Natasha Pulley’s Watchmaker of Filigree Street captivated readers with its charming blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and steampunk. Now, Pulley revisits her beloved characters in a sequel that sweeps readers off to Japan in the 1880s, where nationalism is on the rise and ghosts roam the streets.
We’re excited to share an excerpt from The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, available February 18th from Bloomsbury.
1888. Thaniel Steepleton, an unassuming translator, and Keita Mori, the watchmaker who remembers the future, are traveling to Japan. Thaniel has received an unexpected posting to the British legation in Tokyo, and Mori has business that is taking him to Yokohama.
Thaniel’s brief is odd: the legation staff have been seeing ghosts, and Thaniel’s first task is to find out what’s really going on. But while staying with Mori, he starts to experience ghostly happenings himself. For reasons Mori won’t—or can’t—share, he is frightened. Then he vanishes.
Meanwhile, something strange is happening in a frozen labor camp in Northern Japan. Takiko Pepperharrow, an old friend of Mori’s, must investigate.
As the weather turns bizarrely electrical and ghosts haunt the country from Tokyo to Aokigahara forest, Thaniel grows convinced that it all has something to do with Mori’s disappearance—and that Mori may be in serious danger.
London, 2nd December 1888
Fog rolled down Filigree Street early that morning. It was a great brown mass, darkening the lights from one window and then the next, engulfing the gilded shop signs until there was nothing left but a crooked trail of bright dots that might have been the street lamps. At the narrow end of the road—it became narrower and narrower the further you went—laundry on the lines between the gables turned sooty. Lamps went on in upstairs windows as people hurried to take it in, too late.
At number twenty-seven, Thaniel eased the door open just wide enough to slip through, so he wouldn’t let too much of the fog or its chemical smell into the hall, and wound his scarf on high over his nose. It should have been daylight by now, but the fog made it look like midnight, and he had to walk close to the shop fronts to keep himself in a straight line. He shoved his hands into his coat sleeves.
Normally, even though it hurt everyone’s eyes and lungs and probably everything else as well, he liked fog; it was a novelty, like snow, and it was hard not to feel a thrill when he saw how different the world looked under the weird brown pall. But all he could think today was that the post wouldn’t come. It never did in fog. No post; no telegram from Russia. Like he did every morning, he looked back at number twenty-seven, and the dark workshop window, then pinched himself. Mori wasn’t just going to magically reappear over-night.
South Kensington station was eerie with so few people there, every step clocking loud on the wooden platform in a way he never noticed in a crowd. The big new posters for Milkmaid condensed milk were optimistically bright, plastered over the older soot-stained ones. They always seemed to appear around the same time the fog did; the milk carts stopped running, of course, because nobody wanted to try and take care of five hundred glass bottles when the streets were full of fog-skittish horses. When the train came, the carriage wasn’t even half as crowded as it would usually have been.
When Thaniel came up from the Underground at Westminster, the streets were deserted. There were no cabs, no carriages, not even doormen outside the Liberal Club or Horse Guards. The white buildings loomed spectral and huge, the roofs lost in fog, and he could see what it would look like in a thousand years’ time, when it would probably all be in ruins. It was a relief to get into the heat and light of the Foreign Office.
It was a glorious building, with a huge entrance hall and a main stairway built to impress visiting sultans and diplomats. The great chandeliers were unlit today, the vaults of the ceiling lost in a brown gloom, and the clerks at the desk were handing out candles. Thaniel took one and caught himself grinning, because the novelty gave everything a holiday feeling, like going to church on Christmas Eve. One first grand, frescoed hall, into the tangle of little corridors that weren’t meant for visitors. There were some lamps going, the gas popping and stuttering, but they gave off much less light than they did their odd chemical smell. The gas line had never been brilliant.
The Far Asia department was much brighter. He couldn’t tell how official it was—not very, knowing his manager—but this floor of the building was lit electrically, as a kind of pilot experiment with one of the electric companies who wanted to light the whole of Whitehall. Instead of that popping of gas lamps, there was the friendly sizzle of Swann lightbulbs. It was much quieter, and Thaniel liked it, but sometimes, if the power supply waned too much, they fizzed with a noise that, to him, sounded green. The whole corridor had a green tinge to it now.
The department was mostly empty. A few people were playing a delicate game of skittles in the long corridor that led to the Minister’s office. Given that the balls sometimes missed and thumped the door, the Minister probably wasn’t in either. Thaniel looked up and down the corridor, then dropped onto the stool of the grand piano nobody else ever played and went over the opening of Sullivan’s new show. The piano had appeared, mysteriously, about a month after he’d started working here. His manager, Fanshaw, was a huge Gilbert and Sullivan fan, easily avid enough to acquire a piano if it meant he got snatches of the new shows before anyone else. He usually frowned on clerks doing other things at weekends—the Foreign Office was a vocation, thank you, not a job—but he never looked happier than when he was taking Thaniel off weekend shifts in favour of rehearsals at the Savoy. Thaniel kept up a decent supply of free tickets to say thank you.
He kept his weight on the quiet pedal, so that the sound wouldn’t hum through the whole building. He was pleased about the new show. It was different to the music Sullivan had written before, richer, less funny, and there was a fantastic moment in the overture when, if everyone hit the big crescendo like they were meant to, the sound was coronation anthem, cathedral-filling grand, and the theatre lit up gold.
Thaniel looked round when the lights buzzed. The green was worse than ever. He shut his eyes hard and pushed one hand to his temple. He did like seeing the colours of sound. He liked seeing the colour of Mori’s voice, and the lights that hovered like an aurora above an orchestra, but he was starting to think that electricity might not be his favourite thing.
‘The hell is that music coming from?’ a courtly voice demanded. Thaniel froze.
He got up gradually and looked around the door of the office. Lord Carrow was inside, talking to Thaniel’s manager and looking uncomfortable even to find himself in an office space, as though working for a living might be catching. He was gripping his cane hard, horizontally, in both hands.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ Carrow said blackly. ‘I forgot you worked here.’ He glared at him and turned back to Francis Fanshaw. ‘As I say, if you could drop her a line and encourage her to remember she has a father who would occasionally enjoy confirmation that she hasn’t been abducted by savages.’
He didn’t wait for anyone to say yes or no and strode out, banging Thaniel’s shoulder hard on the way by. Thaniel watched him go.
The last time they had seen each other was in a bland little registry office in Kensington four years ago, when Thaniel and Grace Carrow had been signing divorce papers. They’d all been brittly polite to each other, and then Lord Carrow had punched him in the eye in the foyer.
‘You haven’t heard from Grace, have you?’ Fanshaw said once Carrow was well out of earshot.
‘We don’t talk to each other. Um … why was he asking you?’
‘She lives in Tokyo now, didn’t you know? She married that Japanese fellow—you know, the anti-you. Dandy, annoying; I forget his name. Apparently she hasn’t written for a while.’
‘Well,’ said Thaniel, ‘I wouldn’t write if Carrow were my father.’
‘My feeling too.’ Fanshaw paused. He had never asked exactly what had happened between Thaniel and Grace, and Thaniel was glad, because he couldn’t think of a good lie even now. ‘Say,’ he said, ‘how’s that watchmaker of yours?’
It might only have been that Fanshaw had gone from thinking of one Japanese man to another, but Thaniel had a horrible zing of fear that hurt his whole spine. He hated it when people asked him about Mori. Fanshaw had every right to, he’d met him, but the very first thing Thaniel always thought whenever anyone asked was, do they know?
It was prison if you were lucky, an asylum if you weren’t. Hard labour or electroshock therapy; and beyond that, he had no idea, because the newspapers couldn’t print those kinds of stories, and asylum doctors didn’t publish their treatments. They didn’t hang people anymore, but that was only because the doctors had managed to classify it all as a kind of madness—moral insanity.
He’d rather hang. That was clean. A scafold didn’t have the rancid horror of an asylum.
‘Yeah, fine, probably. Dunno, he’s been away.’
‘Listen to me very carefully.’
Thaniel frowned. He was too hot now; all his internal engines were revving, ready to run, even though there was nowhere to run to.
‘It’s “yes” and “I don’t know”, Steepleton. Promotions come to he who enunciates.’
‘Piss off,’ said Thaniel, so relieved he had to lean back against the wall.
Fanshaw laughed. ‘Anyway. Something for the fog?’ He held out a silver hip flask.
A few years ago, Thaniel would have refused, but lately he’d realised that refusing was only polite if you were talking to a poor person. If you refused a rich person, you looked like you were worried you’d catch something. He took a sip and the brandy seared nicely down the back of his throat. ‘Thanks.’
‘Actually there’s something else I need to talk to you about,’ Fanshaw said, and stood aside so that Thaniel could see his own desk. The telegraph had been overactive across the weekend. It was covered with ribbons of transcript paper.
‘It’s all from our legation in Tokyo,’ said Fanshaw.
‘Have the Russians declared war?’ Thaniel said, trying to find the end of the tangle. When he did, he pinned it to the China desk with a Kelly lamp.
‘No,’ Fanshaw said. ‘It seems that the Japanese staff of the legation believe that the building is haunted. They’re all leaving. And now the British staff are getting the raging collywobbles as well. There’s a danger the whole place will shut down.’
Thaniel straightened, still holding a ribbon of transcript. The later messages towards the end of the ribbon had gone into shouty capital letters. APPARENTLY THE KITCHEN IS HAUNTED BY SOMEBODY’S DEAD WIFE STOP PLS ADVISE GOD’S ACTUAL SAKE STOP. ‘Did someone enroll us in the Psychical Society without telling us?’ he asked, nearly laughing.
Fanshaw shook his head. He was smoothing transcripts as Thaniel cut them up, and he didn’t look like he thought it was very funny at all. ‘I seriously doubt they mean figure-in-a.sheet ghosts.’ He sank his head and surveyed an invisible dictionary about three feet off the floor. It took him a while to find the right words. ‘I’m worried it’s something the servants feel is unspeakable, and so they’re telling stories about ghosts so they won’t have to say what’s really going on. They know we’re all stupid. They know that if they make up something supernatural then we’ll write it off as native flightiness and ask no more questions. I’ve seen this sort of behaviour before, in farther-flung countries. It’s usually caused by diplomats … abusing their immunity, and so forth.’
Thaniel nodded. He could believe it.
Fanshaw looked uncomfortable. ‘And if that is the case, it means a local interpreter is no good. They could be interpreting to the person who’s actually the problem. I have to send in someone from outside.’
‘Will you go over there and sort it out, then?’
Fanshaw looked up. ‘No. You will. You’re far more fluent than I am, it’s idiotic that you aren’t already on a Tokyo posting.’
Thaniel was quiet while he let it sink in. ‘How long for?’
‘As long as it takes. I’ll put it down as a full rotation translation posting, though, so you don’t arrive to a building full of people who know you’re investigating them. Year, year and a half, on paper.’ Fanshaw frowned. ‘Are you all right? You don’t look happy.’
It caught Thaniel off guard and he didn’t know what to say.
Mori was still in Russia. Whatever he was doing there, he had been doing it for six months, and before that, he’d been in Berlin for three. Thaniel had no idea why. Almost certainly the only reason they had managed to rub along together for four years was that he never asked too many questions, but he felt hollowed out with missing him. When the time came to expect a letter—every week or so—the walk home was tight with a sort of nervous buoyancy that veered between dread and hope. There hadn’t been any.thing for three weeks. He had a grey feeling now that there wouldn’t be, since the entire Russian infrastructure was buried under sixteen feet of snow.
He cleared his throat. ‘It’s just the fog,’ he said, and then almost exactly on cue, had to turn his head away and cough into his hands. ‘My lungs aren’t too good. I used to work in an engine factory.’ He tried to thread some sensible thoughts together. They kept rolling off under the furniture. ‘How long do I have to think about it? I’ve got a little girl.’
Six was going to hate the whole idea. She hated it if he took her on a detour on the way to school, never mind to Tokyo.
‘Not long, I’m afraid,’ Fanshaw said. He twisted his nose regretfully. ‘Think it over tonight, but I need an answer tomorrow. The Russians are still parked in the Sea of Japan. They’re not moving at the moment, but if they do move, they’re going to go straight for Nagasaki and then all the passenger ships will be put on hold. Everything goes through Nagasaki.’ He looked as though everybody had arranged it that way specifically to annoy the Foreign Office. ‘So you need to be there sooner rather later.’
Thaniel hesitated, because he didn’t much like the idea of taking Six into a war zone. ‘But they won’t, will they? The Russians. They can’t invade.’
Fanshaw shrugged. ‘They could. They wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know something, and I suspect what they know is that the Japanese fleet is on its last legs. I think they’re going to inch nearer and nearer til someone from the Japanese navy loses his nerve and fires. Then it’ll be the Opium War all over again. The Russians will have the right to do whatever the hell they like once a Russian ship takes a hit.’
‘If it’s just about not firing on them, then why would anyone do that?’
Fanshaw waved his hands at the whole department. ‘Because! Have you seen the heights of gibbering indignation the upper echelons of the Japanese armed forces can achieve? They’re still samurai. They grew up being unofficially allowed to test out new swords on unwanted foreigners. They’re still getting to grips with the idea that there are forces in the world they can’t bully. I almost guarantee someone will fire.’
Thaniel tried to match that idea to Mori, who had never bullied anyone.
Fanshaw let himself slouch. ‘Anyway, as I say, have a think tonight. But you do need to go, if you’re going to go much further with the Foreign Office. If you get stuck in England, you’ll be a clerk forever.’
Thaniel nodded again. Japan; he’d never been further than two hundred miles from home. The idea of it was so big that it was warping everything around it, even sitting here in the same old chair with a folded up Chinese passport stuck under the back leg to keep it level. Ten minutes ago, the office had just been the office, familiar, and cosy in the fog. Now, it didn’t feel safe. Instead of the fog, Japan was pawing at the windows, vast and nebulous, and for all he spoke the language and lived with a man who had grown up there, it was dark to him.
Fanshaw clapped him on the shoulder. ‘There are things poor people don’t teach their sons, and one of those things is that there’s a link to home you must sever, if you’re to do anything real at all.’
Excerpted from The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, copyright © 2020 by Natasha Pulley.