I have a secret identity and everyone at the Palace is after me.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Fathers don’t need to know everything. Sometimes it’s even necessary to tell them a fib or two, to keep them from worrying too much or jumping to the wrong conclusions. Especially my father, Dr. James Sycamore. He worried about every detail.
And there were exactly three details I omitted to tell him this evening:
I wasn’t going straight to bed.
I snuck out of the Palace without permission.
I was sword fighting again.
If my father knew what I was doing at this moment, he would send me to my chambers for a month. He’d get that crushed look of disappointment on his handsome face, which the female servants keenly watched when he was unaware. He’d bow his head in shame and, without so much as requesting an explanation, give me a nod of dismissal.
That look. That nod.
In my defense, I was only being myself. Isn’t that what he’d always taught me?
Charlotte, you must always be truthful to yourself and your beliefs.
But I wasn’t allowed to be myself. Fathers are like that. They tell you to do one thing, but expect another.
So here I was, standing beneath the yellow haze of a gaslight post well past midnight with my two closest friends, brother and sister Jillian and Peter Moreley. Twins, with the same friendly brown eyes. I brushed away my long black hair (I was never allowed to wear it down at the Palace) and arranged the fencing mask to my forehead. I was testing one of my latest gadgets. Inventions were a hobby of mine, something else my father was only vaguely aware of. This invention, a lightweight sword whose blade tip rotated, ran on batteries that charged with steam. It was meant for smaller persons who couldn’t bear the weight of a larger blade but still wished for its power and might.
I buckled my leather padded vest and stepped out into the deserted warehouse district of London. We stood somewhere between the flowing waters of the Thames and the slums where my friends lived. We were miles away from my embarrassingly wealthy residence in Westminster. (I mean, how many clocks can Buckingham Palace hold? Two hundred and twenty-three was surely enough now, wasn’t it? They had two fulltime staff who looked after the clocks alone.)
Dressed in a worn-out skirt and blouse loaned to me by Jillian, I faced Peter with my sword held high.
“On guard,” I called beneath a cool sky about to burst with rain.
It wasn’t truly fun sneaking out of the household unless I could share the adventure with someone. I’d missed Peter for the year he’d been gone, fighting pirates in the Royal Navy. Much had changed in him. His shoulders now filled his shirts and there was a new awareness about him, as though he looked at the world through a different lens. I wanted to stare at him longer to note these fascinating changes, but I didn’t want to give him the wrong impression.
“On guard yourself. What in the name of heaven is that skinny thing?” Peter tilted his head and peered at my slender blade. His dark brown hair fell against his fencing mask, in a very attractive way I might add. He looked at the clumsy metal hilt where the batteries were stored.
“Never mind,” I said. “You’ll be surprised what it can do.”
He smacked my sword with his own. The strength of his blow vibrated up my shoulder. The game was on.
“Nab him, Charlotte!” Jillian shouted with delight.
“Do your worst,” he added with laughter.
Jillian darted among deserted doors and buildings, a blur of reddish-brown hair and swirling skirts. My hems brushed the cobblestone street, sunken from centuries of footsteps and rolling wagons. My nostrils flared against the sharp smell of burning coal, horses, and sewage from the Thames.
Yet I loved my freedom away from Buckingham Palace whenever I could snatch it. I snuck out once or twice a month, whenever my father was busy with his scientific meetings and we weren’t traveling with the Queen to her other castles. Jillian was able to keep a secret better than anyone I had ever known. She’d never breathe a word to her mother, a carriage cleaner in the Queen’s stables, that I was hiding in their wagon, leaving the Palace gates for the evening beneath a pile of horse blankets and straw.
“Still as dangerous as always, I see,” Peter said with humor. He swung about a light post and lunged with his weapon.
I jumped out of reach and bounded onto a row of wooden boxes. “Did you catch any pirates while you were away?”
“Three. But none female.”
“Pity. We make the most interesting prisoners.”
“Charlotte!” Jillian scolded, but Peter only laughed.
We continued clanging and banging. A light rain misted my face.
Jillian shouted, “Did you know Peter is staying home for good?”
My sword stopped in midair. “He is?”
Peter leaped at me. His blade came within an inch of my mask. I squealed in good fun, ducked and rushed him with my weapon. I pushed the metal button near my thumb, hoping it would work this time. In response, the tip of my sword rotated and shredded a patch of his vest. He looked wonderfully shocked.
“What kind of weapon…?”
“Yes, for good,” Jillian continued. “Now that he – we – are seventeen, Mother says he’s old enough to start training for a position with the Metropolitan Police. They hire as young as eighteen, you know.”
Scotland Yard? How remarkable. He would always be living here in London then, just like Jillian. I backed away to allow him to regroup, then wondered what it might be like to have a mother. The only thing I had to remember my mother by was the blue sapphire ring I wore. She was wearing it on the fatal night of labor and hemorrhage, when we’d met for a brief five hours and thirty-two minutes, according to my father.
“A bobby?” I smiled at Peter, calling him by the police nickname. “You’ll have to better your game, then.”
We wove round the corner, testing each other’s blades in the dim lighting of a courtyard. We dodged bare wagons and empty barrels. A minute passed, perhaps two. All was quiet beyond the clicking of metal.
“Jillian?” Trying to keep one eye on the game, I nervously glanced at the path from which we’d come. “Jillian?”
I lowered my sword. Peter followed with his. A faint growling noise echoed against the far stone walls. My pulse thumped against my windpipe. Something was wrong.
“Jillian!” Peter raced toward the foggy street and we sprang past the warehouse into another empty courtyard.
I careened to a stop beside him, my shoes slipping on wet cobblestones. We spotted Jillian, as frozen as a statue in Hyde Park, surrounded by a pack of six dogs. Teeth bared, they snarled at her. Black flesh rippled up their jaws. Their mouths frothed as though spitting dirty water, their demented eyes riveted on their prey. They looked diseased. There was a quiet whimpering. I realized with a gut-twisting wrench that it was coming from Jillian.
My thighs shook with terror. Jillian was fifty feet away, well beyond our reach.
“Easy,” whispered Peter to the closest dog, “easy, boy, easy.” He inched closer, sword poised. The other dogs rotated their black eyes, almost as though in some factory-like unison, to settle on Peter.
Then the canine leader howled as if giving some sort of signal and they swung back at Jillian. With a grotesque leap, the big beast sunk its tainted teeth into her shoulder. It whipped her about like an onion by its stalk.
“No!” Peter shrieked and lunged forward. He cut off the head of one that tried to attack him, then a second as he rushed to his bleeding sister, held unconscious by the beast.
“Stop!” I raced toward the dogs, pushing the button of my blade over and over in outrage, but it jammed.
Two of the dogs noticed my weakness. My nostrils flared with horror as they slowly circled. I followed the crazed eyeballs of one as it paced to my right. I was well aware another was pacing to my left, looking for an opening. When the delirious eyes flashed, I made my move. I thrust my blade through the heart of the leaping giant at the same time kicking out my left foot at the other dog.
My blade did its work. The giant fell.
However, the other growling dog had sunk its teeth into the top of my leather boot. I kicked my foot repeatedly, but it held on. I tried to scrunch my toes inside the top of my boot to protect myself, hoping the little stab of pain was coming from the twisted leather and not the gruesome teeth.
There was no cure for rabies, once the symptoms appeared in a victim. I’d heard my father say it. Rabid dogs plagued London and all of Europe. When a person was bitten, the disease made its way to attack the brain and spinal cord, causing swelling and infection. Then came swollen jaws, frothy saliva, incredible pain, a lunatic madness, and death.
I gripped my blade, holding steady. I maintained eye contact with the sickly beast in the rainy darkness while it twisted my foot as though calculating the best angle to lunge at my throat. My inner thigh muscles stretched and burned as I tried to keep my balance, swiveling on one leg.
In the background, Peter bravely continued to hack limbs and fur and frothing jaws, and scream curses at the monsters.
The dog on my foot finally let go and leaped at my head. I screamed, lifted my sword and allowed it to impale itself. With a shudder, I withdrew my weapon and looked up at the wreckage.
The growling had stopped, all six dogs dead. But I was horrified to see that Peter lay crumpled unconscious by Jillian’s side. He’d managed to cut off the head of the dog that had attacked her. Leaping forward to reach my friends, I slid through pools of black blood draining from the animals. Jillian lay pale and motionless – barely breathing, but breathing nonetheless. Part of her shoulder was gone. Her bleeding was massive.
My heart pumped madly from the terror of losing either one of them. I clawed off the petticoat Queen Victoria had given me for my sixteenth birthday last week. She and I shared the same birthday on the twenty-fourth of May, but no one ever fired any canons for me. I bunched up the cloth and put pressure on Jillian’s wound. I tried to remember the medical things I’d seen my father do over the years, while he tended patients and I worked as his scrubbing girl, cleaning his equipment in the numerous cities we’d lived in. I couldn’t think of anything useful here.
Jillian’s bleeding seeped into the fabric, then stopped as I tied it around her shoulder joint. I prayed for her life as I quickly glanced about.
My sword and padded vest were splattered with the dark blood of the dogs, but there was nothing on my hands. I removed my mask and pivoted on the balls of my feet.
“Peter? Peter can you hear me?”
He lay still. I shook.
He’d just come back from a year away, and now this? I’d hardly spent any time with him. No, I refused to fathom a loss.
My eyes blurred with tears, but I checked his injuries. Had he broken something? I ran my hands up and down his pant legs, as I’d seen my father once do for a fellow who’d fallen off a horse. I checked his shirt sleeves. All the bones seemed solid. The hem of his pant leg was shredded where a dog had nipped it, but Peter didn’t appear to have any bites. I noticed a trickle of blood on his temple and slid off his fencing mask. The skin was scuffed and bleeding. Had he fallen and knocked his head? Or was it a dog scratch?
What about my foot? Were all three of us tainted with rabies? Were we all doomed to die from madness?
How I wished my father was near.
“Help!” I shouted into the night rain.
Nothing but the distant sound of trains at the nearest rail station, the bray of a mule somewhere, the rustling of rain on spring trees. Then I heard the slow hum of voices very far away. Perhaps a tavern somewhere. There would be people there to help.
First I had to get my friends to safety. I turned toward the courtyard and spotted a barn. I dragged Jillian first, silently pleading that no more dogs were coming to attack. I laid her inside on a pile of clean straw, my petticoat wrapped about her shoulder, and headed for Peter. That’s when I noticed the narrow street wasn’t covered in blood.
It was covered in slippery black oil.
These weren’t dogs. Their hacked steel limbs glistened in the rain, silhouetted by the glow of the gaslights. I’d never seen nor heard of anything like them. They weren’t made of bones and muscles and natural fur. They were made of metal bolts, screws, and artificial fur. These were some sort of mechanical monsters.