High above the Gilded Seas, where merchanters full of spice traverse the rolling waves of emerald and indigo, the winds blow east and west between the islands of Day and Night. With them goes the aethersong, carried by the antennas of the bellwether ships, singing voices and news and encoded messages between the clouds streaking the firmament.
In the night, from the deck of the slow boat freighters passing over the oceans or the fleets of churning steel and wood, one might catch a glimpse of balefire upon the depths of the night. Floating on sails of spirit and science, passenger airships go to and fro, carrying a panoply of passengers. Philosophers from the Isle of Night: nobility from the terraced splendor of the Isle of Day.
The Good Ship Thallo flies above even these. Her balloon is trimmed with sails of aethersilks; her sails are spread wide on alchemist-forged silver, and her black bow is painted with patterns of crimson and ivory birds in great V patterns upon the polished wood. She is the newest, and fastest, and finest of the ships in the service of the Red Empress, and there are no nobles or philosophers within her decks.
Beneath her sails, women come and go, but they are scientists: they are alchemists. They are scholars and soldiers, and all bear the feather-crest of their sovereign upon their uniformed breast. They are sworn to the service of Day, and they are orphans each one, pulled from the streets, from the nunneries, from the wreckage of ships. They know no mother but Crown and Country: they know no morals but those of military law.
Go deeper now. Deeper into the depths of wood and magic-forged silver, deep past the engines of steam, the gearbound mechanisms of the Good Ship Thallo's aethersilk sails.
There is a woman in the depths of the ship, beyond portals of iron and jade. There is a woman, and she sits before the great heart of the ship, an amber figure who flows and shimmers with the flux of the aetherwaves and the wind. As he quivers and melts in rhapsody (for it is a he), she leans her head above the strings of a violin and weeps.
But as she weeps, her head is canted: the tears fall on the floor, and not upon the violin or the bow sawing back and forth across the strings. It is to this, most of all, that the figure flows and changes, illuminated from within by unnatural light. At the very breast of the man, there is a ruby light, and it thrums in response to the frantic music of the instrument, quivering between response to the law of gravity and the law of passion evoked by the musician.
She is no orphan, this one, or uniformed. Her hair is curled and red, her skirts are tiered and silk. Her waist is corseted: she wears the jacket of the Orchestra of Dusk. She has been playing for hours, her arms wiry but trembling with this monumental effort. Spiraling brands of feathers, much like those marking those in service to their Empress, mark her breast. They are not old and faded, but still scabbed at the centers.
This, now, is new to her. This, now, is new to the heart of the Good Ship Thallo, this man who had been her Conductor and lover both.
Somewhere far from here, on a crag, there is a bellwether, or the wreckage of one, and the corpses of her fellows, still attired for their performance upon the aetherwaves. It is riddled with wounds from explosives and brief, if heated, battle: it has been run from the skies by the Good Ship Thallo. But the servants of the Red Empress did not come for music, nor did they come for the jewels of the Orchestra. They came for a heart that could melt steel: they came for a violinist whose will was stone.
They have found them now, and with alchemy black and tainted with mandrake and bloody sacrifice, they have transmuted the Conductor and held down the violinist, Madame Arliss d'Cente while they drove brands of cold iron into her breast.
The pain of the molten metal was nothing compared to the agonizing sound of flesh become amber, of her lover's baritone subsumed by resinous blasphemy. Magic thrums in her veins now, animating arms and compelling her obedience. They cannot command her eyes, but her sinews tremble, over-strained and near to snapping. She must stop, she must stop, she must...
There is an explosion somewhere, she is aware, briefly, outside the spell of the music. Voices in the hall, a door is thrown back, and curses in a familiar tongue. And then there is a great voice like thunder and hands at her temples and her limbs, exhausted, sag, the notes from the violin trailing into discordant nothingness. At the heart of the Amber Conductor who is the heart of the Good Ship Thallo, the light dims.
"Arliss!" A face swims before her eyes, a face tattooed in the patterns of the I Ching, a face bordered by black hair. "By God's Blood, what have they done to you?"
Were her arms not so tired, Arliss thought, she might throw her arms around Edmund and weep, but her eyes ache, and her limbs are leaden. "Edmund, they killed the Orchestra... and Julius, Julius is..." She cannot turn her head now, cannot regard the resin-locked form of her lover.
"They will pay, I swear it. The cadre is sweeping the ship, we'll have you out of here as swift as the very wind." She is swung up, then, corset and skirts and all, her aching head turned from the sight of the Thallo's heart.
"Julius, we must take him from here!" she pleads, even as she knows the shake of Edmund's head above her.
"I am no heathen alchemist, Arliss." he says solemnly, and then they are going. As they pass the portal, she feels the shuddering of Thallo under them, hears more explosions. "We must go. At least one of you shall be saved to report to the House of Peers..."
She has no energy to argue, then, as he carries her through the ship. It is afire with metaphysical defenses and the attacks of the care. Here, she sees Aia, the half-mer songstress, defusing an intricate defense with her soaring soprano alone: there, Eirene shoots down one of the uniformed pawns of the Red Empress, her face grim.
On the top deck, she sights a man in a red uniform slipping into the lower reaches, and rage fills her. She elbows Edmund. "Down. Now!"
He doesn't argue, setting her primly upon her feet. He is less sanguine when she steals his blunderbuss and darts away in pursuit of the Chief Alchemist of the Good Ship Thallo. The sudden engagement of one of the uniformed stooges, however, has him busy, and for this, Arliss is grateful.
She hunts her prey on high heels left on her feet by the fools. She hunts through smoke-filled passages, and finds him at last in the laboratory. Tucking the blunderbuss into her jacket, she seizes one of their ceremonial swords and, with a distinct lack of sporting, runs him through the shoulder from behind. His scream echoes through the halls and the gantries. She thinks for a moment, and then twists the sword as he goes for his own weapon.
"I think not, sirrah." she snarls, taking the opportunity to steal his pistol away and throw it into one of the furnaces. "You transformed Sir Julius d'Arlyn, Knight of Roses, into the heart of this blasphemous conveyance, and by God's teeth you shall undo it!"
He wails something about his spirits taking vengeance. Arliss twists the blade once more with a certain infernal glee. Finally, he relents, and she discards the sword, favoring the blunderbuss to threaten him back down into the heart of the Thallo where Julius wanes.
The ship shakes and shudders, but the Chief Alchemist, under her watchful gaze, is swift to begin, chanting words, burning incense, and making invocations. But as his voice raises and she sees Julius's face melt out of the amber, her breast begins to burn, afire with infernal magics as if the brand of feathers were pressed there anew.
Deep inside of the Thallo, the gears begin to lock, and explosions wrack the internals. Arliss is insensate in agony, and her hand, weighted suddenly with the blunderbuss and the strain of hours of playing, drops.
Spirits wail, infernal and angry, and she hears Julius, scream, once. Then the alchemist is at her throat, screaming in a foreign tongue, his hands wrapped tight as he throttles her. She struggles, unable to rise, kicking with weakened legs at the villain.
With a wail of angry, snapping strings, her violin makes a sudden impact on the back of the Chief Alchemist's head, and he is swept aside. Arliss swoons, ungracefully, into strong, amber-scented arms. She is scarcely aware of the blunderbuss firing with cold precision, or the trip to the upper decks.
She is not, however, so insensate as to be deaf to the baritone voice of Julius d'Arlyn, Conductor of the Orchestra of Dusk, roaring out over pitched battle. "CADRE! By Saint Anthony, abandon ship before it abandons the very skies themselves!"
"Julius!" she cries, and is greeted with a bruising kiss, then, for her troubles. She smacks him. "Enough of that. Down, let me to my feet!" He obliges, though not without another kiss.
They are side by side then, racing through the night to the edge where Edmund awaits. They are to the rope and then over the side to the Golden Republic, lightweight airship in the service of the Isle of Night. Clinging to Julius on the forward deck as they disengage, Arliss watches as flames begin to consume the Good Ship Thallo.
The men of the Republic are to their feet, swearing and cursing as they let ballast go, as they command the sylphs in the machinery of the ship to raise higher, to increase speed to return to home. But on the forward deck, Arliss and Julius watch as Thallo lurches, beginning to come about once more as if to bring guns to bear on the Republic.
Magic crackles, a maelstrom threatening to disrupt the envelop of the lightweight ship of Night. But as it waxes in power, Julius roars defiantly at the the Thallo, and Arliss sways in answer, her own voice raised in a single soprano note. At her throat and breast, the brands burn anew.
As if to answer, the Thallo lurches in the skies, the guns go still. Like so much stone and rubble, it plummets from the sky and into ruin.
On the deck of the Republic, Arliss is locked in the embrace of her Conductor. By the light of the stars and moon and balefire, their eyes are matching amber hues, glowing with the fire of a thousand suns.
Above, the sails unfurl, catching the trajectory of aetherwaves home into the night.