Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War Online

THE MOUNTAINS OF TEHACHAPI

CAPTAIN ROMULUS BUCKLE WAS A zeppelineer, and zeppelineers, with their instinctive affinity for air machines, never felt entirely at home on the steaming back of a horse, especially a horse scrambling up a precarious path cut into the icebound face of a mountain. Buckle grumbled curses, uncomfortable and random, into the mothball-musky wolf fur of his parka hood. Ice particles pricked inside his nose. Through the tunnel of his hood, the trail appeared to jerk back and forth as the horse clambered upward. Now and again a snap of freezing air punched in and stung the still-feeling edges of the otherwise numb skin on his cheeks and nose.

Buckle’s goggles had frozen over a while before, leaving him near blind, but the fur lining insulated a good chunk of his face; the hoary lenses transformed the world into a bouncing shimmer. His horse, a coffee-colored brute named Cronos, was experienced on the trails—Cronos knew every cleft and cranny, according to Buckle’s hired guide, Pinter—and Buckle had been told to leave the horse be and let him mountain-goat the treacherous heights the way he knew how to climb them.

Putting his life in the keeping of an aggressive horse he did not know did not please Buckle. But if he wanted to scale the mountain now, this was the only way he could do it. Dog teams would be useless on this kind of terrain.

“Time to wake up, Captain!” the glassy wobble that was Pinter shouted back over the rump of his horse, five paces ahead. “We’re headin’ over into the soft stretch of the traverse now, you hear? Into the pass. The wind don’t bother to be so cantankerous there. But keep yer musket handy—we’re ramblin’ into sabertooth territory!”

Buckle lifted his chin out of the wolf fur and shouted, “Aye!” He barely trusted the fidgety mountain man—with his gaunt features, uneven head, and half-wild eyes—but Pinter was a reliable guide, and one of the few who might, for a sizable payment, be crazy enough to take him high up the mountain in the Bloodfreezer storm season. It was the possibility of the Bloodfreezers that had kept the Arabella, the Pneumatic Zeppelin’s two-hundred-foot launch, moored in the town below, not far from the ruins of the old Crankshaft stronghold, and forced Buckle to make his ascent on horseback. Despite the frowns from Chief Navigator Sabrina Serafim and Chief Engineer Max, Buckle had insisted that he make the journey alone. He was not about to risk the launch and the lives of his crew to prove a theory—to pursue an obsession—of his own.

Buckle clamped his stiff fingers around the stock of his blackbang musket—something of a feat in thick gloves—and lifted it out of its sheath, laying the heavy weapon across his lap and flipping the pommel flap over its middle to protect it from the cold. A wrapping of oily rags kept the firing mechanisms from freezing solid—a necessity that also promised some delay if he ever needed to bring the firearm into action quickly.

Buckle grunted. He had three blackbang pistols holstered inside his parka—their wooden butts poked his kidneys as the horse bounced—and he trusted his own pistols and saber more than a clunky musket in a scrape, in any case.

The horse lunged up the steep path, delivering a whack to Buckle’s spine that made him miss the smooth glide of his airship. The Pneumatic Zeppelin was moored in the dockyard of the Devil’s Punchbowl stronghold, fifty miles to the southeast, undergoing repairs to the extensive damages she had suffered rescuing his father, Admiral Balthazar Crankshaft, from the City of the Founders over three weeks before.

Once freed from the clutches of the Founders, Balthazar had been busy: he and the Crankshaft council dispatched messengers to every corner of the land, each carrying an invitation to a secret parley with the purpose of forming an alliance against the Founders. Many clans had responded—Imperials, Alchemists, Tinskins, Brineboilers, and Gallowglasses—promising to send their ambassadors. Suspicions ran deep in the blood between the clans, but if the rumors were true, if the Founders and their Grand Armada were gearing up for a mass invasion, then to stand alone meant annihilation. And they all knew it.

In the meantime, Balthazar had begrudgingly given Buckle leave to take the Arabella up to Tehachapi in search of a shipwreck. On the night of the Tehachapi Blitz, more than a year before, Buckle had seen one of the attacking Imperial airships suffer a fatal hit—a Crankshaft cannonball had struck