The Wildcat’s Victory; Chapter One

Major Gisel Matah walked aft, the sharp breeze of the Swift’s passage becoming a reek of steam-scented mist. She pulled the collar of her quilted jacket higher to ward off the first threat of a northern winter. The two steam engines below thumped a steady rhythm into the soles of her feet. As she passed the bare mizzenmast she trailed a hand along the furled sail on its boom, and looked up at the moon: not full, but nearly so, a bright lantern for their night passage across the Inland Sea.
A crewman passed, heading for the wheelhouse from some errand at the stern. No one else showed up in the moonlight on the aft deck, but she hoped to find a man sheltered in the slanting shadows. She’d been surprised to see him board. She’d slipped a message under his cabin door. He’d better be there.
Swift was the first steam packet in the Partnership, making the 250 km crossing between Skrona and Lubitz in less than fifteen hours. Yohan had seemed uneasy this morning at breakfast when she’d told him she’d be accompanying him on this trip. “Is the manager going to refuse his security chief’s request for passage?” she’d said in response. “This is my opportunity to bring our guards for the river traffic.” He’d recovered his poise after that; his eyes regaining their brilliant blue sparkle; his over-long sandy hair threatening to fall across them.
But she guessed the reason for his concern when she’d reached the dock and seen how deeply Swift lay in the water. She’d known the hold would contain the last two steam powerplants for the tugs under construction in Lubitz. Other than her eight guards, most of the passengers on this trip were technicians picked to assemble the powerplants. It’d be interesting to see how guilty Yohan looked when he tried to hide the third powerplant from her.
She paced her stride to the moderate roll of the ship. The sea was calm, and as she reached the stern rail, the moonlight glinted off the water and broke into a million shards in the propeller’s wake. She stood to watch their movement through the water, although she listened for sounds of human origin on deck. She smiled fleetingly, the iron rail in her hand reminding her of ships back home.
To Gisel’s left and right hung lifeboats on their quarter davits. These two crafts were those most handily used as tenders when in harbor. Around them were stacked a few cargo items in readiness for their arrival, and from the shadow of one of these piles a large man emerged. She recognized him instantly from the withered left hand he held to his chest. Gisel turned to lean her back against the rail and face him.
“What work is done in the light of the moon?” she said quietly.
“The peoples’ work, Major.”
“What are you doing aboard, Markov?”
“Control hasn’t told you? Then neither will I.”
She stared toward his face, shadowed in the slanting moonlight. This man took pay from Iskander’s Security Service, but she knew his activities were little changed from those he followed before his recruitment. In every society, some men live very well by fetching and carrying that which more timid — or perhaps more manifestly honest — men eschewed. In Iskander’s service, only the nature of his merchandise had changed. Now he traded names and information more often than valuables with an aura of spilled blood about them. Was he here because of Yohan’s extra steam engine, or the Radicals?
“Are you watching the men brought to assemble the steam plant? You needn’t trouble yourself about them.”
Markov shook his head slowly. “I am told the lead man is far greater in skill than the task ahead requires. Some say he would be counted an engineer in Iskander but for jealousy against a man born in Tarnland.”
“He’s an able man. Sure, we Iskanders can be a conceited bunch. Would you doubt me if I said I persuaded my father to send him so he could prove himself?”
The shadows around Markov’s mouth stretched into a smile. “If you say so, Major.”
“Yohan asked for him to be posted in Lubitz.”
“Your lover would steal him from Iskander? What will your commanders say?”
“That’s my concern, Markov. And the word isn’t lover — you’ll stir up scandal. We’re engaged. As soon as his stubborn father relents, we shall marry.”
“And as soon as our commanding officer gives you leave to be a proper wife, you can take on a woman’s duty. I’d love to see you give suck to a bairn — it would restore my faith in motherhood.”
“The day you have faith in anything outside of a purse, the moon will faint into the sea, Markov. You may safely leave mothering to me. Now tell me what I want to know.”
She strove to steady her breath and skim over the anger she felt at his words. Goddamn the man, but he knew how to get her goat. How the hell did he know how uncertain she felt about her nurturing abilities? Did your mother kill as many men as I have, asshole?
“I hear the Radicals are active in Lubitz,” Markov said, leaning on the rail beside her.
“Are they? What of our man — have you news of him?”
“Ah, that is what I need to learn.”
“God dammit! Don’t go poking around the underworld and lead the city’s security to everybody.”
“I pass among the underclass of Lubitz as easily as this ship rides the Inland Sea. That is why Iskander pays me so well. You know that, Major.”
“The Radicals cannot be planning to start strikes and riots — I doubt if they’ve a dozen hotheads in their cell yet.” Gisel frowned — all change breeds opposition, and Iskander had caused more change in the past five years than this world had experienced in a millennium. Her father’s operations had already suffered sabotage in the factories and mines. Nothing too deadly… yet. She wasn’t convinced they were all the actions of  anarchists — the Empire’s ringleader could be responsible for more than the spying she’d uncovered. “The Radicals will be useful to Iskander — everyone sees that. The unrest could be worth an army to us if we can get them into the Empire’s factories.”
“Yes, I know. You want to pass troublemakers through into the Empire from a tame Radical movement in Lubitz. You hope your Industrial Revolution can make over the world the way you Iskanders want it. Do you think you can manage a bloody revolution as well?”
“We’ll watch and wait. As long as we can keep the lid on it –”
“And keep allies from knowing what you do. I suspect you’d not fret if the Radicals did get out of hand. What would your lover think?”
“Yohan has enough to worry about with the management tasks he has. I’ll take care of the revolutionaries in the factories for him.”
“You hope to keep them quiet. But what happens when he finds they are there? What if he learns you know all of them — more — that Iskander even pays and helps them?”
“Iskander is prepared to live with people’s aspirations, not kill to silence them. That’s the difference between us and the Empire.”
“Until they threaten you. Then the knives will come out.”
Gisel looked away. She didn’t know how Iskander’s leaders would react in that event, but she still believed they should ride the social changes as they rode the technological waves. “If we can guide the Radicals well enough, that may never come to pass.”
“But someone must be prepared to act. Better a puddle of blood than a torrent.”
Gisel turned her head sharply. Did she understand his mission? That was the bitch of it — running her own secret program separate from Iskander’s. But she and her father agreed — their leaders had too great a phobia about popular movements to be told. They were inclined to cater to their royal allies too much. Time would come when Iskander would need to go its own way, and a secret power base among the Radicals could prove its worth. They must build it up, and keep leaders they valued safe. “I don’t care what secret instructions Control might have given you — don’t terminate anyone without my say so.”
“Who do you value, Major?”
“No names. There are people among the Radicals who can be of service.”
“To Iskander, or to the Matahs?”
“What makes you think there’s a difference?”
Markov shook his head slowly. “What makes me useful to you?”
Gisel laughed to mask her concern. “Goddammit, Markov! You’d suspect your mother’s milk. Don’t you think I’ve enough to do keeping the peace in Skrona?”
“I’m sure you can handle Skrona.”
“With your help, perhaps.” Iskander’s security was tenuous at best. That’s why she scrounged for information everywhere she could. The war against the Empire was at a stalemate — they could even lose it. She’d do anything to make a difference. “I’ve told Control I want you back — as soon as this business is done.”
“A pleasure, Maj . . . What’s that?”
A loud splash came from the starboard side. Gisel jerked away from the rail. She scanned their wake in the scattered moonlight. Something lifted momentarily — a hand.
Markov pointed. “Someone’s fallen overboard!”
Gisel didn’t answer. She yanked out her new communicator, stabbed the position button, and sprinted along the deck toward the wheelhouse.

*    *    *    *    *
Just before eight bells, Slin Murrin sat uneasily on the stool Major Matah indicated. The Swift had long turned back on course, and the engines pounded harder as the Master tried to make up the lost time. Poor Durden, all they’d found in the water was his corpse. Did the Major know Durden had been a friend? Perhaps all she knew was that they had shared a cabin.
She stared at him with eyes that seemed to see right through him. “How long did you know Durden?”
“Nigh on four month, Major. We was buildin’ boilers together.”
“Did you get on well?”
Murrin swayed back on the stool. What did she want to know? High-up folks was all the same . . . couldn’t trust they . . . they was always looking to punish a fellow. “We was good workmates, Major. Foreman called us his num’mer one team.”
“What did you do this evening?”
“Nort, Major. We was in the cabin, fixin’ our kit. Ee were darnin’ ’is overalls an’ I was oilin’ my tools.”
“But he left the cabin. When was that?”
“Don’t know . . . were after three bells.”
“In the first watch? Right … Did he say why he was going?”
“Some man came for ’im. Called ’im up on deck.”
“Did you see the man? Did you recognize him? What did he look like?”
Murrin put his hands to his head. “Nay, Major. I di’n see ’im. Stood outside the cabin door.”
“He must have spoken. Did you recognize the voice?”
His heart thumped — why all these questions? Poor Durden had fallen overboard, and this officer acted like he could have pushed him. Best he say nothin’ more — she doubtless disbelieved him. Lookin’ for someone to blame — twas the same in the factory. You made a mistake . . . broke a castin’ or set a valve badly, an’ foreman an’ engineers was all over ye.
Major Matah stared into his eyes. “Apprentice Murrin, I’m waiting for an answer. Did you recognize the man’s voice?”
“Nay, Major. Why is you askin’ all this? Poor Durden have drowned . . . baint that enough?”
She leaned forward so closely he could feel her breath on his face. “Machinist Durden didn’t drown. He was thrown overboard — after his throat had been cut.”
“Cut! Th . . . th . . . throat cut?”
“Yes, lad. Now you know why I’m asking. Would you recognize the man’s voice if you heard it again?”
He stared. Now his heart really raced. Who would want to kill Durden? If he did remember the voice — would he be killed next? Didn’t do to get mixed in with evil doin’s. “I dursen’t think I would, Major. Wasn’t a . . . a strange voice — jus’ summat like a man hears ever’ day. No — I’m sure I wouldna know it again.”
“How much money did Durden have on him?”
“Lor. I expec’ the same as me. We was paid twenty thalers allowance for us to arrive in Lubitz.”
Major Matah nodded. “It was still in his money belt. What about in the cabin — did he have more?”
“Not as I knows.”
“You’ll come with me. We’ll search his things.”
“Fer certain, Major. If ye chooses.”
*    *    *    *    *

Yohan looked up as the wheelhouse door opened, to see Gisel step inside. She looked very official in her black Security uniform, its silver insignia gleaming like stars above evening thunderheads. She had her black hair in braids and piled under her service cap, businesslike. Tonight she hardly seemed the same gentle creature who shared his bed. He smiled and raised a hand — then guilt knotted his stomach and he tasted bile. She gave no sign, although her eyes were the same dark lances they always were when she was onto something.
She turned to the Swift’s Master. “I’ll interrogate the rest of your crew in the morning, before we dock. What time will we get in?”
“We lost nigh on two hours, Major, pickin’ up that corpse. Lucky us was to dock afore high tide — I think Swift has steam enough to catch her mooring afore it drops.”
Yohan took three steps across the wheelhouse to place an arm around Gisel’s waist and smile into those eyes, just a couple of inches below his. For the hundredth time, the desire to tell her about the steam engine surfaced in his mind. He wanted to, but would she think his betraying the Baron a weakness? She was too intent upon this new trouble to notice his unease. “You should get some rest now, dearest. I’ll see you’re called in time in the morning.”
“Thanks. That’ll give me about an hour. I may as well stay up.”
Yohan sighed; he sometimes wondered if she needed no sleep. “What have you learned?”
“Not much — yet. I’ve interviewed all the passengers, and no one seems suspicious. No obvious Empire agents among them.”
“You suspect the Empire is behind this, then?” Yohan said. The words sounded like lies in his head. After several generations of preventing innovation, the Empire had recognized the need to match the Iskanders’ knowledge. They had approached the Felger mercantile enterprise in secret — and the task of obtaining the engine, the extra one in Swift’s hold, had fallen to him. But had some Imperial agent misunderstood the plan and tried to sabotage the shipment by murdering Durden? He knew no reason to suspect the fellow of any subterfuge — he had been an artisan in the Felger’s employ for several years. The Baron had approved him for the steam training himself. “Why would an Empire spy want to kill Durden?”
Gisel shrugged. “Seems the most logical suspect. No doubt they have people somewhere in the Inland Sea area, with a brief to disrupt our operations.” She turned to the Master. “You can vouch for all your crew?”
He scratched at his grizzled chin. “Most be fellows what served on Swift afore the dockyard work. We hired a few more from Skrona . . . an’ then there is the steam artificers an’ stokers what was sent by your own factory.”
“I don’t think we can suspect any of the Iskander men,” Yohan said.
Gisel shook her head. “I’m not ruling anyone out. We’ve caught two Imperial spies in our industrial complex this year.”
“You are sure?” Yohan said, aghast. “Why did you not tell me?”
“I’m telling you now. One committed suicide, the other won’t talk. We have no proof. I wanted to let the man escape to see where he goes, but Control won’t hear of it.”
Yohan stared at her. What else had she kept from him — as much as he strove to keep from her? If she learned of the Felgers’ duplicity — that he was even now conveying the secret cargo to ship to their enemy — their engagement could be over. Would she ever trust him again, or forgive his treachery? His stomach squirmed at the thought. If only there was a way he could tell her without betraying the Baron.
Gisel seemed oblivious to the turmoil inside him. “I don’t think we have a robbery here, and likely no crime of passion. There’s no suspicion that he was a boy lover. Do you know of any business in the shipyards and factory which would give rise to murder?”
She looked hard at him as she said this. Was she testing him? Did she suspect?
He strove to hide his secret — keeping the awful image of Durden’s waterlogged corpse before his eyes. “No, nothing at all. You know as much as I do.”


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