This is the short story that I read from at Norwescon this year; many thank yous to the people who turned out to listen on the last day of the con when many of us were tired and hungover and ready to go home and gorge on Easter candy.
This is part of the Altered America steampunk series, even though it takes place on the European continent. If you’re curious about the others in the series they fall in this chronological order:
Laurel Finch, Laurel Finch, Where Do You Wander?
Her Windowed Eyes, Her Chambered Heart
Snakes on a Train
Rare Pears and Greengages (contained in Eyes Like Sky and Coal and Moonlight)
There will be more; I’m finishing up another Artemus and Elspeth story, this time set in Matamoros, Mexico, which should go up next month. I’m also collecting these in an ebook that will go out free to Patreon subscribers within the next two months.
As always, I’m releasing this for free due to the support of my Patreon followers; please check out Patreon if you want to help fund creators doing what they (and you) love best.
So here you are:
Web of Blood and Iron
The Hotel Gevaudan put manservants and maids up in their own rooms, one attic below the hotel staff: housekeepers, valets, clerks, kitchen help. The manager lived on-site as well, his family taking up half the floor below that. I’d heard his children more than once playing blind man’s bluff and squeak piggy squeak in the back stairwells.
I wouldn’t have minded a room to myself, but instead I had a cot in his Lordship’s suite, down on the third floor. I was lying there enjoying the Cannes sounds of birds and street bustle and funeral rumble of the trains and reading when I heard the door fumbled open and Lord Albert lurch in.
Alive for another day.
I was up quick, and went in to help him off with his tuxedo, ripe with boozy sweat and cigar smoke and the hyacinth scent the siren whores wear. He was so drunk I was surprised he’d made it home at all, that none of the vampire gamblers had decided to take him home as a nightcap instead of selecting a whore.
He chattered away as I sponged his forehead. He always slept nude. Every lycanthrope I’d served – and I’ve served six so far of his Lordship’s family, the deVulfs – has shared that trait.
“Made enough to keep us here another week,” he said with a grin.
I doubted that, given the size of his weekly liquor tab. I took care of his bills as well, so his ideas of money were usually far off the mark. But his father would supplement that well enough that we could stay.
His cleaning bill was as large as my wages, and I’m better paid than most. The Yorkshire coalmines make the De Vulffs a lot of money.
The question was not how long he could stay. Rather, it was how much longer till one of the vampires discovered his ruse?
I decided to save that for a later argument, when he would be soberer.
Stubble sprouted on his chin a mere hour after each time I’d shaved him with the bone and steel razor so I didn’t bother now to do more than wipe his face. He could go to sleep shaggy and untroubled, smelling only of wolf.
We gnomes have senses almost as acute as theirs. It’s one way we read the earth: metal tang and mineral salts, loam and chalk and bland sandstone.
He fingered his forearm, the silver charm soldered to an iron band, sliding it down to dangle loose around his wrist, then laying it on the end table.
“You still want to leave, don’t you?” he asked me, voice harsh.
“I think it would be wisest, sir,” I said without looking at him. “We could drive up along the coast, swing through Paris, then Calais. We’d be at your club for dinner and some good mutton.”
He huffed amusement. “Appealing to my animal appetites.”
“Appealing to your common sense,” I said, this time meeting his eyes.
They shifted from brandied amusement to muted chocolate. “Not until I know what happened to Marguerite.”
“She wouldn’t have wanted you to endanger yourself.”
He turned away, fists bunched at his sides. “I know those bastards can tell me what happened to her. Whether she’s alive. My father still has enough influence that they listen to me.”
Perhaps. But I didn’t say that aloud. While the vampires held social ascendancy right now, they hadn’t always. At one point they’d reckoned the werewolves’ opinions into their choices. But I didn’t think his title would prevent them from tearing his throat out if – perhaps just when – they discovered he’d been cheating for two weeks now. The charm’s silver burned at him, but it would ward off any vampire’s touch. But that was a flimsy defense – if it happened to slide out from beneath his cuff, any vampire catching sight of it would know it for the luck-cheat it was.
He padded over to his bed and collapsed on it, sprawling on his stomach.
I pulled the crisp linen sheet over him and went to prepare his evening clothes for yet another night before returning to the pages I’d been wading through, Marx’s Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State.
Marguerite. I’d been tired of her from the very beginning, but no servant gets to pick who their master falls in love with. An American girl with delusions of following in the footsteps of Nellie Bly or Jennie June. A war correspondent, here in Europe to cover the wars and convulsions. Back in the States, they’d preserved their freedom, to a degree. Here the vampires, fairies, and their ilk owned the continent, had ever since they’d stepped in to end the World War.
What would have happened if they hadn’t? Who’s to say it would have been as bad as they claimed?
He’d met Marguerite in London. Mixing with a human was bad enough, but when she’d gone off to the French Riviera in search of some story, he had told her he’d meet up with her here and had, only to have her vanish the next day.
I hoped that she’d simply found someone else, some other wealthy pigeon to pluck. But given how she’d vanished out of sight, I thought it might well be the wrongdoing that lord Albert believed it to be.
Two weeks now without much clue. People had seen her. But ask where she had gone, and they looked vacant, unknowing.
Out in the courtyard, Jean asked if I wanted the Delahaye brought round, as he did every day, and as always, I shook my head. But I went into the garage to see it nonetheless, as though it were a horse I meant to comfort. It sat there in the shadows, which washed out the robin’s egg blue of its sides, turning them gray. Sleek and ready. My favorite of all his lordship’s cars, barely two months off the assembly line.
I ran my palm over the sweet silver trim, wishing I had some reason to drive it away now.
Wishing I had some reason to leave altogether. That the courage of my convictions would let me leave his lordship, the foolish child of an unfair class system, behind.
But despite all my feelings about the aristocracy – as Marx said, their parasitic nature had always existed, even before the vampires had claimed them – whenever I looked at Bertie, I saw him as the boy he had once been, full of fancies about knights and chivalry and quests.
He might not acknowledge it right now, but that was what he was doing right now, being a perfect knight riding off to rescue his damsel, armed with ancient tradition.
I hoped she appreciated it. At least, that she was alive to do so.
By six PM, his lordship had roused and was ready to be shaved and dressed. I had sandwiches sent up, something to tide him over till he went out. His eyes sagged as though he hadn’t slept.
“Where to tonight?” I asked as I stirred the lather, smelling of bay rum, and spread it over the black shadows on his jawline.
“Jenkins,” he said. “He’s set up some sort of game in his car on the train. Says it will be novel.”
“Novel” is not a word one likes to hear from an older vampire. So often their ideas of novelty involve pain.
And of course a train. The vampires were obsessed with the trains. Before their occupation, travel had been idiosyncratic: carriages and the occasional automobile. Now their trains thundered through the night, every night, great black things whose whistles called back and forth like hunting hawks, a network of iron connecting every city and town in this area, always spreading, a spiderweb claiming this country and all beyond it.
“Have the front desk call me a cab.” My lord studied his lapels, fingering the wide black expanse, before he held out an arm and I placed his watch, freshly wound, on his wrist. Syrupy gold, not silver. A showy piece, but one vampires would appreciate. They like gaudy on other people.
He looked at me. “Do you want to come, Toby?”
He hadn’t asked me that before. It wouldn’t be anything new to have me there waiting on him while he gambled, but previously I’d avoided the vampires. They like nonhuman blood more than human and they’re not hesitant about feeding on servants. Would his presence keep me safe?
But tired blue shadows sagged under his eyes. He needed backup. He needed a friend there.
His servant would have to do.
He didn’t speak in the taxi, just stared out with knitted brows. Already stubble darkened his jaw, and his Adam’s apple worked as he swallowed.
Not my place to speak, so I stared out the opposite window, running through my inventory. A good manservant is always supplied, from the mints, handkerchief, and comb in my waistcoat to the Bangalore Torpedo, all chambers loaded, secured along my calf to match the dagger’s weight on the other side.
When we pulled up at the station, I fell in line behind him, my boots crunching along the gravel. Jenkins – Lord Jenkins, the Earl of Westumber, to be precise – had a private train, resting on a sidetrack right now. The only other train was Le Train Bleu, getting ready to depart in a few minutes. Not one of the new vampire models, but an older passenger train, elegant and appointed, carrying passengers in true continental style. Coal smoke hung heavy and unavoidable in the briny sea air.
Lord Albert didn’t speak as we walked towards the train car. I could see him preparing himself, squaring his shoulders, putting on his fatuous face. A simple English werewolf interested in a little gambling and a lot of drink. All surface.
Some sleek fellow, hair slicked back and smelling of Cassie pomade, fell into step beside his Lordship. “Fine evening,” he drawled. The slight slur betrayed him as vampire; they prefer not to hide their teeth, no matter what.
Beside me, the vampire’s Renfrew, a silent servant like myself. I stole a sidelong glance: human, far-gone, staring straight ahead.
Inside the train car, cigar and incense smoke tinged the air blue and battled it out for supremacy, ending in a tie. A subdued clink of crystal and cutlery, the ruffle of cards, dice clatter, came from the various tables scattered throughout the room, augmented by the murmur of voices.
Vampires almost always speak softly. I’ve always thought it a way of demonstrating their power. Forcing listeners to strain their ears is more effective than shouting sometimes.
The sleek man tugged his Lordship over to a table; the Renfrew and I moved to the antechamber filled with other servants. No one spoke there. The Renfrews stared ahead silently; the two others, myself and a harried looking human, exchanged glances. Everything was hushed as velvet, opulent and curlicued.
We stood there pretending to be furniture as the gamblers played. Now and then a player would signal, and his servant would dart out from the crowd, wipe his brow, fetch a new drink, or whatever small service was necessary.
My lord’s table was nearby, a cluster of vampires and him, sitting like a terrier amid a crowd of smiling cats. I couldn’t hear them at first, but I nudged my way through the crowd to stand nearer. None of the Renfrews objected, though one sneered as I shouldered past him and another smiled and licked his lips at me, a sneaky little taunt that would have earned him a punch in the face out in the street.
Three of the vampires at the table were of little account: hangers on, the inconsequential scum at the edge of this pond. But the vampire my Lord sat across from was Wilfrid von Blodam.
Von Blodam was slight, turned at an age when his trim little blonde beard was barely past peachfuzz. He dressed immaculately, expensively, and had not one servant in attendance, but two, a pair of matched twins, who stood ready to anticipate any need. The most powerful vampire in Cannes, rumored to be working his way up the power chain as the vampires solidified their hold on the continent.
Before they spread out over the world, I thought, and then thrust that thought away as quickly as I could. Some of them are telepaths.
But how can any of us avoid thinking about the covert war? Great Britain, where the fairy strongholds are based, holds out, and the various African power groups have worked together to do so as well. And the vampires will have to work hard and long to take America, with its vast stores of phlogiston. But already the vampires, aided by a few renegade dragons, have spread so far from their origin point that some have gone eastward to nibble at Russia’s edges.
My lord signaled. I refreshed his whiskey. The air at the table felt grave-cold, despite the heat in the rest of the room, and the smoke seemed to clear around the table, rendering it a clear bubble in the hazy interior.
My Lord studied his cards.
“Do you know,” von Blodam drawled, “where the little journalist went to, the Miller girl? I kept seeing her around the station, asking questions about the trains.”
The twitch of my Lord’s shoulder would have been as apparent to the vampire’s keen perceptions as it was to me, who only saw it because I knew him so well.
“That one that always wore that little blue hat?” he said lightly, still studying his cards. “I was wondering that myself. Took her out for a drink and thought I’d do it again but the bitch vanished on me. No one seems to know where she went to.” He glanced at me. “Don’t hover, Smith, it’s damned annoying.”
I retreated to my cul de sac.
Von Blodam kept playing on the theme throughout the night. “As the Commandant of this zone,” he said, “I should be tracking these sorts of people better. I tell you, what, Lord de Vulff, I’ll let you know if I hear anything of her.”
My lord kept playing, but he was losing steadily despite the medallion at his wrist. You could practically see the money flowing through his fingers, all that labor, hours of coalmining, transmuted into coins that he spent like water, without even thinking of it.
The rich don’t think themselves rich. They count themselves hard up to practice economies such as a single carriage instead of two, or foregoing buying more land or another factory to make them richer. It’s easy to hate them for that, and nowhere had I seen it played out so excessively, so freely, shows of wealth that would have been vulgar if they didn’t manage to subdue that quality through sheer amount. One man was beggared and dragged away after he bet what he should not have.
Von Blodam saved his taunts for when my lord was about to make decisions, and while my lord’s face remained impassive, I could read the emotions there, the confusion and fury. Von Blodam wanted him to attack, I thought, wanted to taunt him into action so he’d have an excuse.
With that realization, I tried to will my lord to come away, to keep calm, tried to put my own thoughts in his head, though there wasn’t a chance of that, as though through sheer force of will I could somehow make him do what he should and back away.
Cold sliced through my heart as von Blodam turned ice blue eyes towards me, studying me like a half-dissected specimen. “Your servant came with you from England, did he not?” he asked my Lord.
My Lord’s back could have been a steel rod, but his voice was leisurely. “Smith of Smithfield. Their family has been serving mine for generations now, haven’t they, Smith?”
“Yes, my lord.” My voice creaked from disuse. He gave me a dismissive nod before turning back to the table and pushing the conversation down a different alley. “I understand you’ve got one of the new Bentleys, von Blodam. How does it run?”
But von Blodam was not done with me. He beckoned, and I went to him, not looking at my lord.
“Good English gnomish stock,” he mused, reaching out to trace a finger along my cheekbone. “Tell me, Smith, is there anything that would shake your faith in your master?”
“No, sir,” I said. What else could I? The fingernail on my skin was dagger sharp; it sliced the flesh and I felt blood spring to it as he withdrew his hand.
“No? Nothing? But what of English honor, Mr. Smith? What if you discovered your lord had been trying to cheat at cards?”
The air pushed in on me and his eyes were like stars. I focused on my breathing.
“My lord would not do such a thing, sir,” I said, forcing the words out.
“Not for money or…love?” he pressed.
He chuckled, slouching back in his chair. “Very well. Let us resume our game.” The vampire beside him began to deal as I retreated.
The evening wore on. Fortunes were squandered and re-won, and then squandered again. The cigar smoke haze thickened to the point of oppression, and the air grew stuffy except when someone entered or exited the car, bringing in a night breeze that cut through the heat like a saber stroke.
I tried to keep any thoughts from betraying us, but I could not help but wonder. The vampire knew my lord was cheating, he was threatening to say it openly, and there was only one end to it if he did make that accusation: they would kill my lord then and there.
But my lord seemed oblivious to his impending fate. He sat there playing and chattering away, an endless stream of blather that was his damned-silly-English-peer act, playing to the crowd with a touch of whimsy now and then. But underneath it all, he and I and the vampires knew, he was a werewolf, and while they had the numbers, he could at least account for some.
Lost in these thoughts, I swam back as the Renfrew beside me stepped forward to provide and light a cigarette, then retreated into his former position. My lord was talking about cars.
“Rover claims their new model goes faster than le Train Bleu,” von Blodam said.
“That’s nothing special,” my lord asserted. “I could leave with the train from here and my car could get me to my club in London before the train hits Callais.”
Von Blodam raised an incredulous eyebrow. “A bold claim.”
“It’s good English technology,” my lord said, and the edge to his voice was the same as though he’d bared his teeth, by the way the tension jumped in the room. Two Renfrews sidled closer.
But von Blodam laughed. “Then perhaps we should bet on it. You will race le Train Bleu, and if you win, I will give you the prize of your choice.”
“And if that prize was to answer a question truthfully?” My lord’s eyes burned but could not melt the room’s ice.
Von Blodam smiled, and I could feel disaster looming like an iceberg. “Very well. Three questions even, answered with absolute truth, on my honor. What would you put up against something like that, my Lord?”
“Name it,” said my Lord softly. “For it’s clear that you are angling at something.”
The toothy smile broadened. “Very well. A reward of my choice, if the train reaches Callais before you are at your club.”
“A reward of your choice,” my lord said.
The vampire’s eyes lingered on me.
Outside, I piled him into the cab and started speaking even as the door swung close.
“What were you thinking?” I demanded. “They won’t let you win.”
“They don’t know anything about cars,” he said contemptuously. “They make their Renfrews drive them about. They won’t be able to catch more than the dust we leave in our trail. And I’ve driven that route two, three dozen times now, half of that in the Delahaye.”
He was flush with alcohol and triumph. He was young and rich and callous. How was he different, battening on the labor of honest workers, than any of the vampires?
And how could I possibly change his mind on this? No.
No, I would let him go to his fate. And, as was my hereditary place, I would accompany him.
I could do no less than that.
At 5:45 PM, we heard the whistle of le Train Bleu, departing. My lord set down his drink with a leisurely smile, saluted the watching well and ill-wishers, and sauntered over to the waiting car, gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine’s warmth.
He straightened his jacket and wound a white silk driving scarf around his neck. I could have killed him. We were losing precious time.
But as soon as we were out of eyeshot of the crowd, his entire demeanor changed. “Here we go, old fellow,” he said. “Hang on.”
The French countryside is beautiful, they say. I caught little of it in the mad rush to Muchy Breton, where we had to search for the pharmacy in order to secure petrol. It took some amount of explaining to the clerk, who was the pharmacist’s assistant, and bemused at the idea that our car would require anything at hand in his storeroom. At last, he fetched the pharmacist, who turned out to be an automobile enthusiast, with a shed full of petrol, old tires, and a blacksmith shop’s worth of tools.
When I emerged, I found my lord on his knees beside the rear wheel, cursing.
“Someone’s slashed the tire,” he said. “Dammit all. I turned my back to go take care of a moment of natural business. Low, to stoop to that sort of behavior while a man’s relieving himself.”
I fumbled with the trunk and took out the spare. “And this,” I said. A penknife pierced the thick rubber.
But we were in luck. I turned to the sleepy pharmacist.
The next obstacle presented itself a few miles further on. Fog covered the road, and the car swam in and out of it, a submerged salmon leaping through foamy water, curls and tendrils swirling in its wake. My lord drove slower, but barely, and more than once we swerved to avoid an incautious cow or deer. I tried not to think of how many things stood too low to be spotted through the fog.
We ascended to a hilltop and saw a basin of fog in front of us, an immense white bowl. I started to say something about the odd flapping noise that was just starting to creep up on my consciousness but before I could begin, my lord shoved me sideways, then rolled in the opposite direction himself. A massive claw flashed in the space between us and rasped against the metal before the dragon swooped back upward.
“Hold tight” We leaped down the hill and into the fog.
My lord steered with face tense, watching the road flash by mere feet from our front wheels, not slowing. Overhead we heard the flapping of the wings.
A train hooted off to the right, somewhat ahead.
“What are you thinking, sir?” I asked. “That’s not the Blue Train. It’s the train to the western coast.”
“I know,” he said. “But the crossing is up ahead, I can hear it.”
“But not see it.” Fog thickened and lessened around us; sometimes I could see his resolute face, other times he was lost to me. Overhead those wings flapped, and sometimes fire coiled, once a great wash of it directly overhead accompanied by a foul, sulfurous stench. My cap had blown off my head many miles ago, and I felt the hairs atop my head singe and vanish.
“Hold tight!” my lord yelled over the roaring of the wind and if he added anything to that, it was lost in the howl of the train and the sudden flap of wings and then somehow we were soaring through space just ahead of the train, so close I could count every bar in the cowcatcher in front of it and there was a vast scream and crash as the dragon and the train collided, and then a whoosh of flame, exploding outside, that cleared the world of mist and revealed chaos.
The train, one of the great black trains, lay folded and crumpled, intermingled with the thrashing of the dragon corpse, which reminded me horribly of a chicken I had seen once with its head removed, still dashing itself against a wall in search of the escape that it was far past. The train had been pulling three vast tanks; two had broken, and black liquid was spilling out, pooling.
Or was it black? The moonlight gleamed on it as black birds swooped down, a cloud of them, the ones that had been following us, transforming into humanoid forms, to kneel beside that vast pool. We both stood, speechless, at the spectacle of the vampires lapping up the encarmined landscape, the moon glowing emptily behind their eyes.
All those trains had a hidden purpose. Carrying tanks of blood, harvested from God knew where. Not just gallons of it – an immeasurable amount.
The parasitical rich, embodied, literally drinking the blood of the poor.
“Go!” my lord said urgently, pulling me towards the car.
Reunited with the Delahaye, we hurtled through the night. My mind raced. Supplies – the trains would allow the vampires to take the world. A group of them could overwhelm a city, and the trains would let them travel any distance to do so. Despair held my heart so tight I could hardly breathe.
We made it to Calais, scrambled aboard the ferry in the nick of time. My lord did not speak all the way as we moved over the sea, and the moon made nonsensical images with the froth atop each wave. I stared into the water as he paced back and forth, chainsmoking and unable to rest.
He was thinking of the lost girl, a face he’d only seen once or twice. He wasn’t thinking of anything or anyone else.
If we did not reach the club in time, the vampire would claim his prize. Surely my Lord understood von Blodam’s intent. He’d wagered my life without thinking about it, considering it just another commodity to be spent. A bag of flesh containing the good gnomish blood that had whetted von Blodam’s appetite.
Wasn’t he as bad as the vampires? At least they were honest as to how they saw us all.
How did von Blodam get there before us? Some trickery, or perhaps a direct train. But he did, even as we pulled up with five minutes to spare.
There was irritation in his gaze as he said, “It seems you have won, Lord von Vulff. I regret to say the French authorites intend to fine you for racing on public roads.”
Amusement in his gaze, but something else…anticipation, perhaps.
“Indeed,” my lord said.
“Then claim your reward.” Von Blodam’s teeth glinted in the moonlight.
“What happened to Marguerite?” My lord’s voice was hoarse as though he had run every step of the way here.
He stood there, the embodiment of the system I’d served all my life. How could I still care for him? But I did. I’d known him all my life, how could I not? And did it matter, that he’d risked my life, when he’d thought there was no question but that he would win? I wanted him to be happy, despite it all. And I thought to myself, oh maybe, maybe.
“I believe you might have seen her along the way,” von Blodam drawled. “Some part of her.”
My lord stared at him, the beard on his cheek ragged and unkempt, his clothing in shambles from the trip’s wind, as though willing him to say more. He was the abstract of what I hated and I could not hold it against him, standing there against its physical embodiment.
But all the further the answer the vampire gave was not in words: he simply licked his lips and smiled as the street traffic came and went around us and the webs of blood and iron spread and we stood in the future ruins of our world.