Dec 23 2013 3:00pm
A Study in Ashes (Excerpt)
Check out Emma Jane Holloway’s A Study in Ashes, Book Three of The Baskerville Affair, available December 31st from Del Rey.
As part of her devil’s bargain with the industrial steam barons, Evelina Cooper is finally enrolled in the Ladies’ College of London. However, she’s attending as the Gold King’s pet magician, handcuffed and forbidden contact with even her closest relation, the detective Sherlock Holmes.
But Evelina’s problems are only part of a larger war. The Baskerville affair is finally coming to light, and the rebels are making their move to wrest power from the barons and restore it to Queen Victoria. Missing heirs and nightmare hounds are the order of the day—or at least that’s what Dr. Watson is telling the press.
Their plans are doomed unless Evelina escapes to unite her magic with the rebels’ machines—and even then her powers aren’t what they used to be. A sorcerer has awakened a dark hunger in Evelina’s soul, and only he can keep her from endangering them all. The only problem is . . . he’s dead.
London, September 20, 1889
8:15 p.m. Friday
Penelope Roth—better known as Poppy—paused outside the main drawing room of Hilliard House, feeling hurt and betrayed by her parents. It was a feeling she experienced quite regularly these days—something her mother put down to being fifteen years of age, but any girl with an ounce of true poetic feeling knew better.
Poppy peered inside the room, not quite committing to the act of stepping over the threshold. The place was crowded, a surf of voices washing over a small orchestra playing Haydn. The room was elegant, with a gilt ceiling and gaslit chandeliers, and white pilasters dividing the walls into harmonious proportions. There was nowhere to look without seeing expensive objets d’arts, unless there was a duchess or a cabinet minister standing in the way.
It was the first time since early last November—almost eleven months ago, now—that her father, Lord Bancroft, had entertained on this scale. Eleven months of mourning, and he’d done a decent job of wearing a long face and a black suit. It was what was expected of him and, after all, Poppy’s older sister, Imogen, had been his favorite. But eventually his ambitions had got the better of him. Like a hound scratching at the door, he wanted back into the games of power, and this gathering of London’s elite was the signal of his readiness.
And Poppy loathed him for it, because he had chosen to move on. He either didn’t see, or refused to see, why his choice was so wrong—and whatever Papa decreed, her mother embraced. There would be no help from either of them.
After all, it wasn’t as if Imogen was actually dead. She lay upstairs, deep in a sleep that should have seen her starve to death, or corrode in a mass of bedsores, or otherwise dwindle away in some nasty fashion. The nurses were able to administer broth and gruel, but little else. Yet she survived, lovely and remote as a fairy-tale princess in an enchanted tower.
Of course, such phenomenon worked better between the covers of a book. Poppy could read her father’s silences and frowns. As far as he was concerned, Imogen’s besetting sin had been that she simply would not die so everyone else could get on with things. Lord Bancroft’s pity only extended so far—eleven months, to be precise.
Poppy would not forgive that. She trembled with fury at the tide of brittle laughter tumbling from the drawing room. She loved Imogen fiercely, and she wouldn’t give up on her. And perhaps that meant not being at this wretched party at all. Poppy turned, determined to march back to her bedroom and strip off the ridiculous ruffled gown the maid had stuffed her into.
But before she made it three steps, her mother appeared out of thin air. “Penelope, you’re late.”
She only got “Penelope” when her mother was upset. Poppy turned, cheeks hot with defiance. But Lady Bancroft—her fine brows drawn into a sharp crease—was having none of it.
“My stays are laced too tight,” Poppy declared, a little too loudly.
“Hush,” her mother whispered, since feminine undergarments were hardly drawing room fare. “That’s what you get for refusing to wear your training corset all those years.”
“I can’t breathe.”
“Young ladies are not required to breathe. They are required to be punctual.” Lady Bancroft, pale and slender as a reed, gave the impression of a delicate, biddable woman. Poppy had never experienced that side of her. “If I let you return to your room, in an hour I’ll find you with your nose in a book.”
“No one else will care.”
“Your task is to make them care.” Lady Bancroft grabbed her elbow, her pale pink gloves nearly matching the lace on Poppy’s sleeve. “You will go in there and be charming. If not for your own sake, do it for your father.”
That was hardly incentive. “I’m not even out of the schoolroom yet! I have a least a year before I have to be pleasant to people.”
“You need the practice, and there is never a time like the present to begin.”
And to Poppy’s chagrin, her mother steered her through the door into the crowded drawing room. Poppy pulled her arm away and lifted her chin. If she were doomed to attend the party, she would face it with dignity. They hadn’t gone a dozen feet before Poppy was forced to plaster a smile on her face.
“Lady Bancroft,” said Jasper Keating, emerging out of the crowd like a ship under full sail. From what Poppy could tell, he was usually a vessel of ill omen.
Keating had thick, waving white hair and amber eyes that reminded her of some monster from a storybook. He bowed over her mother’s hand. “You are enchanting as always, Lady Bancroft. I see you’ve lost none of your touch as London’s most elegant hostess.”
“You are too kind, Mr. Keating.” Lady Bancroft granted him a queenly smile. “And it is so good of you to bless this gathering even after the, uh, incident.”
That would be affair of the bug in the clock. Poppy had endured an entire day of her parents agonizing over whether to cancel the party because no one wanted to make light of what had happened. For her part, Poppy had been forced to stifle the giggles when she saw the cartoons in the Prattler. Her father had given her the Glare of Death over the breakfast table.
“If the culprit sees us cowering under our beds, he has won,” Keating replied. “Though when the time comes, we will be swift of action and merciless in our wrath.”
If his words were chilling, his smile was even worse. Poppy wondered if people called Mr. Keating the Gold King because of the yellow globes of the gaslights his company owned, or because of his sulfur-colored eyes. Or his heaps of money. There were a dizzying number of reasons to be wary of the man.
And he was one more reason to slip out of the drawing room. Poppy began inching away, eager to vanish, but he turned and looked her square in the eye. “And here is Miss Penelope.”
Trapped, Poppy managed a proper curtsy, proving that she hadn’t ignored all her lessons. “Good evening, Mr. Keating.”
He gave her an approving nod. “You will grow into a lovely young lady, I can tell.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Keating’s strange eyes glinted. “Such lovely manners never go amiss.”
She nearly snorted. All the young ladies she knew—Imogen, Alice, and Evelina to be specific—had hardly profited by learning to use the right fork. Maybe they would have done better if they’d spit tobacco and sworn like sailors—or at least had a bit more fun before their lives ended up snarled like a yarn ball once the cat was through.
Her mother unfurled a clockwork fan, which opened, stick by stick, in a profusion of tiny sapphires. “And she’s the baby of the family. I can’t believe it’s already time to begin thinking about her Season next year.”
Deep inside, Poppy shuddered. The Season meant being presented to the queen—she supposed that could be endured—but then came the marriage mart with all the balls and routs and dancing parties. If the sheer dullness of it all wasn’t enough, the first man who made a decent offer to Lord Bancroft could cart her away like a goat from the livestock auction, bleating as she went. So much for her future.
“Is not Alice the very model of a mother?” Lady Bancroft said to Mr. Keating. “She did not come tonight, which is a pity, but little Jeremy caught a sniffle. She could not bear to be away from him.”
“Then you have heard more details than I, Lady Bancroft. My daughter clearly favors her mother-in-law for talk of babies.”
No doubt. Poppy couldn’t imagine writing Jasper Keating about throw-up and nappies. Although Poppy wasn’t supposed to understand such things, Alice had obviously been with child when she’d married Tobias, for all she’d been packed off to the country the moment she’d started to show.
Besides Alice the fallen angel, I have a sleeping princess for a sister, a knave for a brother, an evil queen for a mother, and Papa thinks he’s Signori Machiavelli. How did I end up in this house? Poppy knew everyone complained about one’s family, but hers had to be eligible for some sort of prize. Or a scientific study. She wondered if Mr. Darwin was still writing books.
Poppy fidgeted, her attention wandering even further. More people had arrived, filling the room with a seething mass of bare shoulders and stiff white shirts. She recognized many of the faces, although by no means all. It was going to be a miserable crush if too many more people turned up. It was already like standing beside an overperfumed furnace.
Her gaze caught on a tall, dark-haired man with piercing blue eyes standing at the far end of the room. It was William Reading, the Scarlet King, sporting the bright red waistcoat that was his trademark. He still hasn’t figured out that sort of thing went out of fashion years ago. But that didn’t seem to stop his success with the ladies, judging from the flock chirping around him.
Keating leaned close to her, making her jump. “You should go see what Mr. Reading brought with him.”
Escape! For an instant, she almost liked the Gold King—although it said how bored she was that seeking out Reading was an enticement. Poppy glanced back at her mother, who nodded—although her eyes still delivered a warning glare. “Don’t make a nuisance of yourself.”
Apparently the bar had been lowered from being charming to not causing a scandal. “Of course, Mother.”
“And don’t touch the champagne.” Lady Bancroft dismissed her with a flap of the hand.
Poppy slipped through the throng with profound relief. It was clear that Reading had indeed brought something, because the crowd was clotting around him. Only her quick reflexes got her through the mass of people in time to see what the man was holding.
Then curiosity seized her, making her forget even the hideous discomfort of her stays. Whatever Reading had, it was so bright with gold that for an instant she couldn’t make it out. She had to look away and then try again, taking in one detail at a time. On his right hand, he wore a glove that extended all the way to his elbow. It seemed to be made of spun ice—though possibly it was just chain mail so fine it rippled like silk and gleamed like polished silver. What sat on it, though, was surely a demon forged of fire.
Awe took her. Poppy chewed her lip as she catalogued every feature. Brass claws dug into the steel glove, shifting uneasily while the thing looked about with bright ruby eyes. It was a smallish eagle, perhaps, though that didn’t begin to describe the beautiful ferocity of it. Every bright gold feather was carefully etched to capture nature’s texture, and when the bird opened its wings, they fanned and quivered like a living thing. But it was the beak that caught her interest, for it wasn’t all gold. Like the claws, it was brass tipped in steel. The thing was clearly meant for hunting.
“Can it fly?” one of the ladies asked.
“Of course,” said Reading.
He had one of those low, musical voices meant to read poetry about snowy flesh and bodices. Not that Poppy ever got into her mother’s private stock of romantic novels.
“My firebird here contains a miniaturized burner for aether distillate. He can fly every bit as high as his living cousins, and his logic processor is a step above anything on the commercial market. That’s really why I made him. I wanted a means of testing the sort of decision making we’d expect of a raptor. Imagine the possibility for such creatures on the field of battle.”
The bird shifted from foot to foot, ruffling its wings back into place. It was clear how Reading controlled the creature, for there was a small box in his other hand with dials and buttons. But the exquisite artistry outweighed the need for illusion. Poppy caught her breath, wanting to ask something just for an excuse to get closer. She’d seen plenty of wondrous inventions, but this was so beautiful it was almost beyond the reach of understanding. Looking at it made her heart ache.
“What sort of decisions?” the same woman asked. She was looking at the Scarlet King with a sly smile, as if there was more to the conversation than met the eye. “Are you asking it to kill pigeons?”
He laughed, holding the bird up a notch. The gesture spoke to his strength, because the thing must have been enormously heavy. “Perhaps to roast them.”
The creature opened its beak, and a tongue of flame lashed out with a sound like ripping silk. The crowd leaped back, cries of alarm filling the room. Reading laughed again, clearly enjoying himself. “I said it was a firebird.”
The thing spread its huge wings and gave a single flap. Metal feathers whistled through the air as it launched toward the high ceiling. For a moment, all Poppy felt was a fizz of delight that raised the fine hair all down her arms. The firebird sailed in a lazy circle, reflecting the bright lights and sparkle like an orbiting sun. But her pleasure quickly soured to alarm as the thing brushed the crystal droplets of the chandeliers, making them wobble on their chains. And then another blast of flame licked out dangerously close to the drapes.
Poppy suddenly had visions of Hilliard House ablaze. Dark fear snaked under her ribs as she glanced at Reading. What she saw there made her shrink back. His bright blue eyes held an unpleasant spark—this bordered on more then mischief. He was enjoying the crowd’s distress.
The firebird swooped over the table where footmen were replenishing the refreshments. They ducked from sheer surprise, one of them dropping a bottle that smashed with a sound like a gunshot. Guests began backing toward the door.
Poppy looked around for her mother, who was open-mouthed with horror. The party was about to become a disaster, but no one was brave enough to tell a steam baron to stop playing with his toys. Like Keating, Reading was too powerful to insult.
Poppy’s fingers crushed the ruffles of her skirts, anger curdling her fear. It was unfair and wrong for grown men and women to cower before an idiotic bully. Blast him anyway! What could he do to a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl? She wheeled around and stood squarely in his path.
“Sir,” she said in her best public-speaking voice, “wouldn’t you agree that this is a pleasure best enjoyed out of doors?”
Everyone within earshot went quiet. The firebird flapped lazily over the startled orchestra, finally coming to rest on the column of the harp. The instrument teetered dangerously.
The Scarlet King’s smile grew broad as he swept an elaborate bow. “My beautiful young miss, I don’t believe we’ve met.”
They had, but there was no point in reminding him of the fact. “My name is Poppy, and this is my house. Please don’t burn it down.”
“Ah,” he said with aggravating slowness, his gaze traveling over her in a way that made the blood rush to her cheeks—and not in a pleasant way. “And if I take my firebird outside, will you come along to enjoy it with me?”
Embarrassment corkscrewed her insides. It wasn’t the fact that he’d asked, but the way he’d made it sound like another proposition entirely. No one had ever spoken to her like that, not even in jest. And he was old. The man had to be twice her age.
“Good God, no!”
His eyes went wide—that had caught him by surprise. That was stupid, you idiot, now what’s he going to do? It was one thing to be bold, quite another to cause offense. But then Reading burst into laughter, mortifying her even more. It was a fat, loud guffaw that spared her no dignity—not one little scrap. Poppy slunk back a step, quivering, not sure if she was supposed to slap him or run from the room.
But then he stopped as abruptly as he had started. “I apologize, my sweet Miss Roth. That was unconscionably rude of me. You are quite right, my behavior is hardly suited to such delicate company. I hope we can still be friends.”
Reading reached his jacket pocket and pulled out a small enamel box. He pressed a spring that flipped it open, revealing neat rows of small pastel candies. “Peppermint?”
Poppy really didn’t know what to make of that. What a strange man! Did she refuse the candy out of caution—who wanted to eat anything that had been on his person?—or did she take one to smooth over everyone’s feelings?
Rescue came from the most unexpected quarter.
“Are you truly proposing to rob the cradle, William?” Keating said, suddenly appearing at her elbow. He tucked her gloved hand under his arm as if he were about to lead her to dinner and pulled her well out of reach of the little enamel box. Under the circumstances, she almost welcomed the gesture.
Reading gave the Gold King an outrageous wink. “Off limits, then, old man?”
Poppy’s eyes widened. The two men were supposed to be allies, but she’d never heard anyone speak to the Gold King this way. She looked up from under her lashes, turning icy at the grim set of Keating’s mouth.
“Yes, very much off limits.”
“And why am I obeying your commands?” Reading sneered.
“Are you drunk?”
The Scarlet King chuckled. “You don’t think I’d come to this sort of an affair without lubrication?”
Poppy gasped on behalf of her mother.
Keating squeezed her arm. “Get your bird under control, William. I have any number of chefs who can provide expert advice on plucking and skinning a troublesome rooster.”
Reading made a noise like he’d swallowed his own tongue. “I have a few recipes of my own, old man,” the Scarlet King said in a low, dangerous voice. “Have a care.”
But Keating didn’t back down. Poppy looked from one to the other, her interest quivering like the antennae of a butterfly. She’d seen half-wild alley curs circle one another, looking for any weakness worth exploiting. This was the same, only neither man actually moved. I don’t think they are as good friends as everyone thinks.
She barely dared to breathe, her heart thumping against the bodice of her dress so hard that it surely must have showed. Willing her feet to move, though, didn’t seem to work. It was as if her legs belonged to someone else who just wasn’t listening to her desperate urge to back away.
Then she saw Reading make a small motion with the hand that held the controls of his mechanical bird. In a lazy flap, the eagle launched from the pillar of the harp and drifted back to the Scarlet King’s arm, coming in so close to Keating’s head that the older man had to dodge the razor wingtips. Reading lifted his wrist, letting the bird catch the glove in a motion as neat and graceful as a dance move. Keating stood, smoothing his hair, and glared at the firebird.
Scarlet smiled. “You know your problem, Keating? You never let yourself enjoy any of the power you work so hard to get.”
“Go sober up,” Keating snapped. “You and I have business to conduct together. You don’t want an unfortunate incident to poison our accord.”
Some of that must have penetrated Reading’s skull, because his smirk soured. “Fusty old bastard, aren’t you?”
He slouched back a step, a movement out of keeping with his usual military dash. It was as if a mask had slipped, and someone much rougher and hungrier peeped out. Someone Poppy never wanted a good look at. She hated Jasper Keating, but all at once she feared the Scarlet King more. Keating at least seemed to have reasons for the things he did.
Then Keating turned and walked away, as if he knew Reading would leave just because he’d told him to. On one hand, Poppy was disappointed. A real fight would have been much more interesting. On the other, she wasn’t sure her mother would have survived any more excitement. The moment Keating moved, Lady Bancroft descended on the Gold King and started apologizing for the upset, as if there should have been a rule about guests leaving their birds at the door.
That left Poppy standing there, facing the Scarlet King. His angry blue eyes met hers, and a chill speared through her. It was almost painful, but it unglued her feet from the floor. She was suddenly able to walk away—so she did. When she glanced back over her shoulder, he was carrying his firebird from the room. Poppy’s breath escaped in a relieved whoosh.
At least she wasn’t bored any longer. If this was a representative sample of her parents’ social evenings, graduating from the schoolroom might not be as dull as she’d thought.
A Study in Ashes © Emma Jane Holloway, 2013