Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order) (8 page)

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
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the seal so I would be able to find it in the dark. Will put an arm over my back and scooted closer as the light from the groom’s lantern disappeared around the corner. We heard him tromp back up the stairs, and then everything went still.

We waited, motionless for what felt like forever. I could only hope that the groom had returned to his bed and that he was a heavy sleeper.

The last thing we needed was the housekeeper, Mrs. Pratt, catching me and Will and accusing us of impropriety, again. Only, this time we shouldn’t even have been in the carriage house at all. It would defy explanation, if the old
woman’s heart didn’t collapse before we could give one.

We couldn’t lie under the coach forever. I turned my head to look at Will. I could barely see him in the dim light.

“What if this wakes the groom again?” I asked.

“Well, we did have an invitation.”

I let out a chuckle, and a little rebellion took hold. I felt the medallion, then took my grandfather’s master key from around my neck and fitted it into the lock. The key was all I had left of my grandfather, and it had the power to unlock any Amusement, so long as one knew the song it played and could complete the musical phrase the key started.

I listened to the song coming from the key, but I already knew Rathford’s musical code by heart. I turned the thin dial around the edge of the seal, playing the notes to release the lock.

Immediately the floor beneath us shuddered with a low rumble. Then it dropped with a sudden lurch. I clung to Will’s forearm as the noise reverberated through the carriage house. I could feel the shaking in my bones. We sank deeper and deeper into a pit, taking the large coach with us.

Once we had lowered at least ten feet, we heard another piercing neigh, then a shout. I rolled to the edge of the sheet and peeked up from beneath it. We were now at least twenty
feet beneath the ground, and sinking ever faster. The groom stood at the edge of the pit with his mouth agape and his lantern swinging helplessly in his hand.

“Oi, oi!” he shouted, turning this way and that, as if he didn’t know where to look for help. A grinding noise of old gears coming to life filled the pit. I had to cover my ears as the hole closed above me. Two dark panels slid together, reforming the floor of the stable and plunging us into darkness.

I felt Will’s body crawl next to mine as we continued our descent in pitch black. Then I heard a familiar whirring.

Spinning wheels with flint edges rubbed against strikers, showering sparks in the darkness. It was an eerie sight, like fountains of raining stars.

Braziers beneath the flint wheels caught fire and lit a large chamber deep beneath the carriage house. We were in a room cluttered with the remains of half-formed inventions and large mechanical parts. One of Rathford’s mechanical lions lay on his side with a panel in his chest open and parts spilling out. Though I knew in my head it was only a machine, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was staring at a dead beast, some poor creature brought low on a safari to prove the manhood of a stuffy blue blood paying to feel the thrill of adventure.

Dust and cobwebs had settled on everything, giving the room a ghostly quality. The platform we were on lowered five more feet, until it became a seamless part of the floor.

As soon as it settled, I scrambled out from beneath the coach, with Will close behind. Looking around, I quickly examined the structure of the gears and rails set into the walls on either side of the platform that we had descended upon.

“It’s going to be difficult to explain away a disappearing coach,” I said.

“If we put it back, maybe they won’t notice it was missing. It’s the same mechanism as the lift in the Foundry,” Will said, stepping quickly to our left.

“I think it will be difficult to forget watching it sink through the floor. There!” Just beyond him was a large lever. He grabbed it, and I helped him pull. The lever was stiff from lack of use, but together we managed to break it loose.

The floor rose once more. Will and I watched the covered coach ascend the shaft, disappearing into the ceiling. It continued its upward progress until the gears in the lift stopped turning and fell silent.

“Perhaps he’ll think this was all a dream?” Will offered.

“I sincerely doubt that.” My heart was pounding, and the bubble of laughter began deep in my chest. It felt so naughty
to be sneaking around this way, and in this house. I placed my hands over my mouth, trying to hold back my mirth as Will’s eyes crinkled in the corners. Then he too joined me in conspiratorial laughter.

I tried to take a few deep breaths to compose myself, but it was no use. “That poor man. He must be certain he’s lost his mind.”

Will shook with his own forbidden laughter. “Good, he’ll fit in with the rest of the servants, then.”

That did me in. To keep my balance I had to place my hand against a large gear wheel protruding from a half-constructed engine. “Can you imagine the look on Mrs. Pratt’s face when he tells her the coach is gone?”

“It won’t be half as good as her reaction when she comes to the carriage house and sees the coach right there.” Will took a deep breath and wiped the corners of his eyes. “I don’t envy that poor groom.”

I did my best impression of the stiff-lipped old housekeeper. “My dear man, do you expect me to believe that a coach could sink through the floor? It’s preposterous. Now get back to your bed.”

“Uncanny. That’s exactly what she said.”

I jumped at the third voice in the room and spun on my
heel. Peter stood in the gap of a large sliding partition.

“Peter!” He was still in a nightshirt and dressing gown. His round and youthful face smiled back at me even though his expression was a mix of relief and exasperation.

“I’m glad you both think this is humorous,” he said. “It’s going to be nearly impossible to get you out of here without suspicion.” He crossed the room to Will and offered his hand. “MacDonald, good to see you again.”

“I’m sure between the three of us, we’ll think of something,” Will said. They shook hands, and Will patted Peter on the back. “What took you so long?”

“I swear Mrs. Pratt never sleeps. It’s unnerving. She found me sneaking out to meet you,” Peter said as he walked back to the partition. We joined him and passed through into the part of the workshop I had explored once before.

“What did you tell her?” Peter wasn’t a very good liar. When he was caught in a lie, it showed all over his face.

“I didn’t say anything. I started flushing, and Mrs. Pratt thought I was coming down with a fever. She fussed over me for an hour at least. I couldn’t get away. She was brewing me some sort of curative when the groom burst into the kitchen in a panic. That’s how I knew you were down here.” Peter brushed away a veil of hanging webs.

The workshop looked as if no one had set foot in it since the day I had, a year before. The same mechanical clutter filled the shelves behind a large worktable. And the haunting empty bassinet still sat next to the faded armchair in the corner by the tall bookshelves. Spiderwebs had created a new blanket of chilling lace across the top of the small bed.

The thin coat of dust from before had turned to a thick gray blanket coating everything. The smudge from where I had accidentally placed my hand remained on the table next to the machine Rathford had used to spy on everyone in his house. The letter from my grandfather that Rathford had left out for me to read was now missing.

It was disturbing. In some respects Rathford’s workshop seemed as if it had frozen in time exactly as he had wished. In other respects, time had eaten away at the space.

“Have you been down here at all since you inherited?” I asked Peter.

“Only once,” he admitted. “To be honest, this place unsettles me.”

“You should straighten it up and make it yours,” Will suggested.

“I would, but the only servant I have who is sworn to the Guild is Tibbs, and he doesn’t have the strength left for this
kind of work. I couldn’t ask it of him,” Peter said, drawing his finger through the thick dust on the table. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

“If you need help, let me know. If the ship is down from the Foundry, I can get some of the men together. We can take most of this mess back to the storage vaults under the Academy.” Will fiddled with a knob on the spying machine.

“I’d appreciate that.” Peter leafed through a pile of drawings and diagrams that had been left on the table. “Now, what are we looking for?”

“Rathford left a letter for me to find here on this table. It was from my grandfather and it said something about Rathford being the only one who knew my grandfather was alive. There must have been more correspondence between the two of them. Perhaps another letter has a clue to where my grandfather might have gone.” I knew it was foolish, but I continued to search around the spying machine in the hopes that the letter was still near it, even though logically I knew it was no use to search there. Rathford would have collected it and placed it back where it belonged.

Peter nodded thoughtfully, then used a candle to light another lamp before fixing the candle in a holder and turning toward the shelves. “Our task is simple enough, then.
I’ll search through these papers here. Meg, you have a very discerning mechanical eye. Why don’t you look for hidden compartments where Rathford might have tucked something away, and, Will, you can take the bookshelves.”

While Peter and Will both jumped immediately to their tasks, I needed a moment to think. From what I knew of Rathford, he was the kind of man who’d kept everything locked away. Yes, this workshop was hidden, but nearly all the Amusementists had secret workshops that weren’t really secret at all.

Rathford didn’t trust easily. If I were him, where would I hide things?

I inspected the partition we had come through into the main room of the workshop. I hadn’t even noticed it the first time I’d been in this room. It created the illusion of a solid wall.

The backs of my ears tingled. That was it.

I leaned through the partition and gazed into the room beyond, then back into the main workshop. The two rooms together were at a right angle to one another, forming a sharp corner. We were beneath the carriage house. One would expect the rooms below to follow the footprint of the building above, which was a stout rectangle.

There had to be a third hidden room.

“Boys,” I said, taking several quick steps over to the wall and pressing my bare hand to it. “Look at this. There’s another secret room here.” The wall had been covered with wood paneling in a pattern of squares carved with intricate molding. I leaned my weight against the table, pushing it back from the wall.

The others joined me and helped to clear away the cobwebs and pieces of machinery leaning up against the wall.

“Do you see anything that could mark a covering for one of the locks?” Will asked.

I scanned the wall, but there wasn’t a single round thing in it. The surface almost looked like a woven basket. This was quite a puzzle.

The answer came to me slowly even as my eyes settled on one thin sliver of molding missing from the edge of a panel low on the wall and to the right.

“It’s a puzzle.” I stepped toward that small missing sliver. If I hadn’t been staring so intently, I never would have noticed the slight hitch in the pattern. I ran my fingers over it, inspecting the square panel. Acting on a hunch, I placed my fingers on the edge of the part of the molding that was like all the rest and pulled it toward the nearly imperceptible gap.

It slid and clicked into place, revealing a new gap in the panel with a groove carved into the wood.

“Look here! It’s like one of those Russian puzzle boxes.” I looked up at Peter, who crouched down next to me and began to feel the wall. “If we find the right method of sliding the panels, it should unlock.”

“Now, that is brilliant.” Peter slid a piece of the molding from the square above down into the new gap.

This was it. Whatever Rathford was hiding, we would find it here.

Together we worked, testing each piece of wood, finding the places with give and trying new combinations as larger and larger gaps opened up. On three different occasions Will saved us from folly by noticing the pattern of grooves and stopping us from moving a piece of molding or a panel too far, which would have prevented us from moving the next piece.

It was a pattern of careful mind traps. Our movements became a dance, holding the shifting panels of the wall as we slid them around, shifting what was before us, turning something solid into something mutable. It was the sort of task that lit a fire in my mind, a challenge of wit. With patience and observation we defeated every trap, and the puzzle unfolded in our hands.

Dear God, I loved being an Amusementist.

Finally we slid a flat square of a panel over to reveal a hidden latch.

Peter opened the latch, and together we pushed the entire wall of panels to the left.

Will lifted one of the lamps and carried it through the narrow opening.

I followed him into a third room, expecting a cluttered study with mountains of papers lying around, but the room was stark and nearly empty. A single machine took up the majority of the center of the room. A large cut crystal had been set within a framework of smaller crystals and gears. It reminded me of the center framework of Rathford’s infamous time machine.

Around the walls, nothing. No bookshelves, no desks with letters, no indication of any correspondence of any kind that would lead us in the right direction. The only furniture at all was a small table in the corner with a rack filled with dozens of crystal tubes.

“This is useless,” I muttered, prepared to go back to the main room of the workshop. I’d turn everything in it over until I found what I was looking for. “Come on. Let’s search the other room.”

“Are you daft? Look at this thing!” Peter exclaimed, standing in front of the massive structure. “It’s glorious. I wonder what it does.” He held his arms out, then leaned over, closely scrutinizing the various lenses in the framework.

BOOK: Shadow of the War Machine (The Secret Order)
8.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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