The Black Rose DossierMature

Set in an alternative 1885, at the height of the steam-driven Albion Empire, young Simon Oliver of Joberg becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to not only control the future king but also the fate of the free people of the world.

Chapter One: Simon arrives at Cambridge

Morning light shone through the port hole of Simon Oliver's miniscule cabin on board the air-corvette Arrow of the Empire, rousing the young man from his slumber. He instinctively avoided hitting his head on the copper steam pipe his hammock dangled from, a movement that came from one time too many strikes against his head. Looking around the cabin to locate his shirt, Simon tried to recall the previous evening that was obscured in a haze of drink and whatever the aeromen from the West Indies were passing around the crew deck. He furrowed his brow, narrowing his cobalt blue eyes after finally locating a crumpled mass of cotton cloth on the floor. "So that's where you ended up," he said aloud to himself with a smile that still bore the inebriation of the previous night. Swaying a bit more than would be natural aboard an air-corvette, Simon picked up the shirt with a forceful shake to subdue the rebellious creases that had claimed it during the night. "That is the last time I get taken in by a pretty face," Simon thought to himself, remembering clearly what had brought upon this morning's stupor.

The aeromen and other crewmembers aboard the Arrow had decided to commemorate the end of their year-long journey across the Albion Empire with a celebration below decks while the ship's aristocratic passengers slept. While Simon had only been onboard the ship since it docked in Joberg, he was surprised to hear that it had been almost all around the world to survey the outlying colonies and territories. With their arrival in Cambridge only a day away, they decided to let off some steam with a few bottles of rum and some of this "special herb" they had acquired in the islands of the coast of the American Confederation. Now Simon hardly associated with the regular crew, working as a cabin boy for the ship's aeronaut, but for some reason he decided to partake in the celebration...mostly due to the presence of what he suspected was the only other fey-born aboard the Arrow.

Following the young man below deck-Simon had never really learned his name, always feeling the rigid fist of his own insecurity tighten around his vocal chords whenever he had a chance to talk to him-and saw him stand out amongst the throng of hearty sky-sailors and soot-covered engineers. That lad in question, a porter if Simon's memory recalled accurately, had doffed the formal waistcoat and ties his office required and was laughing at some joke a wide-shouldered crewman had just made. Simon could not tell what exactly he was laughing about, since someone had the phonograph playing loudly, but he really did not care what it was since it gave him a chance to see the slender young porter smile, those warm brown eyes beckoning him to strike up a conversation. Simon had a feeling he was a fey-born like him, since he learned that their kind had a sense to identify one another from regular people. At least that is what Simon had heard, having no experience with using it growing up on the African Savanna.

Shyly Simon mingled his way through the crowd, somehow getting a pair of filled tankards thrust into his hands before coming before the porter. An awkward eternity passed for Simon before the porter looked at the drinks and smiled, "These for me? Thanks, handsome." Taking the tankards and handing one to the crewman, leaving Simon empty-handed and thoroughly ignored. Crestfallen, Simon made his way to the one of the porthole windows, only to swear inside his head that he was not able to throw himself out it. Instead, he took up another tankard and sat himself down amongst a group of world-weary looking engineers swapping tales.

The stories they told about Australasia, Bharat, and the other parts of the Empire made Simon's head spin with wonderment enhanced by the rum and the unusual smoke filling the deck. Never had he heard of such things on the small military outpost he had spent almost his entire eighteen years on. Those were happier, simpler times when all he would do is spend his days helping the soldiers in the Queen's Army keep the peace. Simon shook his head, forcing the hurtful memory that was about to come back to the rear of his mind and snapping him back to reality. "No use dwelling on the past," he chided himself while pulling on the now less-wrinkled shirt and taking an appraising look in the slightly cracked mirror built into the wall. Slightly broad in the shoulders while the rest of him narrowed into a slender form, slightly toned muscles from a dozen or more summers chasing animals across the plains, Simon would consider his appearance average among normal people but dull among other fey-born-who always seem to be harsher in their appraisals of one another's appearance. Buttoning up his shirt and tucking it in the top of his khaki woolen britches, Simon forced a smile on his face. The Arrow would be docking any moment and he still had no idea what he was going to do with himself now. The grim memory he had tried to suppress moments before came flooding back, the sober reality knocking the strength out from his knees.

Earning his passage to Albion was the only option he had, since Joberg was not the place for a bright young man who had no intention of enlisting in the same Army that had allowed his parents to die. The regiment commander knew that the Zulus had been mustering for an attack on the outpost, but still he did nothing to prepare for the eventual attack that would leave Simon the only survivor. Clamping his eyes shut he fought back the image of his parents lying motionless among the other spear-filled bodies. With a few sad words and his father's last stipend the army wrote off the Oliver's tragedy, leaving Simon with no one and no direction. The five hundred pounds got him to Joberg easily, but not enough to get him to Albion...where his family came from before his father's assignment. Finding work onboard the Arrow was easy enough, but finding work in Cambridge would be tougher.

With a jolt Simon was brought once again to the present when from the brass intercom horn blared in pointed equally metallic tones, "All personnel report to landing stations! All personnel report to landing stations!" A brief curse passed Simon's lips as he scrambled to finish getting dressed. Slipping bare feet into leather boots and tossing on his frayed leather jacket, he bolted through his cabin door into the cramped corridor. Relieved to see he was not the only one suffering from last night's party, he weaved his way through the slowly moving throng up to his station on the Arrow's top deck.  "Hope I can get it right this time," Simon thought at the base of the deck stairs, pulling on his leather work gloves. Then with a bracing exhale he donned his goggles and made his way on deck.

If his goggles had not been slightly tinted green, the now unrelenting spring morning sunlight shining on the Arrow would have blinded Simon's bleary eyes. Winds whipped through his already unruly black hair as Simon seized a hold of the ship's railing. He may have been on the Arrow a few months, but this was the first landing he ever did and the quick introduction the boatswain gave him left much to be desired. But he had a job to do if this massive hunk of wood suspended by only a pair of hydrogen-filled pontoons was to land safely. He finally got to his assigned rope station, which proved difficult with the high winds nearly forcing the slender lad to crawl along the deck for his own safety; the other deckhands already readying their lariat rifles.  Taking up the long, almost crossbow-like tool in his hands, Simon loaded the hooked end of his spool of rope into coiled locking mechanism, awaiting the boatswain's command to fire. Simon was a decent shot with a rifle, having spent many hours shooting meercats, so he at least had that going for him.

Below the Arrow was Simon's target, one of a dozen large steam-powered iron spools that lined both sides of a red and white painted landing zone. The target for the rope was an iron loop jutting out of the spool's axle, from Simon's position about the size of a meercat. When shot through the loop, the engines would start to turn the massive spools, winding the ropes and pulling the air-corvette down to its docking platform. "Just like back home," Simon said almost inaudibly over the winds, "at least the targets aren't moving this time." He could barely hear the boatswain give the signal to fire, pulling the trigger only after hearing a chorus of high-pitched clicks as the rest of the crew fired their rifles. Following suit, Simon fired and braced himself against the railing to stay upright. A snap later the rifle was detached from the rope just in time for it to catch inside the loop. The spool of rope smoked as it came to its end, attached to the ship by a heavy metal clamp as it went iron taut. There was a momentary lurch, the engines straightening the ship stationary before slowly pulling it back to earth. Simon picked himself off the railing, feeling slightly embarrassed that he was the only one doing so while the rest of the crew had gone about the rest of their duties. "Nice, Simon, real nice," he sighed to him, placing his lariat rifle back on its rack before heading back down below deck to check in the chief porter.

As a cabin boy Simon reported to the Arrow's wizened chief porter, who always seemed to be glaring at Simon with his hawk-like eyes set deep behind his pince-nez. "Master Oliver," said the chief porter in that high pitched hiss that reminded Simon of a leaking boiler, "the captain would like one last word with you before your services are no longer needed. Apparently he wishes to give you something extra for your hard work these past few months." Simon did not expect that, since the parchment-like skinned elder's face revealed nothing save the usual disapproving scowl. Taking his cue, Simon headed toward the stern of the Arrow, where the ship's aeronaut resided.

"You wished to speak with me, Captain Paige?"  Simon asked after being let into the spacious, albeit still cramped, cabin. By simply looking around this cabin alone one could identify this as an airship of the Albion Empire. Only on one of Queen Victoria's official diplomatic vessels would officer's cabins be decorated in the style of a landed gentry's country estate. Captain Paige, almost as slender as Simon but about a foot taller, looked as much a part of the decor in his impressive royal blue naval uniform with the heavily adorned dress coat draped casually over a nearby wingchair. He stood looking admiringly out the large bay windows at the rolling Albian countryside slowly coming to level with it.

Turning away from his musings, Paige regarded Simon with an approving eye. The seasoned aeronaut waved him to join him by the window, "Yes, Simon, come in." He saw that the lad was a bit nervous, standing very straight in what he could tell was an attempt to appear proper, "Come now, your contract expired the moment we made port, so you don't need to stand on ceremony with me." Simon managed a weak smile and a mumble of agreement as he joined Paige by the window. "So where do you plan on going now?" Paige asked conversationally.

"Well," Simon said with a drag of hesitation, "I hadn't really come to a real decision yet, Sir." Which he really had not, since most of his concerns in the past few months had mostly been about the handsome young porter or how he was going to survive the voyage to Albion on his own. "I was thinking about going into the city and possibly finding a factory job, or earning my way as a courier of some kind. I'm not that bad with animals, so I could work in a stable." These all may have been things Simon had considered, but none of them were serious enough to convince Paige.

"Cambridge may not be as glamorous or big as London, but it can certainly be as dangerous for the unprepared," cautioned the captain as he turned and walked toward the finely crafted oak writing desk near the window. He opened up one of the drawers and withdrew a small cloth sack, "I'd like you to take these with you when you leave the Arrow. Hopefully you'll only ever have to use half of them." Simon took the sack in his hands and immediately felt something metal and heavy inside it. As he opened it he could also hear a rustling of some kind, and nearly dropped it when he saw what was inside it-an Enfield Mk II revolver wrapped with what could only be a fat wad of £100 bank notes.

"Sir, I couldn't accept these," was what Simon had wanted to say but only got a, "Sir," out before being silenced by his former employer.

"I don't want to hear any arguments. This may be a different climate than the savanna, but there are still predators out there waiting to prey on the weak," Paige warned, tightening Simon's hands around the pouch. "Don't be afraid to use it if you need to. Besides, our kind has to look out for one another," he said with a wink. This was a shock to Simon, thinking that his fey-sense[1] was not as attuned as he thought it had been. Who would have thought the dashing aeronaut captain would be fey-born; he certainly did not fit the descriptions he had heard about from the soldiers back in Africa. All they ever said about them were that they were involved in the theatre (if they were men) or field hockey (if they were women), which was something Simon never really spent time trying to understand.

Before Simon could truly thank Captain Paige, there came a knock at the door and the chief porter appeared in the portal, looking ever so usually like the hallowed specter of death that, in Simon's opinion, would not be too far behind. "Captain, the ambassador would like a few words with you before he departs."

"Coming, Hagen," called Paige, turning back to Simon on last time and saying, "If you ever make it to London and need a hand, look me up at the Royal Ærocorps Command." With a reassuring pat on the shoulder, he bade the lad good luck then left the room with the chief porter giving Simon one last glare before heading out himself.

Retuning next to his own cabin, Simon finished packing what possessions he had into his sea bag. There was not much pack really; just a week's worth of clothes, a few books, and a tintype of his family that was taken about a year or so ago. He paused a moment on its smoky image on the curved metal, seeing the proud image of his father and the gentle visage of his mother. But with a moment of resolve he took one of his shirts, wrapped up the tintype, and packed it into the bag with the rest of his belongings. Before sealing it up, he pondered what to do with Captain Paige's gift, and decided that he would carry the pounds on him while stowing the other gift in the bag. There came the sharp sound of the boatswain's whistle, calling for all those going ashore to go ashore, cuing Simon to take one last look around his little closet before heading off the Arrow.

The rolling hills and green pastures of the Albian countryside welcomed Simon as he stepped off the Arrow's gangplank. Leather boots on wooden planks and the cooling sounds of the surrounding steam engines were met by the light chirping of songbirds, an odd combination, Simon thought as he picked up his last month's pay from the boatswain at the ramp's bottom. Tucking the envelope of bills into his inner jacket pocket, Simon hiked up his sack and made for the local Locomotive station that would take him into town. He could hear the other crewmembers laughing and talking about what they planned to do with their hard earn pounds, mostly drinking and women from what Simon could hear, not that he was paying much attention. "So this is Albion," Simon mentally assessed, walking down the cobblestone street leading to the station and taking in a deep breath of the country air...a fine mix of spring rain and coal smoke...and let out a strong string of coughs. "I don't think I'll ever get used to that, no matter how many times I ride on one of those." He wheezed, attracting the laughs of a few passer-bys, "Oh yes, this is a great start to a new life."

A short walk down the road from the airship dock was the Locomotive station, the long banded iron tracks shooting off into the horizon at both ends. These advanced locomotives, "iron horses" he heard a few Americans call them at one point, could go as fast as a pack of cheetahs on the hunt and carry the weight of a pack of elephants...at least that was the way some of the crewmen on the Arrow had told him, using terms they jokingly thought he would understand. Certainly he had been born in Africa, but he was just as much a citizen of Albion as any of them. Or that was what Simon told himself as he reached the station, seeing the advertisements plastered on the whitewashed wooden wall proclaiming the latest mechanical marvel to the local tavern. One poster, more an official painting actually, caught Simon's eye as he approached the station entrance. It was of Queen Victoria, he recognized her easy enough, sitting regally on her throne with scepter and orb in hand, not looking day over fifty. But she did not attract Simon's attention as much as the visage of the young man standing next to her.

Fair haired with fine features like a marble statue, ice blue eyes staring warmly out of the painted image was the most strikingly handsome young man Simon had ever seen. He was dressed in a finely tailored black suit and royal violet waistcoat, a golden coronet resting upon his head shining as much as the half-smile painted across his face. Who was this Adonis standing jauntily with one leg on the foot of the throne next to his mother? Apparently his jaw had slacked a bit, garnering the attention of an elderly woman passing by him. "Not from around here, are you lad?" asked the woman, Simon shaking his head with his eyes still transfixed on the young man, "That's Queen Victoria's son, Dorian Christopher Spencer-the Crown Prince and sole heir to the throne. A dashing young man, isn't he? ‘Course they say he's fey-born, so the Church is trying to at least get it decided if he's only half-touched so there's a chance of an heir."  The old lady saw that Simon was still transfixed by the painting and moved on, muttering something about teenagers and their hormones.

"Amazing," Simon said breathlessly, tearing away from the painting after a few more minutes, "If that's royalty, then the common fey-born must be at least half as good." Turning from the painting back to the station he walked through the double doors and up to the large carriage schedule nailed to the wall. He found the day's date and found the next time the carriage would arrive, which proved to be in a few minutes. He quickly went to the ticket window, fished out a £10 note from his pocket and paid for his ticket just as this loud rumbling came from outside. The sound nearly caused Simon to jump out of his boots, drawing the unwanted attention of the other patrons in the station.

Looking out the large windows on to the track, Simon gazed in wonder at what had caused the rumble. Appearing as if two regular steam locomotives had been combined in both size and power, the Locomotive sported no less than four smoke stacks, a massive fuel cart behind the engine, and a series of passenger cabins. Still in an amazed daze, Simon followed the flow of passengers-an assortment of top-hated businessmen, bonneted matrons pushing prams, and the occasional Imperial soldier in green uniform and dress cover-through the turnstile to have their ticket punched by the pneumatic stamper. Everyone else did this with a familiar ease, while Simon nearly had his hand impaled before removing it at the last moment. Grimacing in embarrassment, Simon shrugged off the snickers and comments of the other passengers as he took his ticket and enter the first of the carriage's passenger cars (having decided to pay for a first class cabin).  Inside he took one of the many wingchair-like seats near a window, stowing his bag in the overhead rack, and giving the rest of the car an approving glance before sinking into the chair's deep crimson cushions. "Certainly beats my cabin on size alone," he laughed to himself, leaning back and placing his feet on a nearby ottoman.

The ride into the city was a pleasant enough experience for Simon, made more so by the fact he was the only person in the first class cabin the whole time. Fields, farmhouses, forested thickets flew past his window in blurs as he enjoyed the lager he bought from the old lady with the trolley who came through the cabin. Simon asked her a few questions about the city and got a few interesting bit of information; that classes at the University were soon to start a new term, that there was a growing industry in area of ambaric machinery, and that he should stay away from someplace called the Portrait Gallery because, in the words of the trolley woman, "It's on the dodgy side of Blackthorn Street and no one but old men are seen going in there." Simon thanked her for the information and tipped her a five, to which she responded with pecking him on the cheek before heading on down the train. Taking a long draw from his lager, Simon pondered what she said, especially the part about the University starting classes again. The amount he had on him, complete with Captain Paige's gift, might be enough to enroll but he would have to work extra hard to earn a scholarship so he could continue. University had been something his parents had talked with Simon about; having given him the best education they could out on the frontier of the Empire, so it seemed like the best course of action.

"Wonder if they still offer reduced rates for military orphans?" Simon mused, momentarily bringing the lager bottle to his lips again before pulling it back down. Outside the window he could see his destination come into increasingly larger view. A mass of tall buildings and smoke-stacks with zeppelins and airships dotted the sky above it; the city of Cambridge was just as impressive as Simon had imagined it to be. A call for the city's railway station came across the cabin's intercom, so Simon downed what was left of his beer as the carriage passed through a series of bridges and underpasses. They were taking him into the city center from what Simon could tell, and thought what better place to start the search for a new beginning.

The Locomotive came to, in Simon's estimation, a remarkably smooth halt for a machine so large. As he stepped out onto the platform he could hardly hear himself think for all the bustle and movement surrounding him. People coming, people going, cargo being loaded and unloaded; all of it moving with the precision of a clockwork machine and in numbers Simon had never seen before. Neither Joberg nor Cape Town was this busy. Drawing his bag and jacket closer to his body, Simon worked his way through the teeming crowd and out on to the late afternoon street. "Welcome to Cambridge, Simon," he said to himself, taking a deep breath, only then to be buffeted on both sides by people using the railway station entrance. "Ok, ok. I get the picture," thought Simon as he started into the swarming city.

[1] Fey-borns have a natural ability to sense fellow fey-borns. With practice, one can identify them with absolute certainty.

The End

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