Welcome to the May edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
And because I talked about the somewhat premature death announcements for Steampunk in yesterday’s post, what better story to post than my one published foray into the Steampunk genre, Tea and Treachery?
So prepare to accompany Lady Violetta Chesterfield, as she employs her intelligence and all the feminine wiles at her disposal to rescue her fiancé Captain Nicholas Blackstone of the airship Renegade from the gallows…
Tea and Treachery
“Your Excellency…” The bespectacled head of his secretary popped into the study, snivelling as always, “…I beg your pardon to disturb you. But you have a visitor. From England.”
“From England? Again?” With a sigh, Count Danilo Ostrowsky returned the silver flask filled with most excellent vodka to a drawer of his desk. “What do they want this time?”
“The same as usual,” the secretary, one Mr. Wurm, replied, “Beg for mercy for the pirate.”
“Send them away then.” Ostrowsky punctuated the order with a dismissive wave of his hand. “The matter is settled. The pirate will be hanged tomorrow at sunrise, together with his comrades.”
Privately, Ostrowsky wondered just why the British were so very interested in the pirate anyway. Whenever a foreigner was sentenced to death here in the Kingdom of Dragomir, you normally had to deal with an overworked consulate clerk, an ambassador at the very most, if the condemned was particularly important or notorious. The pirate, however, had drawn not just the British ambassador to his study, but even an undersecretary from Whitehall. All of which suggested that the man was no mere pirate after all, but a spy. Just as Ostrowsky had suspected from the very beginning.
Oh well, by this time tomorrow, the matter was academic anyway. The pirate and his crew would swing and there was nothing anybody could do about it.
“But Sir…” Wurm’s normally corpse-pallid cheeks had taken on a hint of red, as if an overzealous undertaker had smeared rouge on them. “…the visitor… it’s a lady.”
“A lady?” Now that was a surprise. Ostrowsky hadn’t even known that Whitehall employed ladies. “Is she pretty?”
“Well, Sir, not that I’m an expert in these matters, but… yes, I think one could say that she is quite attractive.”
Ostrowsky sighed. For if there was one weakness apart from fine vodka that he had, it was pretty women. “Well, send her in then.”
As Wurm ushered the lady into the study, Ostrowsky saw that for once, Wurm had not exaggerated.
For the lady was indeed very attractive. She was well-proportioned with gentle curves that were clearly a gift of nature rather than a corset, though she was wearing one, of course. Her hair was the colour of ripe chestnuts. Her gown was of cut according to the latest Parisian fashion. The colour was a deep rich violet, edged in black.
Half-mourning. Interesting. Though certainly appropriate, since the man for whose life she’d come to plead would hang tomorrow.
Ostrowsky rose as the lady entered and rounded his desk to greet her. “My lady.”
He took her gloved hand and bent down for a kiss, his lips barely touching the soft leather of her gloves. “I am Count Danilo Danilovich Ostrowsky, prime minister to His Majesty Roderick III of Dragomir. And whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“Lady Violetta Chesterfield,” the lady said. Ostrowsky noticed that she was carrying what looked like a picnic hamper. Goodness, was she trying to bring food to the incarcerated pirates?
“Enchanted.” Ostrowsky kissed the lady’s hand once more for good measure. “Most enchanted, Lady Violetta. I heard that you — ahem — wanted to talk to me about a matter of some importance.”
“Indeed I do,” Lady Violetta replied, “However, I believe that matters of any importance are best discussed over a nice cup of tea. It’s so much more civilised. Wouldn’t you agree, Count Ostrowsky?”
The British and their damned tea. It could be the eve of the apocalypse itself and the Brits would still be sitting there, sipping tea. Still, if Lady Violetta wanted tea, then tea she should have. Even if Ostrowsky himself vastly preferred a good, strong vodka.
So Ostrowsky bowed and said, “Of course, my lady. I shall have Wurm bring us a pot of tea.”
Lady Violetta shook her head. “There is no need for that. For you see, Count Ostrowsky, I am quite particular about how I take my tea…”
Oh, Ostrowsky just bet she was.
“…and I have everything I need right here.”
Unbidden, she set down her hamper on the sideboard in Ostrowsky’s office. She opened it and produced an electric tea kettle, two delicate china cups with matching saucers, a sugar pot, a cream pot, a plate, two lithographed tins, a measuring spoon, two silver tea spoons and a table cloth embroidered with violets.
“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked.
Ostrowsky shook his head. “Not at all.”
So he sat down, leant back and watched Lady Violetta as she opened the smaller of the two lithographed tins and carefully spooned some tea into the electric kettle.
“You don’t mind, if I use your water, do you?” she asked.
Ostrowsky shook his head. “Not at all. Be my guest, madam.”
Lady Violetta filled the kettle with water and set the timer for four minutes. At once, the clockwork mechanism began to tick.
While the tea was brewing, Lady Violetta set the table. First she laid down the table cloth, then she set down the sugar and the cream pot (filled with real cream even rather than milk powder) as well as cups and saucers and silver tea spoons.
“I also took the liberty to bring some biscuits,” she said, “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Ostrowsky assured her.
He watched as she opened the larger of the two lithographed tins, took out some biscuits and arranged them on the plate.
“I wasn’t sure which kind of biscuit you prefer, so I brought shortbread fingers, ginger nuts and spiced tea biscuits. I hope that’s all right.”
“Oh, that’s fine, perfectly fine,” Ostrowsky said, for truth to be told, he had a thing for biscuits, any kind of biscuits. Biscuits and the lovely Lady Violetta, what more could a man want?
The electric kettle chimed, so Lady Violetta switched it off and poured the tea.
“One lump of sugar or two?” she asked.
“Two,” Ostrowsky replied, “I have to confess I have something of a sweet tooth.”
With silver tongs, she placed two lumps of sugar into Ostrowsky’s cup and then one lump into her own. Then she poured a few drops of cream into both cups.
Once the tea had been served, Lady Violetta set down, arranging her bustle.
“See?” She picked up the tea cup and took a sip. “It is so much more civilised to discuss matters of importance over a nice hot cup of tea.”
Ostrowsky picked up his cup and took a sip of his own. The tea tasted… well, it tasted like tea and to be honest, Ostrowsky had always been more of a coffee drinker. Briefly, he wondered whether she’d mind if he added a shot of vodka to his cup. But then, a well-bred English lady like her would probably be scandalised by the very idea.
“So about this matter you wanted to discuss with me…” Ostrowsky began.
“Oh, we will get to that in time,” Lady Violetta said, “But first, do help yourself to a biscuit, Count Ostrowsky.”
Ostrowsky helped himself to a biscuit. The biscuits were infinitely better than the tea, crumbly and buttery with just the right amount of sweetness.
“So, I understand you are here about a prisoner in our custody, Lady Violetta.”
“Indeed I am.” Lady Violetta helped herself to a biscuit. “Nicholas Blackstone, captain of the airship Renegade.”
And here it came.
“Captain Blackstone and his crew were found guilty of espionage, piracy and illegally entering Dragomiran airspace. They were duly tried, found guilty and sentenced to death.”
“I am well aware of that.” Lady Violetta was still holding her tea cup, holding it so tight that her knuckles turned white. Interesting. “However, Captain Blackstone happens to be innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Ostrowsky took another sip of tea. “Our courts came to a different conclusion.”
“In that case…” Lady Violetta took a sip of her own. “…your courts are mistaken.”
“Our courts are independent. I do not have the power…”
“Before I came to Dragomir, I inquired who here would have the power to pardon Captain Blackstone and his crew. Everybody told me that you were the man I needed to talk to.” She set down her tea cup and looked him directly in the eye. “Or were they wrong?”
“Not exactly.” Ostrowsky shifted in his chair. Behind his eyes, he felt the first hint of a headache coming on, so he took another gulp of tea. “As prime minister of Dragomir, I do have the power to pardon condemned prisoners in the name of His Majesty, King Roderick III.”
“Well, then I humbly ask you to exercise that power on behalf of Captain Blackstone and his people,” Lady Violetta said and took another sip of tea.
“And why should I do that, pray tell?” Ostrowsky countered.
“As I said, Captain Blackstone and his crew are innocent.”
“The airship Renegade was captured while illegally in Dragomiran space.”
Lady Violetta took a sip of tea. “A most regrettable accident. Gale-force winds blew the Renegade off course and across the Dragomiran border. And in fact…”
She opened her reticule and took out a sheaf of papers.
“…here I have a sworn statement by Professor Aloysius Weathervane of the Royal Institute of Meteorology regarding the weather conditions on the day the Renegade was captured.”
Lady Violetta handed the sheaf of papers to Ostrowsky, who threw a quick glance at it. There were charts and maps and diagrams, none of which made even the slightest bit of sense to Ostrowsky. The figures seemed to blur in front of his eyes, so Ostrowsky shook his head. Damn those migraines.
He took a sip of tea, draining the cup. “This man Blackstone is a notorious pirate and spy.”
“Correction, Captain Blackstone is a privateer,” Lady Violetta countered, “And in fact…” She opened her reticule again and took out a piece of parchment. “…I here have Captain Blackstone’s official letter of marque from Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, duly signed and sealed.”
She handed the piece of parchment to Ostrowsky. This time, he didn’t even glance at it.
“Pirate or privateer is merely a matter of semantics,” he pointed out, “And I for one do not care whether Captain Blackstone and his crew were preying on Dragomiran airships on behalf of the British Empire or for their own gain. The man is a pirate and here in the Kingdom of Dragomir, piracy is punishable by death.”
“The British Empire also takes a very strict view on piracy,” Lady Violetta said. She noticed that Ostrowsky’s cup was empty. “More tea?”
Ostrowsky nodded, faintly irritated. The headache was getting worse. “Yes, please.”
Lady Violetta poured the tea and continued, “However, as I’ve pointed out, Captain Blackstone is not a pirate nor were he and his crew preying on Dragomiran ships. He was in Dragomiran airspace by pure accident. Therefore, any laws regarding piracy do not apply in this case.”
Ostrowsky was losing patience by now. His headache was getting steadily worse and the air in his study was unpleasantly hot and stuffy. He desperately wanted to loosen his cravat and unbutton his waistcoat, take a generous swig of vodka and lay down on the sofa in his study to doze off and maybe dream of the lovely Lady Violetta with her clothes off and her corset unlaced.
But instead, he was sitting here, exchanging pleasantries, listening to idiotic defences and sipping tea, tepid, lukewarm tea.
“Let’s drop the charade, Lady Violetta,” he said, “Maybe Captain Blackstone and his ship really were in Dragomiran airspace by accident and maybe they were not. However, none of that changes that the man is a pirate and a spy, not to mention extremely dangerous and wanted in half of Europe.”
“Oh, I agree that Captain Blackstone can be a very dangerous man,” Lady Violetta said and took a dainty sip of tea, “However, let me assure you that he poses no danger to the Kingdom of Dragomir, at least not at the moment”
Ostrowsky sighed and took a sip of tea of his own, hoping that would relieve the pounding headache at least a little. It did not.
“And who are you to give that assurance, Lady Violetta? You are not a member of the British government or of the diplomatic corps. Indeed, you are not here in any official capacity at all.”
“I am merely a private citizen concerned about the fate of a man that many consider a hero of the Empire.”
“Why?” Ostrowsky set the cup down with such force that some of the tea spilled onto the saucer. “Why do you care so much about a mere pirate?”
“As I said…”
“Yes, I know. You don’t consider him a pirate and you actually think he’s a hero.”
Now Ostrowsky did reach for his cravat to loosen it, at least a little bit. Damn this woman for trying his patience so much.
“But my question stands. Why? Why do you care so much? And don’t give me any bulls… ahem, nonsense that you’re concerned about a miscarriage of justice or some such bull… ahem, nonsense.”
“All right then.” Lady Violetta delicately balanced her tea cup between her fingers. “I wish to save Captain Nicholas Blackstone, because he happens to be my fiancé.”
Hmm, this was unexpected. The prim and proper Lady Violetta and the rough and uncouth pirate. How on Earth had that happened?
Ostrowsky threw a speculative glance at Lady Violetta. On her left finger, she wore a ring, a fine amethyst ring. An engagement gift from the pirate? Still, ring or not, Ostrowsky could not imagine that Lady Violetta’s family was pleased about such a connection. In fact, he was surprised that they hadn’t taken any steps to prevent it. Unless…
“You’re not with child, are you?”
She didn’t look like it, but corsets hid so many things.
“I do not deign to answer a question of such a personal nature,” Lady Violetta said icily, “All you need to know is that I am engaged to marry Captain Blackstone and that I do not wish to become a widow before I ever was a bride.”
“In that case, Lady Violetta…” Ostrowsky fumbled for his cravat, which was still too damned tight. “…you’d best buy your widow’s weeds, because your pirate will hang tomorrow.”
Lady Violetta raised an eyebrow. “Is that your final word?”
“Damn right, it is.”
“In that case, I’m very sorry, Count Ostrowsky. I had hoped we could settle this matter in a civilised manner, but unfortunately you leave me no choice.”
“Are… are you threatening me?”
“Indeed, I am, Count Ostrowsky.” Lady Violetta shot him a concerned look. “But tell me, Count, are you unwell? Because you do not look well.”
It was a ploy. Feign concern to gain his sympathy. But Ostrowsky wasn’t falling for it.
“Save your concern, Lady Violetta. It’s merely a migraine coming on, like always when the wind blows cold from the East. I need to lie down and therefore, I must really ask you to leave now.”
Lady Violetta, however, made no movement to leave. “Your current discomfort is not due to any migraine,” she said, “And lying down will not make you feel any better.”
By now Ostrowsky was becoming truly and well irritated. “And how, pray tell, can you possibly know that?”
A hint of a smile appeared on Lady Violetta’s perfect lips. “Because I poisoned you.”
“I poisoned you,” Lady Violetta repeated calmly, “The poison is quite lethal, I fear. And since you’re already experiencing the first symptoms, I estimate that…” She pulled an elegant watch from a pocket of her jacket. “…you have perhaps an hour to live. Maybe less.”
Ostrowsky looked at the platter with the biscuits, the half empty tea cup and finally at the smiling Jezebel before him.
“You goddamned little…”
“Oh please, could we dispense with the insults?” Lady Violetta said, “I know you’re upset, but we really don’t have much time and I’d rather settle this matter, before you collapse and drool onto this very fine Persian carpet. So yes, I poisoned you. The poison was in the tea, in case you’re wondering.”
Bitch! That goddamned bitch.
Ostrowsky grabbed the half empty tea cup and hurled it at Lady Violetta who dodged it effortlessly.
“Now that was quite unnecessary,” she remarked, “And useless. After all, you already drank the tea.”
“But you… you drank it, too.”
Lady Violetta nodded. “Indeed, I did. However, before coming here, I took the liberty of taking this.” She reached into her reticule and produced a vial filled with a clear liquid. “It’s an antidote that counters the effects of the poison.”
With all his remaining strength, Ostrowsky jumped up and lunged for her. And once again, Lady Violetta sidestepped him easily, so Ostrowsky crashed into the table instead, sending tea cups, saucers, biscuits and silver spoons flying in all directions.
Lady Violetta sighed. “Now that was really uncalled for. And useless, because the poison is already affecting your coordination.”
She held up the glass vial, which contained the key to Ostrowsky’s salvation.
“Contrary to what you might believe, I’m not a murderess. I have no wish to kill you. But make no mistake, I will, if you do not consent to my demands.”
“What demands?” Ostrowsky asked, though he suspected he already knew.
“You will pardon Captain Blackstone and his crew and order them released at once. In fact…” Lady Violetta reached into her reticule again to produce another piece of parchment. “…I have already prepared a legally binding document to that effect, which you only need to sign and seal with the Grand Seal of Dragomir.”
“I will not…”
“And then there is the matter of the airship Renegade, which has been impounded,” Lady Violetta continued undaunted, “Captain Blackstone is rather fond of his ship and needs her back, therefore you will also order the ship released at once and grant the Renegade and everybody aboard safe conduct to the border. And in fact…”
Lady Violetta reached into her reticule to produce another piece of parchment.
“…I have already prepared a legally binding document to that effect. Now if you would be so kind to sign and seal both documents, preferably while you still have sufficient fine motor control.”
“I will not sign that,” Ostrowsky declared, forcing out the words.
Lady Violetta crooked her head or maybe it was just Ostrowsky’s vision that was no longer quite straight. “So you’d rather die? Interesting.”
“If they find you here with me dead, they’ll arrest you,” Ostrowsky said.
“Perhaps,” Lady Violetta agreed, “But I rather doubt it. The poison cannot be detected and I will simply concoct a sob story about how you suddenly collapsed and died in front of my eyes. You may have noticed that I’m quite skilled as an actress.”
“I’ll call the guards and have you arrested right here for attempted murder. Then you can hang alongside your pirate, Lady Violetta.”
Actually, female criminals were beheaded according to Dragomiran law, because hanging women was considered unseemly. But certainly, an exception could be made in the case of an assassin and archvillainess like Lady Violetta.
“Yes, you could do that. And while I confess that a gallows wedding is not what I’d imagined, I would still gladly share the fate of my beloved. However, you will not have the pleasure to watch us hang on account of being dead, Count Ostrowsky.”
“What if the guards seize the antidote?”
“They won’t.” Lady Violetta held up the glass vial once more. “The moment you call for the guards, I will drop the vial. Should you try to attack me again, I will drop the vial. No matter what you try, you will never be quick enough. And by the way, this…”
A ray of light struck the vial, mocking Ostrowsky.
“…is the only dose of the antidote. If you force me to destroy it, you sign your own death warrant.”
“Our finest scientists will analyse the tea, identify the poison and synthesise an antidote,” Ostrowsky declared.
Lady Violetta nodded. “Yes, eventually they will. But not within the next hour. And one hour…” She glanced at her pocket watch again. “…well, actually closer to fifty-six minutes is all you have. Oh yes, and did I mention that death by this particular poison is extremely painful?” Lady Violetta threw him a pitying glance. “But then I suspect I don’t have to.”
“You bitch! Goddamned, lying, fork-tongued whore!”
Lady Violetta seemed utterly unimpressed by his insults. “So, Count Ostrowsky, are you going to sign the documents now?”
Ostrowsky regarded that accursed woman and asked himself whether the pleasure of knowing that she’d hang was worth his life. Unsurprisingly, the answer was no.
“When I sign the pardons, you will give me the vial?”
“You have my word,” Lady Violetta solemnly, “And while I know that you do not hold a high opinion of me, I am a woman of my word.”
“And you’ll take your pirate and your airship and never come back?”
“I promise you that you will see neither me nor Captain Blackstone nor the Renegade again after today.”
“All right then… I’ll do it.”
Stupid woman. As soon as he had the antidote, Ostrowsky would countermand the pardon and have Lady Violetta arrested. And then he would have the pleasure of watching her hang alongside her pirate after all.
He tried and failed to get up. In the end, Lady Violetta had to support him for the few steps to his desk. She helped him sit down, handed him a fountain pen and watched as he signed the pardons and sealed them with the Grand Seal of Dragomir.
“And now the antidote.”
“Not yet”, Lady Violetta whispered. Or maybe, it was just his hearing that was going. “Call in your secretary, give him the documents and ask him to see to it that they are delivered to the respective authorities at once.”
So Ostrowsky had no choice but to call in Wurm, who promptly slithered into the study and skittered to a halt, once he took in his employer’s appearance.
“Your Excellency, are you unwell?”
It was Lady Violetta who answered. “Count Ostrowsky is merely experiencing a bout of migraine due to the oncoming East wind. And besides…” She winked coquettishly at Wurm. “…the Count recently engaged in some strenuous physical activity, if you know what I mean.”
Wurm swallowed. “I… I see.”
Lady Violetta handed him the two parchments, the signed and sealed parchments that ordered the pirates pardoned and their ship released.
“And now would you be so kind to see to it that these documents are delivered to the respective authorities, so Count Ostrowsky and I can engage in more pleasurable activities.”
Wurm bowed. “Of… of course, madam. Your Excellency.” He took the parchments and left.
“And now the antidote” Ostrowsky croaked as soon as the door had closed behind Wurm.
“Of course.” Lady Violetta handed him the vial. “Like I said, I am a woman of my word.”
With trembling fingers, Ostrowsky pushed the stopper from the vial and downed the clear liquid. He looked up at Lady Violetta or rather at the purple blob that he assumed was Lady Violetta.
“It… it’s not working.”
“Give it a few seconds,” Lady Violetta said, “And now I must take my leave. Thank you for your cooperation, Count Ostrowsky.”
She picked up her reticule and strutted towards the door.
“Oh yes, and I forgot to mention that I took the liberty of mixing a powerful sedative into the antidote. It is quite harmless, I assure you, but I fear it will knock you out…”
Ostrowsky’s head hit the desk with a thud.
“…for the next six hours. Don’t worry, I shall tell Mr. Wurm that you want some privacy.”
Less than an hour later, Captain Nicholas Blackstone and his men were rudely dragged from their cells in the dungeons of the Fortress of Ratimir. They were shackled and marched into the courtyard of the fortress.
“What’s going on, Captain?” Blackstone’s first officer Mr. Wheelwright asked, “I thought they weren’t going to hang us until tomorrow.”
Nicholas Blackstone was no wiser and the guards were as uncommunicative as ever. “Maybe they’ve moved up the execution”, he said.
He hated this, hated that his crew would suffer on his behalf. Even though they’d all known what they were letting themselves in for, when they signed up with him.
In the courtyard, the gallows was looming, nooses gently swaying in the easterly wind.
Nicholas faced the gallows squarely, unwilling to look away. And while some of his crew gulped, no one whimpered or broke down. Because the crew of the Renegade were the bravest men and women in the sky. And Nicholas was honoured to have served with them.
The prison governor met them at the foot of the gallows, looking distinctly unhappy. Of course, the man always looked as if he’d swallowed a walking stick and was now suffering from terminal indigestion, but this was worse than usual. You’d think he’d be pleased to finally see Blackstone and his crew hang.
“All right, Blackstone, I don’t know how you pulled this off, since you’re as guilty as any man I’ve ever hanged, but…” The governor nodded at the guards. “…you and your people are free to go.”
On cue, a guardsman stepped forward and unlocked Blackstone’s shackles. All around him, his people were being set free as well.
“So take your damned ship and leave. And I swear to you, should I ever see you again, Blackstone, then I will personally hang you.”
In front of them, the heavy gate of the Fortress of Ratimir opened with a croak of pure frustration. Nicholas Blackstone and his people were truly free.
Nicholas Blackstone wasn’t sure what he had expected to find waiting for him outside the fortress, but it certainly wasn’t the sweetest sight his eyes would ever see. For there was his beloved Violetta, clad in a purple dress that set off her figure to perfection.
Until ten minutes ago, Nicholas had thought he’d never see her again, never hold her again, never kiss her sweet lips again. But now she was here and he was free and there was no holding back anymore.
In spite of the hardship of two months of harsh imprisonment, Nicholas rushed to meet her. He swept her up in his arms, crushed her to his chest and pressed a kiss onto her sweet lips.
“You didn’t think I’d let them hang you,” Violetta said, once their lips finally parted.
Violetta gave him a mischievous smile. “I persuaded the prime minister Count Ostrowsky to pardon you and your crew and release the Renegade.”
“Count Ostrowsky?” Nicholas had only met the man briefly, but it had been enough to make him dislike the Count most profoundly. “But he was most eager of them all to see us hang.”
“He changed his mind,” Violetta said, “Though he required some persuasion as well as the full deployment of the feminine wiles at my disposal.”
Nicholas looked at Violetta, his sweet, beautiful Violetta. If the Count had laid his slimy paws on her, Nicholas swore he’d kill the man and if he should hang for that, then so be it.
“Please tell me you didn’t…”
“I poisoned him,” Violetta explained, “I poisoned him and made him sign the pardon for you and your crew. And then I knocked him out. He should wake up in…”
She consulted her pocket watch.
“…about five hours. And I suggest that we should be far away from here by then, because he will almost certainly not be pleased.”
Nicholas pulled Violetta into his arms for a swift kiss. “I love you, do you know that?”
Violetta just smiled. “Of course. Or why do you think I went to all this trouble just to get you back?”
I hope you enjoyed this installment of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when there will be a new story available.