The jingle of harness filtered into the dim room . Margaux sighed, carefully put down her glass pen and stood up. She moved over to the window and peered out through the gap in the curtains.
“Early,” she muttered to herself, then moved away carefully so as not to disturb anything. Biting her bottom lip, she strode back to her desk and flipped to the back of the ledger. Margaux walked down the hall to the back of her house and into the kitchen. She crouched down by the stove and began to pry up one of the flagstones. Before she could finish, a soft knock sounded at the back door.
Deftly, Margaux twitched her black skirt to cover where she had just been working. She pulled a towel off the nearby rack and slowly reached up for the handle of the cleaver poking out over the edge of the counter.
“Yes? Who is it?” she called out in ringing tones.
“It’s me, Miss. Young Parker,” came the reply, “My mum sent me. For Mr. Barton, too.”
“Why couldn’t Barton come?”
“He’s laid up in the infirmary. Can’t get out of bed. Lilly’s going to make sure he’ll be okay for today. I...” the young voice hesitated, “ I have the... you know...” he trailed off.
Her voice dropped lower. “Slide them under the door.” Margaux curled her fingers around the handle of the cleaver in readiness.
From under the door emerged two round stones, bored through in the middle. One was accented with four silver bands, the other had a single band of copper. Both stones had black leather thongs through them, so they could be worn around the neck. Margaux examined them carefully then nodded to herself, satisfied, and let go of the cleaver. “All right, Young Parker. Give me a moment.”
The stones slid back outside. “Thank you, Miss. Very much.”
Margaux smiled and turned back to levering up the flagstone. Hidden underneath was a lumpy burlap sack. She reached down with both hands and heaved the bundle out of its cubby. Once on the floor, Margaux rolled the edge of the sack down to display the contents. Inside, a multitude of smaller purses nestled together. They appeared to have some semblance of organization, though, as those pouches of the same colour appeared to be the same size. Nearest the top, two of the little bags sported labels with neat symbols on them. Margaux plucked those two out of the group, rolled the top of the sack back, and rolled it back into the the hole in the floor. She kicked the flagstone back into place then turned back to the door. Just beside the handle was a small hatch. Margaux opened it and carefully put the purses inside, closing the little door and then giving the whole hatch a twist; gears in the wall clinked together just on the edge of hearing.
“There you go, boy,” she said, “Now make sure that other bag goes into the right hands. I’ll know if it doesn’t, because we all know what will happen, don’t we?”
“Yes, Miss,” came the frightened reply.
“Good lad. Run along now.”
She waited until she heard the footsteps fade into the distance before walking back to her desk.
With a sigh, she picked up her glass pen, refreshed its ink and crossed off two lines in her ledger. Her movements became crisp as she cleaned up her mess, making sure everything was just so, then she pulled back the curtain a little to get a better idea of what was going on outside in the square.
Under the morning sun, four ruffians were unloading a wooden cart and setting up a crude wooden stage. They had made some minor effort in prettying the thing up by adding bunting and ribbons, but all that served in doing was increasing the morbid air surrounding the pageantry. Off to one side, a man paced and surveyed the work. He wore a black suit that had obviously seen better days, despite his efforts to dress it up. Every other step, he would adjust some small thing, a tweak here, a tug there; smoothing out every wrinkle that might show in an obvious attempt to make himself look more impressive than he actually was.
“Sadler,” Margaux sneered, “Must be important if he’s here first.”
She pulled the curtain shut, making sure no light could get into the room and then strode over to a cupboard on the other wall. Opening the doors revealed nothing out of the ordinary. Nooks and crannies filled with knick-knacks, papers, and books. Margaux reached to the back of the lowest shelf and flipped a switch. With a soft hiss of steam, the whole shelf slid forward and then off to the right, revealing a small two-way radio set. She pulled down her red cowl, donned the headset and gave the radio a solid crank to get it powered up. A light on the top of the unit began to glow, indicating readiness.
Margaux flipped a switch on the front of the radio and spoke into the microphone. “Boreal Bodice calling Ironclad Ruby. This is Boreal Bodice calling Ironclad Ruby. Do you read me, Ruby? Over.”
She didn’t have to wait long before the reply came crackling through the headset.
“I read you Bodice. This is Ruby. What’s happening? Over.”
“Ruby we just got a shipment in town. Looks like a big one. Got some yellow jackets buzzing around it and one nasty black beetle. You may want to get down here to inspect it. I’d hate for anything to spread to your orchard. Over.” Margaux tapped a fingernail on the edge of the cupboard, anxious for a response confirming her real message got through.
Almost a minute had passed before she got the reply: “Sorry for the wait, Bodice. Had to get a couple puppies back in their basket. I read you loud and clear. Be in town to inspect in a few minutes. Over.”
“Roger that, Ruby. Hurry. You haven’t got much time before this spreads. Over.”
“Don’t you worry, Bodice. You haven’t seen my new horse. Save me some cookies. Out.”
Margaux smiled. “There’s plenty to go around. Out.” She powered down the radio set, nestled the headphones back in their cupboard and closed the secret compartment. Reaching for her purse and parasol, Margaux pulled her long hair free of the cowl completely. One last glance behind her confirmed that everything had been put away properly, and nothing damning was visible.
“This life has got to stop,” she whispered to herself as she turned the door handle and stepped out onto the porch.
The light in the square was blinding compared to the dark of Margaux’s home. She winced at the brightness, even while standing in the shade. Softly cursing all daylight, she fumbled briefly with the catch on her parasol, opening it up for whatever small defense it could give. Margaux moved to the edge of her porch and stood near one of the supporting pillars for a moment, to give herself some time to look over the preparations.
The stage was finished, and a table set up in the centre of it. Two sets of stairs on either side, provided the means of access. A gaily coloured sign draped off the front edge of the table proclaimed this to be tax day.
Margaux wrinkled her nose in disdain at that. “Tax day,” she muttered, “More like a blood drive with how deep they cut.”
The sound of horse’s hooves made her look up, expectantly. The riders barrelling in to town were not who she’d expected. Even from a distance there was no mistaking that figure riding in front.
“What in the seven hells is he doing here?” Margaux asked.
The group of riders barrelled into town and pulled up in front of Margaux’s porch. The lead rider smiled down at her and tipped his top hat.
“Why good morning, Miss Margaux,” he drawled in a good natured tone, “And how are you on this fine day?”
“Good morning, Mister Vincent,” she said, her tone crisp, “I am well, and yourself?”
“Doin’ just fine, thank ye kindly.”
“I guess the weather will prove unbearable today,” Margaux posited, “You’re starting early to escape the afternoon heat, I take it?”
“That was right in my line of thinking,” Vincent replied. He nodded to his men, and dismounted, dusting off his green suit as soon as he landed.
Sadler hurried over, nodded to his boss and gathered the proffered reins. “Everything’s in order, Vince. Ready on your say so.” Sadler glanced at Margaux and a dark look passed in front of his eyes. “Barring any trouble, of course.”
The young woman flashed her most charming smile. “Well with so many big strong men around, what could possibly threaten the peaceable people of this fair town?”
Vincent returned her smile. “What indeed, Miss Margaux?” He reached out a hand to help her down the porch steps. “May I?”
The young woman only let a flicker of a sneer cross her face before she put forth a seemingly sunny smile. “Why thank you kindly, sir.” She reached out and let him take her hand.
Vincent led her down the wooden steps then tugged her hand, causing her to stumble into his arms. “Oops, careful there, Miss Margaux. We don’t want you hurt now.”
She sighed and stepped back, adjusting her cowl back into place. “No. No we don’t. Thank you for the assistance.” Margaux spun, putting her back to Vincent, and began striding across the square.
Vincent waved at Sadler, who led the horse away. Straightening his tie, the green-suited man hurried after the retreating woman. “I don’t believe I’ve seen a more fetching cowl on a lady, when did you get it?”
Margaux glanced at her unwanted companion. “Why Mr. Vincent, you must be forgetting, I’ve had this pretty thing since two winters ago. Remember that bad storm? Catherine and I stayed up all night with little Susanna when she was hit by fever. Her parents had been trapped by the blizzard. Catherine knit it for me because I kept walking back and forth to Doc Lawson’s place with nothing to keep my head warm. She picked this colour because Susanna was so delirious she kept calling me Queen Victoria.”
“Oh yes, now I remember,” he nodded to himself, “That was a bad winter, nearly lost half my workforce.”
Pursing her lips, Margaux took a deep breath. “Yes, well, since you’re obviously busy, and things keep slipping your mind... please don’t forget that Mr. Barton has been taken ill and as such won’t be able to be here in person today. I’m sure Sadler has the appropriate paperwork for his payment by proxy. I don’t know that he can be visited. Doc had said that he’s very contagious.”
A dark cloud passed over Mister Vincent’s face. “I see... thank you for that reminder, Miss Margaux.”
“Anytime.” She smiled. Hearing rapid hoof beats she turned to look down the street. “Ah, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Vincent, I do have a very important appointment I must keep. I bid you good day.” With a swish of her skirts, she spun around once more and began walking towards the speeding steed.
In an incredible cloud of dust and steam, the rider reined in the horse so hard it reared. Displaying masterful control, the woman in the saddle urged the horse down until it was perfectly still. “Wotcha, Margaux”
“Catherine!” Margaux grinned up at her friend, “You weren’t kidding about that horse.”
“Never would. This is too important. Can definitely see why you had all the panic.”
“Yep. Lots of flies in this honey of a day.” Margaux sighed. “You going to climb down off that beast?”
Catherine looked up from adjusting some discrete knobs implanted on the cybernetic horse’s neck. “Just making sure this monster won’t gallop off on me. Still getting used to the controls. Looks almost real, doesn’t it?”
“Sure does. I take it your little... opportunity paid off?”
With an uproarious laugh, Catherine sprang off the back of the horse and lashed the reins to a nearby hitching post. “In spades, my dear. As it always does when I have my safeguards with me.”
Margaux glanced at the kerchief draped around Catherine’s neck. “You’re never without them, especially when there’s unsavoury elements about.” She gestured with the handle of her parasol towards the crowd around the stage.
A sly half smile crept onto Catherine’s face. “Yep. Got my resurrection stone right here, all the time. In this Age of Brass and Steam, you need something like this to keep you safe and warm. Thanks, by the way.” She said, wiggling her fingers at Margaux.
“Oh good, you got them. I was worried they wouldn’t make it. When I saw the pattern, they just told me they had to be yours.”
One of Vincent’s men strolled slowly by the two ladies, attempting to be menacing. Catherine adjusted her wide-brimmed hat and gestured for her companion to lead the way. Margaux curtsied briefly, and the two women strolled towards the gathering townspeople, giggling.
“You never did tell me what these were, by the way,” commented Catherine softly, so as not to be overheard.
“I’m sorry my dear, and please don’t hate me for the reference, but I picked them out because they’re called Last of the Sky Pirates.”
Catherine directed a pointed look at her friend, and rattled her sword, slightly irritated.
“I know.” Margaux raised a hand defensively. “I’m not asking questions. Your past is closed, and I’m happy to keep it that way. But understand, I hear the rumours. Give them little truck, mind you, but I hear them.” She smiled softly. “Besides, I picked the colour because I know you walk a different path, now.”
“Too true, too true,” her friend agreed, smiling widely.
By this time, the pair had worked their way into the centre of the crowd. Margaux had put away her parasol, and pulled down her cowl to reveal her dark brown hair. Similarly, Catherine removed her hat and slung it off her pommel, shaking out her auburn braid. Surrounded by the anonymity provided by the bustle of many bodies and many voices, they relaxed somewhat.
“So much nicer being two faces in a sea of many,” Margaux commented, softly.
“Agreed.” Catherine kept a sharp eye out; couldn’t be too careful about eavesdroppers, even in a crowd.
“I know I called you up because of this... shipment, and the delivery boys, but we do have that far more pressing matter to discuss.” Margaux adjusted the sleeves of her shirt.
“Aye, and I definitely thank you for the warning. It’s obvious the Emerald Dragon was trying to catch me off guard.”
“Both of us. Mr. Barton is laid up in the infirmary. Dragon certainly has a bee in his bonnet thanks to our combined efforts.”
Catherine squared her shoulders. “It’s not enough, though,” she hissed, “those damn ‘work camps’ of his... death camps more like. If half the people in the Capital saw what he was doing...”
“They may even applaud his efforts to keep the rabble in line. It started out okay, remember. He was taking the filth off the streets and putting them to some good use.”
“He got too big for his britches. You know that scum he first took in is now parading about in suits, pretending to be civilized in the light, while they lay some poor innocent low, just because no one can lay a finger on them anymore.”
Margaux reached out and touched her friend’s arm. “Steady. I know. You got the message out okay?”
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Catherine attempted to relax. “Yeah. Let them know the prize was real sweet. Ripe for the picking. They get the goods, we can sit back with a real nice alibi, and watch how bad the Dragon limps once his lifelines are cut.”
“Perfect. Now, my dear, we can sit back and take a little vacation from all our escapades. Let that nice young captain in the long brown coat do some heavy lifting for us poor, defenseless women-folk.” Margaux attempted to repress her impending grin.
The friends’ eyes met and it was too late: they both broke out in gales of laughter.
 - See Appendix A as posted in Ravelry.com
 - See Appendix B as posted in Ravelry.com
 - See Appendix C as posted in Ravelry.com