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Part 1 of 2

Two ship's porters came knocking on Diana Comet's cabin door. She adjusted her blouse, gave one last tuck to her dirty parts, and opened the door with a sunny smile.

"Good morning, ma'am!" Henry, a small man about fifty years old, donned his cap. His young assistant quickly did the same. "We've come to collect your luggage for Customs."

"Of course, Henry. They're all ready for you."

She let both men inside the luxurious first-class cabin to tend to her extensive collection of trunks, cases, and hat boxes. It was possible that Diana had overpacked, but three weeks of dining and promenading had required an arsenal of corsets, dresses, shoes, hats, and jackets, all in summer colors and fabrics. In the city of Massasoit she anticipated needing clothes for dining, for the theater, and for numerous business engagements. She had no idea what they held fashionable in this corner of the Empire but she was determined to be stylish and proper.

And she couldn't very well confront James while dressed like a pauper, after all.

"Henry," she said, as the younger porter hauled her possessions toward the door. "You grew up here in the city. What's the fastest way for me to get from our arrival pier to Old Slit?"

He paused from consideration of the checklist in his hand. "Why, ma'am, that's easy enough. You'll want to hire a private coach. Look for one bearing the emblem of Foster and Sons. They are reliable, dependable, and upon request, discreet."

From the ship's wheelhouse came the long blast of the Artica's horn. Diana had spent the ocean transit reading books, travelogues and diaries by travelers who'd made the brave journey before her. She was ready to take on the city's dangers and thrills—its con artists with their charming smiles, its disease-infested boarding houses, its murdering thieves who would happily slit her throat to steal her diamond necklace. Excitement swirled through her belly at the prospect of combat.

"Foster and Sons. I'll do just that, Henry. And if I arrive at Old Slit wishing to interview the hard-working men and women employed in its finest mansions?"

Henry shook his head in polite but paternal admonishment. "Ah, Miss Comet. You don't want to get too close to those Corish. They can't be trusted."

Another horn blast came as the Artica's engines, rudder, and paddlewheels turned them into the harbor. Beyond the curtain portholes, Diana could see clipper ships and fishing trawlers. The coast was a green blur in the morning sunlight.

"I need their input for my pamphlets," Diana said, which was entirely plausible. As a champion of the underclass, she was always in pursuit of the truth.

Henry looked unconvinced. Diana reached for her lace purse and withdrew a shiny half-dollar.

"The taverns on Water Row," he reported as he tucked the coin into his pocket. "But it won't be safe for a woman of your beauty, Miss Comet."

Diana resisted the urge to tap the five-inch blade strapped to her left thigh.

"Trust me, Henry," she said. "I can take care of myself."

Once her luggage was removed, Diana went out on deck. The salty air and bright sun weren't good for her complexion, but it wasn't every day she got to see such a wondrous skyline of brick and stone, with some buildings almost seven stories high. The sprawling city stretched north and south along the harbor for as far as she could see. Bells rang out, clear and heavy, from towers constructed to hold their mammoth weight. Enormous ships bearing cargo, passengers, and immigrants arrived and departed in clouds of smoke and steam. She didn't see the same beautiful minarets and towers as back home, but there was a different, industrial kind of beauty in the labyrinth of factories and mills, industry and production and housing.

"Half a million people live there," said ancient Miss Harvegstraem from under her ostrich hat. Like Diana, she was traveling alone. They'd spent many teatime hours in conversation about art, books, and politics. "It is a city best appreciated from afar and not its foul gutters."

"Yet you return time and time again," Diana reminded her.

"She is an addiction in my blood, even if the damned Corish are ruining everything built by my Dynish grandfathers. Once you've spent a day in her streets, you'll never return to your own exotic lands." The ostrich feathers wavered in the breeze as the doyenne slid Diana a sly glance. "Then again, I'm not sure return is your goal."

Diana opened her mouth in a small "o" of surprise. "I don't know what you mean."

A grim smile flashed her way. "You claim to be on assignment from New Dalli's largest newspaper, but anyone who's been to the country knows its notoriously cheapskate editors would never fund a trip this far. As a journalist, you seem unaccountably wealthy and accustomed to the habits of the stuffy upper class. You've already told me you have no intentions of traveling beyond Massasoit. I ask myself, what could bring a wealthy, beautiful, independent woman halfway across the world except true love either thwarted or pursued?"

The city drew nearer in its splendor and squalor. Diana could smell offal and sewage now, and behind the ringing bells was a distant, constant noise like rolling thunder.

"Pursued," she admitted, finally.

Miss Harvegstraem tilted her head. "Let me guess. A handsome visitor, both well-spoken and highly educated. Scion of some wealthy family. He came to you in the cover of darkness, promising sweetness and fidelity, stealing your hard-protected virtue."

Diana almost laughed. Her virtue had disappeared, by her own choice, in a small hot apartment overlooking the grandest square in New Dalli on a day of high prayers. She'd been fourteen years old, hairy and skinny and awkward. Nowhere near the woman she was today.

Miss Harvegstraem continued, "Right before the engagement was announced he was summoned home to steward his family's fortunes through some unexpected crisis. He swore with his hand on his heart that you would soon be reunited. He sent long, romantic letters on fine stationery. But then the letters stopped. Now your missives go unanswered."

Diana was silent. She watched some young boys paddling a rowboat through lanes of sea traffic, showing either great courage or careless disregard. Their small wooden boat bobbed on the blue-green waves precipitously.

"They're not worth it, my dear," Miss Harvegstraem said.

She gripped the railing tightly. "This one is."

Because it was inconceivable that James had lied, or been otherwise deceptive, or had somehow forgotten her. Of that she was sure. And so here she was, halfway around the world indeed, about to step off into a strange new adventure to win back her man: James Tremaine Hartvern, oldest son of the wealthiest family in all the city of Massasoit.

Miss Harvegstraem said, with terrible gentleness, "He'll only break your heart again."

Diana shifted her leg and felt the weight of her knife. "He can try."

The Artica docked at Pier 12, an enormous stretch of planking that led to the Customs and Immigration Hall. Inside, officials waited at high desks to pass judgment on the thousands of Corish passengers petitioning for entrance. The immigrants, most clad in peasant clothes and carrying cardboard suitcases, waited in snaking lines to be inspected for disease, infirmity, or mental impairment. Their noise—tears and laughter, argument and relief—rose to the cathedral-like ceilings and enormous dusty windows. Diana queued in the much shorter line for first-class passengers and had her papers inspected by an officious man wearing a silver monocle. It only took a few moments to be granted a visa for six months, and the ink on her application was still wet when she stepped past thick turnstiles into the riotous lobby.

The noise of the crowd there set her pulse racing, and the stench of so many unwashed bodies reminded her of the bazaars back home. Immigrants freshly admitted were accosted by friendly strangers promising the best accommodations, the most lucrative jobs, all manners of support. These were traps, Diana knew. Hapless newcomers were more likely than not to end up in fetid tenements, working for slave wages in factories or slaughterhouses or brothels. Every successive generation of immigrants, no matter what city or what century, found themselves exploited in similar ways. Such was the way of the world.

That didn't mean Diana had to stand by and participate through inaction, however. As a porter loaded her luggage into a Foster & Sons coach, she saw two young Corish girls, sisters by the look of them, falling prey to a pretty lad with a fast tongue. She paused in her step up to the coach to eavesdrop.

"True enough, the landlady's like my own dear sweet mother," he was saying in the Corish language of Faelic. "Cleaner beds you'll never find. Fresh breakfasts and a lunch pail filled with her own cooking. Girls like you, you need a safe place! In a good neighborhood, too."

The girls, no older than fourteen and sixteen, looked undecided. Diana wondered if they'd traveled alone across the ocean or come with an adult who'd died in transit. More than a few of the Artica's steerage passengers had done just that, their bodies wrapped in shrouds and jettisoned late at night.

"We do need a safe place," the younger girl said, her hands twisting in worry.

The older girl touched the wooden rosary around her neck. "We don't know you at all. How can we be sure you're telling the truth?"

"Girls like you remind me of my sisters back in County Corey," the boy said, all dimples and earnestness. "I only wish someone like me was there to take care of them. Won't you come now, before she rents the beds to someone else?"

The younger girl tugged on her sister's sleeve. "We should go with him."

"You should not," Diana said, stepping forward and speaking in Faelic. "If it's safe accommodations you seek, set your sight on the largest church spire in the city and ask charity of the parish ladies. This is a city that thrives on the ignorance of country rubes."

The older sister said, "We don't take charity."

"And we're not rubes!" the younger one said.

"You most certainly are," Diana said archly. "And this boy here will no doubt have you spreading your legs for a dozen men by midnight, each one reeking of ale and sweat, their fingers and other dirty things spearing you wide."

The youngest girl turned red in the face. The lad, recognizing there would be easier marks in the crowd, stepped sideways and was lost in the throngs. Diana turned back to her coach, satisfied at one small crisis averted, but the older girl stepped forward and tugged on Diana's long sleeve.

"A fine lady like you needs maids, ma'am," she said, her gaze earnest. "Liddy and I work hard and we're honest and we can be useful."

Diana sighed. "You mistake me for an employer."

The younger girl, Liddy, said, "Mary, don't. We don't need her."

Mary ignored her. "We'll work cheap, ma'am. Anything you need."

"Of course you'll work cheaply." Diana considered the two of them. Young, not quite pretty, much too skinny, but there was potential in their braided hair and high cheekbones. Two farm girls fleeing the Famine. Not so different than Diana's own arrival in New Dalli, so many years ago.

"I'll regret it," Diana said, "but go ahead. Climb aboard."

The first stop they made was to Old Slit, that prestigious enclave of brownstone mansions. Diana was mostly unimpressed, but she enjoyed watching the awe on Mary's and Liddy's faces as they took in the grand architecture and flourishing gardens. Diana had the coachman present her calling card to the butler at the Hartvern mansion. The card was accepted without comment. Next they journeyed to a lower-class shopping district and a small store where both Liddy and Mary were outfitted with cotton dresses suitable for servants. Young Liddy asked for lace on her cuffs, which was totally unacceptable, but Diana admired her spunk. Mary studied her own sallow reflection in a warped mirror and said, "Who'd have thought this, on our first day in the city?"

The girls were closed-mouthed on the subject of their parents back in County Corey, but admitted they'd had no schooling. Neither could write, or read, or do anything beyond basic math. Diana brooded on that at the cobblers, where the girls were outfitted with proper shoes. Then they were off in the coach to Gravesner Square and the elegant New Dalli embassy, where Diana presented her papers.

"Ah, Miss Comet!" said the tiny dark-skinned Secretary in his long white robe. He bowed to her three times while ignoring the girls. "Most welcome are you! We received your letter and have prepared a room. His Majesty the Duke is most regrettably traveling on business, but Prince Harami most sincerely invites you to dinner at four o'clock prompt."

She responded with a curtsey. "I'm honored by His Highness's hospitality. These two girls are in my employment. Please arrange to board them with the embassy servants, and if you could, recruit a tutor."

"A tutor!" The secretary gave her a startled look. "For two Corish farm girls?"

Sternly she said, "Yes. That's exactly what I said."

The girls were sent off to the kitchens. Diana supervised the moving of her luggage to the embassy's residence wing. Her room had high alabaster ceilings, brilliant curtains of red and gold, and fine furniture carved from New Dalli's great teakwood forests. The windows looked down on Gravesner Square and she could hear bells again—Massasoit was a city of bells, apparently, jangling all hours of the day.

Her doors locked, the curtains drawn, Diana loosened her clothing. The padding and support under her blouse had chafed a little during the day, leaving a red mark. She soothed cream into the heated skin. She had to unwind her dirty parts in order to use the chamber pot, but as usual she averted her gaze and covered them again as quickly as possible. With a jade hand mirror she inspected her face for any stray hairs that might have sprung up since the ship's arrival, and once satisfied, rested her ugly square feet on a cushion to ease the lingering ache of too-tight shoes.

The last of James's letters was in her traveling purse. Diana unfolded the cream-colored paper and reread it for the hundredth time. Your deepest secrets are safe in my heart, he'd written. He didn't care what covert jobs she performed for the New Dalli monarchy, or what ugliness she concealed under the finest of fashions and fabrics. She lounged back in her divan, listening to the clip-clop of traffic, the great grinding city of industry. Eventually she redressed herself appropriately and met Prince Harami in his gold-and-turquoise dining room.

"Miss Comet," he said, rising from his damask chair. "As beautiful a seductress as ever."

"Your Highness," she said, and allowed him to take her hand. "You handsome bastard."

Harami grinned widely. He was of true New Dalli ancestry, an honored line that went back a hundred generations. Strongly built, handsome, and kind. A man she might have lusted after if he didn't already have three wives, each more beautiful than the last.

They sat at the table around bowls of fresh fruit and nuts. Against the turquoise wall, a golden parrot eyed them from its cage and stately perch. Harami said, "First, news of your love. Have you any?"

"I was hoping you'd have an answer to that."

He frowned. "It is most regrettable. And it saddens me to tell you what I've heard. They say it was an elopement. With a minor actress from the theater."

She lifted her chin and met his gaze squarely. "I don't believe it."

Harami spread his hands a bit, half apology, half acquiescence. The parrot behind him lifted one claw and examined it with interest.

"I have made many discreet inquiries, and the answer is always the same. They ran off to the south. You of all people know a man's heart cannot be predicted." Harami took her hand. "Except mine. You don't need him when you could have me, my dearest."

Diana shook her head. "I won't believe it until he tells me himself. Can I count on your support?"

"Of course! The assets of this embassy are at your disposal. You need only to ask." He paused and squeezed her fingers. "In return, I must ask of you a small favor."

She withdrew her hand. "The last time you asked me for a small favor, I had to rescue your nephew from an Empire prison. What's wrong now?"

"Nothing! All I ask is that you obtain for me a small golden object. One of several hundred floating around this city. Not of much worth on their own, but invaluable for the prestige and favor they carry. I have tried all diplomatic channels, to no avail. I have petitioned the great mayor himself, only to have him regretfully decline. Now I turn to you."

Diana was intrigued. "What kind of object are we talking about?'

"A badge." Harami leaned forward. "Diana Comet, I want you to obtain for me an official badge from the Massasoit Fire Department."

The situation was thus: whenever the fire bells rang, the volunteer firemen ran to the city fire houses, grabbed their gear, and dragged, by horse or by hand, pumping engines to whatever conflagration awaited them. Something was always burning down. The city was full of ash-holes, ash-houses, blocked fire chimneys, improperly tended stoves and shoddily made steam boilers. Crowded tenements and factories often fell to the careless flames of candles, oil lanterns, or poorly doused tobacco pipes. Breezes carried embers across tinder-dry roofs and into stables. Over the last few years the city had grown enormously with the influx of industry and immigrants. Everyone agreed that the time had come to have a proper organization of ladder, hose, and chemical companies, with employed and trained firemen subject to new rules of bureaucracy and professionalism.

The trouble, as Harami explained, was with the fire gangs. These were the men and boys who turned out regularly to alarms and caused no end of trouble with their misguided efforts or general hooliganism. Some of them were genuine volunteers who followed the firemen to offer assistance. Others were intoxicated louts, secret arsonists, or thieves and pickpockets seeking to take advantage of chaos. The fire companies themselves were fiercely competitive, with captains and engineers determined to be the best or fastest in the city. Sometimes rivalry turned to violence. Just the previous month, members of Engine Company 13 had taken hooks and shovels to the men of Engine Company 17 when both showed up at a saloon blaze on Orr Street. Three men had been killed.

"I don't understand what this has to do with badges," Diana said.

"The mayor and Common Council have decided that policemen must now respond to all fires," Harami explained. "The police are charged with guarding the fire zone. Only those firemen, alderman, wardens, and officials carrying numbered badges from the Fire Department will be allowed past the barriers."

Diana gazed at him in bewilderment. "And you want one?"

"I want one!" Harami said. "Such bravery! Such danger! If the goddess allows me a second life, I should like for my spirit to be reborn in this city so I can grow up to be a fireman. Until such grace, I will be happy with a badge of distinction."

Diana wasted little time on wondering what, exactly, he would do with it. Her impression of Massasoit, in just the few hours she'd been within its precincts, was that it was as stringently and ridiculously segregated as any city of the Empire. Harami was no safer walking alone amid such fire hooligans than those two Corish girls who Diana had rescued. She was sure that he merely wanted to hold and possess something denied to him. In that regard, they weren't really that different.

"I won't leave this city until such a badge is in your hands," Diana promised.

That night, while the rest of the residence slept, she shed her supports and bandages and wig. She tidied up the brown wisps of her original hair with the tip of an ivory comb, then donned a jaunty cap. It was all a necessary evil. The body in the mirror, plainly garbed in trousers and a workman's shirt, was nothing but a tool. One she could put aside or utilize as needed in her career, no matter how much it disgusted her.

She went out the rear window of her suite and down a garden trellis. It was a half-mile or so of darting down streets and across parks until she reached Old Slit. Further east she found Water Row, where rowdy drinkers had clustered at tables to drink and painted wenches brought kisses and ale. The bawdy, profane language was heavily tilted toward Faelic.

"Such a pretty lad you are!" one exclaimed as Diana cornered her way to the bar. "What'll it be, boy?"

"A pint of bitter," Diana said, in the low voice she'd trained herself out of years ago.

While the landlord poured the ale, Diana carefully withdrew a package of sulphur matches and began laying them in a row. She lined up fifteen of them and peered at them intently. The man beside her, a burly man with stringy hair, said, "What's that, then?"

"A bet my Pa taught me," Diana said. "For the beer. You take away one, two or three matches. I do the same. Keep going. Whoever leaves just one match on the table is the winner."

The man squinted at her past the film of alcohol. "Easy!" he proclaimed, and took away two matches.

Diana took away two more, leaving eleven on the wooden bar. "My auntie, she works for the House of Hartvern. Sally Hawes. Do you know her?"

He burped and withdrew one match. "Hartvern bastards. I work for Cosstlen."

She removed one match more, leaving nine. "Cosstlen's finer, I hear."

"Hartvern's a bucket of scum," he said, pawing away two matches. She took two, leaving five behind.

Her burly companion squinted and tilted his head. If he removed one, she would take away three and be the winner with one left on the table. If he removed two or three, she could easily counter and again he would lose. She could see him puzzling through it, reaching the inevitable conclusion. His calloused hand came down clumsily and scattered them all.

"Try again," he growled.

She bested him in the next round and was challenged by another man who'd been watching. He was a groomsman who'd worked for Westvern before being hired away by the house of Nemmsen. Diana beat him easily. It was a shame, really, that none of them had ever had training in modular arithmetic. Soon she had more ale than she could drink, and an earful of gossip. But it wasn't until the end of the night that she met a tall, handsome man named Eremiah who was a footman for Vencent Hartvern, James's older brother.

"Never heard of a Sally Hawes," he said, peering at the seven matches remaining between them. Carefully he took away one. "Been there three years, I have. No Sally at all."

"I must be mistaken," Diana allowed, and slid another match away. "I could have sworn it, though. She fancied herself in love with one of the rich sons. James, was it? The one who's ill?"

Eremiah said, "Haven't seen him in months. Went to the country, they said. With a girl he knocked up."

She let him win, graciously bought him a beer, and tried to leave.

"Don't go!" he said, catching her arm. "Play again!"

She twisted free with ease.

Eremiah slapped her on the side of the head and grabbed an ear. His grin was lopsided and dangerous. "Come on, boy! Stay awhile."

Diana hated to resort to violence. And if possible, she didn't want to expose herself as dangerous. Carefully she grasped his wrist and used the two-finger poke that Master Wong had taught her in New Dalli's Central Orphanage. Eremiah gasped and let her go.

"Keep your hands to yourself," Diana said, and slipped off.

Back in the embassy she slept for a few hours but was up again at dawn, glad to put her bosom back on. Again she hired a coach from Foster and Sons, and again she had her calling card presented to the butler at Hartvern House. After that she headed off to the Department of Fire Suppression. Charm and a small bribe got her to Chief Abbot, a genial man with a long salt-and-pepper colored beard.

"My dear lady," he said, once she had presented her story. "Your elderly and sickly father sounds like a hard-working man with a genuine interest in our mission, but he does not qualify for a department badge. Only firefighters, wardens, watchmen and official volunteers can carry the seal of Massasoit."

Diana put on a pout. Her leg shifted slightly, revealing a sliver of lace stocking. "It would be a great comfort to him in these last days. All of his life he's been a keen supporter of the volunteers who keep this city safe. I assure you I would return the badge when he expires."

Chief Abbot's gaze stayed resolutely upward. "Madam, it's impossible. Every day I have politicians, cronies, newspaper reporters, insurance men, and fire aficionados petitioning my office. Please accept my regrets."

She hated men of integrity. Diana returned to the embassy mulling over her options. She found Mary cleaning her room, which was an unwelcome surprise.

"Who told you to tidy up?" Diana snapped.

Mary dropped the pillow she'd been fluffing. "Sorry, ma'am. You don't want fresh bedding?"

Diana's trunks were always locked. A quick inspection showed they hadn't been tampered with. Carefully she reined in her temper. "I'll let you know what I want. Aren't you busy enough in the kitchens?"

"Yes, ma'am." Mary's hands fluttered over the disarrayed sheets, but she didn't straighten them. "They're very kind. We've learned lots about the city, and it's only been a day!"

"What about the tutor I asked for? Have you met him or her?"

"No, ma'am. Not yet."

Diana hung her hat on a hook. She would have to speak to the embassy secretary. It would be all too easy for him to 'forget' her goal of having the girls educated. "Have you explored the neighborhood?"

"Just a little. Minnie, she's the cook's aid. She took us to market for eggs and cheese this morning."

"And did you pass the fire house on Mercery Street?"

"Yes, ma'am! It's a big brick building with giant arches. The firemen let children climb on the engine."

Diana sat in an armchair and gave the girl a long look. "Did you talk to any of the firemen, Mary? Any handsome young lads with a roving eye?"

"Oh, no, ma'am," Mary flushed a little. "We were very busy to market and back."

"Tomorrow morning I want you to go to market again," Diana said thoughtfully. "And I want you to talk to them. I want you to make friends with the lads. Be closed-mouthed about yourself, but find out everything you can. And if that entails a kiss or two, a lad's hand on your arm or neck, then you're really no stranger to that, are you?"

Mary's gaze dropped a little. "No, ma'am. Not a stranger."

"I am not advocating you let yourself be taken advantage of. The trick to a woman's power is knowing what little things can be given away without worry and those that you must hold closer, as tightly as possible. Do you understand?"

The girl looked relieved. "Yes, ma'am. May I ask why you want me to make friends with the firemen?"

"No." Diana leaned back and closed her eyes. "But you may finish straightening that bed."

Read Part 2 here

Sandra McDonald's recent collection, Diana Comet and Other Stories, has been likened to the works of Ray Bradbury. She currently teaches college in northeast Florida and has far too many cats. Her previous appearances at Strange Horizons can be found in our archives, and her inspiration for the latest story was sparked by this video of sexy ice-skating cowboys. For more about the author, see her website.
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