Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Michael Swanwick presents a new fiction series at Tor.com, consisting of stand-alone stories all set in the same world. “Day of the Kraken,” continues the epic tale of an alternate fin de siècle Europe shot through with sorcery and intrigue. (Intrigued yourself? Read the other stories, “The Mongolian Wizard” and “The Fire Gown.”)
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
On a cold and misty morning during the Phony War, that strange period when Britain was officially at war with the Mongolian Wizard’s empire but no serious military engagements had yet taken place, Sir Tobias Willoughby-Quirke and his attaché, Kapitänleutnant Franz-Karl Ritter, stood on a dock on the Thames, watching a boatload of watermen hauling a wood-and-metal chest from the water’s depths. The diver who had attached a line to the chest huddled in the rear of the boat under several blankets.
“How was it found?” Ritter asked. His wolf, Freki, sat, quiet and alert, at his feet.
“By sheerest chance,” Sir Toby said. “The men who dropped it in the river were overseen by some mudlarks.”
“Mudlarks!” Ritter exclaimed in astonishment. “Those ragged children who scrounge about in the tidal filth, looking for scrap metal?”
“Indeed. It has been one of my little projects to befriend such creatures. A few loaves of bread a month will buy many sharp eyes among the poor. They followed the two men and, although they lost one in the crowds, trailed the other to his lodgings. Knowing I will pay for such information, they then came to me. I sent an agent to interrogate the fellow who, rather than face questioning, blew his own brains out. Which roused my suspicions considerably.”
At last, the trunk was wrestled to solid ground. The workers looked relieved to be done with it. “Maybe you want to call in the bomb squad, sir,” one of them said to Sir Toby. “Might well be anything in it.”
“I do not think that is necessary,” Ritter said. Pulling his pistol, which he always kept primed and loaded, from its holster in one smooth motion, he touched the muzzle to the lock and pulled the trigger.
With a loud explosion, bits of metal went flying.
Ritter threw back the top of the chest. Inside were pale spheroids, perhaps a foot across, coated with transparent slime. “Kraken’s eggs,” he said. “Had they been left undiscovered, in six months’ time the river would be infested with the monsters, and London would be worthless as a harbor.”
Turning to the watermen, who were looking understandably alarmed, Sir Toby boomed, “Splendid work, all of you! You have my permission to tell your wives and girlfriends that you are the saviors of your city and entitled to such rewards as women traditionally endow upon heroes.” This caused several craggy faces to crack into smiles. One of the men laughed out loud. Sir Toby dug out his wallet and handed several bills to their captain. “You’re also entitled to a drink or two, at my expense.”
This last earned Sir Toby a heartfelt cheer. Smiling jovially, he watched the men pile back into their boat, push off, and wave as they headed downriver toward the taverns. Then he turned to his attaché and said, “What chunderheaded notion was that? You almost frightened those poor men out of their wits. Half of them were convinced the chest contained explosives.”
“When on duty, a portion of my thought is always inside Freki’s mind. He could smell the chest’s contents quite distinctly. There was no possibility of an explosion.”
“Ritter,” Sir Toby said, “there are times when I think that, save for your ignorance of human behavior and utter lack of humor, you have the makings of a first-rate aide.”
“I have an excellent sense of humor,” Ritter said indignantly.
“Have you really? I must remember to have you tell a joke someday in order to test this hypothesis. For now, I want you to stand guard over the chest while I arrange for a wagon to transport it to the armory. Then report to my office. Things are quiet today, but the saboteurs will strike again and in a completely different manner.”
“How do you know?”
“Because that’s what I would have them do, were they mine.”
When the kraken’s eggs had been disposed of, Ritter decided to return to work the long way around. He stopped in a tobacconist’s and, after a leisurely inspection of the wares, bought a package of cheroots. Then he sauntered onward to a pie shop to buy some pork pasties for lunch and dropped by a butcher’s for meat scraps, which Freki received with great enthusiasm. It was only when he reached his ultimate destination that he discovered he had chosen the wrong day for so leisurely a stroll.
The War Office had lent Sir Toby temporary facilities, so Ritter was not surprised to find the anteroom thronged with military men in a variety of uniforms. But there were also civilians, weeping women and choleric men loudly demanding a variety of actions, the sense of which Ritter could not untangle from the snarl of voices. On seeing him, Sir Toby’s long-suffering secretary Willice—lean, clad in black, and almost genderless—looked relieved and, without having to be asked, said, “The Mongolian Wizard is advancing on Berlin with giants and flights of wyverns. Meanwhile . . . oh, go in, just go in! Sir Toby will explain all,” and waved him into the office, slamming the door after him.
Sir Toby looked up from his famously disorganized desk. “Ritter! Where in the name of Cernunnos have you been? Don’t answer that. Our saboteurs have been busy. Five children—all girls—were abducted from public spaces this morning, one after another. In each case, their guardians were with them, yet inexplicably allowed the children to be dragged into a carriage without taking action.” He took a map of London from a drawer and drew five crosses on it. “These are the locations of the crimes. Do you see the pattern?”
“They are strangely evenly spaced—perhaps points on a circle?” Ritter said dubiously. Then, mentally drawing lines between noncontingent crosses: “Ah! It’s a pentagram.”
“An inverted pentagram. Imagine a circle around it and you’ve got a pentangle. Imagine a second circle just outside the first and you have the Sigil of Baphomet. Which means—?” Sir Toby pursed his mouth and raised his eyebrows, as if he were a schoolmaster coaxing along one of his slower students.
“Human sacrifice. But this is monstrous.” Unlike wizardry, demonology was mere superstitious nonsense. Any amount of research had gone into demonstrating that it simply did not work. “Who would even think of such a thing? What would be the point?”
“Ah. Now we came to the nub of the matter.” Sir Toby produced a band of scarlet silk perhaps two feet long, with embroidered gold crosses and gold tassels to either end. “At the last and I believe final abduction, this was left behind. Perhaps you can identify it.”
After a perfunctory examination, Ritter said, “It is a maniple, a vestment draped over the priest’s left arm during the Mass. Roman Catholic, obviously—an Anglican one would be longer. The color is reserved for certain feast days, including those of martyrs and of the Holy Innocents. Surely you don’t imagine a prince of the Church was careening through London in full liturgical garb, kidnapping children off the street. The very idea is preposterous.”
“You do not understand mob psychology. When the girls’ bodies are found, ritually murdered upon a Catholic altar, no one will be thinking logically. There will be riots. Churches will burn. This can only be intended to create religious strife at a time when national unity is of the utmost importance. You must find these fiends, Ritter. Rescue the children if it is not too late. But whatever you do, unmask the men behind this conspiracy as foreign agents. Do it today.”
Ritter’s mind was racing. If this was the work of the kraken-spawn saboteurs, then their base of operations would not be far from the river. “I will need a list of all vacant or abandoned buildings with Catholic associations within a half mile of the Thames.”
Sir Toby lifted a handwritten sheet from the top of the heap and handed it to Ritter. “Go.”
The first thing Ritter did, after contracting for a day’s hire of a carriage (for which he was not at all certain he would be reimbursed), was to return to his flat and change into civilian clothing. Then he began systematically visiting the buildings Sir Toby had listed for him, examining the premises and interviewing the neighbors. It was slow work because occasionally he had to break into a building to be sure it was uninhabited. But he controlled his impatience and schooled himself to examine each site punctiliously, lest he overlook some vital clue.
As twilight was settling over the city, Ritter checked off the last place on his list. Bitter disappointment welled up within him, but he fought it down. Instead, he went over the list of former abbeys, deconsecrated churches, the chapel of a mansion fallen to ruin, and suchlike, mentally revisiting each to see if he could possibly have missed anything.
Two items from the end of the list, he came to something that stopped him cold. “Driver,” Ritter said. “Did we visit a onetime Thames Millbank Priory?”
“Yes, sir. Not long back, that was.”
“Odd. I have no memory of it at all.”
“Well, sir, I’m not surprised. You come back from it looking right dazed, if you know what I mean. I ’ad to ask you three times where we was to go next.”
“Interesting,” Ritter said. “Bring me back there. But this time pause the carriage a block or so away, and keep a sharp eye on me.”
The Thames Millbank Priory was a squat medieval building of no particular beauty which had at one point served as a brewery before falling vacant. Ritter hammered on its front door. At first there was no response. But just as he was reaching for his lockpicks, a middle-aged woman in what appeared to be the habit of a nun opened the door. Her features were sharp and her grey eyes widened for an instant at the sight of him. “Yes?”
“Good evening, madam. My name is Ritter and I have been commissioned by a German gentleman of rank to locate his runaway daughter. I have traced her to this neighborhood and so I am going door to door—”
“No one here will talk with you.”
“Go away.” The woman closed the door in his face.
Without the least hesitation, Ritter went away.
“Sir! Sir! Wake up, sir!”
Groggily, Ritter looked about himself. His driver was shaking him, and he had no idea where he was or how he had gotten there. The last he remembered, he was at the priory door. Now, inexplicably, he was blocks away.
“Let me give you an arm back into the carriage, sir,” the driver said.
Seizing control of himself, Ritter shook his head. “Open the door to let my wolf out, and then you can leave. I have no further need of your vehicle.” He dug two shillings from his pocket. “Take these. The first is in thanks for your bringing me back to myself. The second is payment for one last errand. Go back to where you picked me up and ask for Sir Toby. Tell him to come at once to the Thames Millbank Priory with every man he has.”
When the carriage was gone, Ritter went into a candle shop and bought a penny’s worth of beeswax. He kneaded it in his hands as he walked back to the priory, until it was soft enough to form into a pair of earplugs. thus rendering him immune to the mental arts of the sorceress— for what else could she be?—inside. Then he led Freki around the back of the building.
Though the priory-turned-brewery had long been neglected, even in decrepitude it was sturdily built and would have been difficult to break into. But all the glass in one of its small windows had recently been smashed—shards lay on the ground below it—and a thick oaken door had been left unlocked.
Warily, Ritter pushed it open.
The room inside must have originally been the kitchen. There was an enormous fireplace to one side and the walls joined overhead in stone vaulting. It had been emptied of everything flammable, save for a carefully constructed pile of old parchment record books, a loosely folded and dry-as-dust tapestry, and broken-up wooden barrels directly beneath the smashed window. Nearby were two metal canisters. Ritter did not need Freki’s keen sense of smell to tell him that they contained naphtha, doubtless intended as an accelerant.
It would take but an instant to douse the pile with naphtha and start a fire that would bring the entire neighborhood running, without doing any serious damage to the building itself. Once the neighbors were inside, something—were he one of the saboteurs, Ritter would employ an artfully laid trail of blood—would draw them farther in. To discover . . .
Ritter focused his thought on Freki’s sensorium. From deep within the building came sounds of people working quietly. And beyond them, of children weeping. All else was silent.
At an unvoiced command, Freki padded softly forward. Ritter followed him down twisty corridors to a chapel. Inside were two men and a woman, all on their knees, busily painting an elaborate pentagram on the floor before the altar, with the names of demons and popes in dog-Latin around the outside of its double circle and between the points of the star.
Ritter drew his pistol and said, “You are all under arrest.”
The saboteurs looked up, startled. The woman’s eyes darted from Ritter to his wolf. He had just enough time to realize that the shapeless black dress and headpiece-like kerchief she wore were not a nun’s habit, though clearly they were meant to be remembered as such by anybody who might catch of glimpse of her, when she said, “Freeze. The both of you.”
Wolf and master both froze. Ritter cursed himself for not having withdrawn from Freki’s mind before announcing his presence.
The woman stood. “Place your gun on the floor and remove those plugs of wax from your ears,” she said. Then, when he had obeyed: “You are a clever man or you would not be here. Tell me what you would wish to know, were you in my place.”
“I am the only one who specifically knows you are here. But there will be others coming soon. In half an hour at the earliest, an hour at the latest,” Ritter was horrified to hear himself say.
“Time enough,” the woman said. “Oleg—set the chalice and ciborium on the altar and scatter about the hosts. Mikhail and I will finish the decorations.”
Without the earplugs Ritter could quite clearly hear the children sobbing. They were being held in a nearby room. “Will you tell me your name so I can address you politely?” he asked.
“Very well, then, I will be blunt. If you leave now, you and your comrades might well escape. If you stay to slaughter the children, you will almost certainly be caught.”
The woman shrugged and kept on working.
The sobbing in the nearby room had died down. Now it rose again, as one girl began to wail and the others joined in. Ritter winced. “Madam,” he said, having no other way to address her. “You and I are not cruel people. We are both soldiers. We do what we have to do, however distasteful that may be. You are going to kill the children. Alas, I cannot stop you. But while they live, there is no need for them to be miserable. Order me into their presence and I will calm them down.”
The saboteurs looked at one another.
“At the very least, it will be quieter,” Ritter said.
Unspoken assent passed from person to person. The false nun drew a ring of keys from a hidden pocket. “I will let you into the room where we are keeping them. Make no attempt to leave it. Are you by any chance a Catholic?”
“Of course not. I am, naturally, Lutheran.”
“A pity. Still, when you are found with your throat cut, surrounded by small corpses, everyone will presume the worst of you.”
The room had been an office once, perhaps for the mother superior. Now it held only the litter of bygone days. Light came from a small stained-glass window high on the back wall, showing a dove with streams of glory radiating from it. In the gloom below were five little girls, three standing and two sprawled unhappily on the floor.
As the door closed and was locked behind him, Ritter said, “Children! What is all this weeping? You must let your Uncle Franzie know so I can make everything all right again.”
“I want my mama!” cried a little girl with pigtails, and “I don’t like it here!” sobbed a girl with pockmarked cheeks, and “I want to go home!” declared a redheaded freckly girl. The two smallest merely wept wordlessly.
Ritter sat down in the middle of the room on the floor, placing himself on the same level as the children. “You shall be restored to your parents very soon,” he said as convincingly as he could manage. “I have sent for them and they will be so happy to see you that they will give you nuts and sweetmeats enough to feed you for a week. But right now we have to wait just a little bit longer. Gather around me and I will tell you all about my wolf, Freki.”
“I’m afraid of wolfs,” the redhead said.
“You would not be afraid of Freki. He is very sweet and gentle. But he is also a greedy-guts, always hoping for a snack. He’ll put a paw on my knee and then look at me like this”—Ritter pulled a face like Freki’s when he was begging and two of the girls laughed—“and make a little mew-new-mew noise. That means, ‘Oh please, boss, pleeeeeease feed the nice wolf. Oh! I’m so hungry I’m about to faint.’ ” He made one hand into a paw and touched the back of it to his forehead melodramatically. “ ‘If you give me some food, I promise I’ll shine your boots for you and sweep the floors and wash the dishes too.’ ” Now all the girls were laughing, even the smallest, shyest one who still had tears running down her cheeks. “So what choice do I have? I get a little scrap of meat and I hold it up and say, ‘Who wants a treat? Who does? Who?’ And what do you think Freki does?”
“He says ‘Me!’ ” the redheaded girl said, and “Me! Me!” the others cried in imitation of her.
“Yes, he does. He runs around and around in tight little circles, barking yip! yip! yip! That means me! me! me!”
“Do you give him the treat then?” the smallest and shyest asked.
Ritter made a mock indignant face. “Of course I do. Who could turn down a poor sweet hungry wolf like that? Not I!”
By now two of the girls had climbed into Ritter’s lap and the others were clustered close around him. He wrapped his arms around them, gently drawing them closer, and went on talking about Freki: How smart he was and how brave. How fast he could run, and how silently. The girls grew still as he described the wolf hunting a rabbit in the forest: Tracking it by scent. Spotting its tail bouncing before him. The sudden burst of speed as he caught up to it. And then, crunch, snap, and gobble.
“Can you lift your paw like Freki?” They all could. “Can you pretend to lick off the blood the way he does?” They all did.
Speaking softly, Ritter drew the little girls into the world of the wolf. He guided them as they pretended to be wolves themselves. And as their thoughts became more and more lupine, he began to ease his own thoughts into theirs.
It was not easy, for he had never tried to enter a human mind before—for both moral and practical reasons, it had been strictly forbidden by his instructors. But he knew, from certain smutty rumors of forced seductions and young officers stripped of rank and familiar just before being summarily executed, that it was not impossible.
And the more the girls thought like wolves, the less impossible it became.
Ritter was not a sentimental man. He prided himself on having few delusions. Yet even he was shocked at how easily the children entered into the amoral and ruthless mind-set of the wolf. He was, it was true, urging them in that direction with both his words and his thoughts. But still. It was alarming how little distinction there was between a young girl and a savage predatory beast.
So deeply involved was Ritter in his task that he almost missed the clatter in the chapel of brushes and buckets of paint being flung away. He kept talking, softly and soothingly, as footsteps sounded in the hall. All of his captors at once, by the sound of it.
A key turned in the lock and Ritter withdrew his arms from the little girls. “Look, my little Frekis!” he said. “Here comes your prey!”
The door opened and he launched his small wolves, snarling and biting, straight at the throats of the three startled saboteurs.
The premier of Haydn’s War in Heaven earned the refugee Austrian composer a standing ovation that seemed to go on forever. Of course it did. The oratorio depicted a senseless rebellion against the natural order, the unswerving loyalty of the Archangel Michael’s forces in the face of impossible odds, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil when God Himself takes the field on their behalf. The political allegory could not have been more obvious. It depressed Ritter greatly. Still, as music, the piece deserved its plaudits. He noted, as they emerged from St. Paul’s Cathedral, that Sir Toby was humming (off-key, of course) the glorious and chilling chorus that marked Lucifer’s fall:
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire . . .
It did not hurt, of course, that the oratorio had Milton’s glorious language to draw upon.
“Let’s take a stroll by the river,” Sir Toby said. “To digest what we’ve heard.” It was not so much a suggestion as a polite command. Ritter, who had been brought up to understand such subtleties, nodded his compliance.
Two days had passed since Sir Toby had burst into the priory at the head of a small contingent of soldiers, only to discover the corpses of the saboteurs and five blood-sated little girls. So far, he had said nothing about the aftermath. But Ritter could feel it coming.
“Wait out here with Freki for a moment,” Ritter said, and went into a pie shop. When he emerged with a package of beef pasties, they resumed their stroll.
Upon reaching the river, the two men paused to lean against a brick wall above a stone stairway leading down to the Thames. The tide was low and a scattering of basket-carrying mudlarks were probing the silvery muck like so many sandpipers. Merchant ships rode at anchor, sails furled, lanterns at bow and stern, while small boats scuttled back and forth on the water, taking advantage of the last cold gleams of daylight. Ritter set his meat pies down on the wall and waited.
At last, Sir Toby said, “The girls’ parents are uniformly outraged by what you made them do.”
“Their daughters are alive,” Ritter said. “They should be grateful.”
“The trauma can be undone. In many ways, the physick of the mind is more advanced in our modern age than is that of the body. It comes from the prominence of wizardry, I suppose. But the memories will remain—and who knows what will come of those memories as the girls grow into women?”
Ritter turned to face his superior. “Are you criticizing my actions?”
“No, no, of course not,” Sir Toby said. “Only . . . one could wish that your otherwise admirable ability to improvise was accompanied by a less insouciant attitude regarding what your superiors might have to deal with afterwards. To say nothing of your damnable indifference to the welfare of children.”
“In this, I am only typical of the times.”
Sir Toby looked away from his subordinate and lost himself in contemplation of the river. At last he sighed and turned his back on the Thames. “Well, it turns out I had less to say than I thought I did. The wind is chill and I think it is time we made our way to our respective domiciles.”
They walked in silence for a time. Then Sir Toby said, “You left your meat pies behind. On the wall by the river.”
“Did I? Well, there’s no point to going back after them. Doubtless some mudlark has stolen the package by now.” Ritter imagined an urchin wolfing down the food as ravenously as Freki might, and smiled wanly. Possibly he would come back and lose another package tomorrow.
The river disappeared behind them. Then, remembering a resolution he had made earlier in the day, Ritter cleared his throat. “Sir,” he said. “I have a joke. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi chanced to be riding together in a carriage. Suddenly a highwayman—”
Sir Toby held up a hand. “Oh, Ritter,” he said. “You didn’t think I meant that request literally, did you?”
“Day of the Kraken” copyright© 2012 Michael Swanwick
Art copyright © 2012 Gregory Manchess