So if your best men are searching Lambeth, who's taking a look at all of them?"
"Richmond," the Lord Guardian replied, "and he should be reporting back to us here any moment now. He-"
A commotion arose outside the door. The thunder of boots, rapidly approaching at a run, one man-
The door banged open again, but this time the guards were ready with their halberds. The man they nearly spitted recoiled from them and almost fell, shouting, "Majesty! All of you! Carrington and the Seneschal are both Tentacles men and got away from us, clean! They're-"
His wild gaze fell upon the two guardsmen barring his way, and he sprang back, pointing frantically. "These two I've not yet-"
The halberds swung away from him in a flash of sharp war steel that became a swift and wordless charge across the room.
Right at the Lord Lion's back.
"'Ware, Your Majesty!" Hawkingbrooke roared, hurling himself in front of one halberd-and taking it full in the chest-as the Lord Lion sprang up out of his chair in a frantic dive forward, landing on his stomach on the table and sliding along it.
The gleaming imperial boots kicked at the vacated chair to launch the Lord Lion on his way, knocking it back into the shins of the second charging guardsman-who stumbled, halberd swinging high.
Under it hurtled Lord Gaunt, slamming hard into the face of the charging traitor, fists up and punching.
The two men crashed into the edge of the table together, halberd clanging as it tumbled away and they punched, shoved, and struggled.
A struggle that ended in a sudden spasmodic flailing as the Lady Iolanthe's silver-bladed dagger sank hilt-deep into the guardsman's ear. Two frantic seconds after she'd torn it out of the gore-spurting right eye socket of the other guardsman, who had taken just a moment too long trying to yank his halberd out of the groaning, dying Lord Hawkingbrooke.
Who in turn gave one last choking gurgle-and expired. Sudden silence fell.
Sir Richmond, the Lords Gaunt and Winter, and the Lord Lion all used it to do the same thing.
To stare at Lady Iolanthe Hailsham.
As she wiped her dagger clean on the blood-spattered uniform of one Household Guardsman, then planted one button-booted foot on the seat of a handy chair, calmly hiked her skirts up to her waist to reveal the empty dagger sheath strapped to that leg flanking her garters, and slid her little silver fang back into its home again.
"Lady," the Lord Lion said a little breathlessly, the moment those skirts had safely returned to the vicinity of their wearer's ankles, "you've done us great service."
Steady gray eyes met his.
"Not yet, Majesty," their owner replied, "but I fear I may soon have to." She sighed. "Like Hawkingbrooke here."
She looked from his sprawled dead body to the two just as lifeless Tentacles agents. "How many more serpents are there in our midst, I wonder?"
"We're going to have to do a lot more than wonder," Gaunt growled, nursing a halberd-sliced forearm, "and soon. Or we'll all be dead, and this'll be the Empire of the Tentacles."
Copyright © 2015 by Ed Greenwood