Authors: Ava Morgan
Tags: #Curiosity Chronicles, #Book One
That explanation was true, for the most part, and seemed to suffice with Lydia. She said no more as she approached the sealed entrance of the Guild building. She removed the metal dial from her wrist, placed it in a round setting in the door, and turned the dial twice.
A loud grinding occurred as stone grated upon stone. The first panel slid into a wall. The door behind it groaned as it opened.
Lydia went through first, taking the dial mechanism with her. Rhys ducked in, running his hand along the cool, rough surface of the limestone wall.
“Our meeting was taking place in that room on the left when your crewman entered.” Lydia pointed to it. “Since the door can only be opened from the outside, we left an automaton to stand guard by the wall.”
“You should think about putting up a gate to keep Guild members safe.” It would increase the lifespan of bungling sailors, too, but Rhys didn’t care to share that observation.
She walked ahead of him. Daylight provided dim illumination for their passage along the sparse halls. “Most people are afraid to visit while the automatons are still being perfected.”
“Should I be worried about an ambush?” Rhys asked in half-jest, but he still patted his waistcoat for the revolver stored beneath.
“They’ve been shut off. I’m sure you’ve dealt with greater perils than dim hallways on your travels.”
“Where I’ve gone, dim hallways are never a good sign.”
Lydia paused before a tiny alcove, where candles and a box of matchsticks resided. She used a match to light two lamps suspended from wall sconces and took one for herself. “Better?”
Rhys took the other one. “We’ll see.”
After traversing yet another hallway, they reached a large work area. Tables, diagrams, and odd bits of machinery were categorized on shelves.
“This is the main room.” Lydia’s voice produced a soft echo throughout the interior.
“I see automaton parts, but not the models themselves. Where are they?”
“I’ll take you to them, but first, I wish to discuss additional terms concerning their purchase.”
Rhys set the lamp on the table. “I knew it.”
She wrinkled her brow at his flippant statement. “In exchange for the automatons, you will permit their designs to remain with Aspasia.”
The flame atop the lamp wick danced when Rhys gave a big sigh. She insisted upon challenging him at every turn. “Are you sure King Sabba won’t mind you negotiating for him?”
Lydia remained undeterred. “Do you accept my terms?”
“Your terms are to prohibit New Britannia from mass producing your soldiers.”
“They should remain Aspasia’s property. Consider it a trade agreement.”
Rhys noticed her breathing sped. Was the heat getting to her, or her nerves, due to inexperience at negotiating? If it was the latter, then he could still come out on top and win the dispute. “This isn’t a trade agreement. This is a one-time exchange of money for goods.”
“You’d pay us once while your nation profits continually from the automatons. How is that fair?”
She had a very good point. It wasn’t fair, but it was in neither his authority nor ability to challenge an age-old practice nearly all countries resorted to. “Lydia, New Britannia is a powerful nation. It would not do to pass off an alliance when we can protect you from France.”“I do not fear France nor you, Rhys Cartret. How dare you try to intimidate me?” She folded her arms. “If King Sabba heard you now, even he would tell you to make better terms.”
“I’m sure he’d also be pleased to hear how you tried to persuade me to rescind my offer without him knowing.”
A smidgen of wind left her sails. “Amend your offer.”
Rhys’ insides twisted at having to be so firm with her. She only wanted what was best for her country. But so did he, when it came to New Britannia. At least she didn’t have an entire Cabinet of officials to hound her should a mission fail. “You want me to leave Aspasia, but I’m not going anywhere until that agreement is signed. Are we clear?”
“Typical diplomat’s arrogance.” Huffing, Lydia grabbed her lantern and marched into an adjoining chamber.
He used a firm approach and she still accused him of being diplomatic. Rhys grumbled before venturing after her.
In the next chamber, five rows of automatons stood in formation, their eyeless, featureless faces vague and uniform.
Rhys tapped the shoulder of one nearest him. “Are all of these models voice-responsive?”
“Yes.” Lydia moved between the rows, still visibly irritated as she explained the components of her machines. “Their armor contains a copper alloy that registers sound. Sound travels to the central wiring at the base of their backs, where the wire forms an imprint of the controller’s voice. You must speak into the wire first to control them. This method works well for the automatons with the steam propulsion engines, but on the hybrid windup models, sometimes the mainspring of their clockwork motor interferes. I’m still working on those.”
None of that made much sense to Rhys. “Show me one of them.”
“The hybrid model is along the back wall.” Lydia went to the area where the largest automaton stood dormant. She slipped behind it and opened a panel on its back. Rhys heard her wind up something before taking a wire in her hand. “Give the engine time to warm.”
After three minutes, she spoke into the wire. “On your guard,” she said in Greek.
He stepped back as the automaton’s gears whirred and it turned its head his way. “What is it doing?”
The soldier progressed towards him. Rhys moved out of its way. The floor vibrated with each heavy iron footfall. It kept advancing towards Rhys.
“Make it stand down.”
“You have to be quiet and remain still or it will keep coming at you.”
“Not likely.” He reached for his revolver.
”No,” Lydia shouted.
The automaton reacted to her elevated volume. Lumbering on two tree trunk-size pistons for legs, it came at Rhys. He aimed the revolver at the automaton’s chest.
“Stop,” Lydia cried.
She ran around the automaton and rushed to Rhys’ side, shoving his arm down. “If you shoot it, you’ll risk the engine combusting.”
The automaton, registering her shout, increased its advance.
“Are you mad, woman? Your machine is on the attack.” Rhys pushed her away and squeezed the trigger on the revolver before it could take another step.
The shot rang within the confined space, amplified as the bullet struck metal. The automaton came at Rhys again, unencumbered by the saucer-sized dent in its chest plate. Lydia saw the hydraulic fluid trickle down its torso.
“You’re going to get us killed.”
“And this monstrosity isn’t?” Rhys fired a second shot, and a third.
The sharp tang of gunpowder mixed with smoke from the automaton’s damaged parts. A high whirring issued from its engine as oil spewed from the wiring connecting the head to the torso.
A fourth bullet cracked the air.
“For goodness sakes, Rhys, stand down.” Lydia reached for one of the leather engineer’s aprons hanging on the wall and flung it over her head. She drew in close to the automaton.
Its movements slowed. Oil pooled at its feet. Hydraulic fluid pelted Lydia’s apron, sizzling atop the thick grain of cowhide. She got behind the automaton and found the panel door dangling where the impact of Rhys’ gunfire shook it open. Copper wires spilled out of the voice receptor box.
The order did no good with the box damaged. The automaton was locked onto her first command, still on its guard. Lydia extended a hand out from beneath the protective covering of the apron. Drops of hydraulic fluid hit her skin.
Burning pain crept seized upon every nerve in her hand. Lydia grabbed the wires and pulled them loose. The whirring inside the automaton stalled. The machine gave one final groan before it ceased altogether.
The room returned to its former quiet, save for the hiss of steam that poured out of the fissures of the assistant’s broken engine. Lydia heaved a sigh just before Rhys appeared beside her.
“What did you do?” He kept the revolver aimed at the downed machine.
“Helped you nearly destroy four years of hard work, that’s what.” She whipped the apron from her head. The action sent her hand into flares of agony. “If you had listened to me instead of brandishing that firearm, none of this would have happened.”
“You set that soldier on me. You told it to be on guard.” His stare took on an accusing, hard gleam. Smoke trailed from the gun barrel in his hand. He did not move to lower it in front of her.
Lydia involuntarily trembled. “I say ‘On your guard’ to all of the automatons after their engines are powered. It’s my order for them to await my next command.”
“Why did it come towards me?” Rhys ground his words out through his teeth. His voice was deep and devoid of any consideration of what she just said.
“The wires in its voice receptor box are fine tuned to respond to changes in pitch and tone. When you took out your gun, it heard me shout and thought I was in distress.”
“Machines can’t think.” He finally put the revolver away.
“You know what I mean.” Lydia gazed in dismay at the jumble of wires sticking out from the automaton’s back. Why were they moving?
“Look out.” Rhys knocked her off her feet.
Lydia heard a crash just before the two of them landed on the floor. He sheltered her from the impact, holding her against his chest. The room came alive again with the sound of clanging metal.
Once the din settled, Lydia peered over her shoulder. The assistant was on its back, having brought two rows of automatons with it. Oil and hydraulic fluid mingled on the floor in an orange-brown pool of sludge.
“It was going to fall on you.” Rhys spoke into her ear. His breath tickled the sensitive area.
Unnerved by such close contact, Lydia looked into his face. The brash, teasing manner that lightened his features before gave way to a darker, focused countenance. He hid much beneath the cloak of civility he chose to don. She wondered just whom New Britannia sent to deal with her, and for the first time, became uneasy with the thought of what he might do if he didn’t get his way.
“You’re a dangerous man, ambassador,” she whispered.
“You’re welcome.” He lifted himself and her off the floor with little effort on her part. “I’ll help you clean up.”
“There’s no time. The demonstration starts in half an hour. I need to ready the remaining soldiers. The ones that are still standing, that is.” Lydia straightened her clothes, making an attempt to stop noticing the absence of his touch.
She approached the fallen automaton and winced at the scrap metal Rhys’ armor-piercing bullets made of its torso plate. “That wasn’t even an armed model.”
“And yet it nobly defended you.” Rhys found a stray bullet lodged in a piece of the armor plating that had broken off at the automaton’s shoulder.
She took it from him and examined it under the light. “How did you come by such a vicious firearm?”
“Custom. You’re hurt.”
Lydia dropped the armor and covered the reddened skin of her hand. “A mild abrasion from when I shut the assistant down.”
Rhys took her hand, inspecting the wound. “This is a burn.”
“Nothing a bit of comfrey balm won’t soothe.” She drew back, sucking air through her teeth when Rhys touched the burn. “I’ll tend to it after the demonstration.”
“It’s already blistering.” He took a handkerchief and wound it gingerly around her hand. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from vocalizing her pain.
He tied the handkerchief. “That should stay for a while.”
Lydia studied the overhand knot. Only sailors made those. Maybe he was telling the truth about his profession. “Thank you.” Embarrassed at being tended to by him in such an intimate manner, she changed the subject. “You should go back to the palace. The king will look for you soon. I’ll show you the path back.”
“I know the way.”
She took him to the entrance and watched him take sure, confident strides along the hillside before she retreated into the Guild’s warm, dim interior.
She tried to chase away the new sensations in her mind and body that occurred when Rhys put his arms around her, shielding her from harm. After that last encounter, she didn’t know if she was doing anything right anymore.
The clean lemon scent of Lydia’s hair lingered in Rhys’ nose as he took the longboat to
and clamored up the gangplank. He found Malcolm reclining at the ship’s helm with a bowl of breakfast porridge.
“There’s to be an automaton demonstration in twenty minutes. You’ll need to see how many we can fit in the ship’s cargo hold.” Not waiting for a reply, he went below to his cabin and shut the door behind him.
No time now to return to the palace. He’d have to meet King Sabba and Nikolaos on the way. At least this served as an excuse.
His writing instruments waited for him on the solid mahogany desk. Rhys attempted to push his close encounter with Lydia from his mind as he slid into the chair. He proceeded to draft additional terms to the purchase agreement. He scribbled the new terminology onto a sheet of parchment, hoping the COIC’s solicitors would have little to find fault with. Lydia drove a hard bargain with her lofty demands for licensures and guarantees.
A gob of ink spurted from the tip of the pen, rendering his sentences lost in a black pool. Rhys crumbled the parchment and started again with a fresh sheet. He gained a notion at that moment, one that he wished he thought of in the cavern when he was too distracted protecting Lydia from her own mechanical creation. Too busy ministering to the wound upon her soft skin.
He finished the second draft without incident from the pen. After blotting and fanning the ink dry, Rhys stuffed the parchment into the envelope containing the original agreement and sprang for the door.
Lydia could insist upon her own way, but even she would not be able to refuse these new terms.
The demonstration began on time. Rhys stood on the beach with King Sabba, Nikolaos, Malcolm, and a handful of the palace guards. He watched through protective lenses as the automatons moved about, firing low-grade artillery at a distance.