Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Clockwork Tangerine by Rhys Ford

The British Empire reigns supreme, and its young Queen Victoria has expanded her realm to St. Francisco, a bustling city of English lords and Chinese ghettos. St. Francisco is a jewel in the Empire’s crown and as deeply embroiled in the conflict between the Arcane and Science as its sister city, London—a very dark and dangerous battle.

Marcus Stenhill, Viscount of Westwood, stumbles upon that darkness when he encounters a pack of young bloods beating a man senseless. Westwood’s duty and honor demand he save the man, but he’s taken aback to discover the man is Robin Harris, a handsome young inventor indirectly responsible for the death of Marcus’s father.

Living in the shadows following a failed coup, Robin devotes his life to easing others’ pain, even though his creations are considered mechanical abominations of magicks and science. Branded a deviant and a murderer, Robin expects the viscount to run as far as he can—and is amazed when Marcus reaches for him instead.

This is a great little novella that mixes magic, science fiction, and history with love and friendship thrown in for good measure.  Watching Marcus overcome what happened to his father and others to do the right thing is heartwarming and helps remind the reader that face value and on the surface is not the whole story.  Definitely worth reading by the very talented Rhys Ford.

Reviewer Note: I have to say that I don't really get the whole terminology of steampunk.  I know what it means and I know it is a sub-genre of science fiction but to me science fiction is science fiction, nothing more, nothing less.  As a reader, I will be putting this and others labeled steampunk on my science fiction library shelf but as a book blogger I will defer to the whole steampunk terminology labeling.  Just wanted to put that out there.


THE STINK of St. Francisco crept into Marcus’s nose and stayed there, an unwelcome sensory vermin plaguing him at every step. Fog hung in the alleyways, catching on the corners of buildings and shrouding Little Orient’s arcane-fueled street lamps. The faint orange glow they cast was barely enough to see by on a clear night, and once a heavy soup rolled in off the bay’s murky water, the ill-maintained orbs were dimmed to a pale-tangerine wash.

Definitely not enough light to see anything other than dark, slinky shapes at the edge of his vision but certainly bright enough to warn off any cutpurses lurking in the pea-soup thick shadows beyond. He’d been a fool to come down to Little Orient near dusk, but his grandmother had begged, something she rarely did.

Well, unless she thought she could get away with it.

“I thought I had enough.” Her soft, round face sported few wrinkles, and her cotton-floss hair was suspiciously bright gold, but the elderly woman wore her age well. “Please, Marcus. It would be such a disappointment if it wasn’t served.”

She’d been his only maternal influence after his own mother fled the Commonwealth to head back to London, and Marcus hated disappointing her. Hosting afternoon breakfasts for the West Commonwealth’s society were the highlight of his grandmother’s week, and if she needed a particular jasmine tea for it, he would damn well get it for her.

Now in the misty shadows of the district’s spice and sewer-perfumed air, Marcus wondered if he’d not made a mistake, and he would have been better off popping down to Woolworth’s Tea Emporium for a more mundane leaf.

“She would know,” he reminded himself, hefting his sword cane up and checking the fill of his pocket where his pistol hung heavy in his overcoat. “She always knows.”

The package of tea was light enough in his other pocket, not enough of a weight to trouble him, but it seemed to weigh him down with every step. Obligations. Family obligations. That was what the tea represented. The need to produce… to succeed in order to further the family line. Even if he was only the third son and a poor representation of the dukedom.

A chance quirk of filial bloodlines gifted him with a title, a viscount to put in front of his name, but it felt awkward hanging on his shoulders. He felt more at home in the boxing ring, schooling lesser men on the proper ways to defend themselves, or even riding with the hounds, chasing after a metallic gewgaw covered in rabbit fur rather than the traditional Reynard.

The industrialists made their mark in odd ways, filling the skies with bloated tick-like balloons strong enough to carry a man across oceans or steam-driven contraptions loud enough to frighten a sensible horse on the roads, but strangely enough, it was the faux fox that angered arcanists the most.

“It’s a violation of the natural order! They’ll be the death of us. The death of the British Empire!” His father harrumphed more than once as he read the Post at the breakfast table. He’d been a walrus of a man, bristling with a thick mustache and even thicker eyebrows, his ever-increasing belly popping more than a few buttons on his waistcoat when he blustered his opinions at the Commonwealth’s House of Lords.

In the end, the duke was right in his own way. It’d been a skitter that killed his father, a hand-sized mechanical leftover from the Society’s attempted coup against the newly crowned Queen. Hidden in the Lords’ Hall voting chambers, the spindly-legged mechanism somehow activated and attacked the man nearest to its hiding place, his blustering but large-hearted father. The Duke’s last words as he lay dying on the House floor were of his family and to curse the industrialists who brought doom to the British Empire.

His older brother Brent shared the old Duke’s feelings, having the smashed remains of the skitter cast into a glass paperweight so he could have a continuing reminder of the industrialists’ role in his father’s death. Marcus was kinder in his thoughts, although he’d be the first to admit, the mechanical simulacrums jerking their way through repetitive chores made his skin crawl and his belly clench.

If anything, he was as much of a violation of the natural order as any metallic thing the industrialists created in the name of progress. Knowing about his youngest son’s perversions would have killed the old man far quicker than any bronze, razor-edged spider, but the knowledge of his father’s ignorance was of little comfort to Marcus. He missed his gruff and affectionate father and treasured any reminder of him—including the old Duke’s elderly mother. So if tramping down to the dangerous climes of Little Orient for his gently raised paternal grandmother would make her happy, Marcus was more than willing to take on the task.

Still, he’d come armed. And a lucky thing that was when he turned down Grant Street and heard the sounds of something hard smacking flesh.

It was a sound Marcus knew intimately. And not just from the boxing ring.

Despite the early hour, there were few people on the street, and those he saw were Asian, keen on ignoring the mewling, soft cries of a man being beaten. Their involvement would only bring down trouble on them. If the man were Oriental, a local tong would step in, and if the man were Occidental, then the unfortunate soul would be relying on the infrequent bobby patrolling the unfriendly streets.

Neither sat well with Marcus. Action was bred into the Stenhills over the centuries, and his own father had hammered a single truth into his sons before he departed for the heavens. A man with power protects and serves those lesser than he. It is only the weak who use their power to do harm.

He drew his pistol and broke from the watery light keeping him weak company from above. The weight of the tea in his pocket was negligible, not enough to weigh down his gait, but Marcus was still careful with his footing. The cobblestones under his boots were wet from runoff and the creeping waters of overfilled sewers, but Marcus tramped through the mess, intent on locating the site of the beating.

It wasn’t very far. The alleyway he’d cut through opened up to a courtyard, one of many hidden in Little Orient’s warren, but surprisingly, the small enclosed yard was lit up by lanterns, their bright light casting deep shadows against nearby encroaching brick buildings. The shadows played out a macabre puppet theater, dancing marionettes wielding cudgels Punch would have been proud to own, but it was the casters of those inky echoes that gave Marcus pause.

There were four of them. Men from noble lines if the cut of their clothing and grooming gave him any clue and, alarmingly enough, they surrounded a man, his long body curled up on the yard’s unevenly laid aggregate pad. Their victim lay tightly wound, his arms up over his head to shield his temples, leaving his body largely unprotected.

Where the men gave Marcus pause, the blood seeping into the yard’s cracked ground did not, and Marcus raised his pistol, aiming for the largest of the attackers.

“Stand down!” He let his bulk speak for him as much as his booming voice. Marcus knew his face bore the marks of a man who made his living in the ring. Too many times his nose was turned this way and that before he’d mastered the sport, and if the ring wasn’t school enough, his older brothers had their hand in the shaping of his craggy face.

They were young. Something Marcus felt down in his bones when the men looked up. Barely two decades each, from the way fuzz dappled their cheeks, and a small part of him died inside, saddened by the callousness of arrogant youth. One took a step toward him, and Marcus cocked his pistol, a defining, menacing click signaling his intent.

“It’s Westwood,” one of the young men whispered to his compatriots.

“There’s four of us and only one of him.” One of the larger ones kicked at the man on the ground. “Not like this one is going to get up.”

It was a valid point and one they hadn’t thought of if the expressions on their drunken faces were anything to go by, so Marcus shot the largest of the attackers.

The ball went straight through the young man’s leg, possibly shattering the bone, but he’d aimed far enough away from a critical artery that Marcus was assured the boy would live.

He would definitely limp for the rest of his days, but it was a small price to pay to learn humility in the back alleys of St. Francisco’s Little Orient.

“Now.” Marcus tilted his head to regard the rest of the young men with a stern gaze. “This is a repeater. I have ten shots left. Who would like to be next?”

They fled. It was a near moment when they almost left their fallen comrade behind, but a short tsk of reproach from Marcus’s haughtily set mouth reminded them of their manners. Also, Marcus had no intention of nursing more than one man in the dank Little Orient alleys. It took them longer than he’d expected to gather up the whining young man, his screams nearly girlish when two of his friends hoisted him up across their shoulders.

If he’d been of a more benevolent mind, he’d have offered them a card to his gaming hell with a stern instruction to learn how to defend themselves. He felt less than benevolent. Especially since they didn’t appear to be the sort to learn from a near-fatal encounter after trying to beat a man to death.

He waited a breath before he pocketed his pistol, not trusting the booze-sodden youngsters not to double back and take revenge. When he was certain there were no stealthy footsteps coming at him through the fog, Marcus hurried over to the man they’d accosted and carefully turned him over.

And cursed himself for saving a man who sent a wave of desire down his belly and straight into his hardening cock.

The man wasn’t handsome, not in the way the ton leaned, but there was something about his face… his body. Even battered and bruised, the man’s long legs and strong face were enough to prick Marcus’s buried libido.

It was a crow of a face, with cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass and a Roman nose set firmly above a pair of full lips. The man’s long lashes curved up at the ends, the lights of the quartet’s forgotten lanterns casting shadowy stripes onto his cheeks. A line of blood trickled down from a wound to the man’s temple, its edge smeared into his too-long black hair. It fell straight from a widow’s peak at the center of his forehead, nearly pitch in color except for a thin silver streak starting from his part and leading down the length of his mane, cutting through the deep black like a vein of bright metal poured over coal.

“Are they gone?” Perhaps the huskiness of his voice came from screaming for help, but Marcus doubted it.

He’d not heard a whimper from the man as he lay still, and for a moment before he’d touched the youths’ victim, he’d feared the man was dead. Instead, he’d been playing opossum or perhaps even fallen unconscious from the blows. Either way, the raspy curl of the man’s honey voice was another blow to his control, and Marcus whispered a brief why to his Maker, wondering what he’d done to anger God enough to throw this man at his feet.

Then his fallen crow opened his eyes, and Marcus was lost, trapped in a gaze as silvery as the streak in the man’s inky hair.

“You must hate me so, God,” Marcus pleaded as he steeled himself to check the man’s injuries. Laying his hands on the man’s skin was the last thing he wanted to do. Or the first. He wasn’t quite certain, but in his mind, the fantasy did not involve being out in the open during a chilly evening in Little Orient.

“You were hoping I was dead?” The man struggled to sit up, but Marcus placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Stay there. I need to get a lantern and check your eyes.” There was one not far away, its punched-tin sides holding in a floating arcane globe nearly stronger than the district’s street lamps. Hooking his finger into a catch-loop at the top, he brought the lantern close to the man’s face. “Keep your lids open, and let me see if you have a concussion.”

“You’re a doctor?”

“No, I teach fisticuffs. I can do the basics, and I know when a man’s been knocked senseless.” He stared at the man’s pupils, not liking the disproportionate reaction of his irises. Marcus put the lantern down and held up two fingers. “How many do you see?”

“Of you or your hand? Because I see two of each.” The silver flash of his eyes was gone under the flutter of the man’s long lashes. “And I feel… sick.”

“You definitely are concussed.” Marcus patted at his coat, checking the tea package. “Do you live far from here?”

“Not far, but you don’t have to bother. I can….” The flutter returned. Then his eyes drooped, an uneven shuttering, before they stilled. The man went pale, something Marcus hadn’t thought possible considering he was already nearly bone white, but a creeping gray flush spread over his cheeks, and his breathing hitched, growing erratic.

“Shit.” It was a coarse word, one learned from the stable master when he’d been twelve, but it was fitting at this point in his life.

Dropping his head to the man’s chest, Marcus was encouraged by the steady beat of his heart beneath his bloodstained linen shirt. Sliding a hand up the man’s belly, he tried to concentrate less on the firm muscles under his fingers and more on the warmth of the man’s skin. He was growing cold, the chilled ground leeching away the heat of his body. Marcus would have to move him quickly, but it would have to be somewhere close. With his pate rattled, the long trek up to Great Richmond would do more harm than good, and Marcus still didn’t know if any of the man’s limbs were broken.

“Damn it, I need you to wake up, old man. I need to know where you live.” Marcus folded the man’s greatcoat around his shivering torso and pulled in his arms, telling himself not to look at the injured man’s long, delicate fingers and dream of them ghosting over his own chest. His cock certainly wasn’t listening to him. It was alert and sniffing like a dog with a bitch in the wind, and every twitch of his roiling balls was a reminder he was a sick man, perverted not just for his love of men but for raking up a desire when the man in question was clearly broken.

The lights of a low-flying zeppelin dappled the sky above him, the fog swirling about the enormous balloon’s cab as its rotary blades swished through the damp air. It was enough of a wind to blow a gust of cold down on them, and Marcus leaned forward, hoping to shield the unconscious man from the bluster. It passed quickly, driven to do better things than hover over the area on a dank night, and Marcus sighed with relief as it moved on.

His arms were certainly strong enough to carry the man, but he was loath to leave behind his walking stick. He grabbed the sword cane from where he’d let it fall earlier, tucked it into the man’s coat, and secured it beneath a row of buttons to hold the damp wool folds together.

The lanterns would have to stay, he decided. There was no way he could manage the man and a lantern both.

When he slid his arms beneath the man’s legs, he met resistance, and his fingers tangled through what felt like girders. Curious, he moved the man aside, careful not to jostle him too much, and stared in sheer amazement at what he found hidden beneath the thick woolen fabric of the man’s coat.

If anything, the contraption was small, barely two feet in length or height if Marcus parsed its construction properly. Resembling a pair of struts for a folding bridge, the device looked as if it could be secured around someone’s legs by the leather straps dangling along its lengths and the couplings attaching it to a thick cloth waistband.

“What in the name of the Nine Hells?” Marcus murmured in shock when the device slowly churned at a bend when he touched it at a jointure.

It folded up into a V, then stopped, moving only an inch before locking into place. From what he could see, it had no engine, not steam or gas, and the movement definitely had been powered by… something. A soft glow beneath the cloth was enough of a clue. The mechanism was powered by arcane, a clear violation of the factions’ philosophy against mingling science and magicks.

“Oh, my little crow, what the hell are you up to?” Marcus glanced at the passed out man. “Are you insane? They’ll throw you in New Bedlam for this.”

The shrill pipe of a bobby whistle broke Marcus from his thoughts, and he moved quickly, shrugging off his own overcoat to hide the mechanism beneath its heavy fabric. A red-faced man wearing the Queen’s Blues rushed into the yard, his blackjack at the ready to bash in any attacker he might see, but he pedaled to a halt at the sight of Marcus leaning over his rescued victim.

“Ah, just what I need. Help.” Marcus slid his arms under the man’s legs and back, then nodded over to the bobby. “This man was set on by ruffians. I need to get him to a healer. Is there someone in the area you know and trust?”

The bobby ducked his head, nearly solicitous in his bearing toward Marcus, but his face hardened when he took a good look at the man in Marcus’s arms. “Begging yer pardon, sir, but fuck ’im. ’E can rot there for all I care.”

“What do you say?” Marcus pulled himself up, hefting the man’s slender body into the cradle of his arms with ease. “He’s injured. And an innocent Englishman attacked by his own. He needs assistance.”

“Ye wouldn’t say that if ye’d recognized ’im, guv,” the bobby said, spitting on the ground as if to wash himself of a foul taste in his mouth. “That’s the bloody fucking Toymaker.”

Author Bio:
Rhys Ford was born and raised in Hawai’i then wandered off to see the world. After chewing through a pile of books, a lot of odd food, and a stray boyfriend or two, Rhys eventually landed in San Diego, which is a very nice place but seriously needs more rain.

Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur and a ginger cairn terrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and an overworked red coffee maker.



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