Johannes Bocanegra entered the city of London on New Year’s Eve, 1891, dragging the lifeless head of the Fasolt dragon behind him. It went without saying that Victoria would never grant him an audience, public or otherwise, but it was rumored —and the The Daily Telegraph ran an article on this— that Salisbury paid a clandestine visit to the elusive hunter’s manor on King’s Road. Of course, that week’s Punch cartoon was of the lion-headed Prime Minister and the bear-like Bocanegra meeting in a shadowy room crowded with the stuffed heads of hyppogriffins, unicorns and the Ramadan Butterfly. There were rumours, as well, of none other than Emma Calvé, the famous diva, spending her nights at Bocanegra’s house. They were certainly seen together attending a play at St. James Theatre some days later. Other people in the know, however, stated that Emma Calvé was just fronting for her friend Lily Langtry who had been carrying an illicit affair everyone in London society was aware of with the mysterious Bocanegra for some years now.
In any case, what was most memorable, perhaps, was Johannes Bocanegra’s exit from London a week later, under a rain of heavy metal.
The Essex Ironclads.
* * *
Nathaniel Wessex had lost his epic wager with Lord Essex and thus forfeited his claim on Victoria’s London. Present that night had been the elderly Thomas Henry Huxley, who’d been playing baccarat with an unnamed fellow from the Royal Society. Both had little choice but to serve as witnesses. Lord Essex, a Radical Whig who had always gone about achieving new reforms in queer fashion saw this as a golden opportunity. The mages of Lord Essex’s circle were piloting the mammoth vehicles as they descended like cannonballs from the sky. An army of roaring, smoke-belching titans, these invincible steel beasts marched up to the Thames’ southern shore. Vast skeletons of industrial materials, arms and knees bending on oiled iron hinges. They clattered and clanged as they advanced, buildings crumbling like so much dust in their path, rows of pipes and valves set on their shoulder pads steaming and whistling all along. The very streets shuddered with every step of these mechanical juggernauts, the air humming monotonously with the noise of their powerful coal boilers and the air pumps struggling to keep their structures cool. A very young Beardsley was one of the few brave souls who stayed behind and witnessed firsthand the catastrophic effects on the city south of the Thames. His series of pen-and-ink illustrations survived the subsequent editorial purges, considered the wild ravings of an opium addict, and would influence the souls of men years after the fact.
Bocanegra had chosen the strategy of subterfuge in dealing with the Essex Ironclads, but Original Adam decided instead to face them directly so he decided to summon the Pantheon in order that they would fulfill the last of Victoria’s three wishes.
* * *
Victoria’s first wish, of course, was to have his beloved Albert back. It had taken Original Adam’s father —the Queen’s Champion— most of a day to kill the resurrected Prince Consort. The Queen’s second wish had been the Black Orchid which had saved Prince Albert Edward’s life a decade ago by sacrificing John Brown. Victoria had wished to herself never to live long enough to ask the Pantheon her last wish.
It had ruined Elizabeth’s life almost three hundred years ago.
* * *
It was Captain Nigel Victory himself, the hero of Rorke’s Drift and the relief of Lucknow, in his spotless red-coated uniform from the 5th Lancers, who was charged to ask the Pantheon Victoria’s last boon. He was one of the select few to know his way around the maze of corridors in this hidden wing of Windsor Castle. The perspectives were intentionally deceitful, seeming to converge before they actually did. They appeared not to lead anywhere, or to slant dangerously at impossible angles. Captain Victory was also one of the chosen few to know this was no optic trick. Indeed, where Captain Victory had been walking along the last corridor he was now marching the length of its left wall.
Which was the least perplexing fact once he knocked on the door and the silver light enveloped him.
* * *
The Pantheon’s number was impossible to tell. Victory could swear, though, that despite some of them popping out of nowhere behind his shoulder now and then, or certain unfamiliar voices answering his questions coming out of some unseen participant, that he’d only had to deal with three of the Pantheon’s members.
Their skin glimmered like polished silver, Victory’s mustached reflection rippling across their argent anatomies. The one with the winged helmet grinned wolfishly at him and Victory could not help but smile himself like an idiot. He repressed a sudden shudder as the glorious creature caressed his chin with his liquid cold fingers. It was the improbably tall woman, in fact, with her sculpted patrician features and her long flowing quicksilver robes and her cascading silver tresses, who asked him for the Queen’s last wish.
“Destroy the Essex Ironclads,” had said a besotted Captain Victory, who had once resisted the alluring charms of the Rani of Jhansi during the Sepoy Mutiny.
The young man in the short underpants and the laurel crown rolled his mirrored eyes and hovered behind his sibling with the winged helmet. The unearthly creatures seemed to be swimming through the silver light around them, their bright bodies melding and blending with it, and they sometimes vanished from Victory’s sight as if ducking behind the folds of light. They did not give the impression of slowness, but rather of perfect, fluid motions.
Gracefully, then, the trio danced around Captain Victory and denied Victoria her third and final wish.
* * *
Original Adam did not give up that easily. He’d stopped long ago trying to decipher the Pantheon’s fickleness, and whether or not Essex had something to do with it this time troubled his mind for only the briefest span of time. And so, as the metal behemoths marched across the burning Thames he had gone to Cheapside, within easy listening distance of the Ironclads’ guns, to see the Laughing Man. There, in the unlit ruins of some Whitechapel basement had the meeting taken place. Forgotten were past enmities. The Laughing Man listened to Original Adam’s plea while sipping from a glass of absinthe. In the darkness, little could be seen of the rich black skin of his face behind the tattered Guy Fawkes mask. The Laughing Man had giggled midway through Original Adam’s speech, and was cackling hysterically by the time he was done.
“Yes,” he had hissed, tears streaking down his scarred eyes.
Flustered, Original Adam had abandoned the dilapidated house under the mocking eyes of Somerset Helen.
* * *
Somerset Helen led the hysterical Laughing Man as they stalked across London’s rooftops towards the burning horizon on the south and the walking dreadnoughts. The militia had set a line of searchlights, powered by huge jets of gas, which sent bright streams into the troubled sky, illuminating the giants from below and giving them an even more ominous appearance. The Sappers from the Royal Engineers had mounted a number of fortifications along the river’s north shore, but clearly they wouldn’t withstand the unstoppable onslaught for long.
She was certain Original Adam’s spies were watching them all along as much as she was sure Original Adam himself would not debase his own stature doing the watching on his own. Years ago, after both young men had finished Eton, she had chosen Seth, the Laughing Man, over Adam. He had never forgiven her, of course, the silly old boy, replacing her instead with his idealized image and perception of Victoria Regina herself. Helen and Seth had been left to their own devices. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
That dark January night they would both face the Essex Ironclads on their own.
With Johannes Bocanegra close behind them.
* * *
The Laughing Man, wrapped in his ragged bandages, their loose ends flapping wildly in the cold London winds, crouched behind a brick canopy, his bone-thin arm draped around it, and glared at the advancing mechanized giants. He rocked back and forth slowly, humming tunelessly.
Somerset stood behind him, took a deep breath under her stiff crinoline corset and raised her staff.
Bocanegra set her on his sights, testing the rifle, then aimed at the back of the Laughing Man’s head.
He started to squeeze the trigger…
…and Somerset stood before him, though she’d been standing a dozen rooftops away. Her spinning staff flashed as she struck him down. It moved so fast it was as if she was wielding several staffs and not one when she hit him again. And again. But Johannes Bocanegra, conqueror of the Nile, Governor of Ceylon’s sunken heights, could not be overcome by one such as her. The butt of his rifle splintered as it hit her jaw. The tips of his spiked gloves tasted warm red as they made contact with the soft flesh below her left eye.
It was only Nicholas London’s –and his cadre of Dee Cardinals’– intervention which saved her life. Long had they hunted her and her insane master, but now it was their task to protect her.
The Laughing Man, meanwhile, ignored them all while his gaze remained fixed on the carnage across the river. He jerked once, and his eyes glazed behind his mask. He lurched forward, his feet still planted on the roof, and his eyes whipped up until only their white showed. “Londinium!” he hissed, and leaped into the fray.
* * *
The man darted from rooftop to rooftop, the chimneyscape of London, as if borne on the gusting drafts combing the cool English night. Gracefully, he landed on the head of the first of the Ironclads. He raised his left knee theatrically and stood on the tip of his toes until he had the attention of all of the invading machines. The Laughing Man lowered his knee slowly, gave a curt bow, and jumped to the nearest Ironclad, his long legs extended forwards and backwards as if he was executing a macabre aerial ballet of his own.
The man moved so fast from monster to monster it was as if he wavered in and out of space. As he landed on the next Ironclad he lassoed its neck with a coil of his own bandages. When the iron colossus lurched forward, the Laughing Man rode it like a bucking bronco. And then the man leaped forward, swinging around on its strip of bandage until his feet were against the giant’s face. The mage-pilot looked, startled, straight into the grinning mask of the madman blocking his view.
The Laughing Man removed his mask.
The pilot’s mind was snatched by the hideous sight, his hands on the controls growing limp. The Laughing Man thrust his tongue forward, mocking the warlock’s entranced expression. He laughed even harder as he saw the mage’s entire body relax and his wide-open eyes dim and go out. And then the man snapped back to attention and his arms swung right and left, making the huge mechanical arms punch at the nearest Ironclads. He kicked with his legs like a spastic, sending his own Ironclad on a collision course with yet another of its armored siblings. All along the Laughing Man shrieked like crazy, still straddling the mindless machine like an American cowboy, his right arm flailing back and forth while his other held tight to the bandage snaring its neck, his black cape flying back on the winds revealing his emaciated figure. The Laughing Man leaped from head to head until all the guns on the Ironclads were firing at him, some of them hitting each other, the sky growing darker with the smoke.
The fires roaring unchecked from South London’s burning buildings and the dying Ironclads silhouetted him black against London’s full moon for one glorious instant. Those witnesses who managed to stare up into the night at that precise moment blinked once, then realized there was no one there…
…Just the hulking constructs coming to a stop.
* * *
The Ironclads which survived the first strike did so by surrendering to London’s armed forces. Nicholas London’s armed forces. By the end of the week they were marching down the green fields of Essex. They said the fires could be seen all the way to Cherbourg that night. Lord Essex managed to escape and find asylum in Nathaniel Wessex’s court. He quickly became a pawn and hostage in the young man’s political intrigues. It was Original Adam himself who negotiated his ransom and release and who escorted him back, in chains and a gilded cage, to London and the waiting Victoria.
The Daily Telegraph dedicated some indifferent columns to his arrival, completely unaware of his involvement in the recent war. Indeed, it was unanimously decided to hush the whole sordid affair.
The appointment of Nathaniel Wessex as new Admiral of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy drew more space and raised eyebrows. Johannes Bocanegra’s leading of an expedition of Dee Cardinals into Equatoria on Eastern Africa barely received any mention save by the savvy gossip-lovers who whispered outraged that Nicholas London kept strange bedfellows these days indeed.
Once upon a time in Victorian England.