A steampunk story about a renegade airship pilot and centuries-old mechanical men.
Cornelia Harper stepped up to the imposing, black double doors of the Royal Society. She checked her reflection in the silver knocker and attempted to straighten her somewhat windswept raven hair. Then, using the knocker for its intended purpose, she rapped three times in quick succession.
An interval of about twenty-five seconds elapsed, in which Cornelia re-lipsticked her already dark, cherry lips, then the doors opened. In the doorway stood a young servant boy who was dressed in fancier clothes than Cornelia was wearing. He dipped down into a polite bow and flashed a quick smile of pearly teeth.
"Madam Harper," he said, stepping aside and holding open the door, "please, come in."
Cornelia obliged and the boy swept the doors shut behind her. She was now standing in a spacious, opulent entrance hall. Across the hall, a grand staircase trailed elegantly to a second floor and a plethora of mahogany doors dotted the walls, presumably leading to a plethora of rooms and corridors. And suspended majestically from the ceiling like a glittering, crystallized fruit atop a sumptuous cake, was an enormous chandelier, twinkling with the light of the dozens of electric candles it bore.
Cornelia turned to see a short, sharply-dressed man waddling toward her, mopping a glistening red forehead with a silk kerchief. He was shaped rather like a bowling ball, though perhaps disproportionally round about the middle and he had thin, shiny hair that looked as though it could have been painted on. He sported a pathetically wispy mustache, but the the missing hair seemed to have sprouted out over his eyes instead, forming dense, hedge-like brows. He puffed to a stop before Cornelia and extended a hand. Cornelia shook it.
"Good to see you, my dear," said the man genially.
"And you as well, Avery," Cornelia lied, cementing a convincing, yet utterly false, smile to her lips. Avery Hallsworth irked Cornelia, but civility toward him was something of a necessity as he was her one contact in the Society.
Hallsworth addressed the servant. "Go on and fetch Professor Ikonov. Tell him we'll be in the lounge. Oh, and while you're at it, get a bottle of Chardonnay from Perkins and bring it down as well. You do like Chardonnay?" Hallsworth asked, turning to Cornelia.
Cornelia shrugged. "I'm not particular," she said, secretly thinking that Chardonnay would be a far cry better than anything she had had in recent memory, and an incomparable improvement to the stuff that Hunter usually kept aboard the Belle Marie.
Hallsworth began to amble along again, leading Cornelia down the hall across a stunning oriental carpet. "I hope you had a good flight?" he said as they walked. Cornelia had to intentionally slow her pace to keep speed with him.
"Of course," said Cornelia. "One of the advantages of owning one's own ship is comfort." Cornelia's airship, the Belle Marie was small, old, and not particularly classy, but Cornelia loved her dearly and wouldn't give her up for anything.
"That old girl still kicking?" inquired Hallsworth.
"Sure," said Cornelia, "she may be old, but she's got enough spunk and spirit to keep her flying for many years yet."
"Or at least you do," chortled Hallsworth, opening a glass-knobbed door. Through it was the lounge, a tight room furnished with worn sofas and armchairs, and with dusty bookshelves crammed against every available wall.
Hallsworth deflated into a large, flowered armchair and he directed Cornelia to do the same with a wave of a pudgy hand. She did so, settling down onto a rough, green sofa. Hallsworth rummaged around in his pockets and produced a pair of cigars as well as a mechanized lighter. He offered Cornelia a cigar.
"No, thank you," she declined. Once upon a time, Cornelia had smoked habitually, but she had broken the habit when she had taken to the skies. It didn't do to smoke around the highly volatile gases used to lift airships.
Hallsworth merely shrugged and lit himself a cigar; a minute later, he vanished behind a dense fogbank of pungent smoke. The two of them sat there for some minutes as a sweet-smelling haze wandered around the little room before the door opened.
In walked a tall, long-limbed man with sleek, dark hair, and a mustache far more impressive than that of Avery Hallsworth. He looked to be in his mid-thirties and was very handsome. He was carrying a large, leather-bound book, which he set down on a table so he could shake hands with Cornelia.
"My name is Harold Ikonov, as I'm sure you probably know. It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Harper," he said graciously.
"The pleasure's mine," Cornelia returned cordially. They both seated themselves. Harold Ikonov turned to Hallsworth, an irritated expression on his face.
"Good God, man, would you put that blasted thing away? If you're intent on sending smoke signals to Cathay, then at least go outdoors to do it."
Hallsworth grunted, then reluctantly smothered his cigar in an ashtray.
"Now, Miss Harper," said Ikonov, directing his attention once again to Cornelia, "I'm assuming you're here because you received Professor Hallsworth's letter. Is that correct?"
Cornelia nodded. "You were in need of an airship pilot, I believe?"
"Indeed I was," said Ikonov. "You see, I'm attempting to assemble an expedition to search for some long-lost artifacts. Seeing as I don't quite know the full extent of where my journeys will take me, I thought it wise to hire an airship pilot. And so, Professor Hallsworth recommended you."
"And what exactly is it that you're looking for?" Cornelia asked. "It wasn't quite explained in the letter."
"No, it wasn't," said Ikonov, "and that was intentional. For now, I intend to keep this expedition covert . . . I don't want to have to deal with any of my competitors if they find out."
Ikonov lifted the book off of the table and Cornelia took a closer look at it. It looked old. It had a faded black leather cover, on which there might once have been a title that had long since disappeared.
"We're looking for something very special," said Ikonov. "It's a secret that has laid buried for hundreds of years. But a few months back, I discovered this book, the key to the whole puzzle. The Book of Daedalus."