A science fiction novel set in a post apocalyptic alternate timeline with Steampunk inventions and a Victorian-esque setting.
Chapter 1 – A Saturday Night TO BE Remembered (The Copper Star Arms)
The lonely music of the midnight bells faded in quiet echoes across the dark city, drowning in the thrums, clanks, and steamy hisses which made up the town’s perpetual song. Gloomy clouds rolled slowly across the sky, bringing a damp chill to the air that promised rain by morning, and the moon, full and round, could not pierce the dense veil which hung over the spires. If not for the polarity lamps, shedding blue-tinged light into the dark maze of the street, standing tall on iron poles at street corners or hanging in chains from the eaves of the most prosperous establishments, night would cover the city like a shroud in a tomb.
A shadow stalked this labyrinth of avenues, skirting the puddles of light spilled by the polarity lamps, and dodging the occasional steamy blast from metal grates embedded at the walkways’ edge. Tall and slender, the shadow moved with graceful purpose, its tread audible on the dampened stone only at a short distance, and only because it allowed itself to be heard. As it skirted the dark edge of the domain of each pulsing lamps, a pale patch resolved itself to be what might be a face beneath a hat, but nothing else could be discerned.
The shadow was nearly caught when a sharp-eared watchman lifted his clockspring lantern in response to the soft tread and the hint of movement across the avenue. Thumbing the trigger on the lantern, the copper unleashed the spring’s coiled energy to send internal gears whirring and grinding, churning the lantern’s chemical engine to produce a glow which optical mirrors focused into yellow ray. But all the flat-foot caught was just a glimpse of burgundy in the dark before it vanished in a blink, along with the tread of heels upon the slick pavement, leaving the copper dour faced for jumping at shadows and dreading the scolding his sergeant would lay on him at shift’s end for wasting departmental resources. Clockspring lantern fuel did not come cheap in these dark days.
The purposeful tread of the shadow resumed two blocks away from the confounded watchman, seeming to appear out of thin air - which in a way it did, when it dropped silently from the rooftop to the alleyway to resume its advance. Its steady pace did not increase as it neared its destination, which was now only a block away, but its footfalls rang a bit less softly above the steam-driven hiss and clanking of the city’s underside. The shadow paused in the gloom just yards from the Copper Star Arms, the inn’s copper-bound wooden door lit intermittently by a hanging polarity lamp in need of re-balancing, blue-green light flickering on and off at random intervals.
A minute ticked by, then another, and then suddenly there was the scrape of bootheels on paving stones and an impossibly fast staccato of tread falls on the avenue. And as the lamp flickered out, plunging the threshold into momentary darkness, the door to the Copper Star opened and closed so rapidly that wind from its motion set the lamp to swinging by its copper chain.
The flickering light from the wildly swinging polarity lamp illuminated nothing now but an empty avenue, its gray pavement shiny with the damp.
Inside the inn, all eyes in the dimly lit tavern room were now fixed on the doorway. Or more importantly, staring upon the figure now standing in front of the door, whose blindingly swift entrance sent a cold sharp breeze blasting into the room, knocking cards from tables, rattling glassware, and sending the inn’s tabby scurrying from its basket near the fireplace to a hiding place behind the woodpile, yowling in anger.
Only a few regulars to the Copper Star stayed after twelve bells, and now all of those wished they had headed for home after eleven.
Downy Hugh and Old Jasper had stayed on tonight to finish their game of gammon, which would have ended much earlier if not for the old man’s clockwork arm malfing in mid-move, and overturning the game board. Apologetic and embarrassed, Old Jasper had insisted upon an immediate rematch, as he tinked away at his wayward ratcheting limb, while Hugh fetched the board and the onyx and alabaster pieces from the floorboards.
The black-bearded younger man had calmly reset the gammon board, shrugging broad shoulders under his tight linen shirt when Jasper doubled his wager, the old gent proclaiming that honor demanded it since it was he that tipped the gammon to the floor before the outcome could be determined. But the game would never be completed now that the cold-wind had blown its way through the Copper Star Arms.
Vivian remained to finish her musical set, her pliant fingers tickling the ivory keys of the inn’s steam-driven pianophonium, and weaving together chords that tooted, rang, and thrummed like flutes and chimes and a piano, all at the same time. Dressed in a long red satin dress, with silk lace showing at collar and wrists, she was both beautiful and elegant, and knew it from the self-assured look on her face as she smiled at her two male admirers, who had waited for her to complete her set.
Vivian was no common bangtail, or even a high-priced toffer, but a proper lady of leisure - a certified Dame of the Silk & Satin Society, and schooled in the most exotic arts of pleasure known to mortals. Whether she had planned to take both men on tonight, or would have chosen one or the other, would now never be known once the shadow darkened the doorway of the inn.
Of course, Edwin had stayed on to close the tavern, as he did every night, being the owner and proprietor of the Copper Star Arms. The inn had been passed down in the family since his great-grandfather’s time, and the paunchy, florid Edwin seemed to personify all that there was to being an innkeeper. From salt-and-pepper hair combed over his balding scalp, to the waxed moustache curling above his tight lips, and the beer-spotted apron hanging down in front of his white cotton shirt, Edwin could look not one bit more the part of a prosperous barman if his life depended on it.
The master of the Copper Star Arms, a widower now for more than a decade, always sent his two serving maids home just after ten bells, when the streets were still well-travelled by crowds and watched over by coppers on their beat. As usual then, it was just he and his son Bart who manned the bar until closing time at first bell.
And if Edwin personified all that there was to being an innkeeper, then surely it his son Bart who least exemplified the family tradition. Bartholomew was already tall for his age of sixteen years, and built wiry and athletic in contrast to his father’s husky physique. His hair was raven-dark, slicked back from a widow’s peak over a high and unlined forehead, and the hints of the beard-to-come showed in the sparse black stubble on his upper lip and chin. The innkeeper’s son was known to be quick on his feet, as well as in speech and thought, and it was rumored he was tinking and contrapulating in his off-hours down, in the Copper Star’s cellars. Although the inn was destined to pass to him, and he wore the attire of a barman and worked dutifully for Edwin each night until closing, no one who frequented the Copper Start Arms thought that Bart would stay on to carry on in his father’s shoes once he shuffled them off.
And now, side by side behind the bar, both father and son stared at the ominous figure now standing in the entry of the Copper Star Arms. And as all eyes were fixed on the doorway, only that shadowy figure could note that alone of all the stares in the place, Bart’s gaze alone was filled with something other than fear and dread – something that looked so very much like hate.
And the pale faced shadow standing in the doorway of the inn, dressed in a long velvet overcoat of rich burgundy hue, doffed his matching deep wine-colored top hat to reveal a mane of dark red hair, and smiled to everyone in the Copper Star. It was the smile only a predator could smile, before it pounced on its prey.
“Dominus… Dominus Blaque,” stammered Edwin nervously, remembering only at the last moment to nod his head and pull a forelock in deference. “You grace my poor inn tonight with your very presence… how may we serve you?”
Without moving from the doorway, and seeming to completely ignore the fearful innkeeper, the Dominus transferred his hat in the crook of his arm. The he tugged at each finger of his black silk glove to loosen them, before pulling them off one at a time and dropping them into the hat, revealing porcelain white hands tipped with long pearlescent nails. Blaque performed this juggling act of hat and gloves without looking at his accoutrements, but instead kept his own eyes roving around the room and upon its inhabitants, and noted with great satisfaction a quivering lip here, a nervous eye tick there, and the sheen of perspiration upon everyone’s brow.
His gaze finally rested upon Vivian’s enticing form, his eyes moving over her satin wrapped form, as she demurely lowered her own. Without looking away from the lovely Dame, he answered the barman in a hauntingly resonant baritone.
“We’ve come tonight for your daughter,” Blaque drolled matter-of-factly, “so bring her forth. ‘Tis time that she become… acquainted… with the Dominus of Cogswell Borough… wouldn’t you agree?”
Bart flushed visibly at Blaque’s words, his arms hanging at his sides quivering with suppressed rage, and hands clenching into fists so tightly that his knuckles crackled with soft pops. Thankfully, only his father could see the boy’s reaction, hidden as they were behind the bar, for even the hint of a threat against a Dominus, or any of his breed, was a grave offense.
Edwin reached out and clasped his son’s shoulder, gently massaging the tensed muscle in hopes that he could calm the boy before he did something hot-headed and foolish. He licked his lips, suddenly realizing he had gone all dry-mouthed, and strove to speak in as steady a tone as he could manage.
“My humblest apologies, Dominus,” he replied, “but my daughter is away on the far side of the city, attending her aunt who has come down with the Red Cough.” Edwin mentally berated himself for the fawning whine he heard in his own voice, knowing it could incite Bart, who seemed more and more to be thinking like a ‘Breakers partisan these days. “She will return… I am certain, Dominus… once the danger to my sister has passed.”
Blaque head turned sharply to spear the innkeeper and his son with his glare, and there could be no mistaking the flash of red from the pupils of his emerald eyes as they narrowed to cat-like slits. Quickly regaining composure and veiling his terrible eyes behind half-closed lids, the Dominus arched a crimson eyebrow in apparent amusement.
“Did she not get our invitation last week?” Blaque queried, “We are certain that our porter told us he delivered it himself… and we would hate to have to beat him for lying to us about so small a thing.” He chuckled softly, brushing pale fingertips across his bejeweled medallion of office. “But then it is so difficult to find reliable servants in these troubled times.”
“Ah… alas, Dominus,” the innkeeper stammered out, “Katherine had already departed to care for her aunt before your message arrived, and we did not think to forward it on to her…”
“No, clearly,” the Dominus interrupted softly, “you did not… think.”
“But come, remind us… where does your sister dwell? Perhaps we could simply send my lazy porter over there with another invitation to an introduction, and visit Katherine when she is not otherwise engaged with her duties as nurse,” Blaque mused.
“My aunt lives in Battersteam Borough,” Bartholomew spat, a bit too loudly and with a hint of smug satisfaction on his young face. “And my sister is within the demesne of Dominus Valentin while she attends Auntie Fidelia… isn’t that right father?”
Edwin suppressed the desire to roll his eyes at his son’s impertinence, and instead clasped his shaking hands together, involuntarily, in the gesture of one begging for reprieve.
“My son speaks the truth, Dominus Blaque,” he intoned as calmly as he could. “My sister’s late husband was Dominus Valentin’s shipper, and she has lived in his borough for many years.”
“How… inconvenient,” Blaque replied, annoyance dripping from each syllable. “We do not… get on well… with the Dominus of Battersteam. No, not well at all.” His eyes narrowed as he glanced at the innkeeper’s son. “But then, we think perhaps you were all too aware of the rumor of our discomfiture with Battersteam. A pity.”
The Dominus reached into his hat and pulled out a glove, as if to start putting it back on, but stopped and looked over at the fireplace as if lost in thought.
“Then is there anything else we can do to serve you this evening, Dominus,” Edwin gushed, clearly relieved that Blaque was preparing to leave. He shot a quick glance at his son, who also looked relieved and even more smug, for it had been Bart’s plan to shuffle off his sister to stay with Fidelia for a few weeks once the so-called invitation had arrived.
“A pity, indeed,” the Dominus said again with a sigh, “that the Copper Star will have to be closed under investigation. As we understand it, it is one of the largest inns in our borough, and we hate to… inconvenience… those under our protection.” He shook his head sadly as he looked back at the innkeeper and his son.
Edwin looked back at Blaque with a renewed look of fear, his face paling as he considered the implications for the family business. And Bart’s face flushed once again, the smug look falling from his face to be replaced with anger and uncertainty. And the other patron’s in the inn who had remained silent during the exchange between the Dominus and the innkeeper now reacted to Blaque’s condemnation. Vivian gasped quietly, covering her mouth and looking at Edwin in pity, while Old Jacob shook his grizzled gray head in disbelieve. Downy Hugh merely tucked his head, staring down at his boots as if hoping to avoid being noticed by the Dominus. Vivian’s two companions glanced fearfully at each other, clearly wishing they had could be anywhere but at the Copper Star.
“B-but why?” asked Edwin, “why would the Star need to be closed, Dominus? We’ve done nothing wrong!”
The innkeeper leaned forward to clasp the bar with both hands for support, as his knees shook with stress. Bart instinctively reached out to steady his father, casting a hateful glare at Blaque for upsetting Edwin so much.
“Oh but you have,” purred the Dominus. “You have wronged us most gravely. When our porter delivered the invitation, it was to go directly into the hands of Katherine, which you have admitted it did not. You intercepted an official document coming from us… a Dominus… to our subject… your daughter Katherine. And that is a serious offense indeed.
Edwin blanched now, suddenly realizing the implications of sending his daughter to another borough. But Blaque was not finished.
“Further,” the Dominus intoned, a vicious smirk beginning to play about his lips, “you prevented the invitation from reaching our subject, even though you knew fully where she was residing, which also makes you guilty of meddling in the personal affairs of the nobility… which while not punishable in court, does entitle us to settle the affront to our honor in a duel…”
Blaque paused a moment, and looked fully into the eyes of the stricken innkeeper, his pupils flashing redly as he finished his litany of crimes.
“…to the death.”
“No,” Bart cried out, as he hurried around the end of the bar to approach the Dominus in entreaty, “you can’t do this! Please… it was a mistake… I can explain...”
But as the lad moved toward Blaque, the Dominus became a blur of motion, dropping his hat and rushing the boy, to grab him by his apron and shirtfront. He had Bart lifted off his feet and slammed against the wall beside the bar before his wine-dark hat plopped to the floor.
Bart coughed spasmodically for a moment, the wind knocked from his lungs as he was flung hard against the wall, and then scrambled to stand upon his tiptoes to avoid being strangled by the shreds of his own shirt, now held tightly in Blaque’s fist. The Dominus moved with such speed that his sharp nails tore the boy’s shirt like razors, even scoring a small gash across his chest. He stared into the inhuman eyes of the enraged Dominus, Blaque’s cat-like irises wide now, with the pupils reflecting the light like a beast.
“Did you honestly believe you could ever play a game with me… and win?” Blaque snarled, losing his posh noble accent as he raged. Practically nose to nose with his victim, the boy could feel Blaque’s foul breath against his face...