Here’s a sneak preview of my upcoming novel’s first chapter. I’ll post some more chapters later in the week. Hope you enjoy…
Common magic (skin magic) is absorbed by the skin directly from the atmosphere. On its own, it forms a weak echo of heart magic, producing light and a sense of wellbeing. Collectively, it will provide sufficient power to advance our industrial revolution.
~ SIR AMBRUS GRINDLE, PRODUCTIVITY & INDUSTRY
The line of workers stretched all the way from Rhodens Lane to the powerhouse. Here amongst the factories, there was no sunlight to warm people’s faces and little hope of bringing it back. Those who made it past the door now filtered into a basement crammed with chairs.
“I’m regretting this already,” Em muttered, shuffling along a row within sight of the exit. She contemplated retracing her steps, but too many people blocked her escape.
“Your first time, eh?” asked an old woman seated at the row’s end.
Em paused at the chair next to her, frowned at its wooden seat and splintery backrest.
“First time’s always the worst.” The old woman chuckled. Her breath smelled of gin, and her patchwork coat cut a bright contrast against her faded hair. “Don’t fret, my dear.” The woman chuckled again. “Your magic’ll be pulled out of you in no time and then you’ll get paid and forget all about bein’ scared. As sure as my name’s Rosie J, I’ll see you next week when you’re hankerin’ for more.
” Em let out a deep, shaky breath and sat. She looked to Lucien as he sank into the chair on her other side, the pewter charms in his shoulder length hair jingling.
“So this is it,” he said, voice laced with contempt. “The worker’s gold mine?” He grimaced at the gas lamps hanging by chains from the rafters. “They look like eyes. Of automatons. Crouched and ready to chew everyone up.”
“Lucien, please,” Em said. “You didn’t have to come.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But you’re not facing this alone. Besides…” He gave a hint of a smile. “Double our coins, double our savings.”
Em swallowed, mouth dry. She wished she’d not told Lucien of her plans to spend the evening under extraction. Endangering herself was one thing. Endangering the man she loved was unforgivable.
“You two had better get your boots off,” Rosie said. “Here comes the attendant.”
Em did as asked, then rolled up her leggings. As she straightened, she noticed a previous occupant had carved the words ‘Fate Damns’ into one of the armrests. She wondered if she could get away with adding something equally subversive, such as ‘Fate Exploits’, when a lad with tobacco-stained fingers prodded her forearm. “Get a move on, missy. If you’ve changed your mind, you know where the door is.”
Em froze, part panicked and part unsure what she was supposed to do.
“Roll up your sleeves unless you want the mages to come over and make a display of you.” The attendant pointed his chin at two men reclining in armchairs up the front. Their hands were white-gloved and gentlemanly, rumoured to be charged with enough magic to knock a room full of workers senseless.
The attendant wound the electrodes around Em’s wrists and ankles. He fastened straps around her forehead, pinning her head to the back of the chair. “Quicker than lacing a corset, eh?” He patted her knee. “But not as titillating.”
Lucien grunted. “Keep your hands on the job, lackey boy, or you’ll go blind.”
Old Rosie cackled. “Couldn’t have said it better m’self.”
“Mind your manners.” The lad turned his sneer to Lucien. “An’ as for you: them foreigner words aren’t welcome here.
” Em couldn’t move her head to see Lucien, but knew he would be fuming. Foreigner indeed! He may not talk like a local, but he knew the city well enough to belong. Biting her tongue, she fixed her gaze on the two mages, hating them for docking everyone’s pay merely to force them here.
She counted to thirty, willed herself to relax. All too soon an attendant announced the final seat had filled. Other attendants took their places in the aisles.
The hall quietened.
Someone hummed a dirge.
“Get it over with,” Rosie grumbled. “If you take all day, I’ll be wettin’ me knickers.
” Nervous laughter rippled from chair to chair. Em’s electrodes grew cold. In a gut-churning rush, her skin magic surged through them, paralysing her limbs from wrists to shoulders, ankles to hips. The ceiling vibrated. Dust and the occasional cobweb drifted onto heads, faces, shoulders and toes. In the factory above, machines rumbled and whined as they devoured the skin magic of two hundred workers.
Minutes stretched into an hour. A dull cramp spread up Em’s backbone, through her shoulders. Every little whimper, cough or sigh from those around her echoed. Even Old Rosie’s barely audible groan.
There came the sound of water trickling, and the stench of freshly voided pee. At first, Em felt sorry for the poor woman. Then she imagined a puddle spreading between the chairs and reaching her feet. Pee contained salt. Salt conducted magic. Uncontrolled magic sparked.
“Lucien,” she whispered.
“Silence,” an attendant growled.
“It’s Rosie,” Em said aloud. “I think she—”
Em gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, breathed deep and slow. She longed to stretch her muscles, wriggle her toes, flex her fingers. Afternoon stretched into evening. Her discomforts became aches, and her aches pushed her into a sullen, unthinking trance.
At last, the electrodes warmed. Her arms and legs thawed. Not wanting to be pawed again, she wriggled herself free.
“Don’t you be breaking anything, missy,” said the attendant, “or the mages’ll be billing you.
” Ignoring him, she turned to Rosie. The crone should have unstrapped by now. If she were anything like Papa, she’d be keen for a post-extraction tipple.
For a single choked breath, Em tried to convince herself the old woman had fallen asleep, that the puddle beneath her chair meant she’d started the day with too much gin. But Rosie’s blank, staring eyes told a terrible truth.
“You drained her!” Em spat at the attendant. “You should have been watching. You knew her magic was weak so you took every last drop.”
“She was old. Gonna die anyway,” the attendant said. Em’s voice rose.
“How dare you say that!”
“Hush!” Lucien took her arm. “There’s a mage watching.”
Em pulled away.
“This is their plan, isn’t it? Kill the elderly, cull the weak.”
“Not now.” Lucien drew her against him, held her tight. He was shaking as much as she, his face clammy. “As I recall, I tried to convince you to give this a miss.”
She ducked aside, pulled on her socks and boots, hurried to the end of the row, legs quivering. She wanted to curse and cry and rage all at once. She wanted to grab the attendant’s weedy shoulders and shake him until he saw sense.
Up at the front, the two mages remained seated, bored and complacent.
“They’re murderers,” Em said, no longer caring who heard.
“Hush.” Lucien steered her to the exit. “Don’t give them an excuse to punish you.”
On the street outside, a night bird shrieked, irate in the slash of night between buildings. Never in her life had Em felt so tired. It was as if the electrodes had taken not only her magic but a piece of herself. As she dodged potholes, wheel ruts and other workers, she wondered if her legs would make it home. Even the shiny new coins in her pocket felt tainted. Probably cursed.
The air shuddered with the clunk-clunking of conveyor belts snaking down from windows six storeys above. Human-shaped automatons stood as tall as lamp posts, inspecting boxes being dropped into lorries. Smoke hissed and plumed from their neck vents, staining the mist dark.
“Nothing like a breath of sooty air to get the muscles pumping,” Lucien said dryly.
As he passed beneath a streetlight, his eyes looked sunken, deprived of sleep.
“I’m sorry,” Em said. “I had no idea it would be that bad. But how else are we going to save up for—”
A mage in white breeches and swallowtail jacket veered past them, his fingers sending ribbons of light onto the path ahead. Lucien poked his thumb towards the mage’s retreating back. “Look at him, flaunting his magic. Smells like a powerhouse owner. I’d like to see how long he’d last in electrodes.
” Footsteps of passers-by clattered on the cobbles. “My love,” Lucien began, “there’s something—”
“Em, Lucien, wait!” The voice belonged to a woman, calling out from behind them.
Em turned her head to see an acquaintance, Solly Flood, running to catch up.
“How are you keeping?” Solly asked, falling into step beside Em. “After I quit the workshop, I hadn’t meant to lose touch. Are you and Lucien still there? At Grindle’s?”
In no mood to chat, Em let Solly’s words hang between them.
“I was just passing the powerhouse when I happened to notice you leaving,” Solly said.
“You didn’t submit?”
“Tried it once. Never again. Besides, what do we get but a handful of copper? Meanwhile our magic earns mages truck-loads of gold.” She looked behind, checked both sides, lowered her voice. “What else can we do except fight them?”
Em glanced at Lucien who was now staring pointedly ahead, clearly as eager to get home as she was.
“Fight mages?” he asked. “Who’d stand a chance against them?
Solly continued on in silence. When they rounded a corner, she said, “Mages are a minority. If we workers rise up, we’d have a chance.”
Lucien sneered. “Workers untrained in magic? Facing mages who have it all?”
“Supposing mages don’t have it all,” Solly said. “Supposing some workers have the potential to be trained?”
“Trained for what? Prison?” Lucien paused, considering something.
“What is it?” Em asked, almost tripping over her own feet.
He nodded towards Solly. “You must excuse me. I have business.” He met Em’s gaze and gave a tight, twisted smile. “Sorry, I’ll explain later.”
“Lucien?” Em stared open-mouthed as his lean silhouette merged into the darkness of an alley. She huddled into her coat, thought about setting out after him but did not relish a chase through the streets at this late hour. Instead, she continued towards home, intending to pick up her pace but couldn’t find the strength.
“Remember three summers ago?” Solly asked. “That time we all went down to the park to dance? Before the powerhouses? Back when everyone had skin magic enough to light their way? I remember how you lit yourself up all over. You were the brightest one there.”
“Listen,” Em interrupted, “tonight I heard a woman die. I just want to go home.”
Solly mumbled a curse. “That’s the second I’ve heard of this week. We have to fight. It has to be stopped.”
Em shrugged. Solly was right, but talk was cheap and actions amounted to nothing.
“Āiyā,” Solly hissed, impatiently. “No one should be treated like we are. There are ways to avoid the powerhouses.”
Given that those who refused to submit had little chance of making a decent living, Solly did look surprisingly well. Although her hand-made coat hung as shapeless as a horse blanket, the set of her shoulders and the russet shine in her bobbed hair suggested a robust constitution.
An old man approaching them stumbled. Solly steadied him.
“How am I supposed to see where I’m going without skin magic?” he growled.
“Fate protect you,” Solly said.
“Fate send you home safe.”
As the man continued on, Solly looked to Em. “One day, that will be all of us. First, they’ll steal our skin magic, then later our very last breath. Damn mages. May their greed be the death of them.”
Em raised her eyebrows but said nothing. The air thrummed with the sound of ever-churning foundries upriver. A whiff of burned lard swirled in coal smoke from the tenements and factories not yet fuelled by a powerhouse.
“I know your magic is strong,” Solly said, her voice low. “Way too strong than is lawful for a commoner.”
Em kept walking, refusing to react despite how her stomach tensed.
“Think back to that festival,” Solly persisted in a voice so low that Em could barely hear. “The way you danced. So much light. Suddenly you ran to your father. Your fingers sparked.”
The back of Em’s neck prickled. “No. That wasn’t me.”
“You were lucky no one else saw.”
“It wasn’t me.”
“The truth is,” Solly added, “there are more like us than you realise. One in fifty can channel enough magic to spark. One in a hundred can light a taper. One in a thousand have enough to fight.”
Em blinked. Us?
“I must confess,” Solly continued. “You wouldn’t see me in a powerhouse if my life depended on it. Even so, I pass this way every week looking for people like you. It’s only a matter of time before your magic gets too strong. If you can’t hold it in, chances are you’ll do more than just spark. If you’re lucky enough to escape scalding yourself, one day the wrong person will see.
” Solly’s prying gave Em strength enough to lift her pace, determined to not show anything beyond detached endurance. As far as she knew, no one in her family had ever had that kind of magic. So why would she?
“I want to help,” Solly said. “I want to teach you how to use your power for the common good. Without hurting yourself.”
Solly gave a barely perceptible nod.
“What about Rosie? The woman I heard die. Why couldn’t you have helped her?”
“I wish I could have. Trouble is there are too many Rosies and too few of us.
” Em checked to ensure no one lingered within earshot. “You’re a Groundist,” she whispered.
The edges of Solly’s eyes crinkled with the beginnings of a smile.
“I’m saving up for a proper apprenticeship,” Em said. “I want to run my own workshop and design automata.” Her words fell flat, unconvincing.
“Thanks to mages, the likes of us can never own workshops. Even Lucien, with all his experience, has little chance of being anything other than a dogsbody. As for having more magic than we’re supposed to: where does that get us? Even if we try not to use it?”
Em nodded in reluctant agreement. The street took them past shops, tenements and food stalls, and Em was tempted to ask exactly what Groundists planned to do.
“How’s your father?” Solly asked gently. “Is he better?”
“I doubt he’ll ever be that.”
Em almost added, ‘not since Mama died’ but the memory made her throat ache.
Solly mumbled something Em did not hear and they continued in silence.
“I’m afraid this is where we must part,” Solly said, pausing at a ramshackle bakery. “If you want to pursue this further, return here any day before noon and wait. I’ll tell my scouts to alert me if they see anyone who matches your description. Don’t speak to them, though. And not even to Lucien.” She held Em’s gaze. “On second thoughts, if you took up my offer would Lucien accompany you?”
“He believes magic was created to heal not fight with. To be honest, I agree.”
“That’s all very well.” Solly’s tone suggested refusal would be disastrous. “Either continue as is and risk ending your life, or put up a fight and at least have a chance to live.”
Em closed her eyes. So much to think about and so much she didn’t know. Fates in Hell, she was tired. If her power was as strong as Solly suggested, then why did she feel so unbearably weak? Without thinking, she looked over at Solly and blurted, “Lucien and I plan to marry. Next year.
” Solly pursed her lips. “Will he take you away to Cornica?”
“I can’t go. My da’s too sick to spend all those weeks at sea. If I desert him now, he’ll end up dead in a powerhouse.”
“And so will you, if you allow it,” Solly said. “Then he will follow.”
Em’s head spun. She wanted nothing more than to sleep.
“You need to think hard about my offer,” Solly went on. “But don’t take too long.” Abruptly, she turned away and disappeared into the throng of workers merging with the shadows.
Alone at last, Em could not move, could not make up her mind as to which road to take. Solly’s or Lucien’s? Papa’s or her own? Everything Solly said had made sense despite it sounding too dangerous and too impossibly hard. Even so, the idea of joining the Groundists promised not only hope but a glimmer of excitement. The city needed change. Not the kind that mages were aiming for, but the kind that helped workers.
Tomorrow. I’ll make up my mind tomorrow.