Read a sample from THE RIPPER AFFAIR by Lilith Saintcrow
Fast-paced, steampunk-inspired urban fantasy adventure set in an alternate Victorian London, where detective duo Bannon and Clare will face treason, cannon fire and dark magic.
Sorcery. Treason. Madness. And, of course, murder most foul . . .
A Messy Method
The trouble with dynamitards, Clare had remarked to Valentinelli that very morning, was the inherent messiness of their methods.
Of course, the Neapolitan had snorted most ungraciously. Anyone who killed with such a broad brush was a bit of a coward in his estimation – a curious view for one who named himself an assassin, certainly. Still, Clare had not meant merely their means of murder, but everything else as well. It was just so dashed untidy.
This Clerkenwell courtroom was packed as a slaughteryard’s pens, and the lowing crowd stank of rotting teeth and stewed potatoes, violet or peppermint cachous and sweat, wet wool and the pervasive breath of Londinium’s yellow fog. It had been a rainy summer, and even those venturing into the countryside to pick hops had been heard to grumble. The weather did not fully explain the crush; there were hangings elsewhere in the city that served the lower classes as better amusement.
However, the public – or at least, a certain portion of that great beast – expressed quite an interest in these proceedings. It did not take a mentath’s faculties of Deduction or Logic to answer why – the Eastron End of Londinium’s great sprawl was slopping over with both foreigners and Eireans; Southwark crammed to the gunnels with Eireans as well. Twenty or more to a stinking room and their blood-pricked fingers, Altered or not, largely responsible for the gleaming, expensive mechanisterum shipped out each Tideturn.
It was no wonder they were restless, given the ravages of the Red, cholera and tuberculosis as well – and the rampant starvation on their Emerald Isle, where their overlords, most of supposedly healthy Englene stock, behaved more like petty feudal seigneurs than benevolent citizens entrusted with the task of dragging Papist potato-crunchers from their ancient green mire.
That was, however, not in the purview of a lone mentath to speak against. He was merely present to give evidence. He could not allow Feeling to intervene with Logic or Truth.
Sometimes, even a mentath could wish it were otherwise.
“The device you refer to is unquestionably the work of the accused,” he said, clearly and distinctly, and ignored the rustle that went through the courtroom. Whispers and hisses rose. “For one thing, the manner of twisting the fuse is very particular, as is the signature of the chemica vitistera used to make the bomb itself. Had it not been defused, it would have been rather deadly for anyone visiting Parliament that day.”
“A modern Gunpowder Plot, then, sir?” the judge enquired, his cheeks flush with pride at his own wit.
Archibald Clare did not let his lip curl. Such a display would be unworthy of a soul dedicated to pure Logic. Still, the temptation arose. Under the powdered wig and above the robes of Justice, the man’s petty chuckling and drink-thickened face was a florid insult to the very ideal he had theoretically been called to serve.
Still, one could not have shaggy brutes blowing up Parliament. Once that was allowed, what on earth was next? He had no choice but to send the young Eirean, shackled in the Accused’s box and guarded by two sour-faced bailiffs, to the gallows. There would be a crowd of murdered souls waiting for the lad in whatever afterlife he professed, since he had already been twice successful – the explosion on Picksdowne, and another at the Bailey. Now that had been a horrific event.
The question of how these events could be traced to the Great Blight wracking the young man’s homeland was an open one. There were whispers of the Eirean spirit of rule struggling to manifest itself – a blasphemous notion, to be sure, but even such blasphemy found a ready hearing when the staple crop rotted in the ground and the tribes of Eire found themselves starving as well as browbeaten and outright terrorised. Could such a thing excuse this young man, or mitigate his murders?
When, Clare was forced to wonder in some of his private moments, could a man, even a mentath, cease unravelling Causes and concern himself only with Effects?
The young Mr Spencewail was accused of treachery to the Crown, both as a dynamitard and as a member of a particular Eirean brotherhood that called its members Young Wolves. Eireans were subjects of Britannia; but the Englene’s privilege of a trial by jury did not apply to them as a whole, and the Crown had not seen fit to intervene or offer a pardon.
Distaste for the whole affair, finished or not, was a sourness against Clare’s palate. “Perhaps,” he said, carefully. “That is outside my concern, sir. I may only speak to what I witnessed, and what may be deduced.”
As a sop to his conscience, it was not quite all Clare could have hoped for. As Emma Bannon sometimes remarked, conscience was a luxury those in service to Crown and Empire did not often possess.
“Quite so, quite so,” the judge bugled, and fetched a handkerchief from some deep recess of his robe. He sniffed loudly, affected to dab a patriotic tear from his deep-set eyes, and launched into upbraiding the young Eirean.
Clare turned his attention away. He was not given leave to go quite yet, but experience told him this particular judge would not ask anything resembling a question for a long while. Mr Spencewail had no solicitor: he might as well have been a sullen lump, voiceless and inert.
Miss Bannon would have been watching him with bright interest, though, ever unwilling to let a potential danger go unobserved.
Upon Clare’s thinking of her, the small crystal and silver pendant tucked under his shirt on its hair-fine chain – a Bocannon’s Nut, meant to warn the sorceress when Clare was in dire danger – chilled sharply. Wearing it while engaged upon investigations of a somewhat dangerous nature had become routine, even if the thing seemed to have some variance of temperature even when he was not in any difficult strait. He had not yet had a private moment to take the necklace off, or sleep. It was a bloody miracle he had possessed a few spare moments to wash his face and shave said countenance before appearing here, and once he was excused there was more work to be done.
As far as the authorities were concerned, the culprit was caught and further danger averted, but Clare was not so certain. He would not rest until he was. His faculties – and his quality of thoroughness, however inconvenient – would not allow it.
The courtroom, packed to the gunwales as it was, positively wallowed every time a fresh piece of evidence was introduced or a rise in the judge’s voice denoted something of interest. Somewhere in the high, narrow, stone-walled room – a leftover from the Wifekiller’s time with the rose of his royal dynasty worked into chipped, cracked carvings near the ceiling – was Valentinelli, who had flatly refused to cool his heels in Mayefair or at Clare’s often-neglected Baker Street quarters. Mrs Ginn, redoubtable landlady that she was, sometimes complained that Mr Clare kept the rooms so as to gather dust, but allowed that a gentleman was sometimes allowed to live as and where he pleased, even if he was one of her blessed lodgers.
Another ripple ran through the crowd. Were they bored with the lord justice, as he was? Did they think his refusal to speak outside his purview as a sign of support for their Cause? Did they have anything so concrete as a Cause, or was their dissatisfaction that of the mute beast?
What is this? Feeling, in place of Logic? It was not merely the press of the crowd; for a moment Clare’s collar was far too tight. He did not lift a finger to loosen it; the Bocannon was a chip of burning ice. The curious internal doubling a mentath was capable of held the crowd in a bubble of perception, while his faculties raced under the surface of his skull to pinpoint the discomfort.
What is amiss?
Sweat. Beads of sweat, a slick brow under the brim of a wool hat; far too flush even for a man caught in this press. High colour on scrape-shaven cheeks, but a pale upper lip told Clare the young man had possessed a moustache just this morning, and the line of his jaw was very familiar. His cloth was wrong as well – the coat was ill fitting, and too rough for the shoulders of a clerk unaccustomed to a drover’s work. Besides, there were traces on the sleeves, smears of familiar blue chalk, and the connection blazed into life.
Ah. So Spencewail does have a brother! The satisfaction of having his deduction proved correct was immense, but at the moment Clare could not luxuriate in it, for the man in the chalk-smeared coat undoubtedly had explosive sticks strapped to his torso.
The man ripped his coat open with blistered fingers, a single horn button describing an arc as it fell. A familiar brass dial attached to strips of leather gleamed against his sunken chest and the stained cloth of his workman’s shirt.
Spencewail, standing in the dock, had not yet realised what was afoot. He still glared at Clare, who had already begun to shift his weight. The blast would be quite vicious if they had solved the problem of sputtering in the catch-dial—
“Bastarde!” A familiar cry, Ludovico Valentinelli’s voice catching halfway, and the Neapolitan assassin appeared from the crowd, his pox-pocked face alight with fury, his lank hair still plastered down from his morning’s hurried ablutions.
Clare had enough time to think oh, dear before the Eirean rebel in the dock screamed something in his ancient Isle’s equally ancient tongue. The crowd, not realising what was afoot, was busy shouting its own discontent, for the judge had reached another pitch in his denunciation.
A simple twist of the Spencewail brother’s wrist, and not only would the nitrou-glycerine soaked into sawdust and pressed into sticks tear its bearer to shreds, but also everyone around him.
Including the mentath who had brought the accused to this pass.
Clare’s hand slapped the flimsy wooden barrier behind which a witness gave evidence, and his legs tensed. A single leap would bring him to Valentinelli’s aid.
It was a leap he did not have time to make. A great ruddy light bloomed as the Eirean student’s ink- and chalk-stained fingers found what they sought and twisted, and they had solved the problem of the stuttering fuse.
A soundless sound filled the courtroom, and a great painless blow hammered all along Archibald Clare’s body.
His last thought was that death had come while he still had his faculties intact, and that, strangely enough, it did not hurt.