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8 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SPY FICTION: Oh Come All Ye Assassins by Jolene Haley

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Can you believe it’s just over a week until Christmas? Today I bring tidings in the form of a snow-filled spy fic courtesy of the wonderful Jolene Haley. Jolene’s home-genres include YA horror and action/adventure, so she was out of her depth with this one, but she nailed it like a Chinese throwing star.
 


 
Oh Come All Ye Assassins
by Jolene Haley
 
 
Merry Christmas you heartless bastard, thought special agent Mason Blackwell.
 
He could have been home, in Oregon with his family and his high school sweetheart (who always seemed to linger), drinking eggnog from porcelain cups.
 
But no.
 
Instead he was in some New York hotel, thirty-nine floors up, utterly alone and loading a sniper rifle.
 
If he got the hit done quickly, Mason could be on a plane in a few hours, to be home before the snow melted on the ground. He only went home once a year, always at Christmas, which is why he was particularly peeved at his assignment.
 
An assignment on Christmas wasn’t normal for him. And if there was one thing Mason hated the most, it was a change of plans. It was a bad pet peeve for a secret agent.
 
Mason Blackwell was born a happy bouncing baby with brown hair and crystal blue eyes. He smiled often and visitors of the child would often comment on his good looks and cleverness. In thirty years, not much had changed except for the fact that now Mason (also known as Agent 99) rarely smiled and well, now he murdered people for a living.
 
Most people didn’t know Mason. He was a shadow in the night. A lone figure on a building top. A figure disappearing into the darkness of an alley.
 
Mason glanced at the clock.
 
11 o’clock.
 
The message with his target always came in at 11:01 on the dot. Anything else meant that the mission was compromised. He watched the clock, inching closer to the phone.
 
Exactly at 11:01 am the phone rang.
 
“Yes?” Mason said.
 
A robotic voice was on the other end. Mason knew from experience that it was a text based computer program that read type.
 
“99, this evening is the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
The line went dead.
 
He rolled his eyes. Sometimes the company was so dramatic.
 
Mason hated when an assassination wasn’t just a quick shot. He much preferred the calls that detailed only a name, a place, and a time. It was easy and quick, for him and his target. Instead, giving Mason only a location meant that there were more details to come and he’d likely have to take someone out at a close range. He hated that.
 
Seeing the light drain out of someone’s eyes was never something to get used to.
 
Mason much preferred intelligence-based missions over contract killing. He could extract information from any person with ease. It was a natural born talent. Sadly, those missions were few and far between.
 
Tonight, he’d probably have to strangle someone or inject a poison into some poor bastard. But this was just another hazard of being an agent at the Intelligence Rescue and Observation Network, or IRON for short.
 
Of course they couldn’t make it easy on him for Christmas. This whole thing was just plain wrong.
 
Mason was already dressed to a T, with an expensive black fitted suit and shoes the color of coal. His brown hair was gelled in place and his white teeth were dazzling. He’d be the last person anyone would expect of foul play. Mason always said that any person who said being good looking was not an advantage was either lying to themselves or just plain ugly.
 
At six o’clock, Mason walked into a ballroom filled with hundreds of people. The floors were covered in a rich, scarlet carpet and the walls were gold with crimson trim. The rest of the attendees were as put together as the décor.
 
And now the part that bugged him… the wait. Until next contact, he had no choice but to observe, mingle, and meet people. Since he spoke ten different languages fluently, he could easily move between them. One minute he would be Pierre Le Fonsec De Plume, foreign royalty, and the next he’d be Barry Barnes, powerful and rich investor. People were way too trusting with the information you told them.
 
“Excuse me.”
 
Mason felt a hand clutch his bicep.
 
Sometimes it was hard to balance his training with the real world. Normally anyone that touched him would be taken out with a swift thrust to the face. But here, in a crowded ballroom made of magnificent columns and velvet curtains, shedding a stranger’s blood wasn’t an option. He’d have to at least wait to get them in a janitor’s closet..
 
He unclenched his jaw, and turned with a smile.
 
In front of him stood a woman with golden brown hair and the face of an angel. Her dress was long, made of black lace, and hung just right on every curve of her body. Those types of girls were the most dangerous. She could be a spy—just like him, sent to distract him from his mission. She could be a fellow agent at IRON. Hell, she could be his mark.
 
“Yes, madam?” Mason took her hand in his, bent over in a bow, and kissed it while making eye contact.
 
She gave a slight smile before replying, “I saw you across the room and I had to meet you. I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Victoria Queen..”
 
Of course they haven’t met. It was one of Mason’s first times in New York.
 
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mason said, grinning.
 
She didn’t move. She wanted to make small talk. Mason did not mind chitchat, but not while he was waiting for a sign.
 
Just keep walking lady, Mason thought. But no luck. She stood her ground.
 
“Are you from New York?” he asked to be polite, but made a point to look around as if he was looking for someone. You know, the way people with manners say, “fuck off.”
 
She didn’t answer his question. Instead, Victoria Queen held out her arm. “Would you like to dance?”
 
A smile spread across his face and Mason was torn between feelings of flattery and annoyance. Women. They could never resist him in a suit. Too bad Victoria wasn’t finding him at an airport bar or something. He’d dance alright, horizontally, until the early morning. But they weren’t at some dive bar and Mason was on official IRON business. Now wasn’t the time for distractions.
 
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m waiting for someone. A date.” He gave her a fake grin and spun away to keep looking around.
 
She leaned in, placing her hand back on his arm. “Don’t be a fucking liar, 99. It’s the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
It didn’t really matter who Victoria Queen was before that moment. But once those exact words left her mouth, she was much more. She was now a sexy walking and talking information database that knew about him and his mission. He needed to find out more about her.
 
Mason’s left brow rose. “I’d love to dance.”
 
She grabbed his arm and led him to the dance floor. His arm snaked around her waist, pulling her close. Mason led but only because Victoria let him.
 
Mason inhaled the scent of lavender that emanated off of Victoria’s body. She was mesmerizing to him in more ways than one.
 
“So?” Mason started, whispering into her ear, while keeping his eyes searching around the room. Sure he wanted to know what she was doing here, but Mason knew one thing: something felt off. IRON would never send an agent to him in person. He usually just received a sign of some sort or a coded message.
 
What exactly was Victoria Queen’s game?
 
“Listen very closely, 99. In a few moments a man in a red tie will walk past us while we dance. He will smile in your direction and then disappear up the stairwell. It’s not a chance encounter. Tonight, you’re his target. And I’ve been sent to save you.”
 
Mason blinked, trying to keep his feet moving while he wrapped his brain around Victoria’s words.
 
Ten years with IRON, and all of a sudden they want to take him out? Assuming it was true and Mason was a target, this Christmas could be his last. He shook his head to will away the idea of his family having Christmas day dinner without him.
 
Fuck that. Mason wasn’t going to die. He would save himself, just like he always had if an assignment went awry. Victoria seemed like she was there to help. But was she really? What if Victoria was full of shit? He needed to be careful. There were a million reasons not to trust her.
 
“Why would I be someone’s target?” Mason asked. “I haven’t compromised any information, I’ve followed every rule, and I’ve always done exactly what was asked of me. So what’s going on, Victoria? You’re doing to need to give me a little more information.”
 
Victoria’s skin glowed under the lights and her dazzling smile almost made him forget what a serious situation he was in. She took her time, but finally answered.
 
“That’s a great question, 99. Why would you be a target? Who exactly did you piss off?” Her expression changed from playful to dark in a moment. The smiling woman’s eyes had turned from playful to passion, treachery, and secrets.
 
Sure Mason had killed a lot of people with targeted hits, but they were controlled and calculated. Hell, those orders had come directly from the company! Was someone in his agency responsible for designing some type of sick game where the lion becomes the lamb?
 
Mason chewed his bottom lip as he tried to figure out Victoria. A color caught his attention.
 
Red.
 
A man with black hair walked past the dancing couple. He was wearing a red tie with his otherwise black ensemble. As he passed, he made direct eye contact with Mason, gave a smile and a wink, and headed up the stairs.
 
Victoria had seen the man too. “Believe me now?” Victoria said with a smirk.
 
“So, who exactly are you?” Mason asked. “Why would someone be after me? Why are you even here?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “Why are all the pretty ones, little idiots? Don’t you see? We’re on the same team, Mason. I’m here to save your ass. So excuse me when I say suck it up and let’s go pay a visit to the man in the red tie.”
 
Victoria broke away from Mason and he followed her up the winding grand staircase.
 
They worked quickly and methodically, both clearing each room for the other assassin. So far, all five rooms upstairs in the left wing were empty.
 
Mason stared down the hallway at the right wing. The man that would try to kill Mason would be discovered in the next five rooms. Mason swallowed hard and shook his head. He could not believe that something like this could happen to him.
 
Let’s get this over with.
 
Each room was cleared on the right wing, except for one; the men’s bathroom.
 
Mason reached into his jacket pocket for his small, trusty handgun, and slowly opened the door, his heart thrummed against his ribcage. Even though Mason had faith in his abilities, the fact that he was a target was unnerving him. He couldn’t make his pulse slow down. Nerves meant mistakes, and Mason wouldn’t have it.
 
Mason plowed through the door, startling the man he’d seen downstairs, who was washing his hands at the bathroom faucet. Mason had his gun raised. This man sure didn’t look like some contract killer. In fact, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and hands raised in the air, he looked like he was anything but a secret agent.
 
Moments later a woman’s voice rang from behind Mason.
 
“Lower your weapon.”
 
Mason turned his head back to see Victoria standing behind him, gun aimed at his head.
 
What the fuck.
 
Mason had to decide. Who was the bigger threat? Mason swiveled his body around, aiming his gun at Victoria. The man in the red tie ran from the room, cowering and whimpering.
 
“You,” I whispered to Victoria.
 
She smiled and slowly nodded. “Silly boy. Don’t you know better than to trust a complete stranger? I mean, how easy were you trying to make it for me?”
 
“But what about the man? The red tie? The wink?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “It’s called intelligence and observation, 99. That man was the mayor’s brother. I got here early to meet him and noticed he was greeting and winking at all the guests. He was easy bait.”
 
“Why me?” Mason’s eyes were darting back and forth between Victoria and the room. There had to be a way out.
 
“99, there are so many reasons for this but we don’t have time to go into it. Since you pulled a gun on the mayor’s brother like a genius, I’m betting we only have about three minutes left before police storm in.”
 
There were no large windows in the bathroom and nothing nearby that Mason could knock over to startle Victoria. There was no clean escape route except to run directly over her. He needed a plan, and he needed it now.
 
“What do you want, Victoria?”
 
“You, Mason. Don’t you get it? You’re my mark.”
 
Mason shook his head in disbelief. “After everything I’ve done for IRON. I can’t believe this. Let me go, Victoria. For all you know, you could be next. If they can turn on me, they can turn on you.”
 
Mason needed to keep her talking and distracted. Sadly, Victoria, didn’t take the bait.
 
A troubled looked flashed across her face, if only for a moment.
 
“One,” She started.
 
Mason could shoot her and hope she didn’t have time to pull the trigger herself. That was a tough plan, because most agents were sharp shooters.
 
“Two.”
 
Assuming she was only counting to three, Mason didn’t have much time left. His eyes worked from side to side. Shit. Shit. Shit.
 
“Merry Christmas, you poor bastard,” Victoria said.
 
Mason lunged at Victoria as the sound of her gun pierced their ears.
 



9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***