Hi guys, we have Alexis Hall popping in with his newest release Liberty & Other Stories, we have some great excerpts and there’s a fantastic giveaway. So enjoy the post and leave a comment to enter the giveaway, and don’t forget to pick up Alexis’s free book There Will be Phlogiston! <3 ~Pixie~
Liberty & Other Stories
For the delight and edification of discerning readers, we present diverse stories concerning the lives, histories, and adventures of the crew of the aethership Shadowless.
Lament! as an upstanding clergyman falls into the villainous clutches of a notorious criminal mastermind.
Question your sanity! as a dissolute governess confronts blasphemies from beyond creation.
Wonder! at the journey of the dashing skycaptain Byron Kae across sapphire oceans, through smog-choked streets, and to the depths of the sky itself.
Gasp! at an entirely true and accurately rendered tale of pirates, cavalrymen, aethermancers, scientists, and a power to unmake the world.
Plus, hitherto unseen extracts from the meticulous and illuminating journals of Mrs. Miranda Lovelace, rogue scientist and first of the aethermancers.
This collection contains:
There were many stories about the crime prince of Gaslight.
So many that Ruben Crowe, climbing the thousand stairs to the top of the Spire, half fancied he had been sent to meet a monster. But waiting in the iron-grey cell, his face turned into a stream of dusty moonlight, there was simply a man.
Who twisted as the door grated open, chains clanking at his wrists and ankles.
“It has been many years since I have seen the sky.” His voice was smoky sweet and as refined as any gentleman’s. “Tell me, do you think it beautiful?”
Three days ago, Ruben had received a personal visit from the Bishop of Gaslight. This was somewhat surprising, for the last time they had met, the bishop had revoked Ruben’s licence. He had also professed himself disappointed.
In truth, it had not been unexpected. Ruben Crowe, it was generally agreed, was a poor fit for the Church. When, after leaving Cambridge with first-class honours, he had announced his intention of taking orders, his father—the late Lord Iron—had declared that Ruben would be home by Candlemas. He, too, had professed himself disappointed.
Ruben received the bishop in the Citrine Drawing Room and served him Darjeeling first flush tea in translucent bone china. The sunlight that slipped through the arched windows paled in the savagely glittering splendour. As did the bishop.
He reached for one of the fancies, a cunning spiral of air and sugar, flavoured with saffron and lavender and, at last, essayed a conventional enquiry into Ruben’s health and happiness. Dr. Jaedrian Forrest was a lean, gilded lion of a man and not usually uncertain of his words.
Ruben gave assurances that he was quite well. He had just returned from the Stews. Dust had soiled the edges of his cuffs and clung to his hair. His fingers left rough, dark stains upon his teacup.
“I understand,” remarked the bishop, “you have been visiting the malcontents in the Lower City.”
“I wasn’t preaching.”
“No, of course not. That was not my intended implication.”
There was a long silence.
Dr. Forrest leaned forwards in his chair and steepled his fingers. His episcopal rings flashed darker and deeper than the gemstones that encrusted the room.
The motion was so startlingly familiar that Ruben’s heart shied like a roe deer. It was too easy to remember and easier still to forget. He could half imagine they were friends as they had used to be. The worldly bishop and the ardent young curate, ensconced together with tea, crumpets, and the debates of the day. And other pleasures, perhaps less easily reconciled with doctrine. Ruben knew too well the twist and arch of that silken, sinew-roped body. The chill pressure of those rings, warming like flesh beneath the weight of his palms.
“Do you still believe,” asked the bishop, “that all souls can be saved?”
Ruben did not hesitate. “Yes.”
“No matter how iniquitous or unrepentant?”
Ruben had little patience for what he had always termed “state room theology.” Church politics, in other words. So he watched the light skitter sharply across the surface of his tea, gold over gold, like Jaedrian’s eyes. And he felt, almost as if from nowhere, the soft stirring of loss, a restless and familiar longing for impossible things.
He remembered his father’s funeral. The silver apathy of the rain and the moment he realised that now he could never earn Lord Iron’s approval. Like most of his youthful ambitions, it had always been something he believed he could do tomorrow.
“Ruben, have you heard of the crime prince of Gaslight?”
He glanced up in some bemusement. He was not the sort of man to concern himself with fables. “I’ve heard the stories, but they’re just stories.”
“They’re not stories. They caught the man.”
“They caught a man.”
The bishop’s tawny eyes held Ruben’s steadily. “The reality hardly matters any more. It’s what he represents.” There was a pause. “He burns in less than a week.”
Under the laws of England, a condemned criminal would die by fire in order that they might repent in the last moments of their life and thereby save their soul eternal torment. However, if the condemned made a full confession and showed penitence, he would merely be hanged. The state called this mercy. Ruben was not so certain. “You must send someone to him,” he said.
Dr. Forrest stared at his own interlaced fingers. “I did.”
“And? Wouldn’t he repent?”
“He killed the man.”
An eerie chime sounded through the room as Ruben’s fingers slipped on his teacup.
“You see my quandary,” murmured the bishop.
Ruben wouldn’t precisely have called it a quandary, but he nodded.
“I cannot in good conscience send a criminal to the stake who has not received every opportunity to confess. But, equally, I cannot send another man into danger.”
Ruben’s lips quirked wryly. “But you seem to be sending me?”
Dr. Forrest had the grace to blush. “I’m asking you.”
“You may recall,” said Ruben mildly, “that you revoked my licence. Even if I was willing, I would be unable.”
“I could provide a dispensation.”
“Could you now?”
The bishop pinched the bridge of his nose wearily. “Ruben, I—”
“Of course I’ll do it.”
“I feared you might,” sighed Jaedrian, looking suddenly both older and younger than his years.
“You knew I would.”
“Yes.” Another pause, and then with a touch of pleading: “But you will be careful, won’t you?”
Ruben did not answer, but across the gleaming table, their hands met and roughly, tightly entangled, as if they were still lovers.
Ruben had come to the Spire prepared with many warnings. He had read all the newspaper articles and several penny dreadfuls, and he believed he harboured no illusions about the man who stood before him. He knew him for a criminal, a recidivist, a thief, and a murderer. In short: an unrepentant villain of unimaginable depravity.
He had not, however, expected the man to have the face of a feral angel. Nor that he might want to discuss aesthetics.
“The sky,” repeated the most dangerous man in Gaslight, somewhat impatiently. “Do you think it beautiful?” Since he could not gesture with his hands, he jerked his chin in the direction of the window set high into the granite wall.
Beyond its bars, Ruben could just about see a handspan of the waiting world—a piece of dark, speckled by a few irresolute stars.
“Well,” he said, at last. “Yes.”
“Curious.” The man frowned. “I wondered if I should.”
“Find it beautiful.”
The man’s ice-shard eyes did not waver from Ruben’s, and Ruben knew better than to look away. “Don’t you?”
“I have never had occasion to ask myself. Until now.”
“And what do you answer?”
“I believe—” his mouth turned up at the corners, tugged slightly lopsided by the silver scar that crossed his upper lip “—the stars are merely distant light and the sky a roof like any other.”
Ruben couldn’t quite help himself. He shivered. In the gloom, the man’s pale suit and pale hair gleamed softly, as though he was already the ghost of himself. But he was utterly calm. It seemed almost impossible to believe that he was waiting to die. Only the manacles betrayed him, hanging heavy from his fragile wrists, like some terrible insult.
“Forgive me,” added the prisoner, in his soft, too-careful voice, “but I have been remiss with introductions. I am Milord.”
Ruben swallowed something that might have been the most ill-advised laugh of his life. The man’s attention dropped swiftly to his mouth and then away again. The faintest of lines creased the smooth white skin of his brow. But Ruben pressed on regardless: “That’s not your name.”
“It’s what I am called.”
“I think,” said Ruben coaxingly, “I’d rather know your name.”
“Then you had better accustom yourself to disappointment, Lord Iron.”
Ruben tried to conceal his surprise and failed. Dissembling had never been among his talents. “H-how do you know who I am?”
“I have long made it my business to know things.” Milord’s gaze swept over him, assessing and impersonal, but with a weight behind it, somehow, like chill hands upon his skin. “They sent you to me like a lamb to the slaughter, Ruben Crowe.”
Squamous with a Chance of Rain
Mrs. Miggles’s Boarding House for the Genteelly Impoverished, London
My dearest Miriam,
I write to congratulate you on your wedding and to send you all my very best hopes and wishes for your future happiness. From the portrait you so kindly enclosed with your last letter, I can certainly agree that Lord Bodgeringham possesses several qualities valuable in a husband: to wit, extensive facial hair, and a slightly confused expression. I am sure you will do very well with him and still better with his thirty thousand a year.
I do, however, wonder if you will sometimes have occasion to recall that final summer we spent together at Miss Githers’s Finishing School. I confess I miss our walks, and I think of them often, particularly when the hour has grown late and I find myself awake, alone, and idle. I think most particularly of the delightful countryside in that part of the world, and the innocent pleasures it afforded, for as you know, I am ravishingly fond of landscapes. My thoughts dwell most especially upon that secret place, in those days known only to myself I’ll warrant, where two velvet-soft hills rose sweetly to enchant the viewer’s eye, and below them, a tender valley with a hidden cleft where I oftentimes did linger, plucking meadow flowers and other such girlish fancies.
Unfortunately now is not a time for fancies, girlish or otherwise, for misfortune has come upon me in something of a deluge, and I find myself caught without an umbrella. In swift succession then, I have lost both my position and an uncle—though I confess I am rather more concerned about the former than the latter, for Uncle Ridgewell was something of an eccentric who lived much of his life abroad. You may recall that Miss Githers was always chastising me for my unfeeling, unfeminine ways, but I simply do not see how I can grieve someone I never met and who, moreover, was so inconsiderate as to die a pauper.
I am honestly a little cross with him. In every novel I have ever read, the untimely demise of a mysterious relative has always led to the heroine inheriting a substantial fortune, and all I have received for my trouble is a battered, iron-banded travelling trunk full of papers, and a frankly exorbitant bill for funeral expenses. I can only presume he was not the right sort of uncle and that, perhaps, I am not the right sort of heroine. I blame my hair, you know. If only it had been golden instead of this dreary brown, and curly instead of straight, I might have been a duchess by now.
Nor were the circumstances of my uncle’s death propitious—although, then again, I imagine few are, at least for the deceased. Accounts are somewhat equivocal, but from what I understand, he lately returned from an expedition to the Dark Continent in possession of a peculiar idol he had, shall we say, obtained without consent from the native people of that region. I understand that it has since been dispatched to the British Museum for study, but I did find several sketches of it amongst his papers. They depict a corpulent, somewhat anthropoid, bat-winged creature, excessively festooned in tentacles. Even rendered ineptly by my uncle’s pencil, it seems to radiate a profound and all-consuming malevolence and an otherness that is itself a kind of monstrousness. He depicted the entity sitting upon a pedestal scrawled with indecipherable characters, which were also infused with the same alien malignancy. It seemed as though Uncle Ridgewell had made some attempt to translate them, but as my linguistic abilities extend no further than conversational French (voulez-vous coucher & etc., I’m sure you recall) I could decipher very little. And, truthfully, I saw no reason to try, for the symbols distressed me. They seemed so distant in both conception and execution from anything we might understand as language, or even, perhaps, thought: a way of being vastly and coldly beyond anything human reason could encompass.
Forgive me, dear Miriam, I grow quite macabre, and I have not yet come to the darkest part of this peculiar tale. My uncle died no natural death. He was murdered by a group of miscellaneous ruffians armed with shotguns, who burst into his rooms late one night. Inspector Jarvis of Scotland Yard informed me yesterday that they have taken the priest into custody, but the dilettante has fled the country, and they have yet to catch the accountant. What am I to make of this? What on earth could Uncle Ridgewell have done to earn the ire of such disparate individuals?
I suppose I shall never know. I have gone through his papers quite carefully, but most of them are deranged scribblings and laundry lists. And since I am not to conveniently inherit a fortune or, for that matter, a pot in which to perform an intimate elimination, I must focus my attention on my future, or lack thereof. I suppose I must apply to the agency for a new position, but as I was unfortunately discharged from my last one without a reference, I am not hopeful.
It really was the most wretched business. As I have already written to you at length on this subject, I need not soil this paper with my opinion of the Fitzhammonds, but you can surely imagine my horror and outrage when I was called into Mr. Fitzhammond’s study to answer (oh I can barely put it down, my pen shakes so at the injustice of it all!) a charge of unnatural advances to his eldest daughter. Maria is simply dreadful—a pot roast in pink sarsenet, whose behaviour to me has grown increasingly bold since she turned sixteen. Needless to say, I would rather seek satisfaction with a broom handle than lay hand upon her, and this was clearly her revenge. Her father harassed and chided me for over an hour on the subject, and at last, pushed beyond endurance by his impertinent inquisition, I told him I had not seduced Maria and nor would I because she was deeply ill-favoured. And then he ranted for some considerable time about his little Maria being good enough to entertain the depraved lusts of any right-thinking pervert, and fired me.
So, here I am again, back in London, friendless, penniless, and jobless with blasphemous symbols swimming constantly behind my eyes like the afterimage of suns. Ah well. How does that saying go? When God closes a door, somebody opens a window and dumps a chamber pot over your head.
Your loving Jane
2 September 1859
Mrs. Miggles’s Boarding House for the Genteelly Impoverished, London
My dearest Miriam,
Thank you kindly for the description of the latest additions to your wardrobe. Sheer black satin, you say, with wicked little bows? How intriguing. Though you may have to tell me more about it before I am able to render a sound sartorial opinion. I look forward to your next missive.
As for myself, I cannot lie. Things have been difficult of late. The investigation into the death of Uncle Ridgewell was concluded, not to put too fine a point on it, inconclusively, with a judgement in which the phrase “the balance of his mind disturbed” featured prominently. And having gone through his paperwork, I am inclined to agree. By the final pages, the writing in his journal resembled nothing so much as the vile scrawlings upon the idol pedestal: over and over and over again, the most disturbing invocations to beings who slumber beyond the stars. I must have spent too long in their perusal for the hieroglyphics have lately taken on a peculiar clarity to me, as though I learned them long ago.
However, putting aside these grotesque mysteries, I do have some good tidings to share. After several fruitless pilgrimages to the agency, where I was told in no uncertain terms there was nothing suitable for me (emphasis theirs), I have at last secured a new position with a family in Cornwall. The head of the household is, I understand, a retired skycaptain, a widower, with seven children. His wife passed away some years ago, and frankly, I cannot blame her. Apparently they have had some trouble retaining governesses in recent years, and I was asked for most particularly.
Should this trouble me, I wonder? One hears such stories. There was that red-haired girl hired at exorbitant expense to impersonate the daughter of the household for reasons that still strike me as manifestly implausible. Or the business with the fellow with the black beard on the bicycle. Or our poor dear friend from school who strangled that little boy in the woods one evening. Of course, she always was terribly sensitive, and having attempted to teach the rudiments of civilisation to little boys myself, I can well understand why she might have succumbed to murderous hysteria.
I did make some enquiries of the previous governesses, but unfortunately none of them have answered my letters. If I had any spare funds, I could hire a consulting detective, but I do rather dislike consulting detectives, and my finances are so deeply unhealthy as to be practically consumptive. I shall simply have to be sensible. I will not ride any bicycles, explore any attics, wander around any woods late at night, or strangle any children. And if anyone should happen to want me to wear any clothing other than my own, I will tell them no. How difficult can it be? What can possibly go wrong? A skycaptain with seven children. What is so fearsome about that?
But I must apologise for this hasty letter. I have to make my preparations for the journey, and several challenging decisions lie before me. For example, should I pack the grey worsted or the grey nankeen? And will I need the grey organdie in the wilds of Cornwall? Glamorous, is it not, the life of a governess? Though, to tell the truth, I am not entirely without hope. I understand the place is something of a smuggler’s haven. I suppose I must take care lest I am set upon and brutally ravished by a wild-eyed, wild-haired skypirate in tall boots and scarlet petticoats. That would be simply dreadful. I had best take the organdie.
Just in case.
Your ever hopeful Jane
Cloudy Climes and Starless Skies
When Shadowless makes slip in Temperance, Byron Kae searches for a present for Dil. They don’t like being ashore—everyone stares, and skytowns feel enclosed with their jumble of platforms and people—but at least they have no need for care on the narrow beams and swaying ladders. Byron Kae can’t remember ever being afraid of falling, even when they had another name, before they became who they are now. They could fly, if they wanted, but they’re already wary of the way people look at them. The way Dil had once, though he doesn’t any more. Hasn’t for a long time.
Dil can’t hide anything. Byron Kae used to wonder how he ever made much of a cardsharp until they saw him take four airmen for everything at Calumny. They had expected cold eyes and composure, like everyone else around the table, but Dil had laughed and glittered, and lied with his whole face. And, afterwards, they’d all had to run. Once they were flying, sky-safe and far beyond pursuit, Dil had put his arms around Shadowless’s neck, breathless with his own wickedness, and Byron Kae had felt the heat of him, and his fast-beating heart.
Sometimes, oh just sometimes, on hot days, they fly even higher, where the air is thin and the aether is close, and the sun drenches Shadowless in sticky gold . . . and Dil takes his shirt off. He’s so very different from the wan, hungry-eyed boy they’d gathered bleeding from the ground in Prosperity. The boy Byron Kae had nearly lost to fever, to Ruben Crowe, to a falling world. He’s a little bit piratical now, with his longer braids, and the wiry muscles that pull and shift beneath his smooth, dark skin, but when he smiles his shiny, dimple-bracketed smile, he’s all Dil. His feet are always light upon Shadowless, and Byron Kae tastes the heavy sweetness of his sweat where it falls sometimes upon the deck.
Jane, of course, always knows exactly what they’re up to, emerging dishevelled and disgruntled from her cabin to put a stop to it with a few sharp words. Makes them blush. Like the time she glared through a haze of opium smoke, and told them, “When I desire someone, I fuck them. It makes life so much simpler.”
But Byron Kae can’t see how it would make anything simple at all.
It’s been turbulent up in the blue since Prosperity fell. The kraken are restless, the airnavy patrols the skyways, and the skytowns are subject to increasing scrutiny from the authorities below. What has always been a transient life now feels fragile in other ways, and even basic resources are scarce. Books are almost impossible to find. As a commodity, they fall between the cracks of precious and worthless, and wanting them becomes its own trap. Some men would call this weakness. Certainly the pedlars, salesmen, and storekeepers must, for they always drive a hard bargain, and Byron Kae isn’t very good at haggling. Dil would probably be horrified if he ever found out the cost of his ragged, little library, but Byron Kae puts no price on his pleasure.
They dread the day they run out of books, or Dil’s interest wanes. The end of starlit evenings, full of words and Dil’s laughing. He likes mysteries and romances best, speculating endlessly—Jane would say interminably—about what he thinks is going to happen next and which characters are going to get together, as if he has, at last, discovered all the friends his life has lacked. He wept for hours over the injustice of Vanity Fair, and “princock swells what were too far up their own arses to see folk is just trying to get on in the world and shouldn’t be subject to arbitrary moral punishment.” That last bit was all Ruben. It made Byron Kae miss their friend and hurt a little at the same time.
The only book in Temperance is Hard Times, and Dil is going to hate it.
But Byron Kae buys it anyway in exchange for one of the opals strung through their hair. It’s a sad-looking, water-damaged volume, bound in olive-green cloth, with the original purchase price of five shillings rather mockingly inscribed in gilt upon the spine.
They settle down with it that evening, and make it to chapter three before Dil starts bristling.
“Coketown,” he scoffs. “Cos that ain’t obviously supposed to be Gaslight.”
Byron Kae once made the mistake of telling him that Dickens had spent three months working at a blacking factory at the age of twelve, thus cementing him in Dil’s estimation as “a whiny prick what don’t know what he’s talking about. Three months, my arse.”
It doesn’t take much longer before the misery of it all gradgrinds them both down, and they give up.
“’Tis like he don’t see ’em as people at all.” Dil has his head in Byron Kae’s lap, spilling braids and smiles and careless heat. “Just cogs in his Great Social Message or what ’ave ye.”
Byron Kae wants to touch him. Always, but particularly now, at the edge of day, on the cusp of night, in this time that is theirs. They imagine him sun gilded and star limned, a burnished man, and feel the curve of his spine as he shifts on the pillows he has strewn across the deck.
“Perhaps that’s the intention?” they suggest.
“Yeah, but it don’t make him no better than what he’s talking about. That ain’t no reformer zeal. ’Tis hypocrisy, is what.”
It’s a fair point. “I’m sorry, Dil. I didn’t . . . There wasn’t—”
He startles and pulls away, and the loss of him stirs the sails, and ripples through the rigging. “I didn’t mean nowt.” Cross-legged now, and facing Byron Kae, he looks at them, stricken. “’Tis still a princely gift.”
“There’s little value in an unread book.”
Dil reaches out and takes Hard Times from their unresisting hands. “Before you, there was only ever unread books.”
Byron Kae isn’t sure what to say. Dil sounds oddly serious, and they’re mortifyingly distracted by the way the light gleams on his eyelashes. Dil is not unfamiliar with his assets, nor ashamed to use them, but right now there are no flutters, no dimples, just Dil’s steady gaze.
“Thing is,” he goes on, “these ain’t the stories I want no more.”
“Fuck me sideways with a—” Dil scrabbles against the deck, and just about manages to avoid being thrown into the mast. “Is that krakens?”
“N-no. Just . . . aetherflow.” They blush. The wind dies, and Shadowless calms. But Byron Kae’s heart still beats too hard. “I understand. We . . . we’ve read a lot of books and—”
“It ain’t about the books,” Dil cuts them off abruptly, and then tugs a bit sheepishly at a braid. He has a way of concealing uncertainty behind boldness that Byron Kae rather admires. He acts when most would hesitate, laughs when others would not, and takes, in general, too many chances. He goes on more gently, “Thing is, I want a different story. I want yours.”
Byron Kae feels his attention like heat. Like a touch. It fills them with fear and a kind of sweet, sharp hope that is—if anything—just as painful. “Mine?”
They look at their hands, at the rainbows on the tips of their fingers, and feel the pulse of aether beneath their skin. That’s their story. “I . . . I wouldn’t know how to begin.”
“Popular opinion suggests, beginning’s a good place.”
That makes them smile, and they don’t even try to hide it. Dil makes it easy to smile. “I thought you hated all that, um, nonsense about ‘what your father was called and where you was squeezed yowling out your mother.’”
He’s so proud of his words, and grins to hear them coming back to him. “Only when I ain’t got reason to give a fuck.”
“Well, I’m honoured to be worthy of your . . . fucks.”
They just about manage to say it without blushing, and it’s worth it to hear Dil laugh. “I meant,” he says, “with books and shit. Nowt more depressing than settling in for six hundred pages and then stagging straightwise the hero’s four years old or sommat, and ain’t going to do anything interesting for ages.”
“I suppose some readers might say it helps them really get to know a character.”
“Mebbe. But life—” Dil glitters wickedly “—is lived in media res.”
His mouth forms the Latin a little too carefully. Byron Kae hears Ruben. “Then what does my past matter?” they ask.
“It don’t matter a damn if you don’t want to tell me. But I kinda want to know stuff about you.” Dil sounds so unexpectedly solemn, so unexpectedly uncertain, before he continues with characteristic avarice, “All the stuff.”
Byron Kae hides their smile this time so Dil doesn’t think he’s being laughed at. But, truthfully, they like to be the subject of his wanting. “Of course I want to tell you. I’ll tell you anything.”
“’Tis sorta interesting to me sometimes cos I got no clue about myself that way.” He settles back into Byron Kae’s lap, stretching an arm into the last of the sunlight so that it glides over his skin, honey-gold and mellow. “Parent’s could’ve been anybugger. Though I got some inkling one or both ’em weren’t perhaps entirely white.”
Byron Kae traces a fingertip down Dil’s forearm, a pale shadow, chasing the sun. They tremble a little with the pleasure and the presumption of it, but Dil just closes his eyes and makes a deep, rough sound at the back of his throat. The truth is, Dil is full of hungers. Greedy for words and skin and the open sky. They imagine too easily how he might respond to other touches. The way he might move, the things he might say. His sly, graceful hands knowing all the secrets of Byron Kae’s body.
“My father,” they tell him, “is Lord Wolfram.”
A blade-swift silence.
Then, “Ooh lah-di-dah.” Dil’s contempt for what he calls the nib folk is instinctive, but at the same time tinged by a kind of hopeless envy. Byron Kae finds it comforting to wonder sometimes whether Dil was truly in love with Ruben, or simply with the kind of life that would create someone like him.
“It’s a very minor title. He’s a navy man. An admiral now.”
“So, you’re a . . . a—” Dil’s eyes open, and there’s hurt gleaming in the darkness of them “—lord or . . . lady or what ’ave ye? This . . . flying about, then, ’tis just a hobby?”
“No.” Too sharp. Too certain. Heat and aether rushes through them. “This is who I am.”
“You ain’t no Wolfram?”
“That will never be my name. I’m not . . . not legitimate.” Such a strange word to wear. “I’m just me.”
Dil smiles up at them. “Ain’t no ‘just’ about it. But how you’d figure Lord Wossname for your dad? Being a by-blow and all.”
“I was politically embarrassing.” Byron Kae wonders how to explain. “And Lord Wolfram always claims what he believes to be his. Whether he values it or not.”
“Reckon I know the type. Dice roll any kinder for your mam?”
“I don’t know. She passed away when I was very young. I don’t . . . I don’t remember her at all.”
Those early years, before their mother died and after, are all in fragments. Too many different people and too many different places. Too little understanding. All muddled in a sensory haze: the scent of blood and chrysanthemum tea, red-sailed ships with watching eyes, a square white house on a hill, not like the other houses, a garden with silver water and golden fish, the sun slipping shadowless across a different sky.
“Well,” offers Dil cheerfully, “leastways you ain’t got nowt to miss.”
They try to smile, not knowing what to say.
“How’d she die?”
Touch is suddenly the wrong thing. Dil is too much, too much heat and skin and curiosity. They push him away as gently as they can. Stand and let the wind catch their hair, shake the feathers and the beads, stir the tails of their coat.
Over by the rail, the sky is everywhere.
“She killed herself. When the war ended and my father didn’t come back.”
Dil moves like a cat, so they don’t hear him. But they feel him in the shifting air, the ripple of his footsteps. “Why?”
“Shame? Grief? Loneliness? I have no answers.” Shadowless is warm beneath Byron Kae’s hands, as familiar as their own skin, pulsing with aether and power. “I heard . . . I heard she was his housekeeper, while he was in Canton. I don’t know if he made her promises, or if she loved him; if she was desperate, or if she simply wanted a different world. I just know she . . . I just know I was alone, and nobody knew what to do with me. Where I belonged.”
Dil pushes up under their arm and wriggles and wriggles until he’s right there, tucked between Byron Kae and Shadowless. He has to lean back a little to meet Byron Kae’s eyes, his body pulled into lines at once both tough and yielding. The scent of sun and sweat is all over him like the last of the light.
And this time, touch isn’t wrong at all.
“I won’t never leave you ever,” Dil promises, with all the certainty of his maybe nineteen years. “Cos we belong on Shadowless now, right?”
Whose mouth forms the shapes of untaken kisses when he stands so close and says such things.
“Y’know—” Dil eases himself onto the railing “—why don’t you start it properwise?”
He’s framed by Byron Kae, the horizon at his back, with only trust to hold him. “Like this?” they ask.
“Exactly like this.”
For a moment, there’s nothing. Nothing but the wind and the shadows and the first few snail-trails of starlight over the darkening sky.
Then—for Dil, and Dil alone—come words.
FROM THE ARCHIVES OF HER MAJESTY’S PRIVY COUNCIL
The following collection of documents details, as best this council can manage, the events surrounding the incident of 17 March 1866, which destroyed the 4th Skyfleet, nearly precipitated war with Prussia, and led to the official dissolution of the Aethermantic Operations Executive.
These documents have been declassified as part of a thorough review of National Intelligence Policy following the introduction of the Public Records Act, the Aetheric Services Act, and the International Convention on the Uses of Telepathy.
Many of the security implications of these papers have ceased to be pertinent in the wake of the Martian invasion.
Dame Esmeralda Hawthorne
Permanent Secretary, Home Office
12 July 1958
FROM THE COURT RECORD
For the consideration of the court, herein are collected a number of witness accounts, items of personal correspondence, and formal reports to and by the former head of the Department of Aethermantic Operations and Intelligence. These papers have been collated in order that the court may pass judgement on Captain George England in the matter of his involvement in the events of 17 March 1866.
FROM THE PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE OF CAPTAIN GEORGE ENGLAND
16 September 1854
My dearest mother,
Thank you for your most recent letter, and the tea, which could not have been better received. I shared it with my new friend Nolan, who, while foreign and a little stand-offish, is a most remarkable fellow. He has travelled all over Europe, and indeed the world, having trained in Tulln and served in the armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before being granted his commission in the Dragoons. He is teaching me many things.
Since my last letter, we have left Varna and arrived in the Crimea proper, some short distance from a town called Eupatoria. The journey has been hard for many of my fellows, who have suffered much from illness, but I remain secure in the rightness and honour of our cause. The last of our horses are being disembarked even as I write, and I find myself filled with a tremendous swell of pride at being part of so grand and glorious an operation as this. Why, even as we arrived, the local Tartars flocked from their villages to trade fruit and supplies with us. I told Nolan that I felt as though I was at the beginning of a great adventure. He scoffed at me.
I must cut this letter short. I lack a table, and in writing on the ground I fear that I am spoiling good paper, which is also in short supply. I shall write again soon when circumstances are more favourable.
Your loving son,
Alexis Hall was born in the early 1980s and still thinks the 21st century is the future. To this day, he feels cheated that he lived through a fin de siècle but inexplicably failed to drink a single glass of absinthe, dance with a single courtesan, or stay in a single garret.
He did the Oxbridge thing sometime in the 2000s and failed to learn anything of substance. He has had many jobs, including ice cream maker, fortune teller, lab technician, and professional gambler. He was fired from most of them.
He can neither cook nor sing, but he can handle a 17th century smallsword, punts from the proper end, and knows how to hotwire a car.
He lives in southeast England, with no cats and no children, and fully intends to keep it that way.
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