Her Ladyship's Curse
“What’s all this, then?” He rerouted a load of damp, soiled towels from the bathhouse to the launderer’s tube. “You giving up the civilized life, Miss Kit?”
I sighed. “Why do I never fool you people?”
He chuckled. “You may dress the part of a savage well enough, but you smell of roses and lavender. That lot, they smell of horses or trees, or naught ’tall.”
“Next time I’ll have to remember to dab some pine resin behind my ears.” I passed along his sister’s message, and then asked, “Have you seen Hedger today?”
“Aye, he came up with his bucket at noon.” Clancy waved his hand toward the tubes that curved out of sight beside a hatch. “Said to me he were off to scram under the exchange today. Here.” He tossed me a watershed. “Keep your heathen skin from washing off.”
“Thanks, Clance.” I pulled on the rubber cloak and followed the tubes.
Descending into Rumsen’s bowels required I bring my own light, so I borrowed a flystick from Clancy and gently shook it until the bugs inside the glass rod gave off a blue-green glow. That lit my path down into the sublevels and tunnels where old Hedger dwelled and worked.
As usual, the stink from the sewer tubes hit me first and took my breath away. Every time I came belowground I wondered how the old man could tolerate living in it. He claimed one became accustomed to it and even grew to like it, although I doubted I’d ever accomplish the feat.
Toriana’s first citizens had used pit privies and rubbish dumps for their waste, but when the blues sent over their architects to begin building a more permanent settlement, the builders had been instructed to attend first to the works needed belowground. For every building erected, three sublevels had been dug out and reinforced around what had been sewer lines and root bunkers.
As tubeworks and iceboxes had come along into common use, the sewer lines had been converted over, and the bunkers emptied. Now and then I spotted a cluster of carrot or potato plants that had grown from what had been left to rot in the old storage bins, their stunted, whitish-green leaves looking ghostly and unnatural.
The darkness and the smell didn’t unnerve me, nor had the rats I’d helped the old tunneler clear out. (Crate traps baited with raw bacon and nut butter had done the trick, along with some judicious reinforcement of the dump tubes.) The inherent dampness of the tunnels made trodding through them a wet business, but my bucks and Clancy’s watershed kept me dry enough. I even liked the echoing clatter, plings, and bongs of the mechworks overhead, and the constant rush of air sucked along by the tubes.
Something else crawled along my skin, however. Something I didn’t feel aboveground, a kind of awareness I’d never understood. A sense of presence just out of view, of watching eyes and waiting fists.
“Ere ye, hold on.” Hedger popped out of a hatch some three feet to the side of me, his gnarled hands pulling up his fogged gogs to expose bulging, tunnel-dilated eyes. “Miss Kit? Is that ye in all that getup?”
“It is.” I smiled. “Afternoon, Mr. Hedgeworth.”
“I’ll be blind.” The old man hoisted himself out of the drop and stood, shaking some of the water from the old-fashioned waders he wore over his clothes. “Never tell them hotel people sent ye back. I’ve not seen hide nor hair down here since we emptied the last of them crates uptoppers.”
“No, I’m here to collect on the favor owed for that, if you’ve some time now.”
“Right with ye.” He hoisted his catchall and a dripping kipbag. “Just let me empty these in the blower.”
I followed him to one of his stations, the one where he dried out whatever he found while inspecting the tubes. Every tube in the city suffered occasional blockages, and snakelike unjammers were sent through those that conveyed goods that could not be lost. Every station had the ability to valve off their tubes and blow out blockages through release doors, however, and did so with goods unworthy of the time and expense of unjamming. Once blown out of the tubes, whatever had been discarded fell into the gutters that ran under the tubes, where they were carried off to be redeposited in the main rubbish tube. Anything thus dumped in the gutter was referred to as scram.
Hedger’s main occupation was to keep the underground tubes in good repair, but he did a nice side business in reselling whatever he retrieved from the scram before it reached the rubbish tube. Today he emptied two voluminous skirts, a gent’s velvet bacco jacket, and several pairs of homespun stockings into an elbow tube that had a mesh plate on either end to prevent the contents from being sucked into the feed tube. The air still passed through the mesh, which blew the contents into a constant, billowing tumble that eventually dried them.
“Keeping the jacket?” I guessed. Hedger disdained most of the creature comforts most citizens took for granted, but he did have a soft spot for embroidered velvet.
“Aye. Cold season’s just round the corner.” He secured the blower and turned to me. “So what can I do ye for, Miss Kit? Ye’re wanting a thing or a service?”
“Service,” I said. “I need to get into the vault under the City Archives.”
He grimaced. “That’ll be a trick and a half. They keep it under close watch round the clock.”
“If anyone can smuggle me in and out of there,” I assured him, “it’ll be you, Mr. Hedgeworth.”
He nodded toward my bucks. “Ye’ll need to change out of that getup and put on me spare waders.” He went to a rack of dried garments and selected a small workman’s shirt, trousers, and skullcap. “These first. I’ll collect the waders. Use the basin to wash that muck from yer face; they’ll never believe I’ve taken on a native ’prentice.”
He left me there to change and returned just as I was scrubbing the bronzen off my face. After helping me step in and fasten the waders, he smeared his dirty hands over my cheeks, chin, and brow, and handed me a heavy tool pouch. He then shouldered two air tanks onto his bent back.
“Let me take one of those,” I said.
“Master all the ways carries the tank. Ye just keep yer head down and let me do the yammering,” he advised as I followed him out of the station. “’Em boys up there aren’t as thick as I’d like.”
We crossed through several tunnels until we reached a staircase and climbed up into the back of an enormous room packed with shelves of boxes. Before he approached the two guards sitting at the front, Hedger used a wrench to loosen a joint on a water pipe, just enough to create a steady drip.
“Here’s the leak, Jimmy,” he said in a loud tone, and then called out, “Tunnel service.”
One of the guards strolled back. “Hang on, old man, you can’t go barging in here.”
“Sure and I’ll leave now.” Hedger nodded toward the leaking pipe. “But ye boys best put on yer waders and fetch some pails.”
The guard surveyed the pipe. “How bad is it?”
“Might not burst right away,” Hedger said. “Could go tomorrow, the day after. But it’s a main line, lad. When she goes, she’ll go a-gusher.”
“Well, then what are you pissing about for?” The big man gestured toward the pipe. “Get on with it.”
“Can’t use me torches with ye lot in here,” Hedger said patiently. “Gas’ll leave ye senseless.” He hefted the tanks he carried. “Only brought enough air and nozzes for me and the lad.”
“Flame my ass. Oy, Jerry,” the guard called to his partner. “Tunneler’s got to torch a sprung pipe. Fancy an early tea?”
The other guard grumbled but left with his partner, leaving us alone in the vault room. Hedger immediately began setting up his torches.
“You needn’t do that,” I said. “Just tighten the joint again.”
“I’ve got to burn a bit of it; they’ll be sniffing the air and checking the pipe when they get back.” He thrust a tank at me. “Keep the noz on while ye’re looking, or the gas will knock ye on yer little bum.”
Even with the cumbersome air tank on, being allowed to roam freely through the city’s protected archives was a bit like being a hungry child turned loose in an unattended sweets shop.
I gave in to the temptation briefly and glanced inside one long box at random; the first sheaf of glassines inside held the birth records of three royal bastards, the testimony of a minister who had uncovered a massive swindling scheme to defraud and embarrass the Crown, and an old, slashed waistcoat marked as belonging to the governor’s deceased valet, whose blood staining it had dried to an ugly dark maroon.
Something twinkled at me from the bottom corner of the box, and when I took it out, I saw it was a tiny silver disk, marked with the queen’s rose and edged with runes.
I dropped the wardling, shoved the box back in place, and took a deep breath through the noz. Whatever I found here would be dangerous to know, the sort of information I always avoided. But even if I were suffering from some form of hopefully temporary madness, I had to know who my grandfather was. Otherwise I’d spend the rest of my days wondering until I truly went mad.
I took a few moments and checked the sides of the long boxes, noting how they were sorted by date and surname and following the sequence back to the annum of my mother’s birth. There I searched through the glassines one by one until at last I found a thin envelope marked Doyle-Weiss. Until she married, Mum had used the name Doyle. But who was this Weiss?
A rough hand shook my shoulder, startling me back to the present. I turned my head to Hedger, who had taken off his noz to speak. I did the same and smelled a trace of the sickening-sweet scent of gas. “What?”
“They’re coming back,” he whispered. “Shake yer ass, gel.” He stalked back to the pipe.
I regarded the pile of glassines I’d taken from the box, which I now had no time to read. Destroying them would serve no purpose; six copies of them were stored in the protected archives of the other provinces, and the Crown would have the originals safely secured in the Royal vaults. But I had to know what they contained.