There’s less than a month left before the Steampunk Bundle disappears. In the lead-up to that heartbreaking moment, we’ll be running some hot excerpts from each of the volumes in the bundle. Our second excerpt is from The Innocent’s Progress by Peter Tupper, from the second story, “The Pretty Horsebreaker.”
(also available at Amazon, iBooks/iTunes, Smashwords, Kobo and Barnes & Noble)
The Other Library
Miss Ccri sang “Pirate Jenny” loudly as she drove the auto-carriage up and down the rolling hills of the countryside, swerving around the odd hay wagon or dog cart on the narrow lanes.
She parked it outside the Hough estate’s gated entrance, noting the well-tended grounds and stately manor house. After lifting her goggles above her cap’s brim and a quick touchup of her face powder, she walked up the driveway to the front entrance, wondering if Lord Hough’s neighbors had any inkling of the contents of this house. Decency wouldn’t dare nose about here.
Miss Ccri lifted the wrought iron knocker on the front door and rapped it, twice.
A maid opened the door a crack, whispered, “‘Round the side, mahm,” and shut it hastily.
So that was how it was going to be, was it? Frowning, Miss Ccri walked around to the side of the house, found the service entrance and knocked, this time with the handle of her umbrella.
The same maid ushered her into a side hall. “I didn’t get your brolly, mahm,” said the maid, hand outstretched.
“That is correct,” said Miss Ccri lightly. “Is this the way?”
She found Lord Hough in the next hallway. His white hair and beard contrasted with his large size and energetic manner. “Ah, Miss Ccri, welcome!” He took her hand in his large, bony grasp and kissed it lightly. “Please excuse this minor diversion. Neighbors, what?”
Lord Hough led her through an impressively large library to a heavy door made of iron-shod oak. He took a key off his watch chain, unlocked the door, and with some effort pushed it open. “We all have our little hobbies,” he told her.
“I enjoy needlepoint,” she answered, and followed him inside.
The door swung shut behind her with a distressingly solid sound, enough to make Miss Ccri immediately search for another exit. Instead, she found a naked girl, holding an amphora.
“A statue?” she said, examining the eerily lifelike paint on the marble. Apart from the lack of motion, the only real giveaway was the gilded pubic hair.
“Delightful, what? That’s how the ancients actually displayed them.” He blew a kiss to the statue as he walked past. “Come along.”
As she followed him through the stacks and past barred, frosted windows, he pointed out various volumes. “Aretin… Meibo… Argen… Prevo… Dider… Volt… Saad, of course.”
“Of course,” she said.
“And here, from the Orient: The Thread of Desire, The Boat in the Sea of Love—only in translation, alas—and some others. Our nation’s contribution to the field is over there,” he said, pointing at another set of shelves. “Clel, Swynne, and of course the late Lord Yron. The finest collection in the Empire, nay, the world, regardless of what that vulture Aysche would tell you.”
“I can’t imagine there’s any comparison,” she said, flattering him out of habit.
They came to what seemed to be the primary work area. A difference engine in a glass case clicked and sparked to itself. Lord Hough pulled on a pair of white cloth gloves. “Let us see our subject.” He extended a large hand to her.
She removed the book from her clutch and gave it to him. “My uncle passed on recently, and all he left me were the contents of his foot locker. The only thing of any potential value is this. I’m in some financial embarrassment at the moment, and I hope it would be legal to sell.” It was a carefully crafted story: the promise of a rare edition, sweetened with a little “damsel in distress.” If Hough did detect the forgery, she could plausibly feign ignorance. She didn’t share Carrig’s confidence in his works.
Lord Hough held the book by his fingertips, turning it around, then actually sniffed it. “Rag paper, not the cheap pulp you find these days.” He opened it. “Typeface is period.” He turned away from her and placed the book directly beneath an electric light. “Hrrm… haaah…” he muttered, examining the book with the aid of a magnifying glass.
As he worked, Miss Ccri tried to look about unobtrusively. She had hoped that she might find the Braen manuscript just on a desk, but she had underestimated the sheer size of the collection. She had scanned only one of the bookcases when Lord Hough spoke up.
“I regret that you have been deceived, Miss Ccri,” he said. “An excellent forgery, but a forgery nonetheless.”
“Are you sure?” she said, the right note of dismay and disbelief in her voice.
“Quite. There are too many counterfeits in circulation, impeding the study of this field. Now, why don’t you tell me why you’re really here?”
“I don’t know what you mean, my lord.”
“You were not browsing. You were looking for something in particular. Whose cat’s paw are you? Aysche? Swynne?”
She decided to abandon the ruse. “I was looking for Captain Braen’s manuscript. I have been retained by an interested party—”
“Ah, the widow. She’s more persistent than I thought.”
Miss Ccri believed too strongly in her clients’ privacy to give the game away. “—to obtain the twenty-first chapter. I am willing to negotiate its purchase.”
“No.” He sat back in his chair.
“May I ask why not?”
“Braen’s moments of genius would only be misunderstood by lesser minds, as would his more frequent moments of folly. Releasing the manuscript to the public would result in either its destruction by Decency and a great loss to scholarship, or in the corruption of the lower classes and the tarnishing of Captain Braen’s already dubious reputation. The best place for it is in my collection, where it will be circulated amongst those who are intellectually prepared for such ideas. I will show it to a gathering of like-minded gentlemen tomorrow night.”
“Obviously, your lordship will be unmoved by gross coin. I can offer you something in exchange for the manuscript.
I am impressed by your library, sir,” she said, talking slightly faster than she could think, “but there is something lacking.”
“No collection is ever truly complete. The tragedy of my life.”
“I see the past, but not the future. Have you been to the Blood Blossom or the minor houses lately? They are far beyond classical Commedia there. Desire itself is transforming within the Half-World. There are new plays, and new characters: The Tinker, for instance.” If there was such a character, she had never heard of it. She thought of Braen’s Myriad Nights, the maiden spinning tale after tale to keep the sultan from executing her. “Would a botanist turn down the chance to discover a new species of flower?” she cajoled, posing enticingly before him.
“Very well. If you can show me something truly new, I will discuss selling the manuscript.”
“I would like to see it first, if you don’t mind.”
He reached for a stack of folios near his desk, picked one from the middle and showed her the opening page. There it was, in Braen’s looping script, The Perfumed Garden: Chapter Twenty-One & Notes.
“Thank you. I shall perform the Tinker Girl, with improvised costume.”
“I’m in no hurry.”
Miss Ccri withdrew behind a book case to prepare for the performance, which would be billed to Missus Braen anyway. She remembered her glimpse of the tinker girl Tangwen, her blunt insolence and sauciness. More feisty than the Servant, but more dutiful than the Harlot, and almost as self-possessed as the Virago. After a moment’s hesitation, she wiped off her face powder, then mussed up her hair and positioned her hair clips in front. A bit of eyeliner suggested a smudge of grease on her cheek. She took off her dress, leaving her corset and her underthings, then turned her coat inside out so it looked rougher. The driver’s cap and goggles completed the costume.
She walked around the book case. Instead of her usual glide, she swung her hips and cocked her head to one side. “The depot sent me, sir. I’m here to fix yer engine.” The words came in the distinctive rhythm and patter of the way she spoke before she traveled to the City. She hadn’t slipped, not once, in years, but it was still there, despite all her lessons in diction, posture, and etiquette.
“Hello, my child,” he said, eyeing her. “This way.”
Miss Ccri bent over the glass case of the difference engine, pretending to fix it, but also making sure Lord Hough had a good view of her hindquarters. She read the engine’s display, sounding out the words as if she could barely read. “‘Miss Coote’s Confession.'” She grinned cheekily at Lord Hough. “Ooh, wot’s that about, then?”
“Never you mind. Back to work.”
It wasn’t long before she felt his large hand stroking her back, then reaching under the hem of her coat and squeezing her right buttock. “That’s extra, sir.”
“Well worth it.”
“Awright, but make it quick. Me boss’ll tan me bum if I’m late back at the depot.” She felt more naked than she ever had, even when performing before hundreds of people. Why was this so different? She’d been too clever for herself by half, choosing a disguise too close to what she kept hidden and becoming defenseless.
She felt him step behind her, heard his clothes rustle, felt his fingers stroke her. “So ready, so soon.” His clothes brushed against her as she felt herself pressed between the large man and the machine.
“Wot’re ye doin’?”
“You’re in good hands, my child,” he said. His hands on her stomach lifted her onto her toes, then he entered her.