Schuldig flung back the doors of the disused chapel, striding in across the dusty floorboards, not noticing the scars they bore from where the pews – now ripped out – had once stood. At the far end, where one might – in an established church – have expected an organ to rise or at least, in this less demonstrative of sacred buildings, a humble piano, stood an ominous mass of gleaming brass and steel. Its gleaming surface, slick with oil lovingly caressed into the metal, was incongruously penetrated by delicate glass tubing through which flickers of light raced. Steam hissed from vents in the machine as the apparatus clicked and moved. A slender figure, clad in trousers and jacket of scuffed, yet clearly durable leather and boots and gloves of thick black rubber scurried to and fro before this idol of progress making careful adjustments in the manner of an ancient, pagan priest carrying out arcane yet holy gestures.
"Nagi!" Schuldig yelled over the din of the machines workings. "Nagi!"
The figure turned, revealing its face to be obscured by both a muslin cloth tied about the nose and mouth, and thick goggles covering the eyes. With a dismissive wave of one black-gloved hand, it turned back to the machine, made a few, final adjustments, then turned and strode to where Schuldig stood, pulling down the cloth and taking off the goggles as it did so, revealing the filthy and perspiration-drenched face of a Japanese youth.
"What?" Nagi inquired peremptorily. "I'm working."
"Well, stop offending God and nature for half an hour. It's time for dinner."
"Dinner? I don't have time to eat."
Schuldig seized Nagi's arm and attempted to tow him away, quite without success as Nagi simply stood there as if rooted to the floor. No matter how much Schuldig strained and swore, the lad was immovable, as if he suddenly weighed a ton rather than the slight weight that was, to the eye, his by nature. Schuldig gave up, and looked at him beseechingly.
"Crawford told me to fetch you. He wants to explain his plans."
"Again?" Nagi said in a dry and sarcastic manner seeming more fitted to a man twice his apparent age.
"And I want to have dinner! Which I can't have till he talks, and he won't talk without you being there. Come on, Nagi. You can stay up with your difference engine all night, I don't care. Just come back to the house for now."
Nagi looked back at his towering machine with longing and pleasure, then sighed. "All right," he said. "I probably need a little time in a quieter place anyway."
"I don't know how you stand it here," Schuldig said, cheerful now he was getting his way. "Come on, there's plenty of hot water, you can have a bath before dinner."
"Oh, now the time has expanded to a bath as well as the ranting and the food," Nagi muttered, but in a way that Schuldig knew betokened the lad's odd sense of humour. "Lead on, MacDuff," he said, adding, at Schuldig's bemused glance, "It's a deliberate misquoting of one of the most famous plays this land has produced – don't you ever read?"
"No," Schuldig said. "It's a waste of time. Come on, we're having a simply wonderful piece of beef for dinner!" So saying, he turned on his heel and strode out, leaving Nagi to come behind him at his own pace.
The house in which they stayed was comfortable and brightly lit and contained – o wonder of wonders! – that most desirable of all modern accoutrements, a bathroom with running hot water. Having delivered Nagi to this tabernacle of steam and soap, Schuldig idled for a while near the stairs leading down to the kitchen and scullery, trying to catch a whiff of his promised dinner. Then, reluctantly, he ventured into the sitting room to find Crawford and Farfarello waiting for him.
"Nagi'll be down shortly," he said before anyone could so much as draw breath. "He's getting harder and harder to winkle away from his machines!"
"You haven't changed for dinner?" Crawford asked, looking Schuldig over with a critical eye. He adjusted his monocle, adding, "We have standards to maintain, Schuldig."
"I thought I should just tell you about Nagi first," Schuldig said mendaciously, retreating once more. He ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and burst into his room. "Dress for dinner!" he scoffed. "As if we are gentlemen!" Despite his scorn, he went swiftly into the dressing room that stood between his room and Crawford's, and changed his attire as quickly as he could, brushing his long red hair as neatly as he might until it crackled and shone beneath the ministrations of the boars-bristle brush. Then he exited once more at speed, pausing only to rap sharply upon the bathroom door. "Nagi! Hurry up!" Not bothering to attempt to decode the lazy oath from within, he descended once more and re-entered the sitting room.
"Sherry?" Crawford asked, handing him a crystal glass before he could say yes or no.
"Thank you," Schuldig said. "What's so important we all need to be here?"
"Let's wait for Nagi," Crawford said. "It would be inefficient to repeat myself."
"We must strive to avoid inefficiency," Farfarello said in tones just innocent enough to draw no more than an irritated glance from Crawford as Schuldig hid a smile. He pulled a large and detailed map from his pocket, ignoring the others as he unfolded it to its full dimensions, muttering from time to time what seemed like the names of ancient holy men and women.
At last Nagi appeared, the grime and perspiration that had marked his face now replaced with a pink and healthy glow from his bath that made him look altogether young and innocent. His dark-brown hair, still damp from his ablutions, was neatly combed into place. He seemed like a polite and quiet child, obedient to his elders' wish that he dress appropriately for a dinner with adults. Going to where Crawford stood he took the proffered sherry and drank it straight down, holding the glass out silently for another.
"Here I am," he said abruptly, "What is so important it must drag me away from my work?" He sat neatly in an armchair opposite that in which Schuldig sprawled. Unlike the young German, Nagi seemed as full of nervous energy as a cat ready to spring upon an unsuspecting mouse.
"Now that we are no longer working for the ambassador of His Japanese Imperial Majesty," Crawford said, "We must decide what our next moves shall be here in London."
"Pffft," Nagi said. "I never saw why we had to come to London in the first place."
"Where else would we go?" Schuldig asked in surprise.
"Peking," Nagi said at once. "Berlin. Calcutta. Moscow. New York."
"New York?" Schuldig laughed. "That's ridiculous! Who ever heard of master criminals in New York?" His laughter was joined by that of Crawford.
"Everyone comes to London," Crawford said patiently, as Nagi let his gaze fix upon the ceiling in weary derision. "There simply isn't another city like it for advancements in the murky world of criminal activity. From here we may send out tentacles to insinuate ourselves into places of power and authority, that we may come to influence the course of the British Empire, and with it, the world!" He adjusted his monocle once more and looked disapprovingly at Schuldig, whose smirk was more than a little obvious, and at Nagi, whose grave and scornful face now bore marks of scornful amusement. "Mark my words," Crawford said, "One day, the whole world - or those who matter, anyway - will see things my way. That shall be a glorious day, and you should be glad I have invited you to partake in it."
"All the churches in England, Crawford, you promised me," Farfarello said, scrutinizing his map of the sacred sites of England through the brass and crystal magnifier which Nagi had devised for him.
"They'll all be yours," Crawford said easily, "Your pastimes will be well catered for." As the door to the dining room opened, and the butler employed by them for his skill in firearms as much as for the fine figure he cut in evening attire summoned them to their evening meal, Crawford added, "Let's go in to dinner." He nodded to Schuldig who jumped up and took his arm to be escorted in, sitting opposite him at the fine, dark oak table. Nagi and Farfarello took their places at either side of the table. Over a rich mulligatawny soup, the conversation continued.
"Now that Mr Takatori is so unfortunately deceased," Crawford started.
"See, Nagi?" Schuldig broke in, "You'd think it would have made more sense to assassinate him at home, or after he had returned to Japan, and yet the assassins journeyed here to do it. Everyone really does come to London."
"I still think it was very unprofessional of us to let him be killed," Nagi said primly. "No other ambassador is likely to employ us now, and my work needs a great deal of financial backing."
"Let us find you a rich patron at once!" Schuldig cried dramatically.
Crawford cleared his throat, "As I was saying," he said, directing a quelling look at Schuldig who just smiled and devoted himself to his soup once more, "We shall need to make friends with those we can use, and lay false tracks to obscure our passage from those who would hinder us. Which reminds me, Farfarello, please make your murders more discreet for the time being."
"I made the last one look as if it couldn't possibly be the work of an Irishman," Farfarello said.
"How so?" Schuldig asked.
"I wrote 'Revenge' on the wall in his blood, in German. The police will never work it out."
"Was there any post for me?" Nagi said, cutting across the conversation as the last of the soup was eaten and cleared away. "I'm expecting a letter."
"Something did come, I believe," Crawford said. "Nagi, not during dinner –" he added, as the youth leapt from his seat and went smartly to the hall, to examine the correspondence upon the table there. Crawford frowned in disapproval as Nagi came back in, bearing the letter, which he opened with the silver fish knife at his place and began to read as his fish was put before him. "Nagi, if you don't mind – " he said.
"If it had been brought to me earlier I wouldn't have to read it now," Nagi said, continuing to read, though he condescended to use one hand to stab ineffectually at his fish with a fork. "Ah, good, good," he muttered to himself.
"Who is it from?" Schuldig asked, forestalling Crawford's clear desire to expound upon the subject of table manners.
"Professor Moriarty," Nagi said absently, "I sent him a paper of mine upon calculatory machines and difference engines."
"Was there no English professor to whom you could have written?" Schuldig asked, laughing at the look upon Farfarello's face. "In my experience the only thing an Irishman knows about is religion."
"E," said Farfarello precisely, "Equals MC2
"Do not be so rude," Nagi said, hastily scribbling Farfarello's words upon the cuff of his shirt. "I've had enough dinner, I can't wait for the meat course - I must get back to work," he exclaimed, and ran out of the room.
"I despair of teaching that boy civilized manners," Crawford muttered, and sighed as he saw Schuldig stealing the rest of Nagi's fish. "I despair of all of you."
* * *
"I require," Nagi said, "Some blades made to these specifications –" He held out some pages he had ripped from Crawford's diary, upon which he had drawn the blades of his design, with careful notes beside each other as to size.
The cutler's clerk looked at him with little interest, barely concealing a yawn. "I'll tell him when he's free, he's with some other customers," he said, lazily indicating the door behind him.
Nagi considered the matter. This idiot was likely to lose his notes, or decide he looked too young to be a real customer. "I'll see your master myself," he said, and pushed past the clerk, ignoring his protests. He pushed open the door, and walked down a short hallway to another door standing ajar, from beyond which he could hear voices. Within the room were three people. One, who was no doubt the cutler, held a Japanese sword reverentially, the blade protected from his hands by oil-smeared rags.
"I can ease the nick out with no problem," he said. "A beautiful piece of work, sir, beautiful – ah, can I help you?"
Nagi nodded as the man looked over at him and was about to speak when the other two turned around. They were the assassins who had killed Mr Takatori. They stared at each other, then the taller of them seized back the sword from the cutler and swung at Nagi.
Nagi fled. In the shop he knocked the clerk right over, and then he was in the street and running. He didn't stop till he was streets away, wishing there was some way he could call his friends for aid. I shall have to pay more attention to methods of communication, he thought, breathing hard.
"Wait! Please, wait! I'm unarmed!" a voice called behind him in Japanese.
Nagi spun round to see the shorter and younger-seeming of the assassins come to a halt a safe distance from him, holding out the papers Nagi only now realized he had dropped.
"You left these – " the assassin said, creeping closer. "I really don't have a weapon. Here –"
Nagi grabbed them and leapt back.
"What are they for? They look interesting."
"Not your business."
"They look like they're designed to cut extremely strong card into very precise shapes and sizes – is it for instructional cards for a difference engine?"
Nagi looked the youthful assassin over carefully. "What would you know about that?"
"I like machines. I'd hoped to be a scientist," the assassin shrugged. " . . . can I buy you a cup of tea?"
" . . . all right," Nagi heard himself say. He wasn't sure what had possessed him, but then the most beautiful smile spread across his new friend's face, and he decided he'd take the risk.
* * *
"And then it turned out I was actually Takatori-san's illegitimate heir – or possibly legitimate heir, I can't quite work it out. In any case, it makes it difficult to know what to do next. Do you think I should feel guilty for helping to kill my own father?"
Nagi nibbled on the little iced cakes the waitress had brought with the tea. They tasted decidedly pink, he thought. "I'd say throw the lot over and dedicate yourself to the pursuit of knowledge and science," he said. "I'm glad we didn't have to fight your friends, Omi-chan, they're hopelessly outmatched by us."
"I'm glad too! Are those tasty? . . . mmmmm! Tell me about your experiments."
Nagi felt an unusual emotion bubbling up inside him. On the few occasions he'd seen the assassins who had eventually killed his ex-employer, he couldn't help but notice Omi, who had always seemed a charming person. And a sensible one too, it seemed. A charming, sensible person who was stroking his thigh under the table.
Nagi cleared his throat. "Why don't you come to my workshop?" he said. "I can show you my etchings."
* * *
"Oh, my," Omi said in breathless rapture, "These are exquisite!"
Nagi took the etchings back and shrugged. "Thanks," he said. "I did them myself. What do you think of my machine?"
"It's so big and powerful! Can I climb up on it?"
"Be my guest," Nagi said. He watched Omi mount the ladder leading up into the depths of the engine and smiled slightly at the view. Then he quickly climbed up after, steadying Omi as the first platform was reached. The smell of oil and steel had never seemed so headily delicious. Nagi grinned, and pulled the first of the set of levers that projected into the narrow, cramped space. "I'd normally wear protection," he said, "But sometimes it's more fun doing this without."
"It's not too risky?" Omi asked breathlessly.
"Don't worry," Nagi said, "I'll take care of you."
"Oh, Nagi!" Omi cried, and kissed him.
Nagi let go of the levers, letting the great engine whirr and pump steam through its valves, and flung his arms about Omi, kissing back with as much enthusiasm as he showed for all dangerous experimentation. Sliding his hands beneath Omi's jacket and shirt he paused, and pulled back a little.
"You're not a girl," he said accusingly.
"No," Omi said, kissing him again and seeming put out to be fended off. "Why did you think I was a girl?"
"Well—" Nagi said, waving a hand to indicate Omi's entire person. "And it's not uncommon to find feisty girls disguised as boys so they can have a life of adventure or scientific exploration free from the strictures society places upon their sex. It's practically de rigueur for groups working outside the law that don't consider themselves to be villains, especially for the girl who finds out she comes from some great family."
"Oh," Omi said. "I always knew you were a boy," he said in a hopeful tone of voice. "Is this going to be an insurmountable problem?"
Nagi considered it. It was rare for him to find anyone to talk science to who wasn't a total fool, let alone someone he could talk science to in Japanese and who had such a delicate touch, perfect for the precise adjustment of sensitive instruments.
"No," he said, putting his hands back where they'd been.
"Oh good," Omi said. "My real name's Mamoru, would you mind very much using it?"
"I'll call you anything you like," Nagi said, sinking down with him to the floor of the platform.
* * *
"One of my experiments gave a friend the power of irresistible attraction for women," Mamoru said, watching the levers pump back and forth over their heads. He giggled, "At least that's what I told him. In reality it didn't do much more than bleach his hair and give him fresh breath."
"Hmm," Nagi said, idly playing with Mamoru's hair. "Impressive. I channeled the force of an electrical storm into my own body."
"Didn't that hurt?" Mamoru asked, wide-eyed. "What effects did it have?"
"I'm slightly magnetic – it's very difficult to make me move if I'm near metal. Oh, and I can move heavy objects around with the power of my mind. Pull that lever, would you?"
"This one?" Mamoru asked, obliging.
Nagi gasped. "No, the one on the machine. Now go back to pulling that one."
Steam billowed round them eerily, and, Nagi thought, romantically. "I also discovered the result of hitting my team leader on the head with a large wrench. He says he's seen visions of the future ever since, though it's possibly just brain fever."
"Why did you hit him on the head?"
"He halved my materials budget," Nagi said, trailing kisses down Mamoru's neck. "I had even greater success in attaching electrodes and wires to another team member's head and decoying him outside in a thunderstorm. When the weather changes he can read people's minds."
"You really are a dedicated scientist," Mamoru said, squeaking a little as an unfortunate gust of steam caught him in a sensitive spot. "I'm not as brilliant as you, I have to admit."
"But I myself am willing to risk much in the pursuit of knowledge. For example, what are those brass rods up there?"
Nagi looked further up the heights of his infernal creation to where a series of gleaming brass rods pumped back and forth ceaselessly, the light catching from their carefully polished surfaces.
"I put them on to make the machine look more impressive and therefore worthy of greater funding," he said. "They don't actually do anything, they just look ominous and incite vaguely licentious thoughts in the minds of viewers." He raised an eyebrow at the expression on Mamoru's face, which was not vague in the least.
"I like the way you have arranged them by diameter of girth," Mamoru said. "And to have so many of such different girths . . ."
"Why do you keep saying 'girth'?" Nagi said. " . . .ohhhhh." He paused. "I have calculated to the merest fraction of an inch the depth of their motion."
"Can you vary it for the sake of interest?" Mamoru said. "I mean, to keep the interest of financial backers, of course."
Nagi peered down to a table, crammed with notes and tools, and holding out his hand concentrated with all his might. A small box rose into the air and shot into his grasp. He smiled at Mamoru's exclamation of wonder, and showed him the cards within, punched through with an arcane arrangement of small holes. "I can have them perform any motion within the limits of physical design."
There was a silence as they both looked up at the rods, ceaselessly and energetically pumping through the steamy gloom.
"For the good of science," Mamoru breathed.
"For the good of science," Nagi echoed, squeezing his hand tightly.
Without further ado, they began the climb to the next platform.
* * *
Nagi could be very quiet when he wanted, so neither Crawford nor Schuldig realized he was in the room with them until he was standing over the chaise longue and clearing his throat in a meaningful fashion. Schuldig squirmed out of Crawford's embrace and pulled the nearest antimacassar over his lap.
"You couldn't have had one of your visions when it might be useful?" he snapped at Crawford, who was struggling back into his trousers. It was, Schuldig decided, suspicious that Crawford had visions only at times convenient to himself. He wished he hadn't listened to Crawford's confident assertion that it would be perfectly safe to wear his new scarlet corset as they would be without interruption.
"I did have a general sense of foreboding," Crawford said irritably. "What was it you wanted, Nagi?"
"And why are you looking so damnably pleased with yourself?" Schuldig added. "You're normally very hard to pry away from your engine."
"Pry away from the engine," Nagi repeated with what seemed to be mischief in his voice. "Yes, I found it rather hard." He sat down gingerly in an armchair. "I've found us a paymaster. Well, I've found me a financial backer, but I'm sure I can wheedle some money out of him for you."
"Money? How much?" Crawford said.
Nagi shrugged. "I suppose it depends on how good his line of credit is till he has some assets shipped here from Japan. It's the new ambassador – the son of the old one, by the way."
"I can tell you're hiding something," Schuldig said, wriggling into his shirt as best he could when laced up so tightly.
"Are we going to have rain?" Nagi asked innocently.
"I'm not reading your mind, you just look guilty. Where are my socks? Crawford, what have you done with my socks?"
Crawford flung the requested items of clothing at him, and advanced on Nagi. "When can we meet this new Mr Takatori?"
"Oh, I think all contact should go via me," Nagi said. "He wants regular and detailed reports on my work. As long as I keep him happy, I'm sure I can get him to pay for your plans of world domination."
"Is that wise?" Crawford said. "You can make an unfortunate impression on people –"
"Believe me," Nagi said with a self-satisfied, heavy lidded expression, "I made a very deep impression upon him. Well, I should get back to work. I need to recalibrate some pistons for more precise movement. As you were," he said jauntily, levering himself from the chair with the tiniest of winces, and strolling from the room.
"He's up to something," Schuldig said, coming up behind Crawford and leaning upon him.
"I foresee nothing disadvantageous," Crawford murmured. He turned about and smiled at Schuldig. "You never got as far as your trousers."
Schuldig shrugged, then laughed as he was tossed back on the chaise longue. Shortly thereafter he had far better things with which to concern himself than Nagi's engines and machines.