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EP360: Follow That Cathedral!

By Gareth Owens
Read by Pip Ballantine
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Originally appeared in Immersion Book of Steampunk
All stories by Gareth Owens
All stories read by Pip Ballantine
Rated 13 and up

Follow that Cathedral!
By Gareth Owens

…and with that Pixie dived from the open door of the Zeppelin. The air around her suddenly becoming liquid, rushing over the smooth leather of her helmet and bringing tears to her eyes.

“Always some bloody thing!” she grinned into the gale, falling headlong towards the welcoming embraces of Mother Earth and Mother Russia below.

Siberian night enveloped her, storm filled frozen darkness, cloud shrouded full moon, and below, the steam powered lightning of The Iron Czar. A hissing, glowing, monster of a train, three storeys high, and even longer than the leviathan Fourteen Bags of Mischief hanging above.

Pixie saw the orange furnaces erupting sparks through the twin stacks, as if Hephaestus himself stoked on the imperial railways.

Kirby wires between Pixie and the nose of the airship took up the slack, her harness tightened, squeezing the breath from her as she slid down the gradient gravity prescribes for a pendulum. Spreading her arms out wide she released the winglets of her full-length leather drop-coat, ankle wings for trim springing from her boots. Suddenly the harness became her trapeze and she somersaulted with creak of leather, freed into the hundred-knot headwind.

Orange fire below and frozen storm above, these were the moments Pixie lived for. Card tricks in the dark. A moment of genius for her own consumption and not for the sharing. She flew alone, arms wide, graceful as an angel dancer sweeping over a darkened stage. The first swing reached the peak of gravity assistance and Pixie saw the roof of the train below her slow in comparison, stopping for a second just past the midpoint of her pendulum arc, then once more seeming to gather pace against her, leaving her trailing as she fell back.

“There have got to be easier ways for a pirate girl to catch a train,” she said.

With an emphatic flick, she opened her drop-coat out wide, catching the full blast of the wind, whipping her back up the arc of swing like a human kite. Then, pulling her arms into her sides she rocketed forwards again, a bullet through the air, streamlining, catching the train once more but this time lower as Jeti tried to match the altitude of the dirigible.

Eyes wide, Pixie saw the end of the last carriage, a black wall lit with a single dim red eye of a lamp. A sudden graunch through the cable, the winch bit, dragging her six feet further up in the air. Her speed increased as the cable shortened. She flew far too close and far too fast, sweeping up, only just carrying over the edge of the roof, arms held out backwards like the Spirit of Ecstasy. The bitter smelling pitch of the Russian rustproof coating mere inches below her nose. She lifted at the end of the swing, snapping upright, and with a perfect matching of momentum, she stood, placing her boots down and solid on Imperial rolling stock.

A single twist to the circular brass locking clasp and she shrugged free of the harness and drop-coat, before it could pull her over backwards. Jingling cable fading away into the storm as her crew winched it back. Pixie’s knee length mini-crini sprang back into shape, like a chrysanthemum released from a fist.

She wore the dark red corset, all the rage in St Petersburg Jeti assured her, but always with that twinkle in her eye. Pixie never knew whether her second-in-command was joking at her expense or not.

Pixie set off at the run towards the storming volcano of the armour-plated engine. She knew she should put Jeti off at the next port, but she just couldn’t do it to her. Dear, sweet Jeti van Borkel, the girl might not have been the best steersman this side of the Roaring Forties, but she did have such a cute popo, particularly in those Oxford bags she wore.

Momentarily distracted, Pixie nearly tripped over a spinning onion dome of an air-vent sticking eight inches up from the curved roof.

The smokestacks ahead towered above the train, roaring out a roman candle of sparks and smuts into the steaming night. She unholstered the Tatham and Egg matched pistols. There might have been newer guns across the Unfallen Empire, but few could make a hole in a person as big as the mighty Tatham and Egg. And one thing Pixie had learned, in this man’s world a little girl better carry a great big gun. She smiled at their familiar weight, the original flintlocks long ago replaced. It helped she enjoyed the use thereof.

She reached a gap between carriages and leapt out across the space without consideration. Certain things in her line of business definitely went better if one only thought about them afterwards.

Her information said the package would be in the Royal Pullman, two carriages back from the engine. She put her head down and ran faster. The vast pistons of The Iron Czar rocking the roof below her with a rhythm alien and strange.

Since the Unfallen Empire swept to the edges of the Russian Imperium twenty years before, the Romanov defence had been to lay a network of these new rails. Twice the gauge of the old European iron roads, with huge metal-made dark demons like The Iron Czar to pull the trains. Each wheel below Pixie stood fully twenty feet tall, and flat out, downhill, all sails set and the wind behind, this Iron Czar could deploy troops anywhere in the empire at near enough three-hundred steam driven miles per hour.

Pixie reached another gap between carriages and once again leapt out into darkness. The cars beneath her clattering boot heels only carried cargo and materiel for the Grand Imperial Zeppelin Armada being assembled at Archangel. Fabric, Duralumin alloy for skeleton, Gold Beater’s Skin for the gas bags, and lastly, all the doings of a Lane Process hydrogen factory. Nothing worth nicking, so no guards and no concern for stealth. She tried to run a bit faster but she was already panting and her legs burned from the sudden exertion.

Pixie had started her run three minutes after The Iron Czar left Tsaryovokokshaysk Station after a stop for sand and water. Distant enough to avoid the Maxim guns of the garrison, and close enough so The Iron Czar had not yet reached full steam.

Pixie judged she had about thirty seconds left before the great train reached a ton and a half, a speed she knew from experience marked the point she could no longer hold her footing. Lightning speared down from the furious heavens opening the endless steppe, the huge shadow of Mischief fading into the roiling darkness of the storm.

Another leap, another carriage, the wind now becoming a wall. Pixie looked at the length of the roof ahead and reckoned this to be as far as she could hurl her seven-and-a-half stone into the mounting headwind.

Step by step she walked hard, making the end of the carriage before swinging down the ladder, standing panting by the connecting door. She took a few moments to get her breath back. Here, in the dead air between compartments, she felt the skin of her face glow, her frozen cheekbones focusing the burning cold.

Pixie holstered her right-hand gun under her arm and tried the door handle. It turned and opened, easy and oft oiled. Left hand first Pixie entered the carriage.

Plain wooden floor of planks, smell of sawdust and new glue on pine. She took a moment to remove her gloves and flying helmet, then once again drew her second gun and holding the pair out before her, straight armed, she strode off confidently down the middle of the car.

The freight space stretched wide, filled with tall crates, each marked Fragile and Explosive in picture glyphs, so even the serfs that loaded the cargo could understand the simple concept of “You drop this, it go boom and so do you.”

Against the far wall Pixie spotted a crowbar where it had been casually thrown onto a pile of the bright clean straw. She took it and wrenched open a corner of one of the crates. The wood broke a bit, but she could see inside enough to recognise a low pressure hydrogen Dewar flask.

“Gas glass?” she said aloud. Tsar Nicolai obviously had more hurry for his aerial force than the Admiralty thought; clearly so, if he was prepared to risk transporting gaseous dihydrogen.

Pixie took up her guns again and opened the connecting door between the last of the freight and the Imperial Pullman car. She cast an approving eye over the opulence of the fittings. The Romanovs seemed not to be short of a shillin’, despite all this outlay on a gasbag navy. The Pullman had been done out as a dacha on rails. Ornate Russian woodwork, stained glass windows, rich dark icons interspersed with the crest of the double-headed eagle. Even the door had been painted as an oversized Palekh miniature, gold leaf on black lacquer, intricate and fabulous.

Pixie turned the concealed handle and entered. The interior of the dacha, no less lavish. Warm air greeted her, along with the sharp smell of recent death. A piled log fire in the central hearth, backdrop of flames and silhouetted like shadow puppets against a living background, the slumped, blood drenched, throat-slit corpse of Grigori, Exarch of Tartaria, and next to his wilting meat, the elegant shape of Anastasia Tsoilikiskya, Trotsky’s scalpel.

Pixie caught the sparkle, a single ruby of blood dripping from the end of a two foot gleaming blade.

“Still using that Japanese bread-knife then Ana you old whore.”

“Pixie, dahling.” Ana’s voice Russian velvet. Contralto, sweet and familiar as first love remembered, dangerous as pay-day in Limehouse. “Late as usual.”

“I didn’t expect the Trots to be playing.” Pixie cocked both pistols.

“No darling, you never do.”

“Did he tell you where it is?” Pixie indicated the dead bishop with a brief wave of one of her pistols.

“Oh yes… of course he did.” Ana purred. “Are you going to shoot me now?”

“After Lisbon? I really should.” Pixie seemed to be contemplating. “But to be honest I’d rather take a couple of days over it… maybe next time. So, how were you planning on getting off the train? I suppose what I’m actually asking is, where’s Felix. Unlike you, I don’t want him dead, and if he were to leap out at me and I had to kill him, it would be a cause of some regret, for a day or two anyway.”

“You’re such a sentimentalist Pixie darling. But you needn’t worry, Right now Felix should be diverting the points about fifty miles down the line, Why leave the train, when I can take it with me?” Ana paused and walked around the front of the body, draping herself on a chaise longue admiring her work with the bishop.

“How’s Jeti?”

Pixie moved further into the room, the flames caught but could not warm Ana’s perfect blue eyes.

“The chest is under the fire,” she spoke without taking her eyes from her kill. “The bell-pull by the stairs operates it if you pull three times, like an ‘S’.”

Pixie indicated for Ana to get up with the flick of a pistol.

“Call me over cautious Ana, my old doll, but I think it might go better if you do the tugging.”

“Oh very well.” Ana sighed. She stood and Pixie saw the deep red of the ankle length skirt Ana wore. She posed, so slim, all whalebone and straight lines. Pixie bit her lip, Lisbon came back to mind, bitter and still burning.

“Jeti’s fine, thanks for asking.”

“I’m glad, really.” Ana walked past the fire roasting ecclesiastic corpse and bent down briefly. She lifted the flap of his jacket to pinch her sword clean on the rich green silk of the Exarch’s podryasnik. As she did, Pixie caught a flash of white paper sticking up. Ana saw it too and without interest she pulled it from the dead man’s pocket and tossed it towards Pixie then continued to wipe her blade.

“It’s an offer from Buckingham Palace,” she said over her shoulder. “Princess Alice in marriage to the Tsarevich. Cement relations between the two great empires, Peace in our Time. The usual weak minded posturing from desperate carrion feeders trying to hold on to their illegitimate power over the proletariat.”

“That almost sounded like you meant that, my duck,” Pixie said. “But there’ll be no revolution for you. Not with British boots marching on Minsk, and Lenin cold in a Swiss grave, an unjacketed round in his bonce.”

“Ah yes,” Ana flashed her eyes wide with sour humour. “How does the saying go? ‘If you step on a nail, an Englishman put it there’.” standing straight she turned to face Pixie. “But this peace would be a good thing for the Russian people,” she said. “Without the distraction of a foreign empire on our sacred soil, there would be nothing to take attention away from the Tsar’s corruption and incompetence. He wouldn’t last the first winter. Finally, Russia could be free of the German taint. And what concerns us all, will be decided by all of us.”

With the metal cleaned she replaced the blade in the short scabbard nestling between her shoulders, hidden once more by her tumbling black tresses. Pixie indicated the bell pull, and Ana glided across the luxurious deep rugs covering the floor. Pixie stooped and retrieved the letter. The mark of the Royal Standard clearly visible even from across the room.

Ana stood by the bell-pull like a scolded child, waiting. Pixie looked up briefly from the envelope and waved Ana to get on with it, while she opened the paper. Ana yanked three times on the green velvet of the cord and the burning logs rolled to one side.

Under the centre of the fire box a circular and intricately etched metal plate, cracked open like the iris of a cat’s eye. Worm gears rotated and the plate ticked and clicked breaking into smaller parts which swung out and away like petals of a mechanical flower. Beneath the plate a hexagonal space containing a tall rosewood box inlaid with gold. The box rotated, rising up on some unseen piston coming to a halt two feet above the floor.

“So what is it? Actually?” Pixie said.

“They didn’t tell you?”

“Indulge me.”

“Pixie, darling, Who controls the worlds only supply of naturally occurring Helium?”

“I’m not in the mood for a game you murdering old tart.”

“You’re no fun anymore.” Ana pouted. “Alright, The American helium embargo means the European air-fleets are reliant on the hydrogen economy, even the Unfallen Empire, even you darling and your stolen airship, all have to use dear old but rather combustible hydrogen. Yet there is one thing lighter even than hydrogen.”

Pixie snorted, but the aim of her pistols did not even slightly waver.

“Nothing’s lighter than hydrogen, dozy mare.”

“Oh, so you do know, then.”

Ana produced a small golden key from her décolleté and unlocked the box. The rosewood split from top to bottom and Ana fanned the sections out to reveal the contents.

“Oh, that’s pretty.” Pixie crouched down beside her to get a better look at the package.

“Fabergé. The Uspenski Cathedral egg.” Ana spoke as if introducing unacquainted guests at one of her soirées.

A white base of alabaster, and resting on it a perfect little cathedral, with a clock and the imperial coat of arms, and cradled between the tops of the green tipped towers, a white pearlescent egg looking for all the world as if a balloon hung between the spires. This crown to the piece, had the top section of the egg made from a golden dome surmounted by the three armed cross of the orthodox church of the east.

“It’s very nice and all…” Pixie sounded puzzled. “But Fourteen Bags of Mischief are a bit expensive to hire for a touch of common-or-garden housebreaking.”

Ana reached forward suddenly, but came up short when the she found the muzzle of one of Pixie’s Tatham and Eggs pushed hard into her elegant soft white throat.

“I don’t like any quick moves, petal.”

Ana looked down at the blue metal of the barrel.

“Quite.” she reached forwards again, but slowly and smoothly. keeping furious eye contact with Pixie the entire time.

She found a hidden catch on the back of the dome of the egg, flipping it to reveal what looked like a dark red Baltic amber inkwell inside. Ana twisted the inkwell around once and a low hum began.

“You might want to move back a bit.” Ana smiled and winked, pulling up and backing away. Pixie stood, and took two steps back, keeping about the same distance as Ana from the humming cathedral. Ana stood directly on the other side of the fire place.

The Alabaster base jumped as if knocked. Pixie gave a little start at the sudden noise, her eyes snapping to the close focus of someone as just spotted a snake. The little cathedral lifted up from the rosewood box and drifted free from the floor.

It floated, carried on some delicate breeze, drifting at about waist height. Flying… properly flying, without wing or bag.

“This has come as a gift to the Tsar from our American friends.”

Something odd seemed to be happening to Ana. Pixie could see her edges blurring, as if she stood behind a badly made glass door. “The Romanovs loaned the Uspenski Egg to the Carnegie Museum, and this is what came back. A gift from the American government and some Serbian émigré called Tesla.”

“How is it doing that?” Pixie stood transfixed. Stone made mantle-clocks did not leap into the air of their own accord.”

“You are quite correct when you say nothing is lighter than hydrogen. So if you could get a big enough bag and fill it with nothing, it would have more buoyancy than the same volume of hydrogen, and none of the usual explosive side effects in case of accident. But creating a vacuum has always needed machinery far heavier than the buoyancy of the amount of nothing they could make. Mr Tesla has solved the problem. His machine weighs less than the amount of nothing its little engine can produce, so it floats. Brilliant isn’t it?

You don’t need to build Zeppelins any more, just affix enough of these little wonders to a real ship and you can make an ironclad flying dreadnought. If this gets to Archangel, in two years the entire Russian navy will be sitting in the skies over London, unopposed.”

Pixie blinked as the cathedral floated, peaceful and charming and toylike. She had no thoughts, merely an unthinking mood of surprise.

On the other side of the fireplace Ana slowly and plainly reached behind her neck, and smiled at Pixie with the ravenous blood desire that lit her soul as she drew the dark blade from its scabbard. Pixie shook her head as if trying to refocus, and then fired her left hand gun. The modern lock on the venerable pistol clicked, and one of the huge self propelled shells Pixie had specially made by Imperial Ordnance fired up inside the barrel and rocketed across the space. Ana should have been nothing but a blood spattered shadow across the beautifully decorated fittings and the memory of her smile.

“Oh Pixie,” Ana sounded as if someone desirable had stroked her thigh. From the other side of the room a book case exploded. Vellum and pages and ornaments and plants and black soil from the flowerpots, an impromptu blizzard. Pixie, took a step back and levelled the other pistol. She’d missed. She never missed. Ana walked up to the still floating model cathedral and, with her short sword in one hand, she pushed the Fabergé Egg in front of her as if it were a trolley with the other.

“What this Tesla Johnny has made the bag to hold his nothing out of, is a sort of invisible wall. To be strong enough to hold the nothing, the invisible stuff coincidentally is strong enough to stop quite big bullets as well.”

Pixie backed up another couple of steps. Ana using the bag of nothing as a shield as she stalked across the rug strewn floor. Pixie held herself back. She wanted to squeeze the trigger, but she had already seen a shot go around Ana, deflected by the invisible ‘not gas’. But, Pixie thought, if that Trot bitch wanted to slice her up, she’d have to step out from behind Tesla’s un-balloon, and then Pixie’d give her a face-full of Tatham’s finest.

“O Боже мой! Pixie, you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this.”

No fear showed on Pixie’s face, only fury. The look a swordsman has when waiting for a gap in their opponents defence. Animal and intense, the two professionals danced; each looking for the right distance, the perfect angle. Silent now, the time for words gone, only the wire of the fight and predatory electrification firing their nerves like living lightning.

Ana closed in and Pixie felt the invisible gas bag press against her, solid as leather. The contact unexpected, rocked her back on her heels and Ana struck, catching Pixie across the top of her arm.

Razor thin trickle of red rising on her pale skin, a line drawn on her in life. The depth of the sudden cut shocked, and Pixie pushed back against the Uspenski Cathedral. Ana stumbled a half step backwards. She regained her footing and began the dance again.

Pixie looked down at the little floating Fabergé curiosity. The invisible bag had only taken to the air once Ana opened the top. Maybe the bag went upwards, like a proper balloon. Pixie dropped the aim of the gun and fired into the floor at Ana’s feet.

The shell exploded, destroying a foot wide circle of the unseasoned pine, showing through to the hurtling rails beneath the carriage.

Ana fell backwards away from the impact, losing her grip on Tesla’s proof of concept. Pixie turned her pistols around in her hand so they became solid war clubs, wood with a diamond of metal right at the skull smashing point of the butt. She could still feel the warmth of the barrel across her palm.

The door at the engine end of the carriage swung open and the dead Exarch’s body guard came piling into the room, summoned by Pixie’s gunfire. Ana reached up from where she lay and twisted the inkwell of the Tesla bag and the Uspenski Cathedral fell deadweight into Ana’s lap. She rolled up onto her feet and tucking the egg under her left arm while dancing through the baffled Cossacks of the body guard.

They looked at the scene, trying to parse the situation. Fifteen minutes earlier the Exarch had hustled them all out from the carriage so he could be alone with the velvet filly, redemption through sin. Now their charge lay dead and a new strange woman dressed like some insane circus acrobat fought with the bishop’s first whore. The clarity of Cossack logic shone through.

“Kill them both.” The officer shouted.

He died quite quickly. The expression of surprise freezing on his face as he looked down at the point of Ana’s sword erupting from his chest, having already sliced through the close packed muscle meat of his heart. The five remaining men, all battle hardened veterans, lasted little more than ten seconds. Pixie whirled around in a high spinning kick

“Little Dragon Whips its Tail!” she shouted, as the four inches of razor steel lining the heel of her boot caught the closest Cossack across the throat. He went down coughing and gurgling. She cartwheeled out, regaining her feet behind the corpse of the bishop. Ana, using the body of the officer as a shield moved back into the room, while two of the Cossack lifted their rifles and fired point blank into the chest of their erstwhile commander. She jolted her left hand down and a little spring-loaded Derringer jumped into her palm. With two quick spasm of shot, she put a small bullet through each of the two men.

Two guards left standing, and Pixie hooked the nearest rifle barrel with the butt of one of her pistols, pulling it aside enough so she stepped inside the man’s reach, bringing a fearsome knee up through his groin, his testicles finishing somewhere near his lungs. Pixie finished him off with a couple of skull shattering blows with the butt end of her pistols.

The last guard having seen the rest of his unit go down like a bunch of conscripts, threw his rifle to the ground and put his hands in the air. Ana slit his throat. Seemed to be her thing of the moment.

“I’m sorry, what were you saying?” Ana asked, pushing her hair back from her face. “Oh yes, I remember.”

With that she turned reclaimed the Uspenski Egg from where it had fallen on the floor, and ran through the door.

“Oi you trollop, that’s my bloody cathedral.”

Pixie, broke her guns and reloaded with her own heavy ordnance. Thus rearmed she moved to the door. Muzzle first, she emerged.

The Iron Czar now roared through the Siberian night at over two hundred and fifty miles per hour. Pixie experienced the noise of the steam driven monster as a vast rushing, punctuated with hammer blows from Vulcan’s forge as the great wheels clanged over the joins in the rails. The wind streaming past the train rendered climbing up on to the roof a simple impossibility, therefore Pixie reasoned that the Trot tart must have gone forwards through the last remaining carriage.

She stood to one side, then kicked the door open. The blast of a shotgun tore from the darkness in a way that would have made a fair sized hole in a girl as small as Pixie. She leaned in quickly and fired a speculative shot down the middle. The gun clicked, then kicked a little. The bullet found its mark with a deep masculine grunt, and the shell exploded. Pixie reloaded in cover, then slipped into the car as quickly as she could, not wanting to throw a classic “door-silhouette target practice” moment to Ana.

Ana had killed the lights and the darkness of the bodyguards’ carriage slowed Pixie. She closed her eyes and put her senses out. The howl of the passing air, the odd rhythm of the oversized wheels, the space too wide. She tried to hear anything that seemed out of place in the soundscape, but nothing. The door at the other end of the carriage swung open, and for half a second Pixie caught a glimpse of Ana as she rolled through towards the engine. Pixie leapt to her feet and ran after the fleeing Trot, only to trip full face, starman, on the blood spattered carpet, over the corpse of the engine driver, the origin of the shotgun round. Tatham and Egg had made a real mess of him.

Pixie had a moment. If the driver was here, then…?

She got up in a rush and ran for the door. Hurling herself through in time to see Ana working furiously at the coupling. Ana shrieked with frustration at the sight of Pixie. The coupling mechanism on these huge trains had been built by men, for men. A great black iron lever operated the steam driven teeth biting the chains of the train together. Ana had tried to shift it, but even with arms and legs all straining together she had not been able to move the lever one imperial inch.

“See? There is a down side to being so skinny, bitch!” Pixie levelled the gun at Ana’s face. She had never seen her looking so dishevelled. Hair loose around her face, her skin flushed and red, the ankle length red velvet slashed now to the waist, stocking tops in the snow. Between them lay their prize. Ana had placed the Uspenski Cathedral Egg on the running platform.

The coal tender, lying between them and the engine, had a path cut through the middle of the twin stacks of coal piled on either side. The exposed mechanism of automaton stokers, swinging grab buckets and taking great bites of the black fuel and delivering it straight to the maw of the Hell furnace powering The Iron Czar.

Pixie had caught Ana in an uncharacteristically vulnerable position. She’s gone for an all or nothing bet with the coupling, and come up snake eyes.

“So, Ana.” Pixie knew the rule, shooting or talking…always a binary choice. “It’s been a blast working with you again, but I think it’s time we went our separate ways don’t you my duck?”

She leaned down and placed the end of a barrel against Ana’s lips. If she moved even a fraction Pixie would feel it through the gun. With the other hand she pulled the Uspenski Cathedral egg towards her, grabbing it by one of the towers.

She leaned in close to Ana’s neck, almost as if to bite it.

“Dahling,” she mimicked, “you are a work of art, a simple bullet would be a waste. I will sculpt your death into something magnificent, a structure of begging and screams, but today we part with a promise, I will come back for you my duck. Give my regards to Felix.”

Pixie pulled back the gun and with a beautifully judged stroke laid it across Ana’s skull just behind her ear.

Pixie bent down and picked up the unconscious revolutionary. With two arms she carried her, placing her so she lay face down in the coal. Then she returned to the gap between the carriages and with one hand she took hold of the tall lever and gave it a sudden sharp yank. The teeth biting down onto the connecting couplings released their grip and Ana and the Iron Czar steamed on into the storm, Pixie and the rest of the train began to glide into entropic friction.

Pixie eased an incendiary round out from her belt and chambered it. An almost post-coital Zen like stillness fell over her as she watched Ana disappearing into the wind whipped sleet.

She turned back into the train and walked through, sauntering, almost skipping as she carried the cathedral, one handed. She could feel the rhythm of the rails slowing. She passed through the Imperial Pullman, retrieving the letter from Buckingham Palace.

From outside the train she heard the gathering heavy drone of the Maybach engines of the Fourteen Bags of Mischief. She headed back into the freight cars. She lined up and fired the incendiary round into the pile of straw at the end of the car. She watched it burn for a few seconds, making sure the flames took, a faraway smile in her eyes. Then she left through the back and climbed onto the roof of the burning carriage.

Overhead the great black shadow of Fourteen Bags of Mischief caught up with, and held station over where Pixie stood.

From the main gondola the supply lift came down on a cable, kept stable by a fair amount of ballast. The basket clonked onto the roof of the train, and Pixie stepped aboard, slipping the harness around her shoulders. The zeppelin put her nose up into a turning climb and headed back for the safety of the clouds, Pixie winched up into the heavens looked down as the carriages below her erupted into an orange fireball, then the Tsar’s cargo of hydrogen caught and a fast rising conflagration shot upwards into the sky. Pixie smiled, she liked the idea of floating fire. The great Russian wheels rolled on through the Siberian night engulfed in British flames, just the way Pixie liked it.

The phone in the basket rang. It was Jeti.

“Well? How did it go?”

“Set course for London Miss van Borkel, we have a princess to rescue, or kidnap… depending on your point of view.”

As the cable winched her back towards her home in the clouds, Pixie looked down at the piece of paper in her hand.

“Peace in our time,” she muttered mulling over Ana’s words. “Now, where’s the fun in that?”

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