I really can not leave my ætherbox alone for any length of time. While I took a break from blogging, several messages came in that will lead to future articles, and this one.
Another entry in the growing library of Steampunk novels, Cecilia Dominic’s Aether Psychics. Before I start with the feature, there is a give-away at the bottom, so keep reading!
Moving on, for those of you who do not know who Cecilia Dominic is, let me enlighten you:
Cecilia Dominic wrote her first story when she was two years old and has always had a much more interesting life inside her head than outside of it. She became a clinical psychologist because she’s fascinated by people and their stories, but she couldn’t stop writing fiction. The first draft of her dissertation, while not fiction, was still criticized by her major professor for being written in too entertaining a style. She made it through graduate school and got her PhD, started her own practice, and by day, she helps people cure their insomnia without using medication. By night, she blogs about wine and writes fiction she hopes will keep her readers turning the pages all night. Yes, she recognizes the conflict of interest between her two careers, so she writes and blogs under a pen name. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with one husband and two cats, which, she’s been told, is a good number of each. She also enjoys putting her psychological expertise to good use helping other authors through her Characters on the Couch blog post series.
And since you should try before you, well, buy, here’s tan excerpt of chapter 16:
Paris, 12 June 1870
Marie led Iris and Patrick O’Connell down the main boulevard past the front of the hotel with its sandstone-colored walls and crystal windows in which every pane was beveled. They walked past shops tempting Sunday afternoon strollers with brightly colored displays, and French spoken too fast to understand wrapped Iris in a shawl of whispers threaded together with the hissing of steamcarts and punctuated by the clopping hooves of horse-drawn coaches. The soft odors of steam and perfume warred with the acrid smells of coal and sweat, all of it over the freshness of the summer breeze and almost-baked scent of sunshine-warmed brick.
But Iris couldn’t enjoy it because she sensed someone watching her. When she glanced behind her, she saw a familiar-looking young man, but he disappeared into the crowd so quickly she couldn’t place him.
They turned onto a side street so narrow Iris wouldn’t have noticed it. The light-colored brick and wide stone gave way to cobblestones and the weathered gray walls of a medieval neighborhood. Iris blinked to clear her vision from the after-images of the wide, sunny boulevard. The darkness of the stone emphasized the gloom, and the close walls concentrated the formerly pleasant breeze into a gusty chill.
“Is this safe?” Iris whispered and pulled the fichu higher around her shoulders. Noises seemed muted in the false dusk. If the air were still, she could believe they entered a tomb.
“No one will bother me here,” Marie said. Now she walked beside Iris with Patrick behind them. “This is an old neighborhood, one of the few that escaped the reforms of Monsieur Haussman. Is our shadow gone, Mister O’Connell?”
“Aye, although it won’t surprise me if he’s waiting for us when we return to civilization.”
“There are many exits to this area, including underground. I will find one for us. And appearances can be deceiving—in spite of the architecture, this neighborhood has its modern conveniences, and we are safer here than we were on the main Rue. Ah, here we are.” She stopped at a wooden door set in a wall. It appeared to be the same as all the other doors in the area without a house number to distinguish it, and gaslight flickered in the small windows.
Marie knocked in a complicated pattern on the door, and it opened wide enough to admit them.
Are we here for dresses or for a secret society meeting? Iris wondered.
Iris didn’t voice her thoughts, however, for fear of being left. This was certainly the strangest shopping trip she’d ever been on, but somehow also the most enjoyable.
A young woman about Iris’s age greeted Marie with kisses on each cheek and spoke French to her.
“Fantastique. What a surprise!” She switched to English. “Madame will be so ’appy to see you.”
“Is she here?” Marie lowered her voice and used rapid-fire French that Iris could barely follow. “And don’t call me that. I don’t do that anymore.”
“Ah, and what character are you today?”
Marie sighed with French flair. “Someone for Cobb.”
The young woman nodded and turned her attention to Iris. “Ah,” she said in a thick French accent, “you dressed her in the Juliet. That’s suitable.”
“Yes,” Marie turned to Iris with a smile that made her next words an insult. “She does have the look of a virginal heroine, does she not?”
O’Connell coughed to hide a laugh.
“Oh, and this is our escort, Mister O’Connell.”
“And will you need clothing for both of them?”
“For her and me. We lost ours in an airship incident.”
The shopgirl wrote something on a pad of paper and went behind a narrow desk. “Madame is at the theatre. She is bringing samples to your mother and hoped to ’ave returned before you came. I’ll send her a message to see how she would like me to start.”
The sound of a drawer opening and closing was followed by a whoosh and thunk.
“Is that the pneumatic tube system?” Iris asked. Her fingers itched to test it out. Of course she knew Paris had such a thing—installed with the new sewers, which must run under the neighborhood—but she wanted to see and try it.
“Thank you, Claudia.” Marie stripped her gloves. “Do you mind if I make something to drink? I suspect these two have never had Spanish coffee. Meanwhile, you can start. The budget is generous, as it always is with Monsieur Cobb.” Her mouth twisted around the title.
When Claudia went into the back of the shop, Iris noted, “Your accent has become more French since being here. And Mister O’Connell’s Irish brogue is thicker.”
Marie didn’t look up from where she boiled water on a small burner behind the desk. “I can’t help it—it always happens when I’m in Paris, especially in this part of the city. It’s just as well. As Mister O’Connell mentioned, the English and Americans aren’t loved here.”
“Yes, would you tell me why?” Iris asked. “I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve not kept up with world events as I should have with my mother’s death and my father’s illness and work to preoccupy me.”
“Well, you know the States are at war with each other,” O’Connell said. “The Northern ones thought they had the Southern ones beat, but France jumped in. They wanted the cotton in the South for their mills here to compete with what England is importing from India. Plus a fight with England was too tempting.”
“So the war between the states is a proxy war between England and France,” Iris said.
“Aye, but the French people don’t care much this time around. They’re more concerned with how it’s draining their treasury even if they do get good quality cotton for their clothing and the supply has allowed their manufacturing to keep pace with England’s.”
“What it means for you, Miss McTavish, is that you need to say as little as possible and not draw attention to yourself,” Marie said. “The French will always take a tourist’s money but will easily take offense, and the people have been in a mobbing mood. They say the Empire is in trouble again and the Prussians pushing at the border.”
Another whoosh and thunk made Iris bite her tongue over the retort she wanted to make, that she could handle herself, but she also had to remember she was in a tomb-like neighborhood in a strange city where she barely spoke the language, and it was potentially dangerous.
And she thought France was safe.
Claudia returned with her arms full of dresses. “I am afraid this is all I have. Did I hear the tube?”
“Yes, it sounds like you got a response.”
Claudia opened the drawer, extracted the message tube, and shook out the roll of paper. “Ah, Mademoiselle Marie, I am sorry, but your mother wants you to come to the theatre, and Madame says I am not to help you until you visit your poor mère and bring the English stranger with you for dinner. She will fit you both there.”
Marie said a word that sounded like mère—French for mother—but Iris was pretty sure it meant something else entirely. “You directed the message to Madame, right?”
“Yes, of course, but you know ’ow your mother works. She knew you were in the city as soon as you left the carriage. She has eyes and ears everywhere.”
“Well, Miss McTavish, you’re about to get an education,” Marie said. “My mother is one of the most feared women in Paris, and for good reason.”
“Lovely.” But Iris couldn’t miss that Marie paled a couple of shades under her rouge, and that, above all, troubled her. What sort of woman could intimidate the indomitable maid?
“Can we take the tunnel, Claudia, or are the corps working on the sewers?”
“They should be clear. Au revoir, or should I say adieu?”
Marie laughed and kissed the girl on both cheeks. “If you’re going to invoke gods, find me some good ones. We’re going to need all the help we can get. I had hoped to avoid this, but I should have known it was impossible.”
“You will be fine. Remember, you are Fantastique. You can handle anything.”
“We’ll see. Would you send a message to Doctor Radcliffe at the Hôtel Auberge that we will not be joining him, the professor and the maestro for dinner?”
“You do keep the most interesting company.” Claudia led Marie, Patrick and Iris through the shop and opened a trap door underneath the dressing room. The gas lights provided intriguing glimpses of rich fabrics and trimmings, but Iris barely got a look before Patrick handed her down into a narrow staircase that creaked under her walking shoes. She had to tuck her skirts, which were more voluminous than she was accustomed to, around her so they wouldn’t brush the walls and put her other hand over her nose and mouth against the smell.
“So this is what you meant when you said you knew ways out of the neighborhood,” Patrick whispered when they were all in a large egg-shaped tunnel. His tone was admiring, and Iris once again felt how useless she was in all of this. Sure, she had wished for adventure, but she’d always imagined herself leading it, not being a passive follower. And all this in the service of acquiring dresses—how ridiculous. They should be looking for clues as Cobb was paying them for, not going on a quest for silk and lace through a sewer, of all places, and having to be careful to avoid walking into the stream of filth that flowed down a shallow gutter in the bottom.
Pipes ran along the sides and top of the passage. Streams of dirty water emerged intermittently from them, and Marie showed Iris and O’Connell how to listen for incoming showers. Thus conversation was forestalled in favor of clothing preservation, although Iris was sure her attire and hair would reek for days after this. Plus, her right hip, sore from their tumble from the sky, twinged with each step along the uneven surface.
Intermittent grates above them illuminated the tan stone interspersed with brick where the tunnels had been shored up. Their footsteps echoed along the path, and the whole place had an air of violated sacredness. Iris wondered how much of Paris’s history had been carted away without anyone realizing it. Or had they taken care to sift through the dirt and find clues to their own past? Not likely, at least from what she’d heard about Haussman and his henchmen, whose attitude was that of improvement as quickly as possible and thoughtful exploration be damned. She recalled something about how some of these passages were leftovers from limestone quarries dating back to Roman times, and her fingers itched to touch the walls, to search for echoes of past objects crying out for discovery. But propriety and good sense kept her from taking her gloves off down there or removing her hand from her face. Besides, what would Marie and Mister O’Connell think?
After what seemed like hours and a gradual descent during which they had to hold on to each other in the dark, they stopped at a stone staircase, and Marie indicated that she would lead the way up it. The smell of the sewers retreated in a blast of comparatively fresh air carrying the smells of old wood and candle smoke. They emerged into a store-room filled with set pieces and props that appeared to have some sort of organization to them but not one Iris could fathom. After her daydreams of Roman coins and tools, the two-dimensional wooden bushes and swords seemed an insulting reminder of what she had become—a liar and faker—and she again felt that this must not all be real, that she would soon awaken from this nightmare of sewers and false skies.
“Here we are,” Marie said, “at the Théâtre Bohème.” She pulled a perfume bottle off a shelf with others and spritzed herself all over with it. “Lemon-orange water,” she explained. “It helps freshen up some of the sewer smell. Ma mère isn’t a fan of that mode of travel.”
Iris and Patrick allowed themselves to be sprayed in turn, and Iris admitted it helped somewhat. With that done, Marie straightened her spine, put her shoulders back, and gestured for them to follow her toward the stairs.
“Come, one doesn’t keep one of the most powerful women in Paris waiting.”