(An attempt at concealment, A missed dinner, Plans for war, and The Admiral’s weakness)
Iris made sure her presentation was spotless. The last thing she needed was for gossip to get about. Not until Peter was ready to steal the Admiral's march. It would serve the old man right for Peter to come to dinner with a spouse in tow.
The one she worried about the most was Mrs Cambridge. She seemed to have vision that rendered people transparent and their thoughts visible. The best bet was to tell her and beg her to be discrete.
It was after Five. She was late for the Kitchens. If she could survive one more evening of the Admiral and his tantrums, then she could quietly murmur a choice few words into the ear of Mrs Cambridge. The housekeeper would know what to do. They could come up with a battle plan immediately.
Iris caught a glimpse of Peter rushing up the stairs, taking them three at a time. Looking like he was harried by the devil himself. Like he knew that his only choice was to charge at all the demons and pray he survived.
She had no time for that, now. Whatever it was, he would tell her. Now she had to worry about being Noticed in her absence. The kitchen and the area around it was swarming. Iris kept her head down and chose a task that required standing in one place, lest her new gait alert the more observant people in the room.
By the time it was time to scuttle out for display, nobody cared to observe the way she walked. The Admiral had his back turned, and Colonel Walter was conspicuous by his absence. Minutes ticked by in mounting anxiety. Maids started looking at each other for answers. Nobody dared speak.
The Admiral started to mumble. A continuous, low grade string of curses aimed solely at his son. His mumble turned to a growl, the growl turned to rumbling, and the rumbling turned into a full-blown diatribe.
"...under orders to come down for dinner, insolent whelp. Can't follow a simple instruction, the dullard. Whatever brains he has is addled by all those wanton women and their double-cursed diseases. He'll rot before he sires my legacy, idiotic boy of mine, I should thrash the life out of him..."
Iris ran for the topmost floor before the Admiral could rise from his chair. She knew what would happen if she took the elevator. The Admiral would have her fired in disgrace for impeding his progress. Therefore, she took the stairs as quickly as she could. If she hurried, she could warn him.
She found him in a mess of papers. A new nest of loose sheets, all over with drawings and his scribblings.
"Peter," she gasped. "The Admiral's coming!"
"Tell him I'm busy. I've been called away to a war. I have to rally what resources I can."
He looked up from his work just as the Admiral came blustering in. "One thing! One thing you have to do in this blasted excuse for a household, and you can't even do that! Lay women at your feet and you can't get it up long enough to continue the great Walter name! You can't even come down for food! What the blazes is wrong with you?"
Peter remained eerily calm. "Becile is wreaking havoc in Egypt and I'm the only one with the resources to stop him, father. I must act quickly. I have no time for a formal dinner."
"You? Going to war with your tin toys, I suppose. What are they going to do? Sing the enemy to death?"
Peter was already back to his notes. "Harmonic weaponry... Why not? Amplification and the correct frequency... I could use the inter-dimensional properties of Four and Three to some effect... Add industrial machinery to their limbs..."
"I forbid it, do you hear?" demanded Admiral Walter. "You'll get your stupid self killed!"
"Better me than the world," said Peter. "That's what's at stake here, father. If I don't go, Becile will tear the world apart. Everyone will die. If I do go... And I have to go... Then this world has a chance."
The Admiral wheeled on her. Grabbed her by the shoulders. Shook her as he begged, "Talk some sense into him, woman! Tell him he can't go out there."
Iris had witnessed the devastation caused to Peter from just one of Becile’s mechanical menaces. No doubt he had more, by now. She could clearly picture the ruin he would be making. Other people's homes. Their loved ones. Their families. She gathered up the plans and deciphered what she could of Peter's illustrations. "If you add shielding to the giraffe Delilah's torso, you should have enough space for a moderate workroom. The other automatons can steer her around from the exterior, and her head would make a nice vantage point in battle. Can you make your blue matter explode?"
"My dear Miss Iris, the trick is making it not explode. What did you have in mind?"
"Blue Matter mortar rounds."
"Mutiny," blurted the Admiral.
"Necessity," answered Iris. "I love him, and I want to be sure he returns safely. Don't you? Or is all he's worth the good he does for your reputation?"
She could actually see him thinking. The long-trodden paths of his decisions opened up to previously unexplored realms. "You should find a way to use the enemy's power against them," the Admiral said. "Blow up their munitions, sort of thing."
"Of course! Green Matter is dangerously unstable. I could use it..." He started drawing again, muttering odd fragments of coherent thought.
Both Iris and the Admiral recognised that Peter was no longer responding to anything outside his head. "Permission to set up maids on shifts to see to his needs, Admiral? I don't think I can endure another marathon so soon after the last."
The Admiral nodded. "Yes. You do that. And... don't fret about your job. You're the only one who can keep him on track, more or less. He's improved, since you came along. We need you here." He quickly returned to being the Admiral everyone knew and dreaded. "But don't think for an instant that this means you can take any more liberties."
Translated from Admiral Walter-ese: all right, you've made a point and gained merit by admitting you love him, but it's never going to save you from the consequences of mouthing off like that to me ever again.
She nodded understanding and went back to planning strategy with Peter. His dinner arrived care of Mrs Cambridge, who looked Iris up and down and harrumphed. She set the dinner up and Iris persuaded Peter into eating it. Then Mrs Cambridge pulled Iris out into the hall.
"Do you mean to cash in on the Admiral's baby bounty, Miss Iris?" the housekeeper whispered.
Iris didn't bother asking how she knew. Mrs Cambridge had a wealth of knowledge and eyes sharper than an eagle's. "I mean only to love Peter Walter," she whispered in return. "He loves me too and we're happy. I don't want to spoil that by getting the Admiral involved."
Mrs Cambridge and her eagle vision could also see a future in which the Admiral knew about Iris' enthusiastic indiscretion. "I understand," she soothed. "But if any fruit comes out of this sowing, you have to tell the Admiral yourself."
Only now did Iris feel any shame for her shenanigans. "Please bring up any battle tactics book there might be in the library," she begged. "He's been called to a war and I don't want him to die over there."
Mrs Cambridge hugged her tight. Kissed her brow. "Easy, girl. I'll send up every help I can spare."
Iris went back to Peter and his plans, adding in what she knew about dirty fighting into his notes. Bullying him back to eating his dinner whenever he tried to rise from it. She let him talk, and steered the conversation towards his knowledge of the battle field and what was needed.
Which lead to the idea of adding a Marconi communications tower into the automaton giraffe's neck, and receivers inside the automatons. With coded transmissions, he could send orders to the automatons without allowing the enemy to know what his plans were.
An even dozen maids swarmed into the labs, all bubbling with ideas. Peony, who had a talent with illustration, quickly drafted plans for a rather more generic automaton. Designed pieces that could be easily stamped out of sheet metal. Chastity designed an assembly line where humans would have to take over from the engines.
Once the factory people realised the urgency of the situation, they also hurried to change Walter Mechanicals into Walter Automatons.
It was a whirlwind. Iris couldn't believe that they filled an entire steamer full of Automatons, with the giraffe Delilah standing proudly on the deck.
Even with the Binary Education Engine to feed language and tactics into all of them, Iris still prayed that their efforts would be enough.
One man, his mechanical giraffe, four babies and a hold full of generic automatons.... Against a madman with giant copper elephants and, from all reports, animated corpses as his soldiers. And a ready supply of the highly dangerous green matter in the Dandy Candy mines. Peter had put all his available blue matter in the automatons he had with him. And synthesising more was a laborious process.
Some of her fellow maids had taken to handling blue matter like a duck to water. Peter admired their brilliance and encouraged them to learn, but only to learn. His romantic focus remained entirely on Iris, inasmuch as he could focus any romantic interest at all when he was working every hour to have an army.
Iris didn't get to wish him goodbye. He left on the rising tide, in the middle of the night. She slept through any farewell he might have wished her.
And then... Everything returned to a vaguely unsettling normal. The maids went back to their maid work. Walter Mechanicals returned to its previous work. Iris returned to her previous invisibility. And the Admiral spent most of his time sulking. He'd retreated into the basket chair and entirely stopped arguing with Mrs Cambridge. A dangerous sign if there ever was one.
It was weeks before a telegram arrived. Its wording brief, yet powerful. Arrived safe, heading for mines. Systems green. Mrs Cambridge wrestled Martin for the possession of it, and read it to all the maids, who cheered. Then she took the simple missive to the Admiral, who did not.
Iris had started feel nauseated in the early morning. Nothing overt. Nothing she could point to in association with her clean monthly rags to indicate that she was most definitely with child. She kept her touchy stomach and her suspicions to herself. She was more concerned with the Admiral.
It was if all the fight had gone out of him when that steamer and that ridiculous giraffe vanished over the horizon. And, by extension, the Admiral's will to live had fled, too. He was going through the motions. Eating and drinking and breathing out of sheer habit.
"He made it across the Atlantic," she soothed. "That's a good thing, right?"
"So what?" he murmured. "There's still three chances for him to die."
Iris fought down fury and failed. "Admiral, you have been treating the Colonel with little else but disdain for all my time here. I thought you'd be glad of an opportunity to start over with a new wife? All you need do is quietly divorce that woman from your last marriage. Or have the union annulled."
"Never," his face had gone quite red. "Can't. I... I still love her."
So. The Admiral was fixated on a woman who wanted nothing at all to do with him. In that, at least, he was exactly like his son. But knowing the Admiral, he probably went about things in exactly the wrong way.
So she asked the question that had brought clarity to the Colonel. "What was she like?"
She expected an um. What she got was a sudden fountain of poetry. Lady Ebigail was not pretty like Iris (she allowed that unexpected compliment pass with no more comment than a raised eyebrow) but there was an ineffable charm about her. A fascination he could not unriddle. She had him hypnotised since her first words to him, and he didn't want to risk the chance of losing her.
During his relentless campaign of visits and invitations, he learned everything he could about her. She preferred the colour puce, and it looked magnificent on her. She couldn't grow her hair longer than her waist, and it made her ashamed. She loved precipitation in all forms and adored taking walks in the fog or the mist. She liked the tiny flowers and said roses were too ostentatious for their own good. She embroidered in her spare moments, where her myopia was solidly advantageous.
And she left him after she learned how he treated his son.
"My own fault," he murmured. "Too used to command that I can't stand it when people act like people..." He took a few deep breaths. "Get to be a bit of a bully."
You are a lot of a bully and everyone around you knows it. "And the thought of mending your ways? Or apologising?"
"An admiral? Admitting weakness? The lower ranks would eat me alive."
"They say no man is an island," she said. "No man is a mountain, either. People need people, and it is not weakness. You could admit to it, if you're brave enough."
He looked away from her. "...dunno where to start," he mumbled.
"Sincerity is always a good beginning," she suggested. "And confession is good for the soul."
His face was inscrutable. Somewhere between constipated and gassy. "You've got something to dust, don't you?"
Iris returned to her duties. If the Admiral wanted to turn his life around, he had to be the one at the helm.