Tuesday, September 6, 2011
A Clockwork Fairytale
I'm delighted to tell you about my new release. A fantasy romance suitable for both adults and YA, it is set in a Victorian style fantasy world with magic, monsters and steampunk elements.
Plucky, seventeen-year-old Melba was raised like a boy to pick pockets and run messages in the poor outer circles of Royal Malverne Isle, but she longs to move up the criminal hierarchy and become a spy. When nineteen-year-old Turk, a spymaster and local folk hero, accepts her pledge to join his gang, she thinks the Great Earth Jinn has heard her prayer. With his exotic, dark southern looks and wealthy lifestyle in the inner circle, Turk fascinates her. Yet he is not what he seems—he is really a monk working undercover for the Shining Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has secret plans for Melba that will challenge Melba and Turk’s beliefs about life and tear them apart, just when they are growing to love each other. But the Shining Brotherhood is not alone in plotting to use Melba. The evil Royal Victualler wants her to help him steal the throne and to persuade her, he’s willing to use foul magic.
If the Great Earth Jinn warns you something is wicked, do it quick before you change your mind. –Master Maddox
Master Maddox had taught Melba to keep her cap pulled down and her face dirty. The port area of Royal Malverne Isle was a dangerous place at night and if someone recognized her as a girl, she’d be done for.
She avoided the area if possible, but tonight Maddox had sent her there with an urgent message for a smuggler. As she made her way home by moonlight, a tavern door burst open in front of her. Raucous laughter and light spilled into the narrow alley. Three men stumbled out, cursing and shoving each other. She pressed back against the damp stonework of the brothel opposite. If the Great Earth Jinn were on her side, the men would turn the other way.
On the shoulder of the tallest man’s coat, the gold insignia of the Royal Fleet caught the light. A chill curled in her belly and her fingers sought the handle of the dagger wedged in her boot. Bluejackets would doubtless head for the brothel—straight toward her.
The shortest man carried a staff with an unlit lantern swinging from the hook on top. He paused by the tavern lamp, lit a twist of hay, and touched it to the wick of his lantern.
“Get your arse moving or we’ll not finish with the tarts before the tide turns,” the tall man said.
Melba sidled away from the brothel door, praying they were too drunk to notice her.
The short one stumbled against his fat friend causing the lantern to swing wildly, flashing light around the alley.
“Ha! A boy,” Fatty shouted.
Melba’s grip tightened on her knife.
“Up to no good, I’ll wager.” The short one raised his lantern and Melba squinted against the glare. “Extra rations for a week if we take the lad back to the cap’n.” The men spread out and advanced.
Life on board ship was dismal for a boy pressed into service, unthinkable for a girl. Melba darted a few steps one way, then the other, testing their reactions. They paused, arms spread to block her escape. They might be drunk but their wits were still sharp.
The tall sailor lunged for her. She jumped aside only to crash into the fat one, who had moved to flank her. She stumbled to her knees, dropping her dagger in the gutter. Before she could scramble away, a hand grabbed the back of her jacket and hauled her off the ground.
“Nothing of ’im.” The stench of rotten teeth and ale curdled her guts. She jabbed her elbow back and connected with soft flesh. Breath whooshed out behind her, but the grip on her collar held.
“Bleedin’ tyke.” A fist thumped her side, knocking the wind from her lungs. She hung limp and helpless, gasping for air, while her hands were yanked behind her. Eyes watering with pain, she tried to think how to escape. Whatever happened, she must get away from the sailors before they reached the ship.
A dull thud echoed off the surrounding walls. The hand holding her let go suddenly and she landed awkwardly, skinning her knees on the gritty dirt through the holes in her breeches. She had no idea why she’d been released and she didn’t wait to find out. Shaking the half-tied twine from her wrists, she lunged forward to snatch up her knife and then hid in the shadows by the wall.
Another man had entered the fray and he seemed to be on her side. The tall dark stranger kicked out at head height, the buckle on the side of his boot glinting in the light as his foot connected with the fat sailor’s chin. With a grunt, Fatty crumpled to the ground. The stranger had worked fast. The tall sailor was already lying in the gutter beside the tavern door. At the sight of his fallen comrades, the short sailor threw down his lantern and scarpered.
Melba’s heart thudded and she flexed her fingers on her dagger as she assessed the stranger. Just because he had dispatched the three lowlifes didn’t mean he was her friend. Many people on Malverne Isle had cause to hate the sailors of the Royal Fleet. Had she evaded capture by the bluejackets only to fall into the hands of someone worse?
The man turned toward her, his black garb relieved only by a glint of silver at his throat. “Come, boy. Mustn’t be caught with sailors of the Royal Fleet at our feet or it’ll be The Well for both of us.”
Melba swallowed back bile, fear of the man temporarily forgotten at the thought of something worse. She’d heard the screams of men tossed down The Well. If you were lucky, the bluejackets threw you down at high tide and the sea took you right away. If you were unlucky, you lay broken on the rocks at the bottom for hours before the water flowed in and put you out of your misery.
Her rescuer strode away into the shadows and she hesitated a moment longer, but she had to follow or risk being caught. She raced after him as the tavern door opened behind her and shouts of alarm chased her along the alley.
As she caught up to him, her rescuer glanced over his shoulder at her. “Ever traveled the skyways?”
Melba shook her head. Runners and thieves like her took the waterways, escaping through the drains and flood defense pipes crisscrossing beneath the city.
Only spies traveled with the birds.
That meant, Sweet Earth Jinn, he must be a spy. Excitement bubbled inside her.
He stepped back and, with a soft grunt, leaped onto a wall as tall as she was. Then he held down a hand and whispered, “Put your foot up—”
“I know.” She’d played at spies with the boys often enough. She put her scuffed boot against the wall, leaned back so he took her weight, and walked up as he pulled.
Shouts echoed along the alley below. Her rescuer glanced down. “Time to disappear.”
He darted up the sloped wall to roof level, his soft leather boots near silent on the rough-hewn stone. Melba tugged her cap down, sucked in a breath, and ran after him. Balancing took all her concentration as her tight boots pinched her toes.
He waited for her at the end of the wall where the row houses finished. As soon as she caught up, he leaped across an alley. His jacket flapped up behind him to reveal four silver stars on his belt.
Melba’s breath froze halfway in. Only one man carried lethal spiked throwing stars. Her rescuer was far more than a spy, he was a legend. Poor people of the outer circles thought he was a benevolent Earth Jinn stealing from the nobs to give to the poor. Thieves spoke of him in reverential whispers as Master Turk, spymaster extraordinaire. Old Maddox had told her that Master Turk even had spies on the top of Nob Hill in the Royal Palace.
She’d prayed for the opportunity to catch a spymaster’s interest and have the chance to better herself.
Shouts of alarm from below pierced her thoughts.
“Jump,” Master Turk urged. “Two more streets and you’ll be safe in the third circle.”
Melba was used to crawling through dirty pipes and squeezing through holes, but jumping gaps twenty feet in the air.... She peered over the parapet to the street below.
“It’ll be easier if you take off those clodhoppers,” he said, pointing at her feet.
She looked down at her boots and shook her head. All her life Master Maddox had drummed into her one vital lesson, keep your boots and breeches on. His other boys often went barefoot, but he always made her wear boots, so people wouldn’t see her strange feet and breeches, so no one discovered she was a girl.
She took two steps back and hauled in a breath. She must make a clean jump and clear the gap. If she impressed Master Turk, he’d be more likely to accept her pledge. She belted forward, leaped, and landed in a clattering heap at his feet. Bruises throbbed and grazes stung, sending tears to her eyes, but she kept her face down so he wouldn’t see her embarrassment. She must be tough if she wanted to do well.
Without a word, he pulled her up by an arm and set off at a trot along the valley gutter between two rows of terraced cottages. After they had leaped another alley, he led her behind a thick brick chimney that shielded them from the street below.
He turned to face her and rested a shoulder against the brickwork. “You should be safe now.” He pointed to the right where a sloping wall led down to the back of a shop. “That’s your best way down. Not much of a drop.”
Melba pressed her tongue on the back of her teeth and gathered her courage. “You’re Master Turk.”
“Observant, lad.” He angled his head to examine her. Moonlight glistened on the dark strands of his hair, sculpted his profile with light and shadow. He had dark eyes and golden skin like the foreign sailors up from the south. Her heart gave a strange little bump. She had never met a master so young and handsome. But how would she persuade him to take her on?
“Let me pledge to you. I’m a superior runner and thief. I’ll be a great spy. I see stuff all the time. Pledge me, sir, please.”
“Superior, huh?” He smiled. “What are you, thirteen?”
She nodded vigorously. Although she was seventeen, she was small and skinny and passed for a lad of thirteen easily.
In the roof beside them, a lamp sputtered to life behind a small skylight. Master Turk put his finger to his lips and peered through the window. After scrutinizing the room for a few seconds, he relaxed and leaned back against the chimney.
The light revealed the fine fabric of his jacket, the stitching almost invisible. The five small circles of a tiny silver Earth Blessing gleamed against his dark neck cloth. Black jewels glittered on his ears. He dressed like a nob.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Well, Mel, if you’re such a good runner and thief, won’t your current master miss you?”
Her hand went to the tin disk stamped with Master Maddox’s symbol on a length of twine around her neck. His baker’s shop in the third circle was the only home she’d known. She’d been happy there, but lately things had changed. Since she’d turned sixteen, he’d stopped her bunking with the boys in the warm storeroom behind the bakery oven and made her sleep alone in the loft. And he never let her fill her belly anymore, telling her it was best she stay skinny.
“He won’t miss me,” she said, hating the catch in her voice. She couldn’t afford to be soft like a girl or she’d get found out and end up in a whorehouse or as skivvy in a tavern.
“Give me your hand.” Master Turk leaned closer, bringing with him the tang of lemon spice. He even smelled like a nob.
Don’t give anyone your hand unless you’d give them your blade. Maddox’s lesson echoed in her mind. Why did Master Turk want to touch her? She thought about refusing, but then he might turn down her pledge. She inhaled deeply, tasting the lemony scent of him on her tongue, and held out her hand.
His fingers closed around hers, his grip firm and warm. Melba held her breath, risked a glance up at his face, and found him watching her, dark eyes narrowed. A strange shivery feeling washed through her that made her squirm inside her clothes.
He dropped her hand, pressed his lips together, and scrutinized her from head to foot.
With a flare of horror, she thought he’d sensed she was female.
“Mayhap I’ll give you a chance. What will you pledge me?”
On a sigh of relief, she looked down at the three carved wooden toggles on her jacket and slid her fingers behind her favorite. “Carved this meself from a sliver of ironwood I found on the shore.”
He raised his eyebrows and ran a finger over the pattern. “That’ll suffice.”
She grabbed the knife from her boot and sliced off the toggle before dropping it in his outstretched palm. He tucked her pledge inside his jacket and felt in his pocket. “Hold out your hand.”
When she did, he dropped something smooth, black, and oval into her palm. She stared at it aghast. Poor masters gave their boys tin disks, the more prosperous used carved bone or wooden tokens. She’d never seen the likes of this pledge before.
“It’s a starlight stone,” he said in answer to her quizzical expression. “Hold it up to the moonlight.”
She turned the warm weight of the stone over in her hand and then angled it toward the moon. Tiny sparks of light danced across the stone’s surface as silver, purple, and green streaked through its crystalline depths. For a moment, she forgot where she was, entranced by the colors.
“Take another look tomorrow,” he said. “It contains different colors under the sun.”
“Oh.” Melba curled her fingers around the treasure. Nobody had ever given her something this pretty before. A little fizz of excitement went through her. Perhaps he liked her. She glanced up at his darkly handsome face. “Do you give this type of pledge to all your boys?”
She ignored the sting of disappointment and jammed the stone deep in the secret loot pocket in her breeches where it couldn’t fall out. All that mattered was that Master Turk had accepted her pledge. As long as he didn’t discover she was a girl, she had a chance to become a spy and make something of her life.
“You stink as bad as an alley cat,” he said with a grimace. “When we reach the bunkhouse, first order of business is to get you out of those filthy clothes and into a bath.”
If you would like to read a longer sample, the first chapter is available on my website www.helenscotttaylor.com, and a longer sample is downloadable from Amazon http://amzn.com/B005JERQDG