Ichor Well is the third adventure in the Free-Wrench Series of Steampunk novels.
Ever since Nita Graus left her homeland and joined the crew of the Wind Breaker, the reputation of the airship and its crew has been growing. The destruction of the mighty dreadnought, the escape from the legendary Skykeep, and the inexplicable ability to remain hidden from the ever-watchful eye of the Fug Folk have combined to make her and her fellow crew the stuff of legend. Alas, legendary heroes cannot exist for long without attracting a worthy villain. Luscious P. Alabaster strives to be just that foe.
While he works his nefarious plans, the crew itself is not without turmoil. Captain Mack, already having survived far more years in the hostile skies than he had any right to expect, is making plans for his golden years. The crew is gradually learning all that Nita can teach them, leaving her with the looming decision of whether or not she still has a place among the crew.
Before the matter of the future can be settled, the crew has the problems at hand to solve. And in escaping the webs woven by the cunning and eccentric Alabaster, they may discover the darkest secrets the churning and toxic Fug has to hide.
The Free-Wrench Series is heavily character driven. Nita, Coop, Lil, the Cap'n, and even Wink have well-defined personalities. One area I felt I'd come up lacking, though, was the villain. I'd always been a fan of the over the top, mustache-twirling, gleefully fiendish villain. We're talking a real Snidely Whiplash, Dan Backslide, Dishonest John-type villain. I decided with the larger than life personalities aboard the Wind Breaker, their nemesis would have to be even bigger and broader. Cue Lucius P. Alabaster, quite possibly my favorite villain I've ever written. – Joseph R. Lallo
"I enjoy the Free Wrench stories because of the ingenuity, sheer insanity, and grand adventures centered on good, if a little odd, people. This book holds true to those elements and offers some growing moments I wasn't expecting."– Margaret Fisk (Amazon Customer)
"Joseph Lallo creates a world where you can't help but want to jump in. Exciting, smart, and so fun! What a great book/series!"– Barnes and Noble Customer
"Just about anything written by this author has been an enjoyable read for me. The Free Wrench World is not some old SciFi/Fantasy scenario with a few different twists. I found it to be a unique and refreshing change. Thank you, Mr. Lallo!"– DrAVL (iBook Customer)
In a sunless city, a neatly dressed man with a ghostly pallor sat at his desk poring over the assorted paperwork that came with running a city. A starched white shirt, black slacks, and a ruthlessly precise bow tie made up his uniform. The office was not impressive or ostentatious, though it was well stocked with perfectly preserved antique furniture. Each wall was hidden behind rows of books that lined the built-in shelves. If not for the size of the antique desk, and its brass nameplate labeling him Mayor, one would have assumed he was far lower on the bureaucratic ladder.
Amber light flickered from an oil lamp, cutting through the thin purple haze that hung in the air to illuminate his current task. It was a ledger filled with the costs and earnings from various ventures throughout the city. Red ink scattered over the pages in greater and greater proportions. He observed the sliding profits dispassionately and loaded a fountain pen with ink, then opened his bottom drawer to reveal what might have been a typewriter. It was certainly as large as one, made from oak and brass, but the polished mother-of-pearl keys were entirely numeric or arithmetic in nature. He hefted it with some difficulty to his desk and began to punch in the figures from the ledger.
His calculation device was just rolling its first result to the row of display wheels when he heard a light knock at the door.
"Mayor Ebonwhite, I have your three o'clock here," stated an even voice from the other side of the door.
Ebonwhite placed the pen in its stand and flipped open a smaller ledger. He ran his finger down the page and came to the name's proper entry: L. Alabaster. The lines beneath the entry, usually filled with the details of the meeting and whatever useful information was available about the individual, were fairly sparse. No stated itinerary. Ambitious but unremarkable aristocrat from the northwestern territories, southwest of Circa.
He smoothed down his waxed black mustache, adjusted his spectacles, and raised his voice. "Send him in."
Ebonwhite's assistant opened the door to reveal their guest. The man—like Ebonwhite and most other fug folk—was rail thin and paper white; but that was where the similarity to his host ended. Rather than subdued clerical attire, his clothes were vibrant and dashing. He wore a bright white suit, white gloves, a white vest, and a white tie. His hat was a bowler, also white, and with a white band. The buttons were gleaming polished silver, and he carried a white cane with a garish silver head. His facial hair was similarly ostentatious. A blond mustache, waxed like Ebonwhite's but curled at the ends, joined a Van Dyke curled forward at its pointed tip. Most curious of all, the edges of his eyes were rimmed with black makeup, not as a raccoon mask, but as a tiny thin line, like a stage actor trying to draw the eye to his gaze. Topping it all off was, of course, a brilliant-white cape.
He removed his hat to reveal slicked-back blond hair and bowed theatrically.
Mayor Ebonwhite glanced at his appointment book again.
"Lucius P. Alabaster, at your service," he said.
The man's voice was as brash as his attire, a trilling near-falsetto that managed to turn "Lucius" into a four-syllable word. He held his hat with one hand and offered the other for a handshake. The mayor ignored it.
"Have a seat, Alabaster. I'm rather pressed for time at the moment. If you would be kind enough to state your business so that we can tend to it quickly, I would be most appreciative."
"Of course, Mr. Ebonwhite, of course. I've come, as all decent men do, with a business proposition," Alabaster said, settling into a leather chair opposite the desk.
"Would you care to elaborate? I've made it my purpose to pursue any and all wise avenues of investment. While I am not so boastful to make the claim that I've found every means of fruitful exchange available, I would be rather impressed if you were to present to me something I've not considered."
"Oh, this matter, it is quite clear, is one to which you have turned a blind eye, good sir. But I, in my devilish cleverness, have come to shed light on this dark corner," Alabaster began, building up momentum with each word as though he was launching into a spirited monologue. "And in my ruthless brilliance I shall—"
"To the point, sir. Again, I am quite busy. I have a city to run."
"Ah. Ahem." Alabaster stood and placed his hat with care onto his head. "Then perhaps I shall return in six months, when you shall have more leisure time."
"The task of running a city is a constant one, Mr. Alabaster. I very much doubt I shall have any more time to squander on pointless bluster in six months."
"I suspect you shall. Because in five months, there is an election."
Ebonwhite narrowed his eyes. "Are you suggesting the people of Fugtown won't see fit to reelect me?"
Alabaster sat again, removing his hat and eyeing it. Between comments he plucked bits of fuzz and lint from its surface. "As you say, the task of running a city is a constant one, and such a constant task requires a steady hand. That is even more important for this city. Fugtown is the largest of our cities, and sits abreast of the largest surface settlement of Keystone. In many ways, the policies and decisions set forth by the man in your seat ripple outward to the rest of our society. As goes Fugtown, so goes the fug! And as goes the mayor, so goes Fugtown. You are the closest our little society has to a designated representative with the surface. It would serve us well to weigh your recent navigation before we allow you another few years at the helm."
Satisfied with the state of his hat, he replaced it.
"Now I am not so shortsighted as to treat the acts of just the last few months as the measure of your skill. It is true that as a whole we have flourished under your wise and reasonable leadership. But still, few memories stretch as far backward as mine. For those records with wet ink on the pages of history, your tale is less than glorious. We can begin with your poor diplomacy, making an enemy of the first Calderan to leave her island since before the fug arose. Then there is the matter of the violation of our best-defended stronghold and the theft of some of our most closely defended goods and secrets. And though I would laud your firm hand in deploying the dreadnought to punish such a crime, you were nonetheless the one to lose the dreadnought as a result. To the people of the surface, until that day, we were the gods. And now they've seen us bleed. That is an injury to our people. One that cuts far deeper than even the loss of the dreadnought itself. The dreadnought at least has been replaced, though I'll note it has somewhat questionably been left undeployed. As for the scar left by its destruction, how long will that linger?"
"Unless I have missed your rather graceless subtext, you are suggesting my actions regarding the crew of the Wind Breaker have fallen short of expectations."
"Oh, heavens no. I am not saying that at all. Perhaps your first failure to deal with them was a surprise, or even your second. But by now your repeated defeats and missteps are quite in line with expectation."
"Steps have been taken to deal with the Wind Breaker."
"Ah, yes. Yes. I have no doubt you'll soon have them in your clutches, and then we'll just lock them away in Skykeep and then…" He covered his mouth in mock embarrassment. "Oh, but of course they've not just escaped our most secure prison, they've destroyed it, haven't they? If I were you, I would consider seeking aid before that crew costs us any more landmarks."
"Am I to understand that your point, which you are so elegantly avoiding, is that you believe you can deal with the Wind Breaker crew?"
"I believe I can, and I believe I must. And it would be my honor to do so, if you would sanction and bankroll such an endeavor."
"Forgive me if I decline. As I've said, we have our own measures in place."
"This crew has run rings around your measures thus far."
"Perhaps they have, but even if they are becoming titans in the eyes of the ignorant, you and I know that they are quite mortal. They are still members of this society—a society that we have carefully crafted to make the fug and its people indispensable—and as such they must play by our rules. The crew is nothing without a ship. A ship is nothing without phlogiston. And we are the only source. I've personally overseen the tightening of controls over the very substance that keeps the Wind Breaker aloft. There is only so much of the stuff in circulation, and when it is used up they will have no choice but to come into our clutches again, at which point we will have them, or they'll wither away, at which point they will cease to be our concern. So thank you, but no. I will not take your generous offer of allowing me to finance a task that in short order will solve itself."
"Now, now," Alabaster said, grinning to reveal straight white teeth accented with a single silver incisor. "It is thinking like that which has fostered the belief that we fug folk are timid and fragile things, too frightened to venture out into the light to deal with things personally."
"I prefer to think of us as unwilling to dirty our hands with pointless tasks."
"Pointless? My good sir, these men killed your own nephews, did they not? Have you no sense of justice? Of revenge? Have you no pride? No dignity?"
"I am quite proud, Alabaster. Quite proud of what I've made of this town. And yes, these men and women have injured me in a very personal way by daring to defy me. They have bruised me again and again. I couldn't care less about those idiot nephews of mine, but they did bear my name and they were my brother's sons, so their deaths are another slap in the face. But I am a sensible man, and embargo and sanction are the sensible approaches."
"I would not be so sure. These people are swiftly becoming the stuff of legend. And they can thus only be bested by someone cut from the same cloth. What this calls for is a grand gesture by a grander foe."
"And that would be you? A man my researchers—who are quite thorough, might I add—have only seen fit to describe as 'unremarkable.'"
Alabaster's face became stern. "Perhaps you've heard of Ferris Tusk."
"Of course I know Ferris Tusk. He is the whole reason Fugtown stands as the beacon of commerce it is today."
"Precisely. And did he do it by lying idle? By waiting? No! He rose up! He met the surface dwellers face to face! Toe to toe! He burned the libraries, he stole the tools. He put the fear of the fug into the people above."
"Granted. But you, sir, are no Ferris Tusk."
"I'll grant you that as well. But I counter that Ferris Tusk was no one either, until he faced foes such as Admiral Maxwell, or when he achieved such feats as toppling Rigel Tower in Circa's capital! A man is only as big as his foe, and the Wind Breaker crew, they are the ones who shall wipe away the name Ferris Tusk from the hearts and minds of the people and replace it with the magnificent Lucius P. Alabaster!"
He finished the proclamation with a flourish, holding his hand aloft and remaining in position as though awaiting a crowd to throw roses.
"If that will be all, Alabaster. Mr. Fross will see you out," Ebonwhite said.
The mayor drew a line through Alabaster's appointment and resumed clicking at his calculation device.
Alabaster sneered and twisted the end of his mustache.
"Very well then, Ebonwhite. I suspect I shall hear from you again when you discover your foolproof solution to your little dilemma isn't quite so foolproof as you believe."
He turned, his cape flaring around him as he did, and strutted out the door.
A freezing rain began to fall as Alabaster made his way to the top of a nearby mooring tower. Little more than a glorified scaffolding, the tower was a necessary addition to Fugtown. The city itself was the husk of a city that had existed prior to the calamity that brought the fug. Even after many years of redevelopment, barely one in every hundred buildings was inhabited. Most travel now utilized either the ubiquitous airships or the scattered funiculars from the surface, and it was unfeasible to install a full airfield, as ships came and went infrequently enough to make the key points of the city accessible. Thus, near each cluster of populated buildings was a row of mooring towers for personal airships.
Alabaster's ship of choice was as obnoxious in its appearance as he. The envelope, a huge sack filled with phlogiston, was embroidered with his full name in glorious gold on stark white. The gondola slung underneath was a curving, ornate cigar of a shape painted in the same perfect white with golden filigree. A man, dressed in a plum-colored chauffeur uniform, was perched atop the gondola with a broom, scrubbing away a dusting of purple deposited by the fug. Judging by the deep purple stains that had settled onto every other surface, keeping the surface of the airship white must have been a round-the-clock job.
"Mr. Mallow, let us go," Alabaster said curtly.
The chauffeur deftly hopped to the scaffold and pulled the door open for his employer. "Mr. Alabaster, I trust things went well?"
"Mayor Ebonwhite is the worst of all possible worlds. A damn fool with no vision who has a simple solution to a complex problem," he grumbled as he stepped into the gondola.
The inside of the gondola—even if it was only large enough for Alabaster, his driver, and perhaps a single additional guest—was an order of magnitude more opulent than the entire office of the mayor. Overstuffed seats, cabinets loaded with expensive spirits, and even a hand-cranked music box filled the interior. Mr. Mallow stepped into the gondola and opened the liquor cabinet with one hand while pulling the knot from the mooring line with the other. The vehicle wasn't designed with people of his stature in mind. Standing a head taller than Alabaster and enjoying a lean but comparatively stronger build as well, Mallow was what people in the fug would call a "grunt." Less intellectually gifted, grunts were larger, stronger, and made up the bulk of what passed for the working class beneath the fug. Despite having to stoop slightly when within the gondola, he showed all the dexterity of a juggler as he pulled the door shut, poured a snifter of brandy, set a record on the player, and cranked it in a choreographed dance of domestic servitude. Though the airship rocked at the mercy of the air currents, he didn't spill a drop of brandy; and when his boss was properly situated and seen to, he stepped through a small hatch at the head of the gondola and settled into the pilot's seat.
"He did not see fit to entrust you with the solution to his problem?"
"Of course not, you buffoon. He believes the problem shall solve itself. He's through throwing time or money at it."
"Then you shall be left smiling as the plan blows up in his face, sir."
"No, Mallow, I won't. Because the most infuriating thing is that he is right. Starving these rogues out is well within his ability. His solution is sound. That is why he could not be convinced otherwise. He's a shortsighted fool, but an intelligent shortsighted fool. The worst kind."
"I… see, sir."
"No you don't, Mallow, because while you are many things, a thinker you are not. However, I do see. And what I see is that the only way to make Ebonwhite see is to take his solution away from him, and each solution after that, until he has no choice but to turn to me. And then," he proclaimed, jabbing his finger into the air, "Lucius P. Alabaster shall have his day!"
"Yes, sir," said Mallow. "Shall I head directly home?"
"No, Mallow. Linger for a few moments. I shall pen a message. When I am through, take it to the messenger to deliver in as expedited a manner as he is able. Spare no expense." He selected a pen and paper from the small side table. "The sooner this message finds its recipient, the sooner the sun rises on my new glorious day."