This week, we’re posting excerpts of our work for you to take a look at. I always have such a hard time deciding what to share for things like this. Something old? Something new? Something in progress? My latest book came out a couple of months ago, and my next publication isn’t going to be released for a few months, so I don’t really have anything I need to promote right at the moment, which means my possibilities are wide open.
How about I give you a taste of my next steampunk story, due out in February in the Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination? I’ve got plans for lots more stories starring Harry and Marlowe, and their adventures give me a fun break from other work I’ve been doing.
Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution
“We could have taken your brother’s courier ship and arrived in a quarter of the time.”
“No, we couldn’t,” Harry said, scowling at Marlowe, who knew very well they shouldn’t be here at all, much less aboard George’s ship. But he seemed to enjoy mentioning her brother and reminding her of the impropriety of it all. It was a long-running joke, and she let him have his fun. Marlowe just smiled.
They’d taken a carriage — a regular hired coach, horse-drawn even — from the Oxford station to the doctor’s estate. The journey from London had taken most of the day, which left them facing the gatehouse on an overcast afternoon, the sunlight fading, the world growing colder. Despite the spiked iron gate, the estate was modest. She could have walked the perimeter of the grounds in half an hour, though the curving gravel drive gave the impression of greater space. At the end of the curve one could glimpse the house, a two-story grey pile with a slate roof and clay chimneys, walls fuzzed with ivy, windows brooding. All of it easily manageable, easily guarded.
The gate was the only access through a ten-foot high wall that surrounded the house. At the top of the wall copper conductors placed every dozen feet or so guided an Aetherian charge, a crackling stream of deadly green energy. A second barrier, impassible, should someone think that they could climb the wall. The humming, flickering light traveled down the bars of the gate as well.
Impatient, she opened the carriage door before the driver or one of the soldiers from the gatehouse arrived to do so. However, before she could let herself out, Marlowe slipped out, let down the step, and offered his hand to her. Propriety, indeed. Remembering herself, she gathered her skirt in one hand, took his with the other, and stepped neatly out of the coach.
Four soldiers on weekly rotation from the local regiment served guard duty here. One of them–an officer by his insignia–approached. A Lieutenant Bradley commanded the unit. This must be him.
“I’m sorry,” the lieutenant said. “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but this area is restricted. The house isn’t open–”
“I know. This is Dr. James Marlowe, and I’m Miss Mills, his secretary. We’re here to see Doctor Carlisle,” Harry said, drawing a folded paper from her handbag. The letter was affixed with the royal seal, confusing everyone who looked at it, but everyone who looked at it was well-trained not to ask questions. They’d merely have to wonder why two unassuming travelers had the Crown Prince’s approval. Not that they did, really. The lieutenant opened the letter and read it over–taking his time, to his credit.
When he’d finished, he looked across the page and studied them, the unlikely visitors. “Very well, then. Give us a moment to open the gate. Sir, miss.” He tipped his hat at them and turned back to the house.
Marlowe tucked his portfolio under his arm and gave the driver a few coins. “Can you return for us in two hours?”
“Yes, sir.” The man remounted his carriage and drove off.
Marlowe could never quite manage polish, even when he meant to be traveling as a respectable gentleman. Locks of hair escaped from under his bowler hat, his face showed pale stubble, and his tie was loose where he’d tugged on his collar. His jacket, trousers, and boots were acceptable but not outstanding. Truth be told, she liked him better without the polish — he looked like a man who was too busy to worry about inconsequential details like trimmed hair and neat ties.
“I hope two hours will be enough,” Marlowe said, watching the driver depart.
“I fear we’ll be wanting out of here much sooner than that. Part of me hopes this is all a waste of time.” She sighed.
Marlowe shook his head. “No, this is a rare opportunity. To meet the genius who created the Aetherian Revolution? Without him we’d have none of this.” He gestured ahead.
The front window of the gatehouse revealed a pair of brown-uniformed soldiers at work, one hauling down on a lever mounted on a wall, the other operating an unseen control panel. A metallic clang followed, the banging of steel on steel; the Aetherian hum faded, and the crackling stream of power guarding the wall vanished. Now the wall was just a wall, and the gate was just a gate. Harry still regarded the wrought iron cautiously.
“We might have been better off,” she said.
“Never think so,” Marlowe said. “Ernest Carlisle may be the only one who can move my work forward.”
“Don’t you think you’d solve the problem yourself, eventually?” Harry said.
“We don’t have time for that,” he said.
Of course, Harry thought. Not with the war on. It was the unspoken postscript to everything they did.
Bradley emerged from the gatehouse and said, “It’s safe, now. I’ll escort you in.”
The soldiers in the gatehouse turned another set of levers, and bolts lurched open, another metallic clunk. The middle of the gate split apart, and Bradley pushed it open. Harry suppressed a flinch when he touched the gate. No Aetherian charge scorched him.
Marlowe offered his arm, and she took it. They walked with the lieutenant toward the manor.
The gates clanged shut and locked behind them, and Harry glanced over her shoulder.
Turning back, she said, “Lieutenant, tell me about the Doctor. What is his schedule like? How many servants are here at the house, and how do you supervise them?”
“He has no servants, miss. By his own request. He said the necessary restrictions on them were too great to bother. A cook from the village comes in the morning to make his meals for the day, and a cleaner comes once a week. But her work is little enough–most of the house is shut up.”
“Is that so?”
“Doctor Carlisle is confined to a wheelchair, miss. He has chambers on the ground floor. I thought you would know, since you’ve permission to see him.”
“For how long?” she said. This wasn’t in any of the reports.
“Ten years, since the disaster. I’m given to understand he sustained injuries.” They’d reached the house now, and Bradley nodded. “If you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll let the doctor know he has visitors.”
The door had a speaker box by it, which the lieutenant leaned into. Harry and Marlowe stayed back and spoke in whispers.
“Did you know Carlisle was infirm?” she asked him.
“I didn’t. There were rumors of illness, but I thought it had more to do with age. Or a broken spirit.”
“Why is it a secret, do you suppose?”
“Out of respect for the man’s dignity, I imagine.”
“As if he had any left.” But he did, or he would not be living like this, in a polite fiction of genteel retirement–under guard. She frowned. “What does it say that we’re so afraid of a man who’s crippled that we keep him locked up like this?”
“Because it’s Doctor Carlisle,” Marlowe said, and he was right. Carlisle certainly couldn’t be allowed to go free. Neither could he be truly imprisoned, or executed, or exiled. He was the realm’s great conundrum. Or rather, its second great conundrum, after the conundrum that Carlisle himself had made his name exploiting.
“Be careful, Marlowe. You sound as if you admire the man.”
“Oh, I won’t forget the man’s murderer.”
“Are you sure you aren’t letting your personal feelings unduly influence you?”
“Of course I am. What else are personal feelings for?” She shook her head. “He can’t have turned everything over when he was arrested. A man like him — he kept something back as a bargaining chip should he ever need it. Some scrap of research, some artifact. I want to know what.”
“We both do. Are you ready for this?”
“Yes,” she said.
Bradley was exchanging words with the person on the other end of the speaker box. The responses were little more than incomprehensible scratching. But eventually, Bradley drew out a key and unlocked the front door.
“He’s ready for you. I’ll show you to the library.”
“I very much appreciate your help, Lieutenant. I know this must disrupt your routine terribly,” Harry said with a kind and practiced smile.
The soldier beamed back at her. “It’s no trouble, miss.”
“You’re very good at that,” Marlowe whispered to her.
“I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“Better you than me, then.”
It was why they made such a good team.
Bradley guided them through a tiled foyer and into a parlor.
Nothing in the house indicated the character of the man who lived in it. She might have been in any respectable gentry home: decent furniture, lightly used; unassuming still life paintings on the wall; neat wallpaper and drapes, carpet over hardwood. All of it might have been chosen by some matron desperate not to stand out. On the other side of the parlor, Bradley opened a set of double doors and guided them into the library.
This was Dr. Carlisle’s room, where he spent his time and where he’d put his things. Apart from walls full of books, the room had a great fireplace with a well-worn armchair sitting in front of it, a window overlooking a patch of flowers, lots of framed photographs on the walls and on various desks and tables. In the middle sat two large worktables. One of them was overflowing with books — stacked, open to different pages, as if he were reading a dozen at once. The other held various crafts and hobbies — fly-tying equipment, the clockworks of antique pocket watches, a sketchbook, a set of watercolor paints. Even toys — wind-ups and clockworks that Carlisle seemed to be in the process of repairing. Or dissecting.
Carlisle himself sat at the table in a wheelchair, a blanket over his lap, covering his legs to his toes. He’d aged, his formerly robust form sagging on a stooped frame.
“Doctor Carlisle, here are your visitors,” Lieutenant Bradley announced, then bowed himself out of the room like a good foot soldier, closing the doors behind him.
It was good that he did. Smiling, his eyes glittering, Carlisle greeted her, “Princess Maud. Your Highness.”
To be continued…