The lights of the grand ballroom of Highcrest House were a constellation unto themselves. Each one hovered in the air just beneath the plaster dome of the ceiling, wavering slightly in the warm breeze that wafted in along the open northern portico, the hum of their propellers filling the room with a gentle sound, like waves crashing on distant shores. The crowd moving and murmuring beneath them was no less glamorous. Barons of industry, queens of science, the aspiring glitterati of the New South, hoping to catch a moment with the host of the party, and perhaps hitch their wagon to her rising star.
Miss Annabelle Hamilton moved through the crowds with practised ease. Though this event was not a Symposium of the Enlightened, there were several luminaries of that august body in attendance. Annabelle found it easiest to mix these events with regular social gatherings, both to show off her famous friends and to impress on the Covenant Peerage the influence she had in the New South. To keep her promise to Daddy, Annabelle needed to demonstrate the potential for greatness in the ruins of the Ore War.
“Miss Hamilton, you’ve certainly outdone yourself this time.” The voice came from over her shoulder. Annabelle turned, letting the crinoline hoops of her extensive dress swirl like a tornado. Cassius Haust and his assistant, the young and enigmatic Thomas Knox, approached. Cassius wore a light linen suit, but his forehead was still beaded in sweat, and dark stains spread ungraciously from his armpits. The Prussian Peer had never acclimated to the humid Alabama air, and never would.
“You are too kind, my dear Cassius,” Annabelle said. She snapped open her auto fan and set it blowing, offering just enough of a breeze to remind Cassius how miserable he was. “Mama always said a good party was no better than its worst guest, and I have gone to great lengths to invite only quality folk.” She laughed, a lilting sound that drew the attention of passersby. “It’s not difficult, with such fine friends as you and young Knox, here.”
“Yes, well,” Cassius brushed off the compliment. His opinion was critical in her ambitions, Annabelle knew, and he was far too stiff to be swayed by pretty words. Still, she had to try. “Tell me something of these lights. An ostentatious use of RJ, don’t you think?”
“It would be,” she answered. “But these depend on our favourite prodigal, Mr Tesla. The engine runs on his arc coil technology, as quiet as it is powerful. The light is merely waste energy.”
“Ingenious. But how do your friends feel about having Nikolai’s devices hovering over their heads? Surely there’s some bitterness lingering from the recent unpleasantness?”
Annabelle kept her smile stiff and her eyes bright. Nikolai’s devices, as Cassius so casually called them, had been instrumental in the Confederacy’s defeat. Even Daddy had died in the light of Tesla’s genius.
“Wars end, Mr Haust,” she said lightly. “We must go on.”
“Indeed they do,” Cassius said. His gaze was drawn to the lights above, so Annabelle took the opportunity to scan the room for her next conversation. A dozen dignitaries hovered on the periphery of her attention, obviously waiting to introduce themselves. A handsome Union captain, part of the Garrison in Huntsville, stood at rapt attention nearby. She hoped to build her Complex on the outskirts of the town, should her request for the necessary resources find a benefactor, so ingratiating herself with the local garrison was necessary, if distasteful. She was about to dismiss Cassius and turn her attention to the captain when a shadowy figure caught her eye. A strange place to see such a familiar face.
“You will have to share the blueprints with me, Miss Hamilton,” Cassius said. “They speak well of your ingenuity and should—”
“I will have them to you in the morning, Mr Haust. Now, if you’ll pardon me.” Annabelle brushed Cassius aside. The Union captain raised his brows, obviously hoping to be next, but she had to disappoint him. The shadowy figure was gone, but Annabelle knew where he would be. She turned and cut a path through the crowd.
Her father’s study was just off the ballroom, tucked behind two solid pocket doors, with a private balcony that overlooked Highcrest House’s extensive gardens. Shadows swathed the bookshelves, the only light coming from the open french doors. The sound of cicadas filled the room. Annabelle stepped inside, secured the doors, then flicked on a light.
The man leaning in the corner of the room looked completely out of place. His high collared shirt and tight jacket barely passed muster for the formal occasion, and his rough hands and haggard face told the story of a much rougher life. A single scar wrinkled his left cheek, and his eyes burned with anger.
But, if you took away the scar, the years of wear and tear, the weight of a war lost and a father murdered… if you took those things away, the man’s face was a mirror image of Annabelle’s. She just wore tragedy better and sought her revenge by different paths.
“Benjamin,” she said formally. “I’m surprised to see you here. On the job, I take it?”
“You mixing with bluejackets now, Anna?” the man said. His voice was low and soft, but it hummed with the potential for violence. “In this house? They in your bed, too?”
“Daddy would have your tongue for talking to me like that,” Annabelle said, straightening her back and letting a little fury into her words. “Especially in this room.”
“You don’t get to talk about our father, sis. Not while you’re throwing galas for his murderers.” Ben pushed off from the wall and loped toward her. “That man out there? The one with the pretty little captain’s bars on his collar? That man was at Richmond. Led a cavalry charge that earned him a commendation, and got fifty of my men killed. He put homes to the torch, and mothers to the sword.”
“And now he’s someone I need to know, brother.” He was trying to push past her, but Annabelle put her hands flat against his chest. Ben’s heart was going like a locomotive. “Ben, listen to me. Listen. You fight your war. I fight mine. You know that.”
He paused, eyes burning a hole in the closed study doors. Finally, he glanced down at her, and the tension went out of him, like a candle snuffing out. He released a long, unsteady breath.
“I know. I know. It’s just…” he turned and went back to their father’s desk, sitting on the leather surface. His face was so tired. It twisted her heart to see him like this. “It’s a hard fight, Anna. And it ain’t getting easier.”
“No, it is not. But the good fights never do.” She crossed and put a hand on his shoulder. “But we must go on. Daddy would expect nothing less of us.”
“Pa’s dead,” Ben answered.
They stood in silence with that for a while. A wave of laughter erupted from the ballroom behind them, interrupting their reverie. Annabelle stirred first.
“How is the old warhorse? Still mucking about in caves, breathing revolution into the ears of earnest young patriots?” she asked. She tried a smile, hoping to break his mood. “You could do just as well here, you know. There’s no need to come down with consumption just to prove how loyal you are.”
“The General is doing well. Better than he has any right to be,” Ben said. “It’s slow going, but the ranks are filling. Honest kids, angry about their dead parents. Angrier about Grant’s treatment of the survivors. The Union does most of our recruiting for us.”
“They always do. Any word on Lee?”
“Retired. War broke him. We keep sending letters, but…” he shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe someday. That doctor cousin of his I hear has fared no better in drawing him out. Don’t know why you keep that sawbones around. ”
“Wendell has his uses, brother of mine. Tell me…” Annabelle’s voice trailed off. She cocked her head toward the open balcony doors. Ben’s face perked up. He started to turn toward the doors, but she stopped him, putting a finger to her ruby lips. “Tell me about your supplies. How many months of food do you have? How many guns?”
“You know that’s classif—” Annabelle shot him an angry look, and he cleared his throat. “Guns aren’t the problem. We have more rifles than warm hands to carry them, even with the new recruits. Where we come up short is juice.”
“And that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To see if your Enlightened sister can point the way to an arsenal. Some nice barrels of RJ to juice your rifles, yes?” Annabelle moved as she talked, eyes locked on the balcony. She slid to Ben’s left and worked the lock on a small box, opening it without a sound. Two revolvers lay inside, crossed at the trigger guard, their long barrels stamped with Audemus jura nostra, defendere. We dare defend our rights, the motto of Alabama. These were Leech and Rigdon model 1851s, Georgia made and Confederacy issued. Her father’s pistols. The guns he had surrendered on the day he died. Annabelle picked up one of the revolvers and aimed it at the door. “Of course, I can provide you with RJ-1027, Benjamin. We’ll be whistling Dixie again in no time.” She said, more loudly than before.
“Treacherous bitch!” The voice came from outside. A blackened silhouette loomed out of the darkness, the glint of steel in its hands. He wore dark leather and was carrying an assassin’s dagger. “Your conspiracy is revealed, Miss…” his voice trailed off as his eyes focused on the gun pointed at his head. “Oh. Now, let’s not be hasty—”
“You, sir, do not have an invitation,” Annabelle said. The crack of the pistol filled the room. A black dot opened in the middle of the assassin’s forehead, quickly flowing with blood. The man staggered backwards. His thighs hit the railing and he cartwheeled back over the side of the porch and disappeared silently into the shrubbery below.
Absolute silence followed. Conversation in the adjoining ballroom had come to a complete halt. Annabelle nodded to the patio. Ben vaulted the desk and disappeared outside, hiding to the side of the open french doors.
The study doors flew open. The fine Union captain, flanked by Cassius Haust and the young Knox, rushed into the room. Annabelle let the pistol drop and turned toward them curiously.
“Gentlemen?” she asked. “How may I help you?”
“We heard… there was shot!” the captain exclaimed. “Are you alright, my lady?”
“Of course. Just some target practice. I thought I saw a bluebird in the bushes,” she said. Annabelle cranked the cartridge open, dropping the empty shell into her hand and reloading the single shot. She spun the cylinder then slapped the revolver closed. “Must have been mistaken. I’m sorry if I startled you, gentlemen. I assure you, all is well.”
She smiled prettily at them for a few moments, until they understood that they had been dismissed. The three men slowly backed out of the room and closed the door. A few moments later the buzz of conversation and gentle music resumed. Annabelle returned her father’s pistol to its case, closing and locking the box. She strolled to the patio. Ben huddled beside the door, pistol in hand, held close to his belly.
“There’s no need for that, brother dear,” she whispered. “Though they may still be listening. Donovan will help you take care of our friend?”
“No need for your hulking houseboy, I’ve men in the garden,” he answered. “We’ll get rid of the body.”
“Good. And we will speak later about the juice. There have been some interesting developments coming out of Carpathian’s Warcradle, even as the west falls into chaos. If you can spare the men, it might be worth sending some operatives there.” She glanced back at the study doors and, assured that they were alone, turned to her brother. “Ben, please be safe. We only have each other now.”
Ben thumbed towards the ballroom “So tread carefully in that bed of snakes in there.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, then hopped over the banister. At the patio’s edge, he paused. “I wouldn’t trade places with you for the world, Anna.”
“We all fight our own wars, Ben. Now hurry. I’m sure that captain will be curious, and he has his own men in the area to command. You wouldn’t want to run into any of them.”
Ben nodded and slid down into the darkness below. There was some rustling, and then silence. The ratcheting song of cicadas returned to fill the night.
Annabelle took a deep breath, then smoothed out her dress and went back into the study.
She had a future to win.