The Clockwork Dragon
A BRONZE NANO-DRONE ROSE from the cemetery behind Saint Paul’s Cathedral and tilted northward, four spherical engines glowing blue. It ducked beneath a cab on Cheapside, weaved through hurrying knees and boots, and paused in the shadow of a white stone building. When the pedestrian traffic thinned, it popped up over the rooftop, dropping into a hidden courtyard and pushing in through the mail slot of a weathered black door.
Several minutes later, a light ding echoed through an ancient chamber of wood and slate, announcing the arrival of a lift. A man and woman in scarlet robes stepped off and turned toward a judges’ platform at the curve of the horseshoe-shaped room, oblivious to the tiny drone slipping out behind. With a flare
of its engines, the drone shot up into the safety of the rafters and set a drifting course among oaken beams, widening its iris to take in the scene below.
A crowd was gathering.
Four separate groups assembled in four separate sections of polished wood bleachers. The first, to the left of the judges’ platform, looked serious, even dangerous, in gray overcoats that sat heavy on their shoulders like steel armor. Every man and woman among them wore a red scarf, bunched up beneath battle-scarred faces as fierce as the fire-breathing dragons sculpted into their high-backed chairs.
Those across the chamber bore more placid expressions and yet appeared no less dangerous, wearing a mix of high-collared suits and black robes. They kept their eyes fixed straight ahead, matching the marble unblinking eye set into the wall behind them. And they remained eerily silent, fingers flicking and tapping at their thighs in a sort of code.
The occupants of the next section down were not silent. They whispered and chattered, guarded by a pair of giant golden statues at the rear corners of their bleachers. They were stuffy sorts in tops and tails, casting dour looks across the chamber at the fourth and final group.
The looks of these toppers, as they were called, were not
lost on that last group, known to the rest as the crumbs. A few of the crumbs scowled back through thick spectacles. Others nervously tugged at tweed waistcoats. They were the smallest group by far, huddled in a bunch at the center of chipped and abused bleachers carved with falcons, wolves, owls, and bears.
But unlike the toppers, there were real giants among them.
The nano-drone settled above the judges’ platform and zoomed in on the second judge from the left, an olive-skinned woman in a scarlet robe. She had just pulled a bronze cylinder from a pneumatic tube and cracked it open. She drew out a parchment. The drone snapped a picture.
SIR IGNATIUS GALL, MINISTRY OF SECRETS
SIR BARRINGTON ROTHSCHILD, MINISTRY OF GUILDS
JACK BUCKLES, MINISTRY OF TRACKERS
As soon as the judge opened the pneumatic tube to return the cylinder, the drone idled its engines and dropped, barely scraping the wood backing of her chair.
The woman turned to the judge beside her, cylinder dangling above the open portal. “Did you say something?”
“Only that I hope this doesn’t take all night. The Royal Arbiter and I have a nine o’clock table at the Wig and Pen.”
“I can’t imagine it should. Then again, you know how vicious these ministry squabbles can get.” She dropped the cylinder into the tube, closed the portal, and pressed a brass button. Off it went through twists and turns with the nano-drone clinging to the front, flaring its blue engines in delight.
Jack Buckles sat on a plain wooden bench in a small waiting room, head resting in his hands, trying to clear his mind.
It didn’t work.
Three blue-green pings lit up the corner of his brain, like sonar in a submarine. Ping. Ping. Ping. Jack waited for them to stop. Ping. Ping. Ping. They didn’t. He left the bench and walked over to a brass grating set high on a wall papered with burgundy and gold silk. Blue light glowed behind.
The moment Jack pulled the grating free, a nano-drone shot out. It coasted around the room in a slow descent and came to rest on the bench beside Jack’s nine-year-old sister. The two exchanged a glance. Sadie—that was her name—shrugged and smiled.
Their mother, meanwhile, looked befuddled, but not by the drone. She patted her coat pockets, holding a single red glove by the fingers. On the way back to his seat, Jack knelt
beside her and lifted a matching glove from under her chair.
“Ah. There it is.” She spoke with a British accent, even though she had spent the first thirteen years of Jack’s life in Colorado, pretending to be American. “Just like old times.”
Jack glanced over at a black slate door, looming in the corner. “No, Mom. It isn’t.”
“Everything is going to be all right, Jack.”
Nothing had been all right for more than a year, ever since a mad Clockmaker had kidnapped his dad, luring Jack out of an exile no one had bothered to tell him about. Jack’s discovery of his birthright as a member of a cloak-and-dagger British detective agency had caused him nothing but trouble. Since then, he’d been cut off from everything he’d known and locked in an underground tower—his mother and sister prisoners with him, his father in a coma. Returning from exile had made Jack lonelier than he could have ever imagined.
Jack shoved his hands into the pockets of an old leather jacket, one he knew Mrs. Hudson would frown upon. The matron of the Ministry of Trackers had strongly advised him to wear a suit for the trial. Jack had chosen a T-shirt and jeans.
“You’re strong, you know,” said his mother. “Your father
and I grew up together on Tracker Lane, embedded in the rigors and traditions of the ministry from birth. You were denied that, and yet you’re stronger than he was at fourteen, both mentally and physically.” She poked the knot of muscle at his shoulder and combed his dark brown hair with her fingernails before sitting back again. “You can handle whatever they throw at you tonight, Jack. I know you can.”
He hoped so. London’s oldest secret agencies—the Ministry of Dragons, the Ministry of Secrets, the Ministry of Guilds, and the Ministry of Trackers—all played by a different set of rules. Simply by learning his true identity, Jack had violated Section Thirteen of the tracker regulations, the rule mandating the exile of the thirteenth generation.
And he had broken many more rules since.
A girl with honey-blond hair pushed in through the opposite door, along with the scent of strawberries, staring down at her smartphone. Gwen Kincaid snapped her feet together directly behind Jack’s mom and looked up. “There you are.”
Jack frowned. “Where did you think I was?”
“Not you, you wally.” She unraveled a purple-and-black striped scarf with one hand and pointed her phone at the nano-drone with the other. “Him.”
“You mean, it,” said Jack.
“No. I mean, him.” Gwen drew a walnut pillbox from the pocket of her gray wool coat and flipped it open, exposing the blue velvet padding inside. “Fun’s over, Spec. In you go.”
Spec approached the box as if intending to obey, but then zipped away at the last moment and flew around the room. He settled in a high hover, out of Gwen’s reach, and did a little flip.
“Get in the box or spend the next week as a paperweight on Mrs. Hudson’s desk.”
Gwen’s threat did the trick. The nano-drone cut its engines and dropped into the pillbox, snapping it closed with the weight of the fall, and Gwen squished herself down between Jack and Sadie to show them the smartphone. “He took a picture of tonight’s lineup.”
“Risky.” Like he needed another mark on his record. “What if the judges had seen him?”
“They didn’t, did they?” Gwen bumped Jack’s shoulder with hers. “You see, before it became a courtroom, the Black Chamber was the Elder Ministry station of the Royal Mail, so there’s all these pneumatic tubes, and some of them connect to the air ducts, and—”
“Gwen.” Jack placed a finger under her arm, lifting the phone. “The lineup?”
“Right.” She tapped the screen, bringing up the photo of the judge’s parchment. “Gall is scheduled to speak.”
Ignatius Gall—the Undersecretary for Things Unknown at the Ministry of Secrets—was the creepiest of all their agents, with a clockwork monocle in place of one eye and a skeletal clockwork prosthetic in place of his right arm. Jack had it on good authority that Gall had enlisted the mad Clockmaker to kidnap his dad so he could experiment on a tracker brain, causing his dad’s coma. Jack also had it on good authority that Gall wanted his family dead. “He . . . uh . . . wouldn’t try anything in front of all those people, would he?”
Gwen gave him an indefinite shrug. “Probably not. Right? Too many witnesses.”
It was not quite as confident an answer as Jack was hoping for.
She switched to the video. All those people, four secret societies, had come together for one purpose—to determine Jack’s fate. The camera zeroed in on Gall, at the center of the Ministry of Secrets section. Jack bent closer to the screen. The spook, as agents of the Ministry of Secrets were called, appeared to be talking to the empty space beside him. “Who’s he talking to?”
“An imaginary henchman?” offered Gwen. “Who knows?
Madmen talk to all sorts of things—rabbits, pigeons, shopping trolleys. In any case, it looks like—”
“They’re ready for you.” Sadie finished the statement for her. But Jack’s little sister wasn’t looking at the video with the others. She had turned to face the big black door.
It opened slowly, ghostly silent, and a boy in a three-piece suit with glossy black hair poked his head in. His eyes settled on Jack. “Master Buckles, I presume?” His manner was posh, as Gwen would say, but not his accent.
“Yeah. That’s me.” Jack stood, straightening his jacket.
The boy pointed at him, turned his finger over, and curled it twice. “You’re with me, yeah? The rest of ya can watch from the cheap seats.”