Delighted to receive this wonderfully detailed review from Jemimah Brewster, editor, writer, reviewer.
The Eternal Machine is an inventive and elaborate debut novel firmly within the Steampunk sub-genre of science fiction, and Ryles has crafted a one-of-a-kind magic system that both underlies and drives the plot throughout. Balancing the elegant world-building is a rich cast of colourful characters that bring the city of Forsham and its dark workings to life. I’d recommend this book to anyone who enjoys detailed world-building, Steampunk fiction, or dark fantasy epics!Jemimah Brewster
I’d love to post the entire review here, but it is best viewed on Jemimah’s webpage. Some of her thoughts have already given me ideas for Book 2.
The Eternal Machine is sold at:
And now on SCRIBD
The Eternal Machine launched last week 14th January, and at last I feel as if I’ve reached the first milestone of a very long fourteen-year journey. It was my first novel, one I didn’t think I would ever publish, and almost ended up in the trash basket forever. Instead, I decided to use it to work my way through the entire learning process of writing longer fiction. I used it to learn how to write character, then plot, dialogue, world building, emotion, description. At times it felt as if I were painting a picture, adding each layer at a time, making sure they not only complemented each other but also interacted. Now that it’s done, I’m glad I stuck with it. Using input I received from critters, editors, beta readers and now reviewers, the ongoing process feels like a masterclass with my own work as a focus.
I was therefore delighted to receive a review from spec fiction writer and book blogger Leanbh Pearson, who summed up her commentary with:
A new steampunk read from a debut author in the genre. Highly sophisticated world-building with combination of alternate history, steampunk and gaslamp fantasy makes this suitable for audiences of all three genres. A well-recommended read!
You can read the entire review at Leanbh’s website.
THE ETERNAL MACHINE:
At last, The Eternal Machine will be released tomorrow, Friday 14th January! I’m excited, a little bit scared and happy to have nearly met the goal I made 14 years ago. If you like weird steampunk, gothic urban fantasy with lots of strong female characters, and a little bit of Leibniz, then this may be for you.
I must admit the scariest part was putting it up on NetGalley via BooksGoSocial a couple of months ago. But I bit the bullet and jumped in, and received an interesting mix of reader reactions, which are now on Goodreads. I took a few risks with this book by including themes that I care about and are as much a reflection of the present world as the novel’s nineteenth century setting; but that’s what a lot of steampunk is about, isn’t it? Taking risks.
Anyhow, allow me to introduce you to some of my girls.
Starting from Top Right and moving Clockwise:
1. Em is an underpaid & underemployed mechanic who dreams of being a designer, but has little chance in a city owned by industrialists; so becomes a rebel instead.
2. Solly is a resistance fighter, Em’s friend and mentor; and is a wise and natural leader.
3. Lottie is a shapeshifter trapped in the body of a human. She is wise, irreverent, witty, flippant and loves smoking cigars.
4. Phidelia is on a mission, but her unconventional behaviour has many tongues wagging against her. She ignores this narrowmindedness with all the contempt it deserves.
5. Orla is spectacularly badass and somewhat corrupted. She wants to rid the city of industrialists, but cares little about who she hurts along the way.
6. Myrtle has worked as a horologist for 24 years. She is a rebel, Em’s mentor and is fiercely protective of her younger brother who is very very tall.
Furthermore, there are also some kick-ass male characters, some good, some bad, and some a bit of both.
Damask Wallpaper No-longer-here
Oval Picture frame: Darkmoon_Art
Gold Rectangular Picture Frame: Aventrend
Em: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich
Solly: Atelier Sommerland
Phidelia: Atelier Sommerland
Images edited by Carol Ryles
Back in the computer age, people had time to read books.
Steampunk is a genre of subversion, not only due to the actions of its characters but also for the ways its writers play with reality, creating imagined histories and technologies of science and fantasy. Inspiration can be drawn from both science fictional histories and contemporary histories. For example, in Morlock Night K.W. Jeter draws on aspects of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In The Difference Engine William Gibson and Bruce Sterling create an alternate history where Charles Babbage’s original invention of the same name is mass produced to kickstart the age of computers.
At first sight, the anachronisms of steampunk appear to be little more than the curious gimmicks of an aesthetic that is widely believed to be over and done with. Back in 2008 when I decided to write my first novel in the genre, people would say, “Steampunk? What’s that?” Five years later when I tried to sell it, a revival had not only spiked but also petered out. The common response became, “Steampunk? Not again!” Having said that, new titles continue to be published, such as James P Blaylock’s The Steampunk Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, Gail Carriger’s Defy and Defend, and Phil Foglio & Kaja Foglio’s Agatha H and the Siege of Mechanicsburg (Girl Genius #4).
Furthermore, you can find a decent list of new works at Rising Shadow.
Perhaps another revival will happen again soon. After all, that’s how fashions roll.
But why steampunk? And why is the nineteenth century the perfect era to set it in? Is it simply a nostalgic return to the past? Or is it more than that?
Back in 2013 when I completed my PhD, I argued that steampunk was a historical narrative set in the past “seen through a speculative fictional lens that has been both irreverently tampered with and ingeniously enhanced with the benefit of hindsight.”
Similarly, Bowser and Croxall assert,
“Like most science fiction, it [steampunk] takes us out of our present moment; but instead of giving us a recognisably futuristic setting, complete with futuristic technology, steampunk provides us with anachronism: a past that is borrowing from the future or a future borrowing from the past.” (“Introduction: Industrial Evolution”. NeoVictorian Studies 3:1 2010).
In this way, the kinds of technologies that many people take for granted become defamiliarised, or in other words, the familiar is made strange and at the same time illuminated. Eric Rabkin states:
“If we know the world to which a reader escapes, then we know the world from which he comes” (The Fantastic in Literature, 1976 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977): p. 73.
The anachronisms of steampunk can also be seen as a form of subversion because they are an intentional and playful revision of accepted history. Early examples include the sentient robots of K.W. Jeter’s, Infernal Devices and the 19th Century nuclear device in Ronald W Clarke’s Queen Victoria’s Bomb. Books such as these work particularly well in a nineteenth century setting because the Victorians were similar to us in many ways. They saw the establishment of the empirical sciences, the industrial revolution, the first wave of feminism, the rise of imperialism and colonialism, all of which are still relevant in today’s society. Steffen Hantke argues:
“What makes the Victorian past so fascinating is its unique historical ability to reflect the present moment.” (Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk. Extrapolation 40:3 (1999): pp. 244-254)
For us, the nineteenth century represents a turning point – a time where things could have happened differently in ways we can only imagine with the benefit of hindsight. Peter Nicholls writes,
“Victorian London has come to stand for one of those turning points in history where things can go one way or the other, a turning point peculiarly relevant to sf itself. It was a city of industry, science and technology where the modern world was being born, and a claustrophobic city of nightmare where the cost of this growth was registered in filth and squalor. Dickens – the great original Steampunk writer who, though he did not write sf himself, stands at the head of several sf traditions – knew all this.” (John Clute & Peter Nicholls, The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, 1993 (London: Orbit, 1999): p. 1161).
I loved reading Dickens even before reaching my teens. By the time I sat down to write THE ETERNAL MACHINE, I’d read most of his novels at least once.
Two or three years ago, a little before I decided to get THE ETERNAL MACHINE professionally edited, I wanted to do something different with the genre. One of my early drafts was set in an unnamed fantasy world, but the worldbuilding was lacking, so I decided to flesh it out by moving it to an alternate reality in Sydney, Australia. I decided it needed a recognisable landmark, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge immediately sprang to mind. Yep, I know the bridge wasn’t built until the early 20th Century, but Steampunk is a genre of anachronisms, and in my novel, magic and science are equally valid disciplines. This made a very corrupted version of the bridge not only recognisable but also possible.
Next I needed a magic system that was not entirely smoke and mirrors. I already had the bare bones, but I wanted something inextricably linked to character and based on as much history as imagination. Therefore I put on my subversive writer’s hat. Or perhaps took a wild risk, because instead of basing my magic on science fictional history or folk magic or myth, I chose to playfully base it on a real life obscure metaphysical theory — The Monadology — devised in 1690 (published 1714) by the philosopher, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This theory has more recently been argued by Eric Steinhart to be a description of virtual reality.
What I ended up with was an anachronism within an anachronism, or in other words, a 17th Century theory that describes a 20th Century concept set in a 19th Century alternate reality. I’m not going to try and explain it all here — and I’ll blog about it later — but the challenge was to cherry pick enough of the theory to eliminate the need for more than a few sentences of explanation, which I drip fed where the plot demanded.
Using this idea quickly became fun and most probably irreverent. If Leibniz or any professional philosophers would ever read it, I suspect they’d either be annoyed or amused 😉
The truth is: I discovered the Monadology twenty years ago, and have enjoyed reading about it ever since. Even papers that discredit its logic. After all, arguments for and against an idea are fodder for the muse, especially if that idea is controversial.
What does this image represent?
A. Me proofreading and spotting a typo?
B. A character learning that something is not as it seems?
C. A reader surprised by a plot twist?
All of the above 😉
Feature Image Credits:
Worried woman sitting at table: LightField Studio
Damask Wallpaper No-longer-here
Oval Picture frame cut out from image by: Darkmoon_Art
Steampunk man’s and steampunk woman’s face in oval frames: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich
Framed steampunk airship: flutie8211
Gold Rectangular Picture Frame: Avantrend
Woman in Red dress: Avesun
Images edited by Carol Ryles using GIMP
Six weeks until my novel is released and despite hours and hours spent proofreading I’m still finding typos. Not many, fortunately; just the rare missed word such as ‘to’ or ‘the’, a couple of ridiculous misspellings, a misplaced comma and quotation mark, and most annoyingly, a couple of pesky malapropisms…
I have no idea why I wrote “wretched” instead of “retched” Or “appraised” instead of “apprised”? My brain knows the difference, but my keyboard and/or typing fingers do not seem to care.
Just as unforgivable, I found two instances of “it’s” being used in the possessive sense. How even? Surely it’s easier to leave out that apostrophe than it is to put it in.
Not that I’m proofreading on my own. My manuscript is having a final check by a couple of friends who have been through the whole process with their own work. Meanwhile, I’m double and triple checking, over and over, and still not satisfied.
Of course, MS Word’s spellchecker helps, but it’s not perfect. I type on a Mac, and follow up with the spell checker in Pages which seems to be a little more thorough. Both are good for spelling errors, but Pages seems to be better at picking up malapropisms. Even so, not everything gets caught.
Missed words are harder to see: eg, “how do” instead of “how to do”. And all because the human brain – and apparently computer brains – are great at filling in gaps. Or maybe I’ve been staring at the screen for too long, and when the grammar checker flags an absent word, I miss that as well.
This is why I get up and go for a brief walk around the garden every 15 mins. It wakes me up, forces me to refocus.
Another way to catch missing words is to read and listen at the same time. My version of MS word is the cheapest you can get, so it doesn’t read aloud, but I’ve found a couple of apps online which serve the purpose. I’m currently using Speakline which is pretty basic, but has a number of speeds and voices, is free and works on Macs and PCs.
Finally, as for clunky sentences, listening to Speakline helps with those as well, but fortunately, all but a couple were fixed by my line editor and copyeditor. Money well spent. Having professional advice not only helped polish my manuscript, but also felt like taking a masterclass with my own work as the focus.
But editing is expensive and with good reason: it takes a lot of concentration, many hours of work and training. Sadly, by the time I reached the final proofreading stage, my budget was blown.
So this is where I am now. Proofing and reproofing, pulling out typos with the same grudging dedication as pulling out weeds.
I have six weeks left and I plan to catch them all.
It has certainly been a learning curve getting this book ready for publication. But I’m almost there. Meanwhile, if you are interested in reading Sample Chapters One to Six, you are welcome to take a look.
I started this novel back in 2008 and it has since been through many redrafts. It has been professionally edited at three stages of production:
Structural and Line Edits: Pete Kempshall
Copy Edit: Amanda J Spedding
It’s now going through a very slow, final proofread.
Praise for THE ETERNAL MACHINE
Victoriana comes to Sydney in an alternative 19th Century, bringing dark Dickensian factories and even darker souls. Mages too, practising heart magic and skin magic, along with shapeshifters, demons and automata. Mix in a mad scientist, a touch of romance and a plot to keep you guessing—wild! What’s not to love? Highly recommended.
…nicely sensory, gritty, darkly colourful… an apparently real world from the first sentences, and I very soon got caught up in it… the novel’s tone, characters, and themes make it apparent that Ryles takes the genre as seriously as the best steampunk writers take it…
Excerpt from my upcoming novel. Content: PGR (low level violence and supernatural themes).
The Fear whispered, piercing the shifter’s consciousness like a thorn.
His name is Lucien… Save him…
There was no shutting it out. Even after a decades-long slumber. Even in the bedrock beneath the city. The whispering continued, driving the shifter up into the cold, stale streets above.
I know who you are, Ruksinubus… Listen…
The name sounded old, familiar. Ruksinubus? Hadn’t it been taken from a vicar when men and shifters were not yet enemies?
Ruk… Help him, The Fear demanded.
The Fear answered with a scream so harrowing that Ruk collapsed into shapeless mist and fled along the surface of an oily, rutted track. How large Forsham had grown. How dreadful the taint of humanity.
Ruk cowered in a gutter, then fled over rooftops of slate, rust, and soot. The Fear followed, as persistent as a wound refusing to heal.
Night deepened. Rain drizzled. Ruk floated between buildings, houses, hovels and taverns, watching and listening while humans talked, argued, coupled and slept.
“I’m hungry,” a child complained.
“I can’t sleep,” cried another.
“This headache will be the death of me,” said commoner after commoner after commoner.
Help him… The Fear howled.
Ruk found solitude in a wooded park. Eucalypts loomed, smelling sharply of years long past when industrialists had not yet arrived in steamships to poison the land with their city.
But still The Fear wheedled.
Go to the wharves… do not lose him…
Ruk could only head where the voice insisted, closer and closer to a place that seemed at once alien and familiar. There came a shout, angry and demanding.
“You! Foreigner! Freeze!”
Ahead, beyond a derelict pier, a young Cornican stood clutching a suitcase, his back pressed against a high blackened wall. Men blocked his escape.
Do not lose him! The Fear screeched.
The tallest – a guard – lunged at the traveller’s unprotected throat, opening it with a flash of steel.
Head thrust backwards; blood gushed. The Cornican sank to his knees. His killers bent over him. Then casually, as if no one would dare challenge them, they picked up his suitcase, rummaged through his pockets and moved on. Seeking what? Another throat to open? Another chance to steal?
The Fear remained poised, hovering at the edge of Ruk’s consciousness. Wear him.
Do not lose him!
The young man slumped forward, shuddered, stilled.
Wear him! The Fear shrieked, hollered, howled, and shouted all at once. SHIFT!
The scent of dying wafted through the air.
Life or death? Ruk asked.
The soul answered in the way of most souls in Forsham. Life!
As you wish.
The shifter swooped, enveloped the traveller and pierced his soul. Mist solidified into bones, organs, arteries, veins, muscles, sinews, skin. A creature of flesh now, Ruk released the dead man’s body, seeing it for what it was: a husk with a face that now mirrored his own.
Lucien. His name had been Lucien.
Water lapped the pylons beneath the wharf’s bloodied planks. Grateful for the cover of darkness, Ruk undressed Lucien’s remains as respectfully as the act would allow. He shrugged on the clothes, dragged the body towards the water, rolled it in and watched it sink.
Shadows hugged him like the darkest of cloaks. Lucien’s memories threatened. Too much emotion. Too much knowing. Ruk knew at once he shouldn’t surrender to them. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not one little bit. Through sheer force of will, he pushed them away until a single thought remained, so deeply implanted it wouldn’t go.
A face. A woman’s face. The one Lucien had been desperate to see.
Questions to be answered in later chapters:
Can Ruk reacquaint himself with being human? Or must he rid himself of The Fear first? Furthermore, how did The Fear know Lucien would die? And why does it care about Em?
Rotting cockles littered the alley from end to end. To make matters worse, Lucien already regretted abandoning Em in the street with Solly. Circumstances had dictated immediate action, but it would take more than bravery to fix this insufferable city. Even so, to walk away and not look back…
What would that take? A special kind of cowardice? Or strength?
A rat darted between his feet. Before he could react, it disappeared down a drain as if its sole purpose was to vex. Like the man who’d agreed to meet him at the strike of nine and was nowhere to be seen. Yet another reason to hate Forsham.
So much for a city that touted itself as progressive. In the years since Lucien had arrived, everything he’d achieved had slid backwards. Factories spanned entire neighbourhoods. Workers were used as fuel for a single, ravenous machine.
“Mr Boreau!” The trader emerged from the shadows; well dressed and amply fleshed, eyes dulled from a life of dissipation. “Apologies. I was rudely detained.” Three rough-looking men accompanied him. He lit up his fingers and proffered two tickets. “Adjoining cabins. Lockable. If they’re not to your liking, there are buyers who’ll snap them up.”
Lucien glanced at the tickets and tried not to look too eager. No doubt they’d cost more than he could comfortably afford.
“Very well,” Lucien said. “Four silvers.”
The trader whipped the tickets from his grip. “You do realise Cornica is nine thousand miles away; not nine hundred. The fare is five whole silvers. Either that or take your chances in a powerhouse.”
“When does the freighter depart?”
“First thing tomorrow.”
Lucien had expected all manner of problems, but nothing as pressing as this. “You’re having me on. I’m serious, man, when’s the next one?”
“Three months wait. Or maybe forever. Rumour has it, tomorrow’s will be the last.” The trader’s eyes flashed with as much guile as manipulation. “Times are no easier in Cornica. Your queen despises our powerhouses. Trade between our countries may well be—” He swiped a hand across his throat. “Severed.”
Feeling more hamstrung than cheated, Lucien handed over five silvers and pocketed the tickets. He had a quarter silver left.
At the workers’ district known as The Edge, the streets were half-lit, half-ruined and all stagnant. Fog wreathed the lamplights, casting oily shadows onto the rutted dirt below. Tenements sprawled either side, their limed-brick walls as soulless as warehouses.
Lucien crossed the road towards the two-roomed lodgings Em shared with her father. Its unlit window did not bode well. As he made his way up the dark, musty stairs, he tried to conjure finger-light but his skin magic was too depleted. His deeper heart magic shifted, threatening to spark. Reeling it in, he hunkered down to wait for Em in the hallway by her door.
Footsteps came and went. A breeze sighed up the stairs. From somewhere nearby, a man and woman loudly discussed a ruined meal.
What if Em had paid attention to Solly’s suggestion to take up the fight? Nothing good would come of that. Lucien shook his head, knowing all along that a night such as this would catch up with him. He’d always admired Em’s independence. Encouraged it even. Now he feared it would drive them apart.
His teeth clenched at the thought. He’d do anything for this woman. If only she’d allow him.
After what seemed an age, footsteps rattled up the stairs.
“Sweet Fate, for once let Papa be asleep,” she muttered. “Don’t let him be—”
She neared the landing and froze. If he were a thief, Lucien could have knocked her flat.
“You shouldn’t be prattling in the gloom like that.” The harshness in his words came as much from worry as fatigue.
She exhaled sharply. “You shouldn’t be lurking without a light.”
“Can’t be helped.”
“Where’s your candle?”
“Same place as yours, I gather.”
Any other day the two would have kept up their banter until one of them burst into laughter. Instead, their words remained clipped and angry. The thought of what he planned made his voice stick in his throat.
Em opened the door, struck a match and lit her new-fangled oil lamp. She turned and faced him, eyebrows raised.
“I’m very well, thank you,” he said wryly. “How about you?”
“As good as can be expected.”
She hung her cap on the nail by the closet. The kitchen with its beaten metal tub, open shelves and wooden table were as clean as always. Beyond it, the curtain that screened her bed had been left undrawn.
He inclined his head towards her da’s bedroom. “Is he home?”
Em folded her arms. “Can’t hear him snoring, so I suppose not.”
Lucien had not seen her so irritable. He knew it was tiredness, but he was tired too.
“What made you run off?” she asked.
“The powerhouse will kill you,” he said, sidestepping the question. He almost reminded her about Rosie, but her pained expression told him it was too soon for that.
“If I only had myself to support, I’d stop submitting this minute.”
“Where’s your da now? At the tavern? Plastered?”
She turned her back, added fuel to the hearth and prodded it into flames. “He’s my da.”
“You’re a grown woman. He should let you go.”
“If he wasn’t so sick, he would.”
There was so much Lucien needed to say, but how to start without ruining it? Granted, Em’s father had lost his wife nigh on a year before, and then his job soon after that. Enough to drive anyone to the bottle. Even so, dithering wouldn’t help, unless the ditherer actually planned to end up in a graveyard.
“Em,” he began, “if you’re cross about the way I left you on the street, I’m sorry. There was no time to explain. Not with Miss Flood pestering us. I had to meet someone.”
Em looked up, her eyes accusing. “Who? Criminals?”
Her gaze searched his. “I’m sure you had your reasons.”
She put on the kettle, served up some bread, cheese, pickles and a bowl of stewed fruit. They talked about work, about designing and the unlikelihood of earning enough for apprenticeships. He was almost ready to bring out the tickets when familiar footsteps rose from the stairwell. Damn. Something or someone always interrupted them.
“Em?” a gravelly voice slurred. “Em, are you home? I forgot my key. Em?”
“Sweet Fate, don’t let him be too drunk,” she said.
Lucien reached the door first. He opened it to find Em’s father gripping the stair rail and smelling of things no teetotaller would want to see. Lucien caught him before he fell, then steered him to his room where he collapsed on the bed in a boneless heap.
“He’d be terribly hurt if he knew you’d seen him like this,” Em said.
“I don’t think anything could hurt him right now.”
Em sniffed. “He needs time.”
“I’m sorry,” Lucien said softly. “I didn’t mean it like that.” He wanted to smooth the worry from Em’s forehead, embrace her, keep her safe. Instead, he took her hand.
“I can’t leave him in this state.” She pulled away, snatched up a bucket. “I’m going to clean him up.”
She hurried downstairs to the boiler room; Lucien followed.
Em had half-filled the bucket before realising the gas had gone out and the water was cold. “Fate’s Blue,” she said, banging her fist on the tap.
Lucien plunged his hand into the bucket and jolted it softly with heart magic. It felt good to let it out. How dare mages insist he not use it! Magic was his prerogative. Not theirs.
The water fizzled. Hot, but not boiling.
“Ouch.” He withdrew his hand. The skin was red, but not enough to blister.
Em lifted the bucket and tipped its contents onto the flagstones. She flinched at the rising steam. “What were you thinking? If someone comes in and sees…”
Lucien laid his fingers on her arm and plied her with as much well-wishing as he could manage, but this soon after the powerhouse, his skin magic was barely there. He hoped it would be enough to soothe her.
“Get some more water and see to your da. We need to talk.”
“Talk?” she said irritably. “After that session in the powerhouse? After hearing Rosie die? I need time to think, not talk.”
“Em, we must leave while it’s still possible. I can’t protect you here, but I give you my word you’ll be safe in Cornica.”
She heaved a sigh, rubbed her forehead with the back of her hand. “Leave Papa? You know I can’t.”
“He can share my cabin. You can have the other one for yourself.” He smiled. “Or else we can marry on board and he can have it.”
She stared, speechless. He leaned in to kiss her.
Em stepped back. “Lucien, I’d marry you this minute, but no good will come of fleeing.” She lifted her chin. “I’m thinking of joining the Groundists.”
Lucien fought hard to not scoff. Right now, she looked barely capable of walking let alone fighting. “The Groundists are disorganised, weak. It’s only a matter of time before they’re beaten.”
“Our survival depends on our ability to rebel.”
“Now you’re sounding like Miss Flood.”
“That’s because she’s right. I didn’t want to face it before. But after Rosie, how can I not?”
“So,” he ventured, “if I offered you a ticket to Cornica tonight, if I told you it was our last chance to leave, what would you do?”
“I’d ask if you’d lost your senses. I’d tell you to flee on your own if you must, but heart magic will be denied us wherever we go. In Cornica, would anyone teach commoners how to wield it?”
“At least if you keep it to yourself, you won’t be punished. You’ll not end up in prison, feeding it to mages from a chair.”
“At least not yet,” she countered. “Laws change. Who knows what Cornica’s future will bring?”
“Em.” He put his hands on her shoulders and it shocked him to discover how cold they felt. Beneath her coat, she’d worn the thinnest of blouses and camisoles, not at all adequate for a night as chill as this.
“Fate gave us heart magic to help people, not hurt them. Using it to fight will make us as corrupt as mages.”
Em massaged her temples. “Bitter, damn Fate, my head’s throbbing. I can’t argue tonight.” She pulled away, went back to filling the bucket. “I’m going to see to my da.”
As if in sympathy, a strange fearful ache shot through the base of Lucien’s skull. “Mages are killing us,” he said. “Can’t you see?”
“It’s not just them. It’s everything.”
“Em, wait,” he called to her retreating back. “Please, listen.”
Still walking, she glanced over her shoulder. “Not if it means fleeing to Cornica.”
She closed the door none too gently behind her. He wanted to follow, but his words would be as wasted as a day spent in electrodes. Five silvers those tickets had cost! Plus more risk than a Cornican in Forsham could afford. It occurred to him that no matter what he offered, she’d follow her own dream anyway. Even if she knew it was lost. The likes of her did not give up. Nor did they escape.
Back in his own tenement he felt deserted, betrayed. His head ached. Worse than earlier. He shrugged on the Cornican coat he’d not worn for years out of fear of ruining it in a city that was already ruined. Lucien packed his belongings, his mind seething with anger at Em for refusing him, at her father for being drunk, at mages for turning workers into commodities, at Fate for failing to intervene. He left without locking the door and refused to look back. As for The Edge, he’d not miss it one whit. Even its name felt like an insult, as if those who lived there considered themselves to be somewhat less than human.
Lucien boarded the freighter only minutes before it was scheduled to leave. Deckhands bantered in his native drawl. At last, the sounds of home! How much he’d missed them.
Damn this aching head. It made him feel wrong. It made everything wrong, which of course it always had been. He closed his eyes, gripped the gunwales and inhaled the thick, salty air. In a matter of weeks, he’d see his parents again. His three younger sisters would pester him to take them out. He and his cousins would swim in ponds as hot as bathtubs. Compared to Forsham, Cornica was both a paradise and a sanctuary. Despite its lack of progress, he loved it more than he cared to admit.
Deserting Em was as deplorable as forcing himself to fight. What in Fate’s name was he thinking? If he left now, he’d be missing her every minute of every day. Life would be worse than a year in a powerhouse.
Clutching his suitcase, he ran to the gangplank to find it half raised.
“If you jump ship,” a deckhand warned, “there’ll be no coming back.”
Lucien leapt and landed on the wharf still running, still thinking about Em.
There was a checkpoint beyond the docks before getting back into the city, and he feared the guards would hold him up there, perhaps test him for heart magic. Equally possible, they might deny him re-entry. Keeping to the shadows, he wove between warehouses only to find himself back at the wharves where he began. He paused to catch his breath and get his bearings, then struck out towards a gap between buildings, twice tripping on rickety planks.
“You! Foreigner! Freeze!”
The voice came from behind.
A path veering left promised escape, then quickly narrowed to a dead end. Lucien turned.
Two men closed in on him.
Their faces lit up in a brief wash of finger-light. One belonged to a ruffian he’d seen earlier with the trader. The other, a uniformed guard.
He took the tickets from his pocket. “Here.” He tossed them over. “They’re yours.”
The ruffian sneered. “What use are they? The ship’s departed. What else do you have?”
“Only this,” Lucien lowered his suitcase.
“Not enough. What about your wallet? Your watch?”
Lucien’s head throbbed more than ever. He’d not defended himself with heart magic before, but it was never too late to try. Heart thumping, he raised a hand, attempted a jolt, wincing as his fingertips blistered and smoked.
The guard laughed. Lifting a knife, he lunged.
Does Lucien survive the attack? The answer to that is in Chapter Three, which I’ll post in a day or two.
Feature image adapted from image by Davidfoxx (Pixabay)