Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers (2 page)

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
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She was trying to grab a normal life. Mason hoped she found it.

Alice had straightened—the pop of her bones audible—and she drew in a hiss of pain. The shovel clattered into an empty scuttle. “And what about you?” Her voice dropped to a whisper, but Mason picked it out even above Theodora’s laughter and sudden clapping. “A certain valet...”

“Hush, you!” Mary, the little tweeny, spoke for the first time. Mason closed his eyes and tried not to sigh. That went a long way to explaining Mary’s blushes and the shy smiles she often gave him. “Anyway, I thought you said that Herbert Chase had soulless eyes.”

Alice’s voice was still wistful. “Only in certain lights.”

“And the courts are always dark.”

Both maids had grown up in the slum courts near Scotland Road. Mason had a similar start in life. Dank and dark rooms, with too many people crammed into infested, tumbledown terraces, the stink of the outside privies cutting through the rags blocking the broken windows. Still, people chased happiness...

Mason frowned. Alice had kept this man Chase a secret. He’d have to be investigated, as were all associations staff made. Station X was strict on such matters. The secrets and the work of Greenbank Hall were of national importance.
Global
importance.

“Mason, have you seen the incredible gift Agamemnon has made for me?”

Distracted by the maids, he’d missed the opening of Theodora’s present. “No, miss.” It was petty to be envious and so he laced his fingers before him and presented her with the blank expression of the dutiful servant.

She picked up a curve of copper, thick with dials and toggles, and in a rustle of her skirts she stood back from the table. The uncertainty fell away from her face as her hands moved over the metal. The
kardax
within her shone through, clever, hard, focused.

From the shadows of the box movement flickered. Mason fought down the violent urge to grab Frost and haul him from the room. Low whirring, as if a bee had trapped itself, ran through Mason’s nerves.

Mason blinked. Frost was an inventing genius—a talent sharpened by the transfiguration of his body—creating marvels for Station X. But this? The rapid clank and whoosh of wings and the flail of rounded metal arms and legs tugged a smile from his mouth. An ungainly cupid tumbled without grace, lurching through the air towards him. A deliberate act rather than the inaccuracy of Theodora’s touch, and that made it all the more endearing.

It shone bright copper in the light of the gasolier, a bow and arrow held in tight, fat fists. Seams of light drew lines on its metal skin, evidence of the Martian knowledge at its heart.

“What do you think?” Theodora grinned at him, joy shining from her. “Isn’t he wondrous? And you can see—” she freed a hand from the controlling metal curve she held, her mobile fingers drawing shapes in the air, “—the light on his skin. The beautiful pattern. How, over and over again, it forms the electron configuration of copper—”

“Theodora.” Frost was on his feet, his own sure hand covering and stopping the rapid movement of hers. He eased the control away and brought the cupid to land on his desk with a heavy thunk. He looked towards Mrs. Forsythe, who was also standing. “I think it’s time for breakfast.”

Theodora smiled at him, her changeable face slipping once more into an unaffected young woman. “You promised me something sweet today.”

Frost brought her delicate hand to his mouth to drop a light kiss against her pale skin. The blush to her cheeks deepened. “And it will be waiting for you in the breakfast room.”

Mrs. Forsythe pressed a guiding hand to Theodora’s elbow, Mason opened the door and a moment later they were gone.

Frost wiped a hand across his mouth and leaned back heavily against the edge of his desk. “She...sees things. Flashes. Patterns. And her mind spins inwards, caught in some strange loop.”

Mason’s palm itched with the need to stroke a reassuring line along Frost’s shoulder. “She’s improving—”

“No, she isn’t!” The words were a whip and Frost swore under his breath. He let out a slow breath and straightened. “Mason...”

The touch of Frost’s fingers on his jaw stilled him, and Mason couldn’t fight the need to close his eyes. Frost’s thumb teased across his jaw, so close to his mouth it taunted him and forced the familiar ache through his flesh.

Frost took a step closer, the brush of his coat and promised heat of his body tantalising. But Mason didn’t open his eyes. If he did, then he would see the desire in the other man’s gaze and it would break him. Frost belonged to another now.

“I promised her, promised them both.” Frost’s breath touched his lips in the ghost of a kiss. “I have to care for Theodora.”

“I know.” Mason stepped back, drawing away from the temptation of Frost’s fingers and mouth. “Do you need anything else?”

Frost’s arm dropped, his hand a fist. “When it’s only us...”

Mason couldn’t stop the bitterness of his smile. “It’s never only us.” He collected the rest of the newspapers from the tray and placed them on Frost’s desk, deliberately straightening a creased corner. “My mind is quiet.” He tapped his temple. “We’re safe for now.”

“It’s not—” Frost paused and slipped his hand into his coat. He pulled out the slim copper communications device, the
ektaxis
, that connected him to their commander, Nestor. The image of the man was a hazy, flickering picture above the metal. Frost let out a long sigh. “Nestor, she’s fine.”


Achilles
,
this communication has nothing to with Briseis.
” Nestor’s normally rounded tones were quick and stressed.

Frost winced. He never used the code name their commander had given Theodora. It irritated Mason too. “Nestor...”


Her name is the least of our concerns.
Damn it
,
Achilles!
It’s your brother.
Menelaus has vanished from Dyrford Park.

2. The Laboratory

Frost stilled and his hand tightened around the metal. “You’ve lost him before, Nestor. A number of times. Last week in fact.” He snorted, but it sounded forced. “We’ve lost a slew of suspected automata in the last month. They turn up again.”


He’s never disappeared from there before.
” Nestor brushed his thick fingers over his white moustache. “
And it’s not simply him.
His whole household has gone.
Selina was
kardax,
but we never had it proved whether his staff followed them into transfiguration.
We have to make that assumption.
We believe they’re
koile
.
” For a long moment he was silent. “
Or that they are dead.

“Their being
koile
makes the most sense. Sewn with Pandarus’s laws and instructions, they’d be under the complete control of my brother and his wife.” Frost had started to pace over the thick rug, his mouth thinned and his face tight. “What did the agents see? Does this have any connection to the Crown of Towers?”

Pandarus had made the obscure reference when he conversed with his Court, those they believed to be his superiors. Nothing Station X had pulled from the Martian information
mechanes
they’d captured had shed any light on it.

Nestor was silent. Mason could almost feel the slump in the heavy man’s shoulders. “
We’re still no further on that blasted thing!
Whatever the Crown of Towers is
,
that information is buried deep in Pandarus’s machine.
” He straightened and his rounded voice became clipped. “
His household followed all the familiar movements last night
,
even down to the three turns the butler gives the key in the front door lock at midnight.
” He drew in a breath. “
Then
,
this morning
,
silence.
The servants didn’t stir.
There was no smoke from the chimneys.
Agents went in an hour ago.
As yet they’ve found no one.

“There was no shield?”


Not a shimmer of it.

“And they’re still hunting?”


Dyrford Park is a large house.

“I have to—” Frost strode towards the door and stopped. “Nestor. A moment.” He cut the connection to the commander and swore. “I’m caught, Mason.”

“How so?” The
aeolipile
engine—yet another invention taken from the Martians—would be ready for them on the lawn in a matter of minutes. It could fly down to Gloucestershire, with War Office permission, in under an hour.

“Theodora.” Her name came out raw.

Frost had promised to spend Valentine’s Day with her. A fist tightened in Mason’s gut that the man should put her before the disappearance of his brother.

“You can make the day up to her.”

Frost blinked and then frowned. “You think I care about food and flowers?” He wiped his hand across his mouth before he pointed a finger. “
You?
” A bark of laughter escaped him. “I need you at Dyrford Park with me. Your instincts. To examine everything they left behind. But—” his sudden smile was dark and twisted, “—if I do that, then I leave Theodora unprotected. And if I leave you here to protect her, or simply send you to Dyrford—” he jabbed a hard finger into Mason’s temple, “—Pandarus will come out to play.”

Mason winced. The voice of Pandarus had been in his head from the time of his transfiguration into an automaton. A betraying devil in his skull that Frost pushed back. “His voice has been silent for weeks.”

“Because I haven’t let you out of my sight.”

Heat coiled in Mason’s gut, wanting that statement to be true, but he put such wishful thinking from his mind. “I can take one of those devices, walk through the house and grounds and describe...” His voice trailed away as he found Frost staring at him. “What?”

“Yes. Yes, you can.” Frost disappeared out into the passage and Mason followed. The lightwell caught him, grey February dullness edging his features before Frost disappeared down the servant stairs that led directly to the cellars. “Mason!” His voice echoed. “The laboratory.”

Mason took to the stairs, the dark wood creaking with his heavy steps. He rarely ventured down into Frost’s laboratory. Few did, thick walls and heavy metal doors marking it out from the cellars that the engineers had used to house enemy prisoners in their electrified cages.

The tunnels and cellars were quiet and cool, the brick and stone etched in a sure grey light in Mason’s changed vision.

Mason stretched his fingers. The arch of the tunnel pressed against him, the heavy scent of brick, the hint of mould and the persistent drip of water flicking hard against his sharp senses. He gritted his teeth at the metal scrape of the hinges. A door groaned and more metal scored the stone floor.

“Nestor.” Frost’s voice echoed back. “To save time I’m tying your men into my equipment here.” Flicks and whirrs, followed by the clank of moving gears and cogs cut back into the tunnel. Wood groaned and there was the tinkle of thin glass breaking. Frost cursed.


We need you there on the ground
—”

“This is the best I can do.” Flint edged Frost’s voice. “The best I
will
do.”


Achilles
...”

Mason stopped in the doorway. Frost’s laboratory was a white-walled mishmash of machinery, instruments and chemicals. Milky-blue light glowed from sconces fixed to the brick walls, and the salty taste of the sea was thick on the cool air.

“I’m not leaving Greenbank Hall.”


It’s your brother!

Frost stilled, his knuckles whitening against the slim brass and copper of the
ektaxis
device he held. Nestor’s greyed image rippled. “And I will do everything within my power to find him, to find his wife, to find his staff. However, I still have obligations here. I will not leave my house unguarded.”


You have a shield to protect the Hall.

“I am not leaving her.”


I’m ’shipping a battery out to you now.
It’ll be there before noon.

“Do as you please.”


Achilles!

The censure in Nestor’s voice forced even Mason to wince. Frost pressed a hand to his face and pushed out a slow breath. “I apologise, Commander. I can’t leave...Briseis,” he bit out the hated name, “and she’s too fragile to accompany us. I can’t expose her to Pandarus’s games yet. This will work, Nestor.”

Their commander stroked knotted fingers over his moustache. The flickering image showed his hooded eyes and tight expression. “
Find us something and you can stay.

“Understood. Achilles out.”

Frost threw the device onto the cluttered bench behind him. He straightened his shoulders and turned to one of the walls. A sheet of polished steel covered it, the evidence of a bricked-up archway in the curved lintel and pillars stretching around the dull rectangle.

Cabinets stood at right angles to the wall. Mason frowned at them, at the solid backs, silvered with lines of ancient cobwebs. The flagstone floor was cut with two curves of dulled rails, corresponding metal wheels sitting under the edge of the two cabinets.

“Something hidden?”

“More for my convenience.”

Frost turned back to the bench, lifting journals, magnifiers and the broken innards of a clock until he pulled free a copper disc. The device resembled the machine Theodora had used to control her flailing cupid. He ran his fingers over its dulled surface and the air changed, a charge of static pushing against Mason’s skin. The metal on the wall shimmered, forming patterns like oil on water, and unease deepened the rush of electricity under his skin.

“Is this Pandarus’s work? The screen from his cellars?”

“A modification. This will amplify the
ektaxis
and take us through Dyrford Park as Nestor’s agents lumber about.” A smile tugged at his mouth. “Though our eyes, ears and brains are infinitely superior.”

The colours shifting across the metal merged, and greyed shapes pushed out into the laboratory. Noises hissed and overlapped each other—the distorted sounds of breathing, of footsteps with their continued squeak of cheap leather, of the brush of long coats. Mason identified four men.

“Calchas, Machaon, Eudoros and Akamas.” Frost named the four agents, and the metal screen quartered. Ornate staircases, the house’s china closet, a long gallery and the low eaves of a shared maids’ room rippled and then settled into slow movement.

Patterns chased along the bottom of each square, and something about them pricked at Mason’s instincts.

“Those symbols are the closest mirror we have to move beyond sight and sound. They describe the air, its temperature, the chemicals it contains, and how the environment changes as the agents move through time and space.” Frost frowned at the screen. “It’s not exact. I plan to keep that limitation from Nestor.”

“Then I should...”

“You’re not going anywhere.” Frost drew in a breath. “Calchas.” The view of the staircase whirled, the flow of ornate rails and the chequered tiles of the hall rushing over the gleaming metal screen. “If you could refrain from invoking the gods...”


Achilles?
” Calchas’s voice was little more than a squeak. The image steadied. The panicked thud of the man’s heart raced through the screen and Frost’s sweeping fingers lessened that drum of sound. “
How...? Where?

“Don’t worry yourself with the details. Head for my brother’s library. Follow the hall to the left. The door after the small Tintoretto.”

Frost directed the other three agents in a similar fashion, moving them with precision through the house. The images pulsed, offering glimpses into the vastness of Dyrford Park. Every room was immaculate, gilded with gold and hung with vast paintings. Nothing was out of place, even the kitchens, which were more like a setting for a play than rooms that saw grease and smoke from the ranges. It seemed to prove that the staff were
koile
, hollow flesh. Dirt interfered with the working of the automata and the
kardax.
The staff’s full-time job would be to keep the pile free of grime.

Mason’s instincts, ones that his transfiguration had heightened, didn’t stir. Their plan of staying in Greenbank Hall wasn’t working. He needed more than moving images on a screen. “How does your brother have this house?”

“It’s Selina’s family seat. Menelaus’s wife. There.” He pointed out a square as the agent walked around a long dining room. Grey morning light slanted through the open curtains, but not a mote of dust drifted. “The painting over the fireplace is of Sir Henry Wynter, Selina’s ancestor from the time of William and Mary. He oozed money and was unscrupulous to a fault. Selina is his last descendant, and the house and park fell to her.

“When Menelaus and she married, he gifted me Greenbank Hall. He had no need of this pocket-sized scrap of land in the north, when he had Dyrford with its thousand acres.”

Perhaps it was the light, but there was a lack of soul in the painted eyes of Sir Henry. “Can anyone be transfigured?” Mason surprised himself with the question, but his instincts had flared. Sir Henry had no doubt been a ruthless courtier, ambitious and sharp to amass so much wealth and status. “Would he have been a prime candidate?”

Frost tapped his lip. “Not every automaton is chosen because he is an utter rogue.” He lifted an eyebrow. “Yourself as a case in point.”

“Not you?”

A touch of wickedness glimmered in his dark eyes and Mason’s chest tightened. “I was a degenerate soul. Still am.”

“But then I wasn’t chosen.”

Frost didn’t reply. “Calchas, head into the cellars.”

The image in the top left-hand corner shifted, and the tap of boot heels on a wooden staircase stood out against the soft press of boots into thick rugs. Calchas’s lamp was a fierce point of light against the white-painted walls and dark wood, but Mason’s altered vision adjusted to the darkness.

“Dirt.” Mason moved forward, pointing, his hand tracking the quick movement on the metal screen. “Calchas just passed a smear of it, caught against the skirting. The house is pristine. Not one touch of grime. They keep it so clean you could eat off the floors.” His heart beat faster. “They’re in the cellars.”

“All of you, follow Calchas into the cellars. Prepare weapons.”

The agents’ low voices wove through the air as they talked to each other, coordinating their movements. Calchas’s pace had slowed. He blew out his lamp and deposited it on the stairs. A thin beam of light from the weapon he held in a steady hand marked his way now.

“Pandarus does love to be underground, it seems,” Frost murmured, moving to stand beside Mason, his attention fixed on the screens. “Can you sense
koile?

Mason drew in a deep breath and fixed his gaze on the images he could almost reach out and touch. But nothing fired through him, no strange tug of wrongness with its acid sting against his flesh. They were too limited, he needed to touch the walls, to pull the tainted air into his lungs. Now he only had the familiar, taunting scent of Frost. “Nothing.” He wiped a hand over his mouth, the scent of his own skin catching him. “Do your patterns tell you anything?”

“You’re the only machine capable of detecting
koile.

Mason narrowed his eyes, finding the hint of a smile lurking on the other man’s lips. “I am not a machine.”

“As I’ve said before, we’re all machines.”

He dropped to silence as Calchas reached the bottom of the stairs. The darkness didn’t hinder, the thin beam of light from his weapon a hot line cutting over the stone walls and the curve of the tunnel roof.

The scuff of boots was more evident, smears of dried mud streaking across the flagstones. The men who worked the estate had been the last to scramble down the narrow passage.

“There was no shield. Without it, is it possible they’re defending an apparatus down there?” Mason’s heart tightened in his chest. There were only four agents, fully human with no protecting transfiguration. That change had saved Frost and himself when they went up against Pandarus’s foot soldiers. His hands clenched into fists and the pain burned up through the bones of his arms. His instincts were screaming at him. Something was very wrong. “They need more men.”

BOOK: Agamemnon Frost and the Crown of Towers
8.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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