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And Hush This Cry of "Forward"

Chapter Text

The wrought-iron sign above the platform proclaimed Meath “Gateway to the Manster District” but as yet Altena had never fully crossed those beyond gates with their bright splashes of leaf-green and rose-red. Meath itself was as far as she’d ever been allowed to travel on behalf of her father, though her brother Arion journeyed often to the west of the peninsula, to Tahra and Melgen and Perlucos. It was not purely out of concern for her safety, Altena thought as she settled into the voyage home with a tin of chocolates and the three newspapers that Father always requested— the Meath Gazette, the Manster Guardian, and the illustrious Times. The Railway Police that patrolled the carriages of the Great Thracian Railway ensured that Altena remained as safe in her carriage as she might be in the front parlor of her home. She supposed it might be a bend in the direction of propriety and custom on her father’s part, as perhaps the mill owners and stock brokers of the Manster District would not deal with a young lady of not yet twenty-one in the way the nascent industrialists of Meath could deal fairly and frankly with Altena.

Still, Altena did have to wonder what lay beyond the stout walls of the old medieval fortress that now repurposed itself as a crossroads of industry.

In the topsy-turvy geography of the railways, “down trains” snaked inland in the direction of Behalla, while “up” trains meandered out toward the edges of the continent heedless of cardinal direction. This particular up train from Meath to Thracia City took the better part of the day on its journey— longer, of course, if any section of the iron rails were out of repair— but the railway cut through the most stunning vistas in Thracia and Altena enjoyed every hour of it. In this seventeenth year of the reign of the blessed Queen-Empress Deirdre, steam engines could propel a train along at the dizzying speed of sixty miles an hour, and while the mountainous terrain of Southern Thracia wouldn’t allow for such fleet travel often, in the sections of rail where it was safe to go at full steam Altena enjoyed views such as no generation prior had imagined, with buildings and greenery by the rail track rushing past in a blur while beautifully-composed mountain scenes and river valleys unfolded slowly. She drank them in from every angle while nibbling her chocolates.

Of course Southern Thracia had much more to offer the eye than uninhabitable mountain peaks and gorges. She passed Kapathogia and Lutetia, once strategic fortresses, now bustling centers of mining. Then Grutia, whose collection of chimney stacks expanded every year as its mills sought to displace the northern cities as the center of the Empire’s textile industry. Here, the tracks veered closest to the southern coast and Altena had marvelous views of the great open sea. On some journeys she’d chanced to see a whale breaching clear of the blue waters, but today a light misting rain along the coast sealed off the view and left her in a contemplative state by the time she came within sight of the city that shared its name with the entire peninsula.

Thracia City boasted more chimney stacks than Grutia and the rest combined. To her eyes the red-brick buildings with their three and four tiers of glass windows might have been palaces, but in truth she knew each building’s function by its form. There the textile mill, adjacent to it the iron works, there a dye factory, and a cleaning factory, then the cement works, the plate-glass works, the gas-works, the refinery… and above it all the great black shadow of the ancestral seat of House Dainn, picturesque but unlivable.

This was Lady Altena of House Dainn’s world, and her father had conjured it up before her very eyes in the course of her lifetime.

-x-

Altena, shadowed by her father’s agents, walked safety through the streets from the railway terminus back to the manor house her father had built them to replace the ancient castle. Lord Travant did not view his people from afar, from on high— he lived fully in their midst, so that every window of Dainn Manor looked out upon the chimney stacks and plumes of vented steam. On this day, the light rain carried with it what seemed to be a fine dusting of cement, and Altena— mindful of what her one of her father’s chemists had termed the new phenomenon of acid rain— pulled her shawl and bonnet more tightly around herself.

She offered the remainder of the tin of chocolates to the servants who helped her out of her traveling-clothes and but refused to be parted from the stout leather case that held both the three requested newspapers and the very important documents from Meath.

Altena found her father in his study, where he could look out through the new plate-glass window onto the most impressive view of their city. He did not turn around at her approach, but as this was his custom Altena merely waited for him to speak.

“Were you able to secure an increase in the rates?”

“Yes, Father. All the mill owners in Meath whose mills use steam engines agreed to an increase for coal… but not up to three percent you requested. They would not go above two and three-quarters.”

“Ah. Well, that is the essence of negotiation… that each side feels he has come up short.”

Her father turned then to face her. Lord Travant used a walking-stick topped with a gilt dragon’s head, mostly for show, but of late Altena had noted a genuine stiffness in his gait from an injury received during the time he’d been a Dragoon during the Agustrian Disturbance so very many years before. He seemed to pivot upon the walking-stick now, and Altena thought she saw an odd tension in his face that hardened the familiar creases in his cheeks.

“I am sorry I could not negotiate the full three percent, Father. If that is not acceptable I will take these documents back to them immediately and tell them we have made our final offer.”

Travant shook his head.

“It will do, Altena. Actually you’ve done well… anything over two percent gives us enough to meet the rising cost of labor at the textile mills, and we can’t afford any unrest there. Should a strike break out, Her Benevolent Majesty might be compelled to send her mounted police poking around this way."

Altena knew better than to even blink at her father's slight aimed toward the Royal Lancers. Father spoke the truth… a recent coal miners’ strike had been put down more harshly than Altena might have liked, but it earned them only a denunciation on the floor of the House of Lords and a rebuke or three in the pages of the Times. But the mining reforms of eight years before banned women and children from the coal mines, whereas most workers in the textile mills were young ladies— many of them years younger than Altena herself.

Altena could not imagine that her father would ever countenance unleashing his private police force on them in the event of a strike, but she could well envision turmoil at Thracian mills being used as a pretense to send royal troops south of County Dainn’s border. If it took a hundred journeys to Meath to negotiate a hundred new contracts to prevent such an occurrence, Altena would undertake it.

“Come,” Father said now. “It’s almost time for dinner, and I have some good news of my own to share with you. Arion won’t return until tomorrow, so you’ll hear of it first.”

“Yes, Father!”

Altena knew that it was quite improper to entertain the thought of whether she or her elder brother were Lord Travant’s favorite, but sometimes, as in this moment, it seemed that Travant didn’t conceal especially well that he was partial to his daughter rather than his heir. Good news of high import might well have waited a day for Arion to hear it… but Travant didn’t bother to wait.

Dramatis Personae:

Altena: Younger child and only daughter of Lord Travant of County Dainn. De facto mistress of the manor, as Travant lacks a wife or living sister, but more often employed by her father as an agent of his business rather than as his hostess.

Arion: Elder child and heir of Travant, also employed as an agent to negotiate contracts for the Dainn family’s many business concerns.

Travant: Lord of the semi-autonomous region known formally as County Dainn and informally as Southern Thracia or simply Thracia, after its major city. Following a brief stint in the military when Altena and Arion were small children he returned to his estates and has spearheaded their transformation from a poor agrarian backwater into a newborn industrial powerhouse. Technically has a place in the House of Lords at the Imperial capital of Behalla but never appears there.

To Be Continued...

Chapter Text

Arion returned from Tahra the following day having also negotiated a modest increase in the price of coal from the industrialists of western Thracia. Altena met her brother at the platform and walked with him back to their manor; the rain had ceased that morning and some patches of blue sky might be glimpsed beyond the patchwork clouds.

“It is fortunate that Father can rely on us to see to his interests,” Arion said in a low voice once they were safely home and Altena was pouring the tea for their afternoon repast. “Markets are becoming uncertain, and not only because of the rising cost of labor. I foresee many more visits to Tahra, Melgen… and even to Belhalla.”

“Are speculators to blame?” Altena felt she had been tutored thoroughly enough in the science of economics when it came to the exchange of labor for wages, or material and products for gold and scrip, but the speculative goings-on at the various exchanges made not the slightest bit of sense to her.

“I would say so,” said Arion. “There seems to be some… shift… taking place at the capital that I admit I don’t thoroughly grasp. It is doubly unfortunate that Father cannot venture beyond the borders of Dainn, as I suspect he would perceive far more than I of what peril the capital might hold for us.”

“Why cannot we petition Her Majesty to grant him a pardon?” Altena asked then, as the biscuits and tea sat neglected between them. “It’s been nearly two decades, and as I understand it, duels were absurdly common at the time. Why should Father bear some singular disgrace for it all the rest of his days?"

“Lord Cuan was Her Majesty’s brother-in-law. That should not matter under the law… and yet it does,” said Arion.

And while Altena detested the sort of cynical bent that cast suspicion on all motives, in this case she saw the truth in Arion’s doleful statement.

-x-

The following day, Altena and Arion accompanied their father in a carriage ride to waterfront for a tour of one of the newest iron foundries in her father’s empire. Though both siblings knew the ulterior motive for this tour, at first it passed like any other such visit, as the foreman guided them on a general inspection of the building and grounds. The true purpose of the visit received its unveiling as the Dainn family entered a part of the foundry which centered around an egg-shaped vessel made of steel lined in clay, fully thirty feet high and ten feet across.

“We’ve been callin’ it the Dragon’s Egg, milord,” said the foreman.

“A suitable name,” said Lord Travant, both hands gripping the head of his walking stick as he tipped his own head back to take in the sight of this vast crucible. “Let us see what it births.”

Altena and Arion had both been warned by their father to wear sturdy leather garments for this tour, and as Altena watched a tremendous ladle of molten pig-iron spill into the open tip of the Dragon’s Egg she could not keep her thoughts from straying to what a splash of that glowing liquid might do to clothing of cotton or linen. She did not feel unsafe, of course, not in the company of Father and Arion, but she did feel deeply for the workmen who operated the machinery of the crucible so very close to that infernal heat.

When the Dragon’s Egg had received its full share of molten iron— seven hundred weights in total— one worker operated a valve that forced hot air through a series of pipes and up through the bottom of the Dragon’s Egg. Instead of cooling the iron as one’s breath would moderate the temperature of a spoonful of soup, the effect was comparable to using the puff of bellows to fuel a fire. A shower of sparks erupted from the tip of the “egg,” followed by a jet of flame that was not orange or yellow or even gaslight blue, but a tint of brilliance Altena had no name for, not unlike the new aniline dyes. It seemed to have qualities of all those colors, and rose and violet besides.

As the workers operated levers to rock the crucible back and forth, the foreman explained to Altena and Arion that impurities of silicon and manganese were being burnt out of the iron as the heated air passed through the molten mixture, and as the internal fire of the Egg intensified carbon would also be burnt away, leaving not pig iron but steel in the crucible. Altena, transfixed by the sight of this engineered volcano, listened happily for many a minute to the technical explanations. The fires of the Dragon’s Egg appeared to die down, but then it spat forth a new geyser of sparks that heralded a new flame so intense that it made the prior displays seem a weak candle. Altena had to look away from this, the phase in which carbon was burnt off. Colors of blue and violet predominated now in the flame as the crucible continued to rock. The light, the heat, the color, the odor… all of it beggared description.

As the crucible tilted toward them and the heat approached intolerable as well as indescribable, Altena felt that she and Arion and Father were indeed reduced to small figures before some immense and raging power… and how marvelous to think that the Dragon’s Egg had been devised and built by men, and yet how vain, for how easily it might end them all. Altena almost could not fathom the bravery demanded of the steelworker who became a silhouette against the inferno as he took the the final measure of the temperature inside the cauldron. Surely this task required of him even more than was required from the soldiers at Agusty, Zaxon, or Alster?

Against this drama the sight of that steelworker flashing a raised thumb of approval to his foreman made Altena laugh a little behind her leather glove. The sight of the river of white-hot metal wreathed in colored flame which bore upon it rough black bergs of new steel as it poured into a waiting ladle stilled her laughter and indeed nearly did take her breath away. The foreman entered the fray of the action then as his men conveyed the steel off across the floor to be poured into molds.

Not half an hour passed from the first eruption of flame at the vessel’s tip to the pouring of the ingots. Father did not have to tell them, or the workmen, that this might change everything.

-x-

The Chamber of Commerce in Thracia City took the form of a temple of ancient days, with a great dome fronted by a colonnade on the outside and lined with mosaic and gilt inside. It was perhaps less tasteful than impressive, but in a sense its form was wholly fitting, as Commerce now formed the central pillar of Thracia City’s civic life.

Altena dressed splendidly for the grand assembly of industrialists that her father convened that evening in the Chamber. She wore a shawl from a Thracian loom, most skillfully patterned after the designs of Verdane’s finest master weavers, over a dress that likewise displayed the latest refinements of Thracia’s textile mills and dye factories. The vivid shade of purple in her gown, dubbed “mauveine” by the chemist who synthesized it out of coal tar, was the first such color to exist outside natural hues and Altena the first lady upon the continent who had the privilege of wearing it. Queen-Empress Deirdre could not have gone to Parliament so arrayed in mauveine, as House Dainn had thus far only sent her a few skeins of embroidery floss in tribute. Altena, in her secret fancies, believed that the ancient queens of Thracia robed in the classic purple wrought from sea-snails would have envied her gown. For certain she felt like Thracia’s own queen in that moment, seated at her father’s left hand at the Chamber’s banquet table.

As this banquet was indeed a civic ritual, the evening began with the singing of a patriotic song, followed by prayers for the continued health of Queen-Empress Deirdre and her son the Imperial Prince, prayers to the memory of the Prince Consort, then toasts to the Prime Minster and various military heroes. Altena on her part doubted that her father blessed these diverse parties with any fervor in his heart and she suspected many of those present felt likewise in nurturing a sense of brotherhood only for their own tribe of fellow Thracians and not for any creatures of the Imperial capital, but this was of course how one must conduct oneself in public and it was unthinkable to open business in any other fashion.

Though many faces present were familiar and even beloved to Altena, her own presence at this gathering was remarkable in that none of the captains of industry in attendance had brought along their wives, much less their daughters. She alone, in her mauveine gown and paisley shawl, represented her sex. This was the usual state of affairs and it heightened the sense of Altena as queen of her father’s industrial court— more than once she’d looked on images of Queen-Empress Deirdre surrounded by her lords and generals and felt in sympathy with Her Imperial Majesty. She looked often to the more dear among the mean, like Colonel Hannibal, now the president of her father’s mining ventures, through the four courses of the banquet.

The banquet itself delighted in a way that the cuisine of Southern Thracia could not have even in Altena’s childhood; now the familiar rustic dishes and cuts of game were dressed with imported spices, pickles, and preserves both sweet and savory. If the finest tables in County Dainn were not sung of the way that Agustria had been before the Disturbance, Altena felt certain her homeland could at least place in a competition with those legendary dishes she’d read of in magazines yet never tasted. Southern Thracia had borrowed one idea from the fine dining of Agustria’s fallen regime, that of a frivolity before dessert, and when a single domed dish of silver was placed before Lord Travant, Altena felt the air thicken with the industrialists’ anticipation of some novel amusement.

Travant himself grasped the lid of the dish and unveiled not some sugar-sculpture or gilded cockatrice but a model of the Dragon’s Egg in miniature. Altena could sense the questions hanging over them all as her father rose to speak.

“Men. Brothers,” he said. “I need not tell you of what the Age of Steam has done to turn the riches long concealed within Thracia’s soil into the real wealth around us. The peasant who long toiled to feed his children with his acre of barren land now places food on the table with the wages he earns in the mines. Brigands have become craftsmen and mercenaries have set down their pikes for the tools of the engineer. In every year we thrust against the limits of what our engines and our mills can do and we find a way to surpass them, and now, we have broken through a physical law that bound our horizon.”

Every set of eyes in the room was upon the miniature Dragon’s Egg. Travant opened its two halves, so that those present could see the construction.

“With this converter and the Dainn Process we have successfully tested on it, we will be able to manufacture up to ten tons of steel every hour of the day. Steel will no longer be reserved for the ornamental baubles of princes and cavalry men, for entire regiments’ worth of cannons will be of steel. No more will our trains be fouled by rotting iron rails, for we’ll lay down durable steel rails from Thracia to Silesse which will bear trains in safety for decades. No more will cast iron bridges tumble into the ravines beneath the weight of the load they must bear, for steel bridges will span our rivers. We’ll have steel girders supporting the new towers we build to commemorate the age, steel hulls encasing our steamships like armor, and we shall and bring down the curtain on the Age of the Horse as we fulfill the most distant fancy of mankind and sail upon wings of steel into a new era. I give you, men, the Age of Steel.”

Though Lord Travant was not the sort of man whose poetic speeches were printed in full in the Times and the Guardian, this proclamation of the Age of Steel demanded what it received, thunderous applause and the hurrahs of all present, a sound to ricochet off the mosaics and resound in the Chamber’s dome.

Then the servers brought in the dessert course, each miniature bombe of ice cream sealed beneath a cap of meringue and lit with a blue flame of brandy, small Dragon’s Eggs for everyone’s delight.

Dramatis Personae:

Deirdre, Queen and Empress of Grannvale and its Empire. Beloved monarch, welcomed as a sign of change and hope following the corruption at the end of her grandfather’s reign. Though not an absolute monarch her personal wishes have great sway with Parliament and her personal popularity has renewed support for the monarchy as an institution after a period of troubles.

Sigurd, Duke of Chalphy, posthumously known as the Prince Consort. Late husband of Deirdre. Military hero whose dead at the climax of his greatest victory has made him something of a cult figure.

Seliph, the Imperial Prince. Eldest son and heir of Deirdre, now almost nineteen and beginning to take an active role in affairs of state. Some dream that Deirdre will abdicate in his favor once he’s turned twenty-one. Indeed, Seliph is burdened by the dreams of many factions, from those who want a return to absolute monarchy to those who want the emancipation of the various peoples of the Empire.

To Be Continued

Chapter Text

Arion had been sitting for a quarter of an hour or more in his study, his afternoon's work cast aside while he held a miniature of Lady Linoan in one hand.

“Sir, Lord Travant wishes to see you in private.”

“Tell me, Dean,” Arion said to his companion, ignoring— though only for the moment— the summons of his father. “What do you think of her?”

“She’s a pretty girl.”

“More than pretty, wouldn’t you say?” Arion held up the miniature of Linoan’s sweet face framed by long coils of hair.

“She has… graces, sir,” came the grudging reply.

“If a man so careless of etiquette notices her graces, they must be exceptional.” Arion set the miniature aside. “You realize my lord father places small value upon her prettiness and her graces.”

“He called her an important card in the deck, sir. Though he may’ve been saying that of Tahra itself. Same difference.”

“Yes. She is Tahra, and Tahra is gold.” His contracted marriage was, Arion well understood, a business proposition designed to divert Tahra’s ancient riches into the coffers of County Dainn. Such was the way of the world, now and ever. “Well, I must not keep Father waiting.”

Lord Travant had already begun to tap his walking stick by the time Arion arrived and Arion was grateful he hadn’t tarried any longer on the subject of Linoan.

"Her Blessed Majesty's eldest son is beginning to make himself felt about Behalla,” said his father without preamble. “He’s been kept under the wing of moderate types until now but it seems glimmers of Reform will become a blaze once he’s off the leash.”

“He is yet a child,” said Arion.

“Eighteen summers going on nineteen,” Travant said with another rap of the walking-stick. “An ordinary wretch of a squire can’t call himself a man until the age of twenty-one. A king and emperor can take the reins of state at eighteen. What a patchwork of laws governs this continent.”

Arion, acutely aware that Tahra’s autonomy allowed Linoan to rule as Duchess well before the age of twenty-one, said nothing as he waited for Father to come to the substance of their conversation.

“I am torn on what to do with you, Arion.”

“Father?”

“My first thought is to send you to Tahra at once and seal your marriage to its little duchess posthaste. Her dowry will keep our endeavors afloat in the short term.”

"Is the labor situation that unsettled, sir?"

"We have plans laid down should the brigands running the unions even whisper of a strike," said Travant as he flicked his hand to dismiss those concerns. "No, I'm afraid we've sent enough bad steel northward that fine words like 'breach of contract' and 'industrial sabotage' are now bandied about."

“But the Dainn Process…”

“Two batches out of every three prove rotten,” said Travant. “My chemists begin to suspect that it’s something inherent in the ore from Lutetia as opposed to Kapathogia but they can’t begin to tell me why, or provide a solution.”

Arion, left with yet again with nothing to say, let out a short exhalation of dismay.

“Until this riddle is solved, we cannot fulfill the terms of our contracts. One rail company has already sent its people after me on the issue of my patents. Another is claiming fraud. And so on.” Travant stood now with his back to Arion, as though unwilling to let Arion see a fear the mask of his face couldn’t fully conceal. The tap of his stick upon the floor betrayed his true state of being. “Our salvation will not hatch out of a Dragon’s Egg— not yet. Time is flowing against me now, Arion. You must stand athwart time for me.”

“Yes, Father… but how?”

“I may be forced to send you to Behalla.” Travant turned now, just enough for Arion to see a glimpse of his face over one shoulder. “Take your rightful place in Parliament to represent Dainn and its interests before these rascals use a batch of rotten steel as a pretense to reopen old affairs of interest to the Crown.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll send Hannibal along with you, if it comes to pass. He should be able to guide you through high society and keep you from anything too rash.”

“I will not let you down, Father.” Arion didn’t grasp the full scope of what he might be promising— he could not, as he was simply ignorant by design of too much. But Lord Travant knew that, as he’d engineered the very designs that kept Arion in the dark. “Allow me to dispatch someone in whom I have utmost confidence to Tahra to watch over our interests there.”

“Our interests.” Father inclined his head and showed a wry twist of a smile. “You have my permission to like the girl, Arion. Love her, even... just not so much she ever comes between you and our people. Do as you see fit.”

And with that he dismissed Arion. Arion, dazed at the prospect of a peril of which he’d been ignorant, and equally disconcerted by the idea of being sent down to Belhalla, shook his head as he composed in his mind the proper way to tell Dean that he must pack his bags for Tahra.

Dramatis Personae:

Linoan, Duchess of Tahra. The last daughter of an ancient noble house that’s ruled an autonomous city-state inside Grannvale’s Empire. Her father died during the final phase of the Disturbances and though a minor by Grannvalean law, she is now ruling Tahra herself.

Hannibal, President of Dainn Mining. A colonel in the army and Travant’s most trusted subordinate outside of his own family.

Dean, companion of Arion’s. Part bodyguard and part confidant, he shadows Arion wherever the latter goes.