Authors: Anna Butler
5032 Capital Circle SW, Suite 2, PMB# 279, Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886 USA
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of author imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The Gilded Scarab
© 2015 Anna Butler.
© 2015 Reese Dante.
© 2015 Margaret Warner.
Cover content is for illustrative purposes only and any person depicted on the cover is a model.
All rights reserved. This book is licensed to the original purchaser only. Duplication or distribution via any means is illegal and a violation of international copyright law, subject to criminal prosecution and upon conviction, fines, and/or imprisonment. Any eBook format cannot be legally loaned or given to others. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact Dreamspinner Press, 5032 Capital Circle SW, Suite 2, PMB# 279, Tallahassee, FL 32305-7886, USA, or http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com/.
Digital ISBN: 978-1-63216-773-6
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014953648
First Edition February 2015
Printed in the United States of America
This paper meets the requirements of
ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).
For Nan, Shelley, Sally, and Claire, without whom Rafe’s smile wouldn’t be so charming and his voice wouldn’t be nearly so clear.
asks how my life came to take such a sharp and unexpected turn—and they do ask, because people are insatiably nosy—they get my most charming smile. I know it’s charming because I practice it every morning in my shaving mirror. It’s devastating.
It’s even better without the shaving soap.
The short answer is “I crashed one of the old Queen’s aerofighters into the African veldt, fighting the Boers.”
The timing is the most important thing. Wait a heartbeat, savor a mouthful of the best coffee in Londinium while they absorb that, and as their mouths open to ask more questions, drop in the next line.
I put a little gap between the syllables so they can’t miss it. Koffie—pause—fontein.
Some of them laugh. The clever ones, the ones who see the delicious irony when they think about how my life changed. How I changed. Not all of them do. Most people are… how shall I put this? Not the brightest lucifer in the box. It takes them a few minutes to understand before they snigger and nudge their companion with a “Koffie! Like coffee, see. One of them Boer places, likely. Coffee fountain or some such. That’s rich!”
No. Definitely not the brightest.
I saw the irony at once, though. Given my life since then, it had to be some sort of divine joke, a little prod to the ribs from the Almighty. “Wake up, Rafe Lancaster, and pay attention! Change is coming.”
It was a sign, of sorts. The first step into a new life when the old one was taken from me, sending me in the right direction—the crash at Koffiefontein, selling my mother’s jewels, reopening relations with my House, and yes, even the scarab. All of those things came into play.
Mostly it was luck. The famous Lancaster luck. They should name things after it. Ships, or aerofighters.
Or perhaps a racehorse.
1899, I was more formally known to Her Britannic Majesty’s Imperial Aero Corps as Captain R. J. Lancaster, squadron leader. I was based on the
, the biggest aero-dreadnought in the Corps. A prestigious posting, of course, but then I was the best aeronaut the Queen had.
Bar none. Not the most modest, I grant you. Merely the best.
That autumn we were in action over the Orange Free State in what the newspapers liked to call the Boer War. It wasn’t a fully fledged war with big staged battles like Waterloo, but attack-and-run raids from the Boers, with Her Majesty’s forces involved in short, scrappy fights to stop them. In my case, it involved leading my squadron of biwinged aerofighters to swoop down over the veldt to get the rebels to break off their attacks on an Imperium Army column, say, or an English-owned farm, or the railway line to the coast.
I had flown dozens of missions where small fast aerofighters dive over the enemy at only a few hundred feet and a hundred miles an hour, firing phlogiston-filled rockets or dropping bombs. Disconcerting for the people on the ground, I expect. It stood to reason they weren’t going to take a bombardment lying down.
The Boers had smuggled arms shipments though Germany and the Americas. They had cannons. Not popguns, but real laser-guided cannons, throwing out flechettes filled with phlogiston in a mercurial mix with aether and petroleum distillate. They didn’t hit very much, of course. To hit something moving as fast as an aerofighter takes skill and training. But they were enthusiastic about trying, and, heaven knows, tearing around the sky and throwing my ship into one maneuver after another while flechettes flashed past or exploded in a shower of sapphire and olive green sparks, was thrilling. Like flying through fireworks. Sometimes I had the little fighter standing on her nose or flipped over and flying upside down. Pure exhilaration.
But that particular day was a little too exhilarating. I’d dodged through one barrage, dropping a charge right on the heads of a gun emplacement, when another artillery unit got in a lucky shot. The shell glanced against the side of the aether chamber powering my fighter and cracked it open, sending me spinning out of the sky.
I had no warning. A loud bang, a flash of light, and the rudder wheel jerked out of my hands. The ship plummeted, venting aether and steam. I had been an aeronaut for almost ten years, but all my experience and skill didn’t prevent that instant where a man is too dazed and astonished to do anything but react. I yelled something most definitely unfit for the ears of the ladies, and my heart felt as if it were jumping right out of my chest.
Shock—it happens to the best of us.
It barely lasted a second. I grabbed the wheel and fought to get her nose up and keep it there.
Up you come. Up you damn well come!
The Lancaster luck was still with me. The laser shell hadn’t touched the petroleum distillate tanks or the phlogiston augmenter pipes. A little more of the famous luck… and yes! Just enough power in the pipes to trickle through to the engines. I’d get out of this mess. It might be a tight squeeze, but I’d get out of it.
As soon as I got her level again, I pulled in a big calming breath and got her limping back south on half-power. I wish I could say I straightened my shoulders and stared out of the cockpit window with the unwavering gaze, set chin, and steely resolve the illustrated newspapers employ to depict their heroes. But the truth is, I slumped in the seat and rested my head against the control panel while indulging in some heartfelt and inventive profanity. Very inventive profanity, if I do say so myself. Oddly, my breathing was hard and fast. Anyone hearing it would have thought I’d been running.
But there wasn’t time to indulge myself for long. I had to find somewhere to set the bird down, away from the Boers and close to help, before she fell out of the sky. I had to keep an eye on the instruments, of course, to make sure the phlogiston didn’t dip below the red line—that would mean serious, serious trouble—but mostly I stared out through the transparent aluminum canopy, searching the terrain ahead for somewhere safe to land.