The clock’s ticking… the deadline for getting your name in for a free copy of Crosswind: The First Sark Brothers Tale is midnight on Monday, Dec. 1. Drop by Goodreads for the giveaway. To that end I’ve got one last excerpt from the book. In it the brothers Winch and Cope have taken a coded message from their mayor-general to a bookseller who is secretly in league with friends:
Oneyear led them behind the counter and through a closet-sized hallway. The stairs at the back led them down to a dingy basement, lit by only a handful of bulbs suspended precariously from the ceiling. Winch spotted the two printing presses right off the bat—the main printing press, which was a massive beast of iron, steel, and wood frames, and the smaller line-puncher set off to one side on a thick-legged table.
Their guide took the punch-tape from Cope. He fixed it to the feed cylinder then threw the switch on the side of the machine. Winch saw it had a fuel tank hooked to the furnace. The boiler rumbled. Steam hissed through valves. The machine rattled to life, the cylinder spinning the tape into the innards of the line puncher. Oneyear cranked on another lever. This time, the machine’s cylinder halted and reversed direction. Then it began tapping out letters—like a tele-typer.
“Doesn’t seem to be a terribly long message. Folk sometimes bring me whole pamphlets.” Oneyear shook his head in disdain. “Then they expect me to be done as fast as lightning. Amateurs.”
“Really.” Winch looked at Cope, who just shrugged.
The smells of the ink and the warm metal reminded Winch of the Advocate’s printing presses in its own basement. That recollection gave Winch a powerful fit of homesickness. In no time, though, Oneyear yanked the piece of paper from the machine and shut it off. It wheezed a contented sigh. Steam petered out. Oneyear patted it with affection. “Probably needs its cylinder replaced. Here you are, gents.”
Winch accepted the paper. Now to see what was so important that Mayor-General Keysor demanded it be hidden in code. Cope craned his neck for a peek, but Winch shouldered him aside.
This note looked more like odd poetry than an urgent message.
Cope elbowed Winch. “Read it aloud.”
“All right. Here:
Did you find mother’s locket?
Make sure, Jesca, that you
Trim the primrose bush outside.
Such a palace for wasps.’”
Cope blinked. Before Winch could hazard a comment, Oneyear’s laugh boomed in the confined space. “Boys, you don’t have a sharp spike’s clue what that says, do you?”
“Ah, no. If we did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be standing here catching bugs with my trap wide open,” Cope said sourly.
“Give it here.” Oneyear took the paper. He flattened it out against the wall with one hand. Then he rummaged in a pocket. Thick fingers held up a slender red pencil. “Your friend up there in Perch likes his ciphers, and he’s always keen to try out a new one on me. But he went for one of our classics this time.”
Oneyear circled words on the paper. Winch’s eyes widened—not just any words, but the middle one in each of the four lines. Oneyear smiled over his shoulder. “You see it now, correct?”
Winch nodded. “I’m distressed I did not see it sooner.”
“How’s about a bit more edification for those of us with apparent eye problems?” Cope said.
“It’s a null cipher.” Winch accepted the paper back from Oneyear. “See? Every middle word in these four lines of five words each is part of the message. The other words make it seem like poetry. But when you remove them all…”
Oneyear had scribbled below the message in red pencil four words:
“Find Jesca Primrose Palace.”
Cope frowned. “What’s ‘Primrose Palace’?”
“A hotel with a fine coat of paint on the outside and all the hedonism and seedy types that you could fill jail with on the inside.” Oneyear shook his head. “Sorry to say, boys, but if this Jesca is there, well…she’s not likely serving drinks off a silver tray,”
“Huh. Sure. Well, you’ve been a tremendous help.” Cope smiled. “We do appreciate it.”
Oneyear nodded. “And I’d appreciate my fee.”
“Fee?” Winch asked.
“One hundred.” Oneyear crossed his arms. Muscles rippled.
“What? That’s banditry!” Winch was appalled. So much for his assumption this man was some kind of patriot for Perch…
“Here, steady your wings, Winch.” Cope dug into his rucksack and, to Winch’s shock, produced a roll of red-rims, the paper currency of Trestleway. “One hundred, you hulking thief. Your employer’s much obliged, I reckon.”
“Reckon so too.” Oneyear pocketed the money. He gave them a broad smile. “Pleasant day, gents.”