by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
Serpina was quite a practiced liar, and practical joker. Her laugh, a shrill whinny, was playful yet dangerous. Lydia had to reassess her assumptions about the young woman. Nor was she very talkative, and often inobtrusive as if she could make herself invisible. Orphy, the python, was kept soporific on a steady diet of who knows what, Doctor Serre-Pain didn’t specify or explain after he had rushed into the cabin at Lydia’s scream and had once again soothed her nerves with his calm, hypnotic voiced assurances, gently patting the blood back to her cheeks. His disapproving frown had caused Serpina to pout and after a long deliberate silence to mutter a reluctant “sorry.” Lydia would not have to interact with the other snakes, Serre-Pain swore, with the exception of Orphy, and then only on briefly while they were at the festival.
The inspection official and two sinister looking men in black hats had roamed over the barge examining the cargo, and when they came into the cabin, stared wide eyed at her propped up in one of the bunks with the python wrapped over shoulders. Her terrified look might have suggested an otherwise haughty imperious annoyance at the intrusion. The station inspector apologized profusely, and the IOTA agents, not in the habit of showing deference to the general public, dropped their gazes awkwardly.
Once past the inspection station and well up the Loire River approaching Oldest Orleans, the doctor had Vlady bring in a big trunk into the cabin. She had not seen much of the large man on their journey up the river. He spent most of his time on the deck of the barge with Serre-Pain. In the light of day, without the bear suit. he was still an imposing figure with a thick mane of steely gray hair that hung down to his shoulders. His dark eyes seemed to laugh as did the large white beard punctuated by the red dot of an imbiber’s nose. There was something unsettlingly familiar about his manner toward her.
“We have to change your attire,” Serre-Pain was saying, “Your fashionable dress will make you stand out as a privileged Victoriate, especially where we are headed. In the trunk you will find clothing that might fit you and conceal your identity. Even if where we are going is technically outside of IOTA’s jurisdiction, they have spies and informers everywhere. It is important that we avoid any hint of suspicion.”
Serpina stood back as Lydia lifted the heavy lid. The blouses befitting a snake priestess were laid out in layered trays, billowy sleeved embroidered with flowers, birds, animals, and snakes. Colorful skirts, long tasseled and tiered, none of which she felt she could wear with any conviction. Nor was it bioweave but actual antique cotton and silk. And could she ever convince herself to don someone else’s underwear? Pulling away another tray, she uncovered on the bottom a pair of folded trousers much like Serpina was wearing, possibly wool by the feel of the material, and a robust rust fabric shirt with a wide collar, two items she thought she could live with. There were also several pairs of spangled gold slippers that didn’t appear to be made for walking.
She pulled her hand back quickly when she felt under them. And she looked closer with Serpina peering over her shoulder and drawing a breath. For a moment she thought that it might be another of Serpina’s tricks. Then she made out the sleeve and lapels. An overcoat. But one of snakeskin. Dark mottled scales outlined the sleeves, large turned back cuffs lined with dark blue satin, the three quarter length of the coat ending with a slight upturn at the skirt and fitted with large slant pockets. The row of ovoid buttons were of a faded amber. And Lydia recognized them. Orphy had an identical pair. Holding it out at arm’s length, the scales seemed to undulate, tricking the eye with their meandering pattern. The coat lining was also a dark blue satin. A faded label sewn beneath the rear collar read SA I E RO and spoke of its antiquity. “This is gorgeous!” Lydia exclaimed in spite of herself.
The yoke fit comfortably across her shoulders as she shrugged into the coat, the sleeves extending a little ways past her wrists, the hem, past her knees. She was surprised, expecting it to be heavier. Her hand in the right pocket extracted a heavy dark blue cotton scarf. The left pocket was empty although it was shaped as if some object had had a permanent residence there. Lydia pulled on the lapels pleased by the way the coat fit. She felt something hard nudge under her left breast. Inside she found the pocket and the narrow object protruding from it. Throwing open the coat she extracted a long ornate double blade stiletto.
Serpina nodded her head, looking at the gleaming blade admiringly. “The fangs,” she said.
The streets of Oldest Orleans were filled with rubble, dust, debris, and choking air. The Victorianasance Faire was held in arcades along the perimeter of Place D’Arc. Outside the walls of the old city, in Older Orleans, vapors from the bioturbines of the factories warped the air adding a gloomy orange pall over the rooftops and the refracted rainbow sparkles of larger particulates gleaming like minor stars. Serre-Pain always staged his performances at dusk when the shadows were long. One of the Medicine Show wagons converted to a stage with a proscenium. At the back behind a red velvet curtain was a narrow antique settee upon which she was obliged to lounge with the coils of Ophy across her shoulders for several excruciating minutes while she was introduced as the descendant of an ancient Minoan queen who was in possession of the secret recipe for an antivenom elixir. Once the pitch was made, Serre-Pain would begin his lecture on the fascinating history and myths of snakes, and the reason snakes were believed to be immortal. By then the curtain had come down and Serpina would come to get Orphy off her neck.
In the side closet Lydia changed out of her priestess garb and donned the snakeskin coat, wrapping the dark blue scarf around her head and over her nose, masking all but her eyes. She stepped down from the wagon and into the space behind where she saw Vlady getting into his Bear suit. He was just about to fit the head on when he turned and smiled at her with such childish mirth that she felt compelled to smile back. It was the sparkle of his eye. Once the costume was complete he maneuvered his prop, a large ball painted with serpents and moons, ready to make his entrance at Serre-Pain’s cue, and with amazing agility leapt to the top of the ball and rolled it with his feet to maintain a casual balance.
At the cheers from the crowd Lydia made her way out from behind the large ophidiarium on wheels that attested to Serre-Pain’s claim of herpetology and proof of his knowledge, like an old library full of old books. The crowds had thinned out further under the arcade where merchants had set up their wares, most everyone wearing a face covering, and some, goggles, against the silicate laden air. Serre-Pain had asked her not to go out in public unaccompanied by one of them. She would appear out of place and thereby attract attention. She was willing to chance it. She had friends who might be able to help her slip back to Sao Paulo. Even though The Empire of Brazil had an extradition treaty with the Clockwork Commonwealth, she doubted that the Emperor’s court would allow it over such a trivial matter as a Citizen of the World Order searching for her paternity. She would have to stay out of IOTA’s jurisdiction which would make her an exile from the world hub of Greater London. She would certainly not be allowed to pilot airships outside of the Empire’s zone of influence which spanned the southern hemisphere and the Atlantic to the inter desert zone of New Mali and Congola further south. She would no longer be an airship commander in the glamourous passenger fleets like Aerosud or Canamair. Most of the navair traffic in the Free Corridor of Cancer was freight and third class which meant much of the world’s poor and retched, refugees from the camps adjacent the dead regions and the encroaching tundra.
A loud noise startled her and she turned to seek it’s origin. A crowd had gathered in front of the stall from where the noise was emanating. She glanced over a shoulder at the edge of the gathering. She could see clearly a man standing in front of a square block of gray bioluminium that was vibrating to a low purr of its working. A propeller whirling at one end and a small tube emitting gray vapors at the other. She identified it immediately. An internal combustion engine. Icers. She didn’t know why she was surprised. Many nonaligned nations allowed the development of petrol powered engines despite the scarcity of the fuel. The Scarce Resources Treaty of Pax Victoriana 80 had banned oil as a fuel source, with the exception of lighting. The bacteria that had been released to eradicate the Black Mold infestation of Pax Victoriana 75 unfortunately had had the characteristics of a petrophage and rendered practically the entire oil reserves of the Northern Hemisphere to a watery nonvolatile solution of less than seven percent accelerant.
She shouldn’t have been surprised. The most standard motor source in the Commonwealth’s zones of influence was the bug drive, the bio repro engine that powered everything. The giant factories that produced the bacterial strains, or seeds, were the same ones that were polluting the skies above Oldest Orleans and stretched further north up the valley past the precincts of Old Orleans. The waste accumulated in piles, attaching itself to the lifeless sands of the devastated deadlands, was blown about in the atmosphere by fierce hyperborean winds. The giant windmills erected around the perimeter of the old city on biostyl stilts were not that effective at deflecting the bitter cold of the poisonous sand storms of the north.
The man in front of her stepped back unexpectedly and stepped onto her slippered foot. He glared at her as if it was her fault after she had pushed back. She apologized. No need to draw attention to herself. She quickly moved through the throngs and clots to the end of the arcade where it made another turn paralleling the edge of the square. She could see the orange bacsodium lights of the medicine show and Serre-Pain leading the faux bear in the open space in front of the wagon. Serpina was likely in the tiny dressing space behind the stage fitting into her snake costume. The young woman’s contribution to the entertainment was her hyperflexability. She could literally twine herself around herself, but mostly she slithered along the stage and up the wall and then provocatively curled around a projection overhanging the top of the stage at which time a red round object like an apple appeared in her mouth.
To this backdrop the snake doctor made his pitch. The little pamphlet he held high over his head contained the secrets of Madame Ophelia’s most famous recipes for making antivenom, revealed for the first time, which he offered for a meager sum but within the affordable range of most everyone in a crowd of people who were not particularly interested in reading. As a bonus he offered free of charge with the purchase of Madame Ophelia’s Secret Recipes, a sample bottle of one of her most potent antivenom elixirs.
After the entertainment ended and the crowds drifted away, the stretch of the Place D’Arc where the snake show had been held was littered with pamphlets but not one tiny bottle. Serpina had told her that the secret recipe’s ingredients were a local fruit distillate mixed with cayenne, the “dash of snake venom” Serre Pain claimed in his sales pitch.
Lydia look down to see a women pointing at her slippers. She had stopped in front of a footwear stall. Arrayed on neat shelves were a variety of sabots, some painted bright colors, others with intricate designs burned into the particulated nearwood. They were quite popular in Greater London where there was a strong artisan market and certain guilds and houses were recognized by name, their products highly sought after. Along with the display of shoes, apparently locally sourced, was a collection of boots. They attracted Lydia’s eye by their sturdy design, one pair reaching to calf length made of a stiff dark material, some kind of fauxhide. The boots had round pale buttons near the top and across the ankle. She was partial to that type of footwear, similar to the style she always wore but more rugged. She felt the dark material between her thumb and forefinger as the woman in the stall nodded approvingly. At first touch she realized that she had been mistaken. It was real leather, a forbidden pleasure as along with ivory and live animal pets, it had been banned by treaty among the states aligned with the CCCP, the Clockwork Commonwealth Cooperative Protocols that were at the foundation of the Pax Victoriana, hammered out over a hundred years ago. She fingered the buttons, tapping one with a fingernail. Bone, maybe ivory.
The woman nodded her head and spoke a single word in dialect, “O.” And again pointed at Lydia’s slippers seeming to infer how puny they were when compared to the rugged specimen Lydia was holding in her hand.
Lydia asked, “Is this real leather?”
The woman canted her head to one side as if making a calculation and then nodded. “Queer.”
Lydia understood the problem. She had assumed the woman spoke Standard. She’d come across these language gaps before. Often they could speak Standard but chose not to in resistance to contempt that World Standard had for their native language that was thousand years in the making while WS was an Anglo-Saxon based universal language only recently seeded over the breadth and width of the Victorian Empire.
“Do you speak Standard?” Lydia was casting a practiced eye over the foot of the boot and at the same time removing her right foot out from the slipper.
The woman in the stall held up her thumb and forefinger to indicate how little, shrugging her shoulders in the heavy blanket coat covering her stooped figure. She too had a scarf wrapped around her head and pulled across her nose. She made agreeable noises as Lydia pulled the boot up around her ankle.
“How much,” she asked, “How much do you want for these boots?”
Now it was Lydia’s turn to calculate. She shook her head. “How much? In Victorines.”
The woman showed her a faded piece of paper. The number 90 followed by three zeros was written on it, and slightly below, the letters nfr, meaning New Francs.
“All I have are Victorines. Is there somewhere I can exchange them for the local currency?”
The woman looked over Lydia’s shoulder and held up her hand to wave someone over. “Iceepyare!”
A young man in a beret, scarf slung below his wispy little chin beard and showing the beginnings of a moustache joined them. The woman rattled off something to the young man while pointing at Lydia, the young man nodding in understanding. Suddenly Lydia felt very conspicuous.
“I can help you with the exchange.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and retrieved a large mouchoir enveloping a sheaf of cash. “You wish to buy these boots it will cost you one hundred victorines not counting the exchange fee of ten percent.”
Lydia was astounded. She couldn’t believe her good luck. She had paid twice that much for her cold weather zipper boots and the workmanship had been shoddy. She tried to cover her elation by negotiating. “Ninety, but I’ll go as high as one hundred victorines to include your commission.”
The young man shrugged and turned to walk away, returning the cash to his pocket and revealing the dagger in the sheath at his waist. Lydia was reminded of the stiletto in her inside breast pocket. At the fringes of the civilized commonwealth a knife fight would not be unlikely.
The woman in the stall implored the departing banker. He stopped and looked over his shoulder at Lydia. He had read her.
She sighed and nodded her acquiescence. “Very well, one hundred and ten victorines.” She had a thousand victorines in her wallet. She was an easy mark when it came to footwear. And they fit perfectly as if they were made for her. She admired how nicely they suited her, the square stubby toe and sturdy utilitarian heel.
The woman in the stall was delighted to make such a big sale, shaking Lydia’s hand as did the young man congratulating her on her purchase. He looked at her closely.
“You are not from here. A guest of the Victoriannesance Festivities, perhaps?”
Lydia pointed across the square at the snake show. “I am with Doctor Serre-Pain.”
“Ah,” the young man raised his eyebrows, “The mysterious Madame Ophelia, am I correct?”
“At times,” Lydia admitted and at once realized that she might have revealed too much. She disengaged and moved swiftly away. She had acted frivolously and dallied too long. She was due back to the wagon for the finale of the snake show. Serre-Pain would raise the alarm and come looking for her.
Light spilled across her path from an alcove and she glimpsed the empty tables of a café from which emanated the sounds of Einstein’s first violin concerto, Relativity, her favorite, E in Minor C sharp. And it was the first thing in her flight from IOTA that beckoned to her with its familiarity. She found a table in a dark corner beneath some anti-IOTA graffiti, a common sentiment in the old city she had come to realize. It was time to consider her next step.
Having spent time in an Admiralty intelligence unit when she was stationed at the Commonwealth embassy in Houllas in the Republic of Texas, she knew that she would have to secure new papers if she were going to cross physical borders. And that she would have to avoid travelling by air. It would have to overland until she was safely out of the reach of IOTA. The Capricorn Free Corridor was her best bet. Surely there was someone in Older Orleans who could provide her with a passport that would escape detection, especially if she stayed off the main routes and avoided the busy checkpoints. The strains of the violin concerto had a soothing effect on her although at times she knew that it could also be quite stimulating. She closed her eyes for a moment, amusing herself with the fact that the President of the ISR, the Invincible Swiss Republic, was Albert III, the great grandson of the world famous musician. Unexpectedly her mental image changed, as often happens in reverie, to that of Vlady fitting the bear head onto his own and she realized then why he seemed so familiar to her. How could she had forgotten?
When she opened her eyes there were two uniformed men standing in front of her table. Their patches and canted berets identified them as local gendarmes. “Your papers, please,” the shorter one spoke.