Posts Tagged ‘Steampunk’

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Cast of Wonders 337: Silkstrand, A Minute Of


Silkstrand, A Minute Of

by Anton Stark

Imperial Majesty, Lord-for-Countless-Years, Son of Heaven, Ruler of Industry and Wisdom; this your servant Cai Jing of the Ministry of Works greets you. As per your Imperial Decree, I have compiled the following report on the matter of Master Su’s Clock and its abnormal behaviour. The facts of the case, as far as truth has presented itself, are as follows: (Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 260: Contractual Obligations

Show Notes

Theme music is “Appeal to Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available from Promo DJ or his Facebook page.


Contractual Obligations

by Jaime O. Mayer

 

Jiasi gripped the heavy skate, her eyes flicking first to the rust-spotted blade attached to the sole, then back to Emmaline, who watched her with a mischievous smile. “Maybe this is a bad idea.”

Emmaline rolled her eyes, a chuckle escaping her lips.

They sat on a lakeside bench while dozens of Valorie City’s citizens enjoyed the wintry morning. Children raced each other across the frozen surface, giving a wide berth to a pair of young men working on a broken down steamhorse midway through a sleigh ride. Jiasi recognized the Drayden coach by sound rather than sight; there was no mistaking the shrill, nasal whine of Lady Drayden as she barked orders at the men and criticized her daughter in the same breath. “Work faster! Allianne, stop waving your arms like a drunkard.”

Allianne’s response, voice light as her straw-colored hair, was inaudible as she wobbled around in a circle, arms held out for balance.

Emmaline’s lips quirked up in a smile. “A dance routine on ice? It’s an excellent idea.” She plucked the skate from Jiasi’s hands. “We just shouldn’t have said it where the Drayden Dragon could hear.”

“What if I fall?”

“Then you’ll get up and keep going,” Emmaline said, lacing the skates. She shook her head. “Two years in this kingdom and you’ve never been skating.”

Jiasi clambered upright. “How do you move in these things?”

Emmaline led her toward the ice with tiny steps. “You’ll get used to it. Doesn’t it snow in Tunsha?”

“It doesn’t freeze like this! You’re sure it’s safe?”

“See all the lovely people not drowning?”

How comforting, Jiasi thought.

“Just enjoy yourself. Promise?”

“Promise. Unless I fall.”

“Fair enough.”

They trundled around the lake, and with each subsequent lap Jiasi gained confidence. She even managed a quick wave at the Draydens, but feigned losing her balance to avoid stopping to chat.

“Time for your moment of bravery,” Emmaline said. “Leave the nest, my duckling.”

Jiasi pecked Emmaline on her wind-pinked cheek before skating away, miming flapping wings with her arms.

A performance on the ice with her dramatic long sleeves, perhaps it would be innovative enough to merit an invitation from Valorie’s Royal Theater at a mere eighteen years old. Perhaps.

A scream pierced the air, jerking her from the reverie, and throwing Jiasi off balance. Knees locking in panic, her feet slid out from underneath her. She smacked against the ice, grunting as an arc of pain shot up her backside and elbow.

“Jiasi!”

Emmaline rushed toward her, pointing to the side.

To Jiasi’s right, a metallic clunk and hiss of steam grew louder. The steamhorse, freed of its sleigh, rumbled toward her. It lacked one front hoof, and without the aid of its ice-studded shoe the mechanical beast careened across the lake.

Jiasi shoved against the ice, but her hands couldn’t gain traction. She tried to regain her feet, but her inexperience with the skates coupled with growing terror left her floundering.

She cringed, eyes frozen on the erratic hulk of metal. One moment it appeared as if the horse would strike her head, but a stride away its crippled leg skidded on the ice. The still-hooved foreleg smashed down on her right knee. She screamed, arms rising in futile defense. The steamhorse collapsed on her, and her head thudded against the ground.

 


 

The sharp, jarring pain from her legs being straightened roused her from unconsciousness. Emmaline’s teary face hovered in view, and Jiasi instinctively tried to comfort her, don’t cry, Emmy love, but she couldn’t make a sound aside from an awful moan.

Someone had placed her on a sled. It began to move, the grating motion bringing a fresh wave of pain. She didn’t try to fight the buzz of unconsciousness. Through closing eyes, Jiasi saw Lady Drayden standing several feet back, the only face in the crowd lacking any shock or grief.

 


 

Jiasi awoke in a room lit by a single turned-down lamp and filtered moonlight. Pillows cushioned her legs, and a floral-patterned quilt covered them. She recognized the hand-stitched flowers; Emmaline’s bedroom in House Tembury.

Reaching to remove the quilt, Jiasi cried out; it felt like she was being stabbed by a hundred small knives along her torso. She clutched her sides, attempting to lessen the pain, whimpering in between gasps.

A loud click sounded, like a large key turning in a lock, but a glance to the bedroom door confirmed no one had entered.

“Broken ribs, dearie,” an unctuous male voice said. “Allow me.”

Jiasi blinked in surprise as a child-sized man came out of the darkness. He pulled the quilt back with care, and Jiasi saw a glint of metal around his neck.

“Are you-”

“A Contractor, yes. A little light, I think, so you can understand why I’m here.” He went to the lamp and turned it up.

Her growing wakefulness also heightened the bright, harsh pain throbbing in her legs. Though her mind was processing at a sluggish pace, her memory returned. The lake. The broken steamhorse. The accident.

“My legs,” she whispered. Her legs burned not with the ache of fatigued muscles after a long routine, but with the fire of trauma, of breaking and tearing.

“Hence my arrival.” The Contractor gave a small bow. “The advent of steam machinery has given us quite the choice in work.”

Jiasi stared. Someone had tried to splint her bones, but noble doctors of the Major houses were too costly for the likes of her. The Tembury’s bearing as a Minor house must’ve earned Jiasi treatment, but she could see the harsh angles in her legs, feel how they remained wrong. Dried blood traced thick suture lines across her thighs, down both knees, and along her calves.

Tears welled in her eyes, and she began to sniffle, choking back sobs.

“Enough of that,” the Contractor huffed. “If you’re going to blubber then I’ll be on my way. Silly me, I thought,” he lingered on the word, “you might be interested in a contract.”

They locked eyes. She took in his long gray coat over pin-striped trousers. A silver-handled cane dangled from one hand, while the other fidgeted with one of the three dip pens hanging from a gold chain around his neck; the mark of a Contractor. Jiasi had heard of the strange deal-makers with their secret, magically binding contracts. In Tunsha they were called life gamblers, god-like creatures that appeared out of thin air with offers to change your life.

If you were desperate.

She gave her mangled legs a gentle caress with one finger, then glanced at the Contractor. “You can fix them? Make me whole again?”

You can fix them, dearie. As for permanency, well, that depends on if you fulfill your end of the bargain.” The Contractor sidled up to the bed, drawing back the left front of his coat to reveal an assortment of inkwells and curled rolls of parchment sewn inside. “Shall I draft us a contract?”

“I don’t have any money.”

“We don’t deal in money, dearie,” he scoffed.

“Then what do you get?” Sixteen lean years in rural Tunsha pierced the hope bubbling in her chest.

“We Contractors do love a gamble. Oh, and we take whatever is at stake in the contract should you fail. A contract must have its risks.”

Jiasi knew of only one successful contract, a kite-maker from her village. His daughter had been deathly ill, and no doctor in any of the surrounding villages able to cure her. The kite-maker had taken his strongest kite and flown with his daughter strapped to his back to a nearby mountain. He retur ned alone. Jiasi had been young herself, but she remembered the serene look on the kite-maker’s face as he’d landed. Days later left the village and she didn’t know what became of him, but his look remained. A worthwhile contract, whatever the cost.

“If I do my end I get my legs? No tricks?”

“Sure,” the Contractor said as he withdrew an inkwell and a roll of parchment. “Let’s see, ah!” The middle pen with a gold nib began to glow. The Contractor unclipped it from his neck, stubby fingers giving it a happy squeeze before he spread the parchment open across the foot of her bed.

Jiasi watched in fascination as the nib seemed to glide across the parchment. Though the Contractor held the pen, it appeared to move of its own volition.

“Here we are.” The Contractor straightened, wiping the nib on his sleeve before returning his writing tools to their respective places. “Concerning the dancer Jiasi, an offer of impermanent use of repaired legs in return for twenty-five performances sponsored by a noble house, to be completed within eighteen months. Fulfillment of the contract will result in restoration of the aforementioned legs. Subject to conditions of impermanency.”

“What does that last mean?”

“That would be the gamble. I can’t show you until the contract is sealed, but I will say that the legs have limitations. But! fulfill the contract and you will have earned your perfect legs. Fail, and they’ll be reclaimed.”

“Twenty-five dances?”

Sponsored by a member of the noble houses, no less. She’d started to make a name for herself before the accident, surely she had some goodwill built. But the cost–could she afford to lose her legs completely if she failed? Weren’t damaged ones better than none at all?

“Sponsorship by a Major noble house is worth five performances.” The Contractor gave her a wide smile, revealing pointed teeth.

She looked down at the ugly, thick sutures and thought of the scars they would become, indelible reminders of what she’d have lost without even trying. She remembered the kite-maker’s smile.

“Where do I sign?”

 


 

If one didn’t look closely, her legs appeared real. Jiasi gazed down at them, fingers running along their length, feeling the smooth, unblemished skin. They were real, yet they weren’t. Her “legs,” with gears for joints and metal-enhanced bone, felt stronger. When she danced, she felt powerful but controlled in a way her previous form never had. She couldn’t lose them.

“It feels wrong not to care for them,” Jiasi remarked as she unwrapped her dance slippers’ ribbon binding.

“So you keep saying,” Emmaline said. She sat at the small writing desk in their shared room at the local inn, the book of Jiasi’s commitments open in front of her.

“Should get used to it,” Jiasi whispered.

Emmaline heard. “You will not.” She snapped the book shut and went to sit next to Jiasi on the floor. “We’re so close, Jia. Five more-”

“In a week!” Jiasi threw the shoe across the room. “We’re out of sponsors.”

“There are plenty of nobles left in Valorie.” Emmaline frowned. “People love you, and they love parties.”

“The people may love my dancing, but the nobles don’t like sponsoring a ghost!”

A numbing sensation in her legs ended Jiasi’s tirade. “It’s time.”

Emmaline helped her up onto their narrow bed. She retrieved a tiny golden key scarcely larger than a sewing needle from inside her coat and handed it to Jiasi before returning to the desk and opening the scheduling book.

Jiasi turned the key over in her fingers, a weary sigh on her lips. “Impermanence.” I should’ve known. Tricky bastard.

When the Contractor had mentioned the term, she hadn’t anticipated her legs turning to metal from the knees down. Every night an hour before midnight without fail, the numbness preceded her transmutation.

Jiasi inserted the key into the keyhole that had appeared on her knee. The nightly maintenance nearly drove her to quit: fifty turns to reset the gears in each ankle, each knee. I should be grateful the contract doesn’t require toes. She didn’t understand how the legs came back to life every morning an hour before dawn, but she dared not risk breaking the frustratingly vague conditions of the contract.

It had made her return to dancing–and fulfilling the contract–unforeseeably difficult. With the support of Lord and Lady Tembury, they’d moved outside of Valorie City on the pretense of a need to recover, but lied about the severity of Jiasi’s injuries. Months were spent learning the enhanced strength and precision of her new legs, and a few more wasted performing in the background while lesser dancers had the spotlight. But her ability had garnered attention, and her appearances served to remind the nobility that she had returned to dancing with equal passion and grace.

She teetered on the cusp of earning the notice of the Theater, but the wretched impermanence of her legs threatened to ruin those aspirations.

“If I don’t make it,” she began, but Emmaline groaned.

“We’re not going over this again.”

“Promise me you’ll go on with your life.”

Emmaline’s hands clenched into fists, her head turning slightly to the side as if she was steeling herself to shout. But, Emmaline never shouted. The tension drained away as she exhaled and turned in her chair to fix Jiasi with a look.

“We’re operating a bit oddly, but it’ll be fine. Do you trust me?”

Jiasi sighed, but she gave a grim nod. If not for Emmaline’s loyalty and her brilliance at maneuvering through the social complexities of noble society, Jiasi’s return to performing would’ve guttered out like the promising stars who had flashed and died before her. Only Emmaline and her infectious good spirits could placate the bevy of displeased nobles Jiasi left in her wake when she disappeared after any evening performance. Instead of socializing with her sponsors into the wee hours, Jiasi fled to whatever private space they’d rented for the night to wind her legs.

I don’t deserve you. Jiasi no longer voiced the words. But so long as you have faith in me, I won’t–can’t–give up.

“Good, because I’ve promised at least a year’s worth of free dances with several houses once you’ve got your legs.”

“Whatever it takes.”

“I hear the Drayden Dragon is in town,” Emmaline said.

“Here to buy more appearances for her daughter, I presume?”

“Probably.” Emmaline made a note in the book. “I’ve a luncheon with the ladies of House Graf tomorrow. They should be good for at least two performances, and there’s talk of Lady Graf’s niece holding an impromptu summer party. The Dragon wouldn’t deign to dine with such lowly nobles as we, so I should avoid competing with her completely.”

“Lucky.” Jiasi ran a finger along the firm line of her metal foot. Being honest, from the few times Jiasi had performed with her, Allianne appeared to be developing into a capable dancer. The girl was timid, but having the Drayden Dragon for a mother probably had that effect.

Jiasi settled under the bed’s thin covers, the windings complete. Sliding a pillow under her metal legs, Jiasi tried to banish the nasal whine of Lady Drayden ringing in her head.

 


 

Leaping through the air, Jiasi landed with surety on one foot. She let her other leg unfurl in a steady line up and away from her body, the augmented joints of her Contracted limbs more fluid than when she was mere flesh and bone. She completed a pirouette, letting her ribbon-like sleeves flutter and drape around her body until they reached the floor.

Slow, deliberate applause sounded through the practice room, startling Jiasi so that she dropped to her feet with a thud.

“Court gossip is true, for once,” Lady Drayden said. She stood in the doorway, imperious in a burgundy velvet coatdress, her gray-streaked brown curls perfectly arranged beneath a fitted hat that matched her outfit. She tapped the closed tip of an ivory cloth parasol against her palm.

“I beg your pardon?” Jiasi dipped in a curtsy, acutely aware of her shabby practice wrap and threadbare tights.

“I’ve heard rumors of how wonderful your solos have been. Quite a surprise after such a horrible accident.” Lady Drayden stepped into the room, dark eyes intent on Jiasi’s legs.

“Truly, it wasn’t so serious,” Jiasi said in a rush. “Inconvenient, but I’ve been blessed to have generous patrons-”

“And a marvelous doctor.” Lady Drayden pointed at Jiasi’s legs with her parasol. “Why, it’s like magic.

Jiasi froze. What could the Drayden Dragon know? No one knows except Emmaline. Don’t act flustered.

“I’m grateful the Tembury’s know a lovely doctor in outer Valorie. Would you like his name?” Jiasi said, hoping her voice didn’t quaver.

“No,” Lady Drayden sniffed. “Unfortunately, a doctor can’t help my daughter. She isn’t broken, but lacking in talent.”

“Miss Allianne appeared well at the spring festival.”

Lady Drayden made a disgruntled noise. “She could do better. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to find you in this,” she glanced around the drab practice room, “charming place.”

Unsure of how to respond, Jiasi said nothing.

“I have a proposal for you, and let us be frank; my daughter is no beauty and she won’t secure a favorable husband with her face. She needs dance but her performances lack confidence. She’s not receiving many invitations, and we can hold only so many balls before it appears desperate.”

“Allianne isn’t ugly-”

“She’s plain, which might as well be the same thing in our circles.” Lady Drayden gave Jiasi a challenging look. “Don’t play coy with me.”

Jiasi stared, unsure of the proper response.

“House Drayden would like to sponsor you for a dance. My only request is that you allow my daughter to co-lead with you. Your performance of Ascension features two leads, does it not?”

“Yes, my lady.”

“I’ve had Allianne practicing the roles for a month.”

“I-I must say,” Jiasi stammered. She felt heat flood her cheeks as Lady Drayden gave her an expectant stare. “This is unusual.”

“Nonsense. You are a rising star and I won’t deny that I want my daughter to benefit by association. Do you accept?”

Jiasi hesitated. Emmaline wouldn’t approve, and the prospect of having the Drayden Dragon watching over her every move left a sour taste in her mouth.

“I plan on holding the dance in five days. The invitations have already been sent. Be a dear and don’t cause me embarrassment,” Lady Drayden said.

Jiasi perked up; her contract would be complete! It was silent over the number of leads so long as she was one.

“I would be honored to accept.”

“Be at the manor tomorrow.” Lady Drayden swept from the room.

 


 

Peeking out the window of the steamcoach, Jiasi surveyed the Drayden estate. There was a cold aura to its elegance. Though her experience of Major houses was limited, Jiasi had been to several of the Minor estates for her dances, and what they lacked in overt wealth they made up for in character. House Drayden stood three stories high, with a trio of towers spaced along the rooftop. The main building was larger than many of the Minor houses Jiasi had seen, and House Drayden had two wings flanking each side connected by long passageways.

”They do seem to like their threes,” Emmaline said.

Rows of rose gardens spread out from the road leading up to the house, with a segment of manicured lawn separating each bed of flowers. The perfect symmetry struck Jiasi as imposing rather than beautiful. Nothing appeared out of place.

“I’m going to regret this,” Jiasi said, resting her head against the padded interior of their steamcoach. She would never enjoy coach rides, but their practicality had won out over her fear.

“Nonsense. Five dances for one performance, and paid for by the Dragon! We’ll make a businesswoman of you yet,” Emmaline said with a roguish wink.

“You probably shouldn’t call her that while we’re on her lands.”

Emmaline stuck out her tongue.

The coach came to a halt a few feet away from the main building. The door opened from the outside, revealing the steward and Lady Drayden herself.

“Miss Jiasi. Miss Emmaline,” the steward intoned as he helped them from the coach. “Did you have a pleasant journey?”

“It’s a lovely ride out here. Lady Drayden, your estate is stunning,” Emmaline said.

“Yes, stunning,” Jiasi echoed, nodding vigorously.

“Indeed. How kind of you to say,” Lady Drayden said. She wore a blue gown, and tapped the same ivory parasol Jiasi had seen earlier against her leg. “Come, I will show you to your rooms before we convene for dinner.”

“That’s generous of you, my lady, but surely you have more important duties to attend to,” Emmaline said, shooting Jiasi a questioning look.

“You are my honored guests. My steward will see to your things.”

Lady Drayden strode off toward the house, leaving no doubt that she expected to be obeyed. Jiasi shrugged at Emmaline, and the pair set off a few steps behind their hostess.

They entered through the main building’s wide doors, then followed Lady Drayden through a grand entrance hall. Servants hurried about the manor, cleaning artwork, polishing silverware, or carrying decorations of silk ribbons and vases of flowers. Whenever Lady Drayden approached, the serving people ceased in their tasks to bow or curtsy as she swept past. Jiasi thought the staff looked weary. Apparently, the sponsorship had been decided on more of a whim than Lady Drayden had let on.

Jiasi’s eyes lingered on the row of geared magnesium lamps that lined the walls. No simple candle flames in House Drayden. She couldn’t imagine the cost of such luxuries. The staff resumed their work, and given the sheer amount of decorations being toted past it appeared like they were preparing for a larger gathering than Jiasi had thought.

Lady Drayden paused as the hall split into multiple directions. Using her parasol for emphasis, she pointed at each hallway in turn.

“If you go left you’ll reach the dining hall. Forward, past the staircase to the guest towers, is the passageway that leads to the practice room and the performance hall. Your rooms will be this way.” Lady Drayden motioned for them to follow her through the open doors of the right-hand passageway. “I’ve heard you appreciate your privacy, Jiasi. This wing used to be our servants’ quarters before we moved them to separate housing near the rose garden. I’m afraid it’s a bit outdated, but you won’t be disturbed.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, my lady,” Jiasi said.

A set of wooden doors edged in tarnished silver barred their way. Lady Drayden withdrew a ring of keys from her pocket. “We lock the doors every evening. Here,” she handed Jiasi a single brass key. “This will enable you to reach the practice room at night if you wish.”

“Your estate is very secure,” Emmaline said, raising her eyebrows at Jiasi as they followed Lady Drayden into the former servants’ wing.

“Lord Drayden’s passing last winter upset me greatly. I was advised to take greater control over my affairs if I wished to ensure their outcomes.”

Jiasi and Emmaline exchanged bemused looks behind Lady Drayden’s back. Fortunately, she didn’t appear to expect a response.

When Lady Drayden opened the door to the attached building, Jiasi gasped in delight. A simple, one-level cottage opened out before them, furnished in a manner over a decade behind in fashion, and covered in a thick layer of dust. Jiasi saw only delicious privacy and more comfort than several inns she’d frequented.

“It’s lovely, Lady Drayden! You are too kind.”

“Not at all dear,” Lady Drayden said. “Dinner is within the hour. I’ll send a maid for you when it’s time.” She gave them a curt nod before walking back up the passageway.

 


 

Three days should’ve been an impossibly short amount of time to prepare Allianne for the dance, but Lady Drayden had been true to her word.

“You know Ascension well,” Jiasi commented after one morning practice session. They sat on a bench inside the large practice room, Jiasi trying not to covet the space with its line of wall-sized mirrors and magnesium lamps.

Allianne blushed, her fair skin going tomato red in a heartbeat. “Mother had my last teacher drill me on it.”

“How many teachers have you had?”

“You’re my sixth.”

Jiasi rushed to fill the awkward silence left by Allianne’s words. “Do you like this? I don’t mean to sound rude; you’re a good dancer-”

“I understand, people wonder, you know, because of Mother.” Allianne shrugged, a dreamy look stealing across her face. “But I do love to dance. To be the star, to hear all those people clapping just for you.”

Jiasi bit back a smile and nodded agreeably.

Allianne grinned at her. “It’s the best feeling ever.”

 


 

I’m almost going to miss this place. Jiasi mused as she prepared herself for the performance. Then she remembered Lady Drayden sitting in for most of the practice sessions, loudly tut-tutting at her daughter’s every move.

Almost.

“Maybe I should become a mentor,” Jiasi said as she adjusted a pin to secure the braid coiled around her head. “I’ve had fun here. Allianne’s shy, but she’s willing to learn. Her mother, however, urgh.”

“Hard to have much spirit with the Dragon around,” Emmaline said.

“I think Allianne’s nerves may get the better of her tonight. Lady Drayden hinted at lunch that she’d be counting the errors.”

“Dancing alongside you isn’t going to do much for her nerves, my starlet.” Emmaline shook her head. “I’m off to work the nobles. Just think, after tonight, we’re free!” Emmaline clasped Jiasi’s face and kissed her.

“Go on before you make me cry,” Jiasi said with a laugh.

Emmaline sashayed to the door and blew another kiss before disappearing down the passageway.

Jiasi watched her go, a warm feeling glowing in her chest. The weight of it all; the contract, the legs, Emmaline’s sacrifice, was lifting.

 


 

Jiasi finished applying her performance makeup, then went to the space she’d cleared at the front of the cottage. She could hear the random hiss and metallic clank of steamcoaches, and the sounds of arriving nobility made her jittery with nerves and excitement. Breathing in a steady rhythm, she focused on her warmup routine, banishing her anxiety. She tested the snap and flutter of her costume’s emerald sleeves, rising up on silken shoes dyed to match her flowing dress. Absorbed in her moves, she didn’t realize the lateness of the hour until the magnesium lamps outside the window flared to life.

Frowning, Jiasi lowered from her pose on one leg. Lady Drayden had said she’d send someone to usher her into the performance hall. It wasn’t a standard practice, but nothing about the impromptu show had been ordinary.

Jiasi glanced out the window, then to the cracked longcase clock by the door. The performance was set to begin in a quarter hour.

Apologies, Lady Dragon. Jiasi tossed her coat over her shoulders. “Rude” didn’t begin to cover arriving late to her own performance, and the contract was vague with regard to punctuality.

She rushed down the passageway, thankful to see the connecting doors closed to hide her flustered approach.

Seizing one handle, Jiasi was thrown off balance when she tried to yank it open and the door remained firmly shut. She pulled Lady Drayden’s key from her coat pocket and jammed it into the keyhole. But, the key would turn only a fraction, plaintive metal clicks sounding as its teeth slipped against the pins.

“No,” Jiasi moaned. Did she give me the wrong damned key? The doors had never been locked early before, and shouldn’t be now. Not on the performance night.

Sweat broke out across Jiasi’s palms, and she dashed it away on the front of her coat.

I will not be late.

Throwing the useless key away, Jiasi dashed back toward the servants’ wing, intent on the path through the garden.

The sight of the door ajar brought her to a halt. Her heart sank. The silvery scarf Emmaline had been wearing lay draped across the handle.

Jiasi peeked around the door.

“You certainly took your time, stupid girl.” Lady Drayden stood in the center of the warmup area. “Come in and close the door.”

Jiasi complied. “What is go-”

Lady Drayden stepped to the side. Slumped in one of the rickety wooden chairs from the small dining room, sat Emmaline’s motionless form, arms bound and a cloth stuffed in her mouth. A trickle of blood ran down the side of her face.

Jiasi leapt forward. “You horrid bitch! You’ve killed her!”

Lady Drayden brayed a disdainful laugh. “Don’t be foolish. She’s just unconscious.” She lifted her parasol, withdrawing a thin dueling blade from the handle. Brandishing it with a flourish, she poked at Jiasi, forcing her back.

“I’ll wake her for you.” Lady Drayden reached out and slapped Emmaline across the face with her parasol.

Jiasi screamed, fingernails biting into her palms as Lady Drayden’s blade held her at bay. She breathed the slightest sigh of relief when she saw Emmaline twitch.

“Why? Why invite all those people only to hold us hostage?”

“Contractual obligations,” Lady Drayden said, a malicious gleam in her eyes. “A Contractor did advise me to take more control of the things that I wanted. I want my daughter to join the Royal Theater and win herself a husband, but a commoner from a rural backwater has been stealing all the attention. My Contractor whispered of the details for your bought legs.”

“You’d sacrifice my legs for a supposed husband?”

“Yes. I already sacrificed my husband and his financial security,” Lady Drayden said, her lip curling with disgust. “What was left of it. I want a son-in-law with the means to take care of the both of us, but wishing got me nowhere. A contract gave me control.”

Faint music drifted through the walls as the orchestra began to warm-up in the performance hall. Without her.

Jiasi tensed, legs quivering at the sound.

Lady Drayden made a tsk-tsk noise. “If you try to leave, I’ll skewer Miss Tembury.”

You wouldn’t dare. Would you? The Major houses got away with much in Valorie, but surely not murder.

Emmaline wriggled against the ropes, but another slap from Lady Drayden’s parasol quieted her.

“They won’t go on without me. Allianne won’t.”

“Hear the music? My steward has orders to direct them to perform without you, and my daughter will dance. She does love applause.” Lady Drayden chuckled to herself.

The dreamy look on Allianne’s face burned in Jiasi’s memory.

Ascension is a duet.”

“I’ve hired a wonderfully deplorable understudy,” Lady Drayden said. “All those noble houses here to see you, but my daughter will steal the show and you’ll have spited everyone. Not that it will matter after tonight.”

Jiasi could feel the onset of the numbness that preceded her legs turning to metal, but this time it bore a cold edge of finality.

No! she thought with ferocity, picturing the Contractor. I haven’t failed yet.

She took a step toward Lady Drayden, letting the blade’s tip prick her chest. “Why me? We both could’ve gotten into the Theater. You have the influence. What did I do that you’d get a contract against me?”

Lady Drayden smiled. “You got in my way. The contract ensures my daughter’s future if I remove her competition. That I get to remove a commoner from mingling with the nobility is a bonus.”

“Go!” Emmaline’s muffled voice sounded around the gag.

Lady Drayden scoffed. “Run along, trade her life for a contract.”

My contract.

Jiasi froze, mind racing over her memory of the parchment signed long ago with a nib that glowed gold. The key to her legs, given with precise terms. The numbing sensation paused, and she could hear the Contractor’s slippery voice in her head make an inquiring noise. The tingling in her legs didn’t retreat, but rather felt like it was waiting.

She met Emmaline’s eyes. “Do you trust me?”

Lady Drayden waggled the dueling blade. “What are you-”

Emmaline nodded.

Winding a fistful of material from each sleeve in her hands, Jiasi sprang at Lady Drayden, blocking the blade with her hands. The sharp metal tore at the fabric, but couldn’t prevent Jiasi from grabbing onto the blade, and Lady Drayden was no fencer.

With only her arms bound, Emmaline made an awkward lunge at Lady Drayden, sending them both and the chair tumbling to the ground with a crack as the wood splintered apart beneath them.

Jiasi loosened her grip as Lady Drayden went down, letting the sword slip free. She took a clumsy step forward, her partially numb legs jarring against the floor. She stamped on Lady Drayden’s hand and kicked the blade away as Emmaline pulled free of the weakened remnants of the chair. Together they pounced on Lady Drayden, pinning the woman to the ground, and trussed her.

“Have you any idea the trouble you’ll be in for this?” Lady Drayden snarled, a mess of once perfectly coiffed hair around her face. “If you kill me-”

“No one’s dying today. We’re not like you,” Jiasi said. “And don’t threaten us; you kidnapped a member of the nobility.”

“A Minor house.” Lady Drayden spat at them. “I’ll have the constable after you. How far do you think you’ll get dragging those metal legs?”

“My contract was specific,” Jiasi said, clearing a space in front of Lady Drayden. “And vague. Twenty-five sponsored dances. You’re my sponsor. The size of the audience is immaterial.”

Lady Drayden paled. “No, that can’t be.”

Jiasi backed up and swept one leg out in front of her. Arching her feet, she rose onto her toes. Shrugging out of her coat and handing it to Emmaline, Jiasi let her ribbon-like sleeves drape across her body. Springing lightly into the air, she began to dance for her legs.

Episode 212: Selling Home by Tina Connolly


Selling Home

by Tina Connolly

 

Sharp metal nicked Penny’s shoulder and she stumbled, hand clasping her baby brother’s leg.  Home giggled as her knees hit the asphalt. Penny felt for the bit of metal scrap as the cars inched past, above, below, up and down all the decks of the Bridge.

     “Mo, mo,” demanded Home, and she absently tickled his foot as she stood.  It was a rusting bit of hubcap, sharp and warm. The day was dusk now, the sun vanishing in smog, but she didn’t need to see perfectly to gauge its value.

     “That’s a bottle’s worth for you,” she said to the baby as she tucked the metal in her scrap bag.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 188: Staff Pick 2015 – Above Decks by Terry Ibele

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.

We hope you enjoy slush reader and community manager Dani Daly’s favorite story from 2015, Above Decks by Terry Ibele and narrated by Phil Lunt. The story originally aired August 23, 2015 as Episode 175.


Above Decks

by Tery Ibele

 

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

It felt like I had been here forever. A punishment for a crime I didn’t commit. Still, it was necessary just to save a few coins to buy a measly meal. Every day was grueling and today was worse. The muscles in my arms felt like they were going to snap. My shovel dropped to the floor with a clang. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I dared a quick break. The other boys kept shovelling. The huge furnace bulged as it was fed. Hot red steam billowed out of its pipes and clouded the air.  Pulling off my shoes, I sat in a lump of coal and rubbed my aching feet. 

“What are you doing?” whispered the boy next to me. “You’ll get us-“ The door burst open with a violent bang that sent a shiver up my spine. A large figure filled the doorway, blurred by the steamy air. It was the Coal Master. He was a black silhouette against the light pouring in from the deck. The dirty wooden floorboards shook as he stomped in. My heart beat so fast it nearly flew out of my chest.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 185: Marley and Cratchit by David Steffen

Show Notes

Thanks for listening, and from all of us we wish you the merriest of holidays and a happy new year!


Marley and Cratchit

by David Steffen

 

STAVE 1:  THE MARVELOUS MACHINE

 

In those days Jacob Marley was full of life and vigor.  His smile shone so that anyone who saw him soon smiled widely in return.  A moment in his presence would make one’s worst burdens seem lighter. His optimism and generosity brought out the best in others, catching easily as a torch in dry straw.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 184: Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints by Rachael K. Jones


Wine for Witches, Milk for Saints

by Rachael K. Jones

 

My grandmother would have disapproved of a Tinker in a Father Christmas suit, my customary dress in the children’s hospital each December. She believed no good could come of frivolity in our profession, when a routine procedure could end in tragedy. I saw her point when I found myself delivering bad news in costume to a 7-year-old and her sick friend on Christmas Eve.

Maria wasn’t supposed to be in Lia’s hospital room to begin with. She should have been in the Puppet Ward with her little brother Enzo, who was infected with puppetism. Instead, the two young girls curled up cross-legged on the hospital bed, divvying up sweets I knew Lia shouldn’t eat in her condition. Congenital heart failure didn’t require abstention from sugar, but with her transfer imminent, the Coromancers advised against heavy food, as it could interfere with medical magic.

(Continue Reading…)

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Episode 175: Above Decks by Terry Ibele


Above Decks


by Tery Ibele

 

Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.

It felt like I had been here forever. A punishment for a crime I didn’t commit. Still, it was necessary just to save a few coins to buy a measly meal. Every day was grueling and today was worse. The muscles in my arms felt like they were going to snap. My shovel dropped to the floor with a clang. Sweat dripped into my eyes as I dared a quick break. The other boys kept shovelling. The huge furnace bulged as it was fed. Hot red steam billowed out of its pipes and clouded the air.  Pulling off my shoes, I sat in a lump of coal and rubbed my aching feet. 

“What are you doing?” whispered the boy next to me. “You’ll get us-“ The door burst open with a violent bang that sent a shiver up my spine. A large figure filled the doorway, blurred by the steamy air. It was the Coal Master. He was a black silhouette against the light pouring in from the deck. The dirty wooden floorboards shook as he stomped in. My heart beat so fast it nearly flew out of my chest.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 151: Staff Pick 2014 – Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man by Scott C. Mikula

Show Notes

Every year in January Cast of Wonders takes a break to catch our breath, plan out the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes from the year just passed.

We hope you enjoy Marguerite’s favorite story from 2014, Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man by Scott C. Mikula, which originally aired March 23, 2014 as Episode 120.


Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man

by Scott C. Mikula

I tried to shut out the crowd’s roar, but the thunder of a thousand feet pounding above us in the arena stands rose until I could feel the breastplate of the mechanical swordsman vibrate beneath my touch.  Master Madrigal gestured with his palsied hand for me to replace the automaton’s helmet, but I hesitated to examine the delicate inner workings. Just one small adjustment

A cuff to the back of my head arrested my motion.  “We have spoken of this, Cetta,” said Madrigal. “There is no problem with the balance.”  He crossed his arms, tucking his useless right hand out of sight beneath his sleeve.

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 145: Tell Them Of The Sky by A. T. Greenblatt


Tell Them of the Sky

by A. T. Greenblatt

She is too small, Kitkun thinks, the first time she enters his tiny workshop tucked between the market’s stalls. Too young to have left the nest alone. Yet, despite the years of waiting, he still feels a prick of hope as she steps out of the city’s unrelenting smog and over the threshold, thinking, perhaps she will be the one. Perhaps she will ask.

“Are you lost, child?” says Kitkun, setting down his tools. She is dressed in cream colored silk – a foolish color to wear in this city – but her shoes are covered in grime.

She nods. “I thought I saw a raven,” she says.

“And did you?”

Her face crumples with disappointment. “Nanny couldn’t keep up. She doesn’t believe birds exists.”

Kitkun smiles. Customers do not randomly wander into his shop. “Well, I do,” he says, pointing at the display next to her, “See?”

(Continue Reading…)

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Cast of Wonders 120: Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man by Scott C. Mikula


Master Madrigal’s Mechanical Man

by Scott C. Mikula

I tried to shut out the crowd’s roar, but the thunder of a thousand feet pounding above us in the arena stands rose until I could feel the breastplate of the mechanical swordsman vibrate beneath my touch.  Master Madrigal gestured with his palsied hand for me to replace the automaton’s helmet, but I hesitated to examine the delicate inner workings. Just one small adjustment

(Continue Reading…)

Episode 73: Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost by Aidan Doyle


Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost

by Aidan Doyle

Elisabeth gave her invitation to the valet and received a gilt-edged program in return. It welcomed her to the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. The valet glanced at Elisabeth’s satchel and then escorted her into the ballroom.

Bearbrass had been a sleepy colonial outpost until gold was discovered in the nearby hills. Within three years, it had been transformed into the largest city in all of the colonies. Elisabeth did not think of it as necessarily an improvement.

A dozen chandeliers clung to the ceiling and paintings imported from the empire competed for space on the walls. An orchestra of more than twenty musicians waited on the stage at the far end of the room.

Mrs. Rittiker, the president of the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society, greeted Elisabeth at the entrance. She was a short, stout woman in her early fifties and wore a purple chiffon gown with a plunging neckline. “You’ve come without a chaperone again,” she said. “If I were half the gentle lady I pretend to be, I would be thoroughly scandalized.”

Elisabeth laughed. Although ostensibly the Gentle Ladies Society served as an organizer of social functions, the society’s inner council was devoted to recovering the lost knowledge of the ancient gentle ladies. She had known Mrs. Rittiker all of her life. She handed over the satchel. “Fresh from the book mines.”

Mrs. Rittiker opened the bag and took out a book. She brushed a speck of dirt from the cover and smiled when she read the title. The Gentle Ladies’ Guide to Midnight Apparitions. “No one has your talent for finding books, Elisabeth.”

She replaced the book in the satchel and handed it to a servant. “Take this to my carriage.” She took Elisabeth by the hand. “There are some handsome young men waiting to see you.” Mrs. Rittiker led her over to the other guests and a dozen young men formed a line in front of her.

Elisabeth suppressed a sigh. The only reason she came to the balls was to meet Bertie, and he was always irritatingly late.

“This is Horatio Lightfellow,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “He arrived on this morning’s zeppelin from the empire.”

“Charmed to meet you,” Lightfellow said. “At some point in the evening I would be most happy to inform you of the latest fashions in the capital.” His gaze strayed to Elisabeth’s hair. She had been born with hair made from gold.

“I had been told of the remarkable properties of Bearbrass gold,” he said. “But I wasn’t aware it extended to the city’s inhabitants.”

Elisabeth could think of nothing less interesting than talking about what clothes people she had never met were wearing. “I was conceived in a gold mine,” she said.

Lightfellow looked shocked. “I hardly think that’s something a young lady should mention.” He looked to Mrs. Rittiker for assistance. “I had heard tales of the wild women in the colonies, but I had presumed them exaggerated.”

“Bearbrass Gentle Ladies are not as gentle as the ladies of the empire,” Mrs. Rittiker said. “We take great pride in that.”

“My father was a gold prospector,” Elisabeth said. “My mother was a librarian. I am a book prospector.”

“She’s the best in all the colonies,” Mrs. Rittiker added. “Her heart is made from gold too.”

Lightfellow appeared lost for words. “May I have the pleasure of the last dance?” he eventually asked.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Lightfellow,” Elisabeth replied. “I always leave the last dance free.”

He checked his program. “The seventeenth dance?”

“I would be most pleased to dance with you.” She wrote Lightfellow in the space next to 17 on her program.

Lightfellow bowed and hastily retreated. The next man stepped forward and the process continued. She insisted on leaving the last dance free.

The orchestra started playing. Her first partner led her onto the polished hardwood floor. She danced a waltz, changed partners, danced a polka, then a one step and another waltz. Her partners were a mixture of gold prospectors, bankers and cattle kings. Halfway through the night they paused for supper and crowded around tables laden with cakes and pastries. Elisabeth helped herself to a slice of chocolate cake.

Mrs. Rittiker gathered a crowd around her and began a lengthy tale of her exploits on the cricket field.

Elisabeth overheard Lightfellow expressing his disapproval of Bearbrass women.

Then everyone fell silent. Elisabeth turned around.

A four foot high ventriloquist’s puppet stood at the entrance to the room. It wore a dark suit and orange bow tie and clenched a poster in its right hand. The puppet marched mechanically towards the stage, its wooden limbs jerking as though pulled by invisible strings.

Elisabeth leaned over to Mrs. Rittiker. “Who’s that?”

“Mr. Nine. The Governor hired it to crush the miners’ rebellion. Now it can go wherever it pleases. Even the Governor’s scared of it.”

The puppet slowly made its way up the stage stairs. It took a moment to survey the crowd. “Mr. Nine is most sorry to intrude.” It unfurled a wanted poster, revealing a sketch of a monkey. “Mr. Nine wants this monkey spirit. Have you seen it?”

No one spoke. The puppet sniffed the air. It stared at Elisabeth.

Her heart hammered against her chest. “How did it come to life?” she whispered.

“The gold did it. Now it has to eat gold to stay alive.” Mrs. Rittiker glanced at Elisabeth’s golden strands. “You should be careful, my dear.”

A servant placed a table and stool at the edge of the stage. The puppet sat down and rested its elbows on the table. The little finger on its left hand was missing.

“Why is it looking for a monkey spirit?” Elisabeth asked.

“A monkey spirit bit off one of its fingers.”

A servant brought a pile of pancakes sprinkled with gold dust to Mr. Nine’s table. The puppet began eating with great gusto, shoveling the pancakes into its little mouth. It washed them down with a glass of iced water mixed with gold flakes.

The orchestra resumed playing and Elisabeth’s next dance partner escorted her onto the floor. She couldn’t help glancing at Mr. Nine and twice accidentally stood on her partner’s foot. The puppet finished eating the pancakes and licked its lips with its bright green tongue.

The dances continued until it was almost time for the last dance. Captain Albert Widdershins floated through the far wall and strode through the orchestra. The musicians scattered. No one liked having a ghost walk through them.

Elisabeth felt the tension slip away. Bertie always liked to make a grand entrance. He was six feet tall with a ramrod-straight back, a trim moustache and short hair. He had once been a zeppelin captain and wore riding boots and a tight-fitting military uniform. She could sense the envy of the other young ladies. He was the most handsome gentleman ghost in all of Bearbrass. He had died in the mines and the gold had brought him back.

He nodded to Mrs. Rittiker and glided over to Elisabeth. “If you’ll permit me to say so, you look most enchanting tonight, Miss Elisabeth.”

“Permission granted, Captain Widdershins.”

“I must once again apologize for my tardiness.”

“The hour grows late, Captain. I fear the last dance is almost upon us.”

He stepped closer to her. “If the lady would be so kind as to allow me to touch her golden locks.”

She nodded. He slipped off his gloves and put them in his belt. When his spectral hand met Elisabeth’s hair, a jolt of energy coursed through her. His ghostly hand assumed a solid form and gradually his whole body transformed into solid flesh.

His hand lingered a moment on her hair. “May I have the last dance?”

She pretended to check her program. Then she took his arm in hers. His body was cold, but she felt it growing warmer.

In her excitement at Bertie’s arrival, she had almost forgotten about Mr. Nine. The puppet watched silently from its stool. She tried to put it out of her mind.

The last dance was a waltz. The captain encircled her waist with his right arm and took her right hand in his left. He twirled her and led her around in a circle. The rest of the world seemed to disappear. It was just the music and Bertie’s strong arms. It felt like they had only been dancing for a few seconds and then the music finished.

“Once again, Miss Elisabeth you have enchanted me with your grace and beauty,” Bertie said. “I warrant that even the Queen of the Fairies would acknowledge you as the superior dancer.”

Elisabeth laughed. “And I warrant that even the King of the Leprechauns would acknowledge you as the superior flatterer.”

Footsteps sounded behind her. She turned to see Mr. Nine.

The puppet bowed. “Mr. Nine would like to request the last dance.”

“But the last dance has just finished,” she said.

“That was the second last dance,” the puppet replied. “The orchestra will play again. What is the lady’s preference? A waltz?”

“I’m sorry, but the evening is late. I must be getting home.”

“Do not concern yourself. Mr. Nine’s carriage will take you home.”

Captain Widdershins stepped in front of Elisabeth. “The lady has said she is going home. It is the height of bad manners to persist in bothering her.”

Mr. Nine stared at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine is requesting the last dance. This does not concern you.”

Elisabeth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Bertie.” She looked down at Mr. Nine. “Thank you for your offer, but Captain Widdershins has already agreed to escort me home.”

The puppet sniffed the air and its green tongue crept along its lips. “Mr. Nine is hungry. Mr. Nine likes your smell.” The puppet stared at Elisabeth’s chest.

Widdershins plucked a glove from his belt and slapped Mr. Nine across the face.

The puppet’s eyes rolled in surprise and it glared up at Widdershins. “Mr. Nine accepts your challenge.”


The Bearbrass cricket oval also served as the dueling grounds. Elisabeth and Bertie walked to the oval, followed by a crowd of onlookers. Mr. Nine traveled by carriage.

As the host of the ball, the duty of overseeing the duel fell to Mrs. Rittiker. She directed the servants as they laid out a number of lanterns in a circle.

Elisabeth and Bertie waited near the lanterns. Clouds obscured the moon, and shadows hid Bertie’s face.

“I don’t want you to do this,” she said.

“I don’t want to do this either,” he replied. “But I have no choice. If I don’t stop the puppet, it will come for you. It wants to eat your heart.”

“Let me worry about that. I can always hide in the mines.”

“It is my duty as a gentleman to protect you.”

“I can look after myself. Who is going to look after you?”

“I am a most accomplished duelist,” he replied.

“Why do you have to fight now? If you wait until morning, you’ll be spectral again.”

“If I’m spectral, I can’t hold a gun,” Bertie said.

“What happens if a ghost is killed?” she asked.

“If a ghost dies, you should collect some of its blood. Ghost blood has many powers.” He paused and then said, “I want you to promise me that you’ll take the first zeppelin in the morning if I don’t win.”

Elisabeth shook her head. “Not without you.”

“You know it won’t be safe here. Promise me.”

“Only if you promise that you won’t die.”

Bertie laughed. “I’m already dead.”

Mrs. Rittiker walked over to them. “You shouldn’t go through with this,” she said. “The puppet is near unkillable. The only thing that can stop it is if you bite off parts of its body. That’s why it can’t replace its finger. The monkey spirit bit it off.”

“Thank you for your concern, dear lady. I shall disable the puppet with a shot to the head and then I shall use my teeth to sever what body parts I deem necessary.”

Elisabeth took his hand. “Please, Bertie.”

“A zeppelin captain never backs away from a fight.”

Mrs. Rittiker sighed. “Then we are ready to start.” She walked to the center of the circle.

Bertie squeezed her fingers. “Goodbye Beth.” He let go of her hand and followed Mrs. Rittiker.

Mr. Nine’s driver opened the puppet’s carriage door. Mr. Nine stepped out of the carriage and set off towards the circle. The driver took a wicker laundry basket from inside the carriage and then followed after the puppet.

Mr. Nine marched into the illuminated circle. The driver stopped at the edge of the crowd. About fifty onlookers, including several women, had come from the ball to watch the spectacle. Their faces were hidden in the shadows cast by the lanterns, but Elisabeth heard their excited voices. Witnessing a duel between a puppet and a ghost would give them a tale to entertain their society friends.

Elisabeth swore at the top of her voice.

The crowd fell into a shocked silence.

“Be quiet,” she said softly.

Mrs. Rittiker waited until Bertie and the puppet stood next to each other.

“Do either of you wish to withdraw from this duel?”

“No,” Bertie said.

“Mr. Nine is ready to fight,” the puppet said.

Mrs. Rittiker handed a dueling pistol to each of the combatants. They inspected the guns and then exchanged them. They took up positions at opposite edges of the circle.

Elisabeth noticed that Mr. Nine’s driver had opened the wicker basket and was peering into it.

Mrs. Rittiker held a red handkerchief in her hand. She lifted her arm and then dropped the handkerchief.

Bertie aimed his gun and fired. Mr. Nine’s wooden head exploded.

The puppet’s body raised its gun and shot Bertie between the eyes.

Captain Widdershins tumbled to the ground.

Elisabeth sprinted to his side. She shook him, but he didn’t respond. His body was cold. She wiped the blood from his face with her handkerchief. She closed his eyes and kissed his cold lips. His body faded away.

Mr. Nine’s driver carried a wooden head with an identical face on it towards Mr. Nine’s headless body.


Elisabeth put on her pair of cats-eye spectacles and stepped into the mine shaft. It was dark, but the glasses allowed her to see. After ten minutes she reached a large cavern with a dozen tunnels branching off in different directions. She knew this area well and had a good idea where to look for the book she wanted. She chose one of the tunnels leading south.

Eventually she noticed some small, brown, spotted, speckled mushrooms. The wall was moist, damp, clotted and earthen. Adjectives were one of the most common signs of buried books. Now all she had to do was find a subtext. She put her nose against the earth. There was the faint smell of lemon. She followed the scent until she found a vein of books hidden near the wall. She took a small spade from her tool bag and started clearing away the dirt from the top of the dozens of books. It took her three hours, but eventually she found the book she was looking for.

Separating a book from the earth required a precision tool. It was easy to make mistakes. Several times in the past, she had cut the pages and the words had bled everywhere.

She probed the dirt at the edge of the cover with her book scalpel. After a few delicate cuts, she removed the book from the ground and looked at the cover.

The Gentle Ladies’ Field Guide to Animal Spirits.

She leafed through it until she found an illustration that matched the sketch on the wanted poster.

The golden spectral monkey.

She carefully excised the page and smeared it with the ghost blood from her handkerchief. The page transformed into a spectral monkey.

“Do you know who I want you to kill?” she asked.

The monkey nodded. “I need gold to make me corporeal,” it said.

Elisabeth grabbed her pair of scissors. She was about to cut a lock of her hair, but the monkey shook its head.

“I require greater payment,” it said.

It pointed at her heart.


Every month Elisabeth attends the Bearbrass Gentle Ladies Society Monthly Ball. She is not nearly as graceful a dancer as she used to be. A wooden heart is not an ideal substitute for one made of gold. But she is still the most beautiful girl in all of Bearbrass and many men want to dance with her.

They ask if they can have the last dance, but Elisabeth apologizes.

She always leaves the last dance free.

 

THE END

Narrated by Graeme Dunlop

Listen above or download here.

Show Notes

Today we present Aidan Doyle’s story, Mr. Nine and the Gentleman Ghost, which was originally published on the Weird Tales web site. Aidan’s been with before; he wrote Episode 31, Inksucker. Aidan is an Australian writer and computer programmer who loves travelling and has visited more than 80 countries. His experiences include teaching English in Japan, interviewing ninjas in Bolivia and going ten-pin bowling in North Korea. His stories have been published in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons and Fantasy.

Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.

Read Along

Click here to read the text of the story

Episode 24: Kulturkampf

Show Notes

Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later (see Wikipedia, Jackson-Vanik amendment), he learned English from Star Trek reruns and went on to become a paediatrician in an area of New York where English is only the fourth most commonly used language.

His original work appeared or will appear in the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology, IdeomancerNature FuturesStupefying StoriesImmersion Book of SteampunkDaily SFMammoth Book of Dieselpunk, and Genius Loci anthology, and has been podcast by Cast of Wonders, Tales of Old, and Toasted Cake; his translations from Russian have sold to F&SFYear’s Best SF #32 (edited by Gardner Dozois,) Grimdark, and Kasma. He blogs about writing at loldoc.net.

 

Hans Fenstermacher was born in front of the Iron Curtain in Munich, Germany. He grew up in the crosshairs of the Cold War in Berlin. With that kind of provenance, what else could he do but study Russian? Despite the tutelage (read: learning swearwords) from his T.A., Anatoly, and after a stint really deep behind the Iron Curtain in Leningrad, Hans managed to graduate with a degree in Russian. He went on to a lengthy career in localization (if you have to ask what it is, you don’t need it) and language-related exploits.


Kulturkampf

by Anatoly Belilovsky

September 1, 1870

Most respected Feldmarschall von Moltke,

I wish to thank you for giving me the opportunity to put my theories to the test in the taking of Sedan. They were, of course, entirely correct, and our clear tactical victory I am happy to be reporting. (Continue Reading…)