Blameless (Parasol Protectorate #3)

4,416
07.03.2019

“Agreed,” said Madame Lefoux.

The next round of fire was not nearly so close.

Soon they were too high up to be seen from the road below, even by that deadly swiveling gun. Also, the four-in-hand was even less able than the fly to handle off-road terrain. There came a good deal of shouting, probably the drones and the cab driver yel ing at each other, but Alexia knew it was only a matter of time before the young men left their precious Nordenfelt behind and took to the ground in pursuit. At which point, she was at a distinct disadvantage with her heavy unbustled skirts dragging through the snow.

As they neared the cable rail, one of the laden cars came heading downward toward them. Of course the darn thing was going in the wrong direction, back into France, but it stil might provide some limited refuge. The three made it, final y, to the support pole. It was furnished with flimsy-looking metal rungs, intended to be used for emergency evacuation or repair.

Floote seemed to be taking stock of their situation like some extremely dapper Roman general. “Madame Lefoux’s dart emitter is the fastest weapon we have, madam.”

“Good point, Floote. Genevieve, please guard the base while Floote and I climb.”

The Frenchwoman nodded, looking fierce.

Alexia hated to leave her alone, but there was no other option. She hoisted her muddy skirts over one arm. well , Paris had already seen them; she might as well show the rest of France her bloomers.

Floote and she climbed the post.

Floote paused on the smal platform at the top, put down the dispatch case, and crouched to fire downward with a derringer, reloading and firing each gun in turn until he was out of ammunition, while Madame Lefoux climbed up behind them. Meanwhile, Alexia aimed her parasol at the approaching rail cabin. She could see the startled face of a driver in the window. She ful y understood his confusion. She must present quite the lunatic picture—a statuesque Italian woman dressed English-style in a gown gone well beyond grubby, hair wild, and hat askew, pointing an ugly parasol at his large mechanical transport in a threatening manner.

Just as the front of the cabin drew level with the platform, Alexia pul ed back on a protruding carved lotus petal in the handle of her parasol. The magnetic disruption emitter sent off its silent but deadly signal and the rail car jerked to a halt.

Inside the cable compartment, Alexia could see the engineer yel ing at her in confusion. Behind her on the platform, she heard Madame Lefoux screaming obscenities in French, and the drones, now climbing up the support pole after them, were also shouting.

She turned to see if she could help her companions in any way. The infant-inconvenience kicked an objection to al her recent exertions, but Alexia disregarded it with an internal, Pack it in, proto-nuisance. Time for that later.

One of the drones now had Madame Lefoux by the boot. She was kicking at him while simultaneously attempting to climb the last handbreadth up onto the platform.

Floote, final y out of bul ets, was pul ing at the Frenchwoman’s shoulders in an attempt to assist.

Alexia, thinking quickly, opened and flipped her parasol. As swiftly as possible, she turned the special inset dial in the parasol’s tip around to its alternate setting. Holding the parasol far out over the edge of the platform, Alexia rained a mixture of lapis lunearis and water down onto the young men climbing after them.

Dilute silver nitrate was designed for werewolves, not humans, and usual y had no more disturbing a result on daylight folk than skin discoloration. But since the gentlemen in question were looking up, it had the beneficial effect of hitting the eyebal s and causing al to let go in startlement. The resulting screams may have been because they were fal ing, or perhaps they were the result of the chemical sting, but, as it ended with the drones writhing in the snow far below, Alexia considered the maneuver an unqualified success. Included among the writhers was the man who had had hold of Madame Lefoux’s boot. He stil had her boot, but Madame Lefoux was able to attain the top of the platform with a look of profound relief on her pretty face.

The three of them dashed to the rail cabin. Floote overrode the driver’s objection to their presence by smashing in the front window with Alexia’s dispatch case, climbing inside, and punching the poor man hard in the jaw. He fel like a stone, and his stoker, a slight, reedy boy with wide, anxious eyes, meekly acquiesced to their demands.

No one else was on board.

Alexia ripped off her bustle fal , tore the length into strips, and handed them to Floote.

He showed remarkable dexterity and mastery of knot work, trussing up the boy and his unconscious supervisor with ease.

“You do that quite efficiently, don’t you, Floote?” commented Alexia.

“Wel , madam, being valet to Mr. Tarabotti had its advantages.”

“Genevieve, can you drive this contraption?” Alexia asked.

“I only worked on the initial schematics, but if you can stoke the boiler, I wil figure it out.”

“Done!” Alexia thought stoking couldn’t be that difficult.

Soon enough, the effects of the magnetic disruption emitter wore off, and the massive steam engine in the center of the cabin rumbled back to life. The cabin was designed with a windowed steering area at either end so that the car did not itself turn around. Instead, the engineer merely shifted position in order to drive in the opposite direction.

Madame Lefoux, after a quick review of the controls, pul ed down on a massive lever at one end of the lurching cabin and then dashed to the other end, pul ing a similar lever up.

An alarmingly loud horn sounded, and the contraption, cabin, and massive hanging net of lumber down below began moving backward in the direction it had come, up the mountain once again.

Alexia let out a little cheer of encouragement.

Floote finished trussing up their two prisoners. “I do apologize, sirs,” he said to them in English, which they probably didn’t understand.

Alexia smiled to herself and kept stoking. Poor Floote, this whole escape was rather beneath his dignity.

Stoking was hot work, and Alexia was beginning to feel the strain of having dashed across rough terrain and then climbed a pylon. She was, as Ivy had once scornful y pointed out, a bit of a sporting young lady. But one would have to be positively Olympian to survive the past three days without some physical taxation. She supposed the infant-inconvenience might also have something to do with her exhaustion. But never having run while pregnant, she did not know quite who to blame—embryo or vampires.

Madame Lefoux was leaping about the end of the cable cabin, pul ing levers and twisting dials maniacal y, and the rail contraption lurched forward in response to her ministrations, moving from a sedate step-by-step crawl to a kind of swaying shambling run.

“Are you certain this thing can take this kind of speed with a load?” Alexia yel ed from her self-prescribed stoker’s post.

“No!” Madame Lefoux hol ered cheerful y back. “I am attempting to deduce how to set loose the cargo straps and net, but there seems to be a safety override preventing a drop while in motion. Give me a moment.”

Floote pointed out the front window. “I do not think we have that long, madam.”

Alexia and Madame Lefoux both looked up from what they were doing.

Madame Lefoux swore.

Another loaded cart was coming down the cables toward them. It was crawling along at a sedate pace, but it seemed to be looming very fast. While one cabin could climb over another, they were not designed to do so while stil lugging a net ful of lumber.

“Now would be a very good time to figure out a drop,” suggested Alexia.

Madame Lefoux looked frantical y underneath the control board.

Alexia thought of a different tactic. She ran over to the other end of the cabin.

“How do I cut the cargo free?” she spoke in French and leaned close in to the frightened young stoker boy. “Quickly!”

The boy pointed in silent fear at a lever off to one side of the steam engine, separated from both sets of steering controls.

“I think I have it!” Alexia dove for the knob.

At the same time, Madame Lefoux began an even more frantic dance about the steering area, employing a complex series of dial-cycling and handle-pul ing that Alexia could only assume would al ow their cabin to climb over the other heading toward them.

They were close enough now that they could see the frightened gesticulations of the driver through the window of the other cable cabin.

Alexia pul ed down on the freight-release lever with al her might.

The overrides screamed in protest.

Floote came over to help her, and together they managed to muscle it down.

Their rail car shuddered once, and seconds later they heard a loud crash and multiple thuds as the load of lumber fel down to the mountain below. Mere moments after that, there was a lurch as their cabin climbed its buglike way over the oncoming coach, swaying in a most alarming fashion from side to side, ending with one additional shudder as it settled back onto the rails on the other side.

They did not have much time to appreciate their victory, for the pinging sound of bul ets on metal heralded the return of their pursuers.

Floote ran to look out a side window. “Revolvers, madam. They’re pacing us by foot.”

“Doesn’t this thing go any faster?” Alexia asked Madame Lefoux.

“Not that I can make it.” The Frenchwoman issued Alexia a demonic dimpled grin.

“We shal just have to take the cable as far as it goes and then run for the border.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

The grin only widened. Alexia was beginning to suspect Madame Lefoux of being a rather reckless young woman.

“Italy makes for a strange refuge, madam.” Floote sounded almost philosophical. He began a stately tour of the interior of the carrier, looking for any loose objects that might serve as projectile weaponry.

“You do not like Italy, do you, Floote?”

“Beautiful country, madam.”

“Oh?”

“It took Mr. Tarabotti quite a bit of bother to extract himself. He had to marry an Englishwoman in the end.”

“My mother? I can’t think of a worse fate.”

“Precisely, madam.” Floote used a large wrench to break one of the side windows and stuck his head out. He received a near miss from a bul et for his pains.

“What exactly was he extracting himself from, Floote?”

“The past.” Hoisting some kind of large metal tool, Floote chucked it hopeful y out the window. There was a cry of alarm from below, and the young men drew slightly back, out of detritus range.

“Shame we did not eliminate any of them when we dropped the lumber.”

“Indeed, madam.”

“What past, Floote?” Alexia pressed.

“A not very nice one, madam.”

Alexia huffed in frustration. “Did anyone ever tel you, you are entirely insufferable?”

Alexia went to shove more coal into the stoke hole.

“Frequently, madam.” Floote waited for the men to gain courage and catch up again, and then threw a few more items out the window. Floote and the drones proceeded in this vein for about a half hour while the sun set slowly, turning the trees to long shadows and the snow to gray. A ful moon rose up above the mountaintops.

“End of the cable just ahead.” Madame Lefoux gestured briefly with one hand before returning it to the controls.

Alexia left off stoking and went to the front to see what their dismount looked like.

The ending area was a wide U of platforms atop multiple poles, with cables running down to the ground, presumably used for the lumber. There was also some kind of passenger-unloading arrangement, built to accommodate the anticipated tourists. It was a basic pul ey system with a couple of windlass machines.

“Think those wil work to get us down?”

Madame Lefoux glanced over. “We had better hope so.”

Alexia nodded and went to devise a means of strapping her dispatch case and her parasol on to her body; she’d need both hands free.

The rail cabin came to a bumpy halt, and Alexia, Floote, and Madame Lefoux climbed out the broken window as fast as possible. Madame Lefoux went first, grabbing one of the pul ey straps and dropping with it over to the edge of the platform without a second thought. Definitely reckless.

The pul ey emitted a loud ticking noise but carried her down the cable at a pace only mildly dangerous. The inventor landed at the bottom in a graceful forward rol , bouncing out of it onto her stockinged feet with a shout of well -being.

With a deep breath of resignation, Alexia fol owed. She clutched the heavy leather strap in both hands and eased off the edge of the platform, zipping down the line far faster than the lean Frenchwoman. She landed at the bottom with a terrific jolt, ankles screaming, and col apsed into a graceless heap, taking a wicked hit to the shoulder from the corner of her dispatch case. She rol ed to her side and looked down; the parasol seemed to have survived better than she.

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