QSFer Cynthia Ward has a new queer sci fi/fantasy book out, book three in the Blood Thirsty Agent series: “The Adventure of the Naked Guide.”
The earth is hollow—a trackless primordial wilderness. It’s also the new front in the Great War. Here, the British spy Lucy Harker—Dracula’s daughter—must locate Britain’s missing vampire slayer—her own mother. Then she’s separated from her lover, the vampire spy Carmilla, and captured by Germany’s most brilliant scientist, the sinister Dr Krüger. Now, Agent Harker may discover her most dangerous opponents are on her own side.
“You’ve picked a posh meeting spot,” I tell M as I walk into the cell. “I can only hope my assignment proves as cushy.”
The head of the Empire’s Secret Intelligence Service isn’t the only man in the reeking cell. The other is a stranger, but I recognize him. He’s about thirty. His gaunt face and form and his grey-threaded hair and beard suggest he’s much older. He’s chained to the floor.
I turn to M. He’s a portly, towering mortal, with pale grey eyes and receding grey hair. He wears a British Army officer’s trench coat and a Sam Browne belt, with a Webley Mk VI service revolver in the holster.
I address him. “The Luthanians are in the streets, celebrating their liberation from Austria and praying for the return of their missing king. Why the hell haven’t you freed him? For that matter, why the hell are you here, instead of Petrograd?”
“I’ve just arrived,” M replies. “Miss Harker, your language is deplorable.”
I indicate the mortal in chains. “This isn’t?”
The prone man speaks, his voice cracked by long privation. “Mr Holmes wants me to agree to a treaty which makes the kingdom of Lutha a protectorate of Britain.”
M says, “Bernard Custer is an American adventurer of unknown loyalties, who seized the throne of this fly-speck of a nation under questionable circumstances.”
“Mr Custer is a war hero who fought for his ancestral homeland against the Austrian invaders,” I say. “He’s king of Lutha because he’s cousin and sole heir of the late king.”
“I’m sure the Luthanians filled your ears with many interesting stories while you worked under cover in Lustadt,” M says. “Mr Custer’s provenance remains to be confirmed.”
I return my attention to the emaciated man. “You’d not have treated Rudolf Rassendyll in this fashion.”
“The late hero of Ruritania was a British intelligence operative,” M replies.
King Bernhard tries to rise and sinks back, confined by weakness and short chains. Taking my skirt in hand, I sink to my knees beside him. His clothes are filthy rags, and he shivers with cold and weakness. I wrap him in my wool overcoat and keep an arm about him. His shoulder-blades feel like knives.
M says, “What do you think you’re doing?”
Pushing back the right sleeve of my jacket, I extend my fangs and slash open my wrist.
The king’s eyes widen, but he raises a hand to guide my bleeding wound to his lips.
He realizes what I am.
M’s eyes have narrowed so they appear as colorless as acid in the electric light. “Get away from Custer.”
I let M read my lips. “Give me the sack.”
He makes no response.
I’m one of only two blood-drinkers in the service of the British Empire.
The other is my lover.
I tell the King of Lutha, “Your wife is safe.”
He doesn’t take his mouth from my wrist, but his eyes are eloquent.
M says, “Miss Harker.”
I don’t bother looking at my stepfather as I reply. “If we didn’t know whether my mother was alive or dead, we’d want to.”
The king ceases to shiver. Color suffuses his complexion and muscle thickens on his bones. When he firms the set of his shoulders and raises his head from my wrist, his eyes are keen.
I look at his iron cuffs, wondering if I’ve lost too much blood to break them, and M says, “You’ve done enough.”
Hiding my weakened state, I stand. “You haven’t.”
“We’ve provided the man with food and water, as you can see, and I’ve sent for clothing.”
From the corridor come the sounds of a surprisingly familiar pair of footsteps.
I tell M, “King Bernhard doesn’t merit the dungeon.”
“The old king of Lutha collaborated with the Austrians,” M says. “Perhaps the new king did, as well.”
King Bernhard speaks levelly, his voice strong. “That’s absurd, and you know it.”
I meet M’s gaze. “Investigating someone’s past doesn’t justify his mistreatment.”
“Defending the Empire justifies everything.”
Noticing the footsteps, he turns his head, then gives me a look.
“Step out of the cell, Miss Harker.”
Stiff with arthritis, he follows me into the corridor, which is lined with otherwise empty cells. Their smells are muted from disuse, and the ghosts of the dungeon have antique fashions. The Austrian invaders were keeping their royal captive isolated.
M and I face the living man who strides vigorously up the corridor. Tall and lean and young, he’s dashing in the uniform of the Royal Tripod Corps. When his nostrils flare, I know he’s scented the prisoner.
Though M is a civilian, my half-brother salutes him.
Then he looks at me with a sardonic lift of the eyebrows. “A curious place to observe your birthday, Lucy.”
I smile grimly. “Woman proposes, M disposes.”
Lieutenant Quincey Morris Holmes served originally as an aëroplane pilot on the Western Front. He re-trained for the Martian-style fighting-machines when Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the first completed tripods with the British battalions deployed to the Eastern Front. Our forces stabilize Czar Nicholas II on the Russian throne and reinforce our allies against the Central Powers, forcing the Germans to shift battalions from the Western Front to the Eastern.
“Sir,” Quincey says. “Why am I here?”
M keeps his reply too soft for the prisoner’s ears. “Your commanding officer has granted my request for your indefinite leave.”
“Indefinite leave, when most of the Balkans are still in enemy hands?” Quincey’s voice is lowered, but it’s possible King Bernhard hears him, given he’s pitching his words for the failing ears of a seventy-year-old mortal. “Why are you in Lutha, anyhow? What the devil’s going on, Father?”
For the first time in my twenty-six years, Mycroft Holmes looks his age.
“Your mother has disappeared on an intelligence operation,” he whispers. “Your joint mission is to recover her.”
I open my mouth to speak.
“Don’t ask,” M says. “Your mother must never meet Miss Stein.”
Cynthia Ward has published stories in Analog, Asimov’s, Black Cat Mystery, Nightmare, Weird Tales, and other magazines and anthologies.
She edited the diversity-themed anthologies Lost Trails: Forgotten Tales of the Weird West Volumes 1-2 (WolfSinger Publications), and has a pair of reprint anthologies forthcoming in collaboration with Charles G. Waugh (Sam Teddy Publishing). With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored the fiction-writing handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press).
The first book of her Bloody-Thirsty Agent series, The Adventure of the Incognita Countess (Aqueduct), was a finalist for the 2018 Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Novel.