Hart scanned the space in front of him without slowing his stride, or taking away the hand hovering just over the gun in his belt. There was a fine line of tension behind his thoughts, but he wasn’t anticipating a battle. It may have been years since he’d been down in the Menagerie, but the kinds of dangers lurking within its walls were generally not the sort that required skill with a pistol.
As the potential for action remained just the same, he did not lower his hand. He headed up the steps through the great arched doorway and ignored both the carved figures of Galileo and Copernicus above the door and the sentries standing at attention beneath them.
The guards held the doors for the three following after him, but Hart turned without waiting toward one of many available corridors and entered the east wing, though he did take a moment to note that the rest of the guards here seemed to have grown just as lax as the two at the door. Most snapped to attentiveness only when they saw his face; a few seemed positively terrified when they then quickly glanced away from his face and got a good look at his rather famous coat.
It was a plain black coat, cut in the military style, unbuttoned to reveal the white shirt he wore underneath and the large, heavy gun tucked into his sword belt as well as the sword at one hip. The sword curved up just under where the coat ended, at his knees, revealing a nondescript scabbard that matched his coat, bare of any insignia. The only decoration was the gray wool lining, just visible when he moved.
The lack of insignia said who he was as much as his face or the patch slanting over his eye, but Hart didn’t mind their speculation or their fear if it meant they would now perform their duties properly. If lives hadn’t potentially been at stake, he might have even been amused.
Isabel had noticed their inattention as well. She was behind him with her pad of paper, her pencil scratching as she took down their names and positions. Captain Rogers was supposed to be in charge of security in the Menagerie. It was clear he’d have to be replaced, and Hart—or, rather, Isabel—would have to start making personal inspections. Soldiers were here to guard those who could not protect themselves, not to fall asleep at their posts. He had a feeling Isabel’s thoughts were the same.
There was no room for incompetency, especially in this work. He didn’t care how bored the guards got, standing for hours in front of laboratories, listening to scientific babble they didn’t understand. This place might have come to be affectionately or mockingly referred to as Victoria’s Zoo, always out of Her Majesty’s hearing, but the scientists chosen to work here, the experiments funded by the Crown, were of national importance. Anything in these rooms might someday affect all of Britain. If they couldn’t understand that, then he’d send them over to give tours of the Tower Green to remind them of the cost of failure.
His gaze slid over the marks on the walls as he turned another corner. He knew the way well enough, though it had been years. It was one of the reasons for his promotion, along with his inability to work in the field anymore with such an infamous face.
Hart finally smiled, wide enough to feel the pull on the left side of his face. C had been amused at the time as well. He’d mentioned Hart’s face—his eye—as he’d been handing him his papers for the promotion. There was no one better suited to keep an eye on the city, was what he’d said, with a look at the patch.
Hart had offered a brief smile in return, if for no other reason than because no one, not even Isabel, ever directly commented on his injuries, though he’d never made an attempt to hide the wide spots of smooth scar tissue and the hints of pale pink that had once been a furious and bloody red. He wore the eye patch for formal events and polite company. The vision in his eye had been only slightly impaired by the accident, but looking at the damaged flesh around it made some uncomfortable.
The building around them had been built at the start of the century—after the last one had burned down—but already showed similar signs of devotion to England’s causes. Between the rooms where there should have been blank patches of wall were scribbled equations and scorch marks, along with the occasional quote and incomprehensible—if probably rude—graffiti. There was graffiti over the doors to the safety stations as well.
Those were fairly new, instituted at Hart’s insistence the moment the Zoo had come under his purview. One wooden cabinet every hundred feet, with spigots for the running water they’d painstakingly piped into this building. They were also filled with buckets, kits of medicine, and telephones that ran on batteries to call the fire brigade if necessary. The stations had already proven themselves worth the expense with lives and experiments saved. He was pleased to see them in place, and obviously used.
Isabel scratched another notation. Her pencil was louder than the footsteps of the two men flanking her, as it should be. Hart had trained them, though their swords weren’t sharper than the glint in his secretary’s eyes.
Hart tightened his mouth. He didn’t need a secretary for this, but then this whole idea was insane. He’d never liked it when his advice was ignored, and liked it even less when his hands were tied by orders. This… incredibly foolish, utterly ridiculous thing he was about to do was the best of his options. A fact that went beyond irksome, as he should never have been forced into this situation. There would have been alternatives had he been consulted before.
He flicked his thumb over the cool black grip of his pistol before he dropped his hand.
He had a job to do, and wondering what C was up to do was a waste of time, though he was very aware that this had been deliberately hidden from him. But it wasn’t his place to question, and C had yet to steer him wrong, so after a limited, quiet protest, he’d nodded and made his suggestions. To complain about that now was just as foolish.
He hurried down another small set of stairs, increasing his speed not to hasten his arrival, but to dispel the energy from his anger. The early hour meant that the closed, dim, gaslit halls were almost abandoned, though there was an occasional whirring sound from the odd room, then a muffled boom in the distance as he pushed open another door and swept past another set of nervous, jumping soldiers and out into the morning sunlight.
Noise hit him the moment he emerged, somewhat distant but ever present. The trains carrying troops and civilians alike in and out of the city, clearly audible even here on the outskirts of the academy, the clock tower chiming away, steamships in the harbor.
The air was a mix of pale blue and gray, the tops of steam towers and vents just visible over the trees scattered throughout this part of the grounds. If he turned, he would see other buildings, hints of the seat of government, domes more black than white with the dust from the munitions factories.
There was no fog; that was something. With no fog and a few thin rays of sunshine today and hopefully tomorrow, he’d have clear line of sight for the long day ahead. Though seeing the danger wasn’t going to make him any safer.
His hand twitched back toward his gun again at his first glimpse of the tower, his thumb gliding over the barely perceptible marks of craftsmanship and the signature of the maker etched into the handle. Then he looked up and allowed himself to view the tower.
It had once been connected to the main building, probably when it had first been constructed, but stood by itself now.
That decision had been made to benefit everyone.
There was a path leading to the door at the base. Hart glanced over two guards posted just inside the doorway, then tilted his head back to count the number of metal fans on the roof spinning like tops in the slight breeze and the lightning rods next to them, as well as the—there was no other word but perplexing—pipes running up and down the side of the tower.
What sunlight made it through the city smoke glinted off the copper, which made him think they were water pipes, though he didn’t see the need for water up there unless the stories were true and the man was truly living in his laboratory year-round now. At the base was a small shed of iron and wood, housing something that hummed. The sound grew louder as he approached the door. If they were water pipes, then that was hiding a boiler, perhaps a pump. But he wasn’t going to ask.
Hart stopped abruptly at the single step that lead into the porch. It was the first moment of stillness he had allowed himself since his briefing late last night. On the door was a brass sign that said 850. Zieliński. Beneath that, on the door itself, someone had taken a thick pen to the wood and written Danger! Go away! in six languages. Someone else had taken a different pen and scrawled Bastard underneath Zieliński.
Hart didn’t smile at that, just leaned his head back enough to notice that tikkun olam was still painted above the door in the same handwriting as all those go aways, as was the pax Britannica next to it, written in blue India ink and an entirely different hand.