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Rise of the Arcane Fire
“HOP, DAMMIT,” I MUTTERED AS I pushed back from the table and rubbed my burning eyes. The lantern flickered, nearly out of oil, and my entire body ached from hunching over the absurd little contraption before me.
It was hardly elegant. Or even whimsical.
The oddly shaped mechanical frog stared up at me with enormous eyes that I had fashioned from inky black marbles. It trembled, as if terrified of what I might do should it fail to obey. Eventually the cog in its back wound down without the frog budging so much as an inch.
Sighing, I blinked back my exhaustion, then glanced at the notes from one of a dozen books lying open on the table. Finally I made one last attempt to adjust the spring in the left leg.
It was hopeless. I couldn’t do this.
When I had become the shopkeeper for Pricket’s Toys and Amusements, I’d known it was a very special place. While it may have seemed outwardly like a normal, if somewhat curious, shop in the heart of Mayfair, I knew it held a secret.
The former owner had been part of a reclusive society, the Secret Order of Modern Amusementists. The Order boasted a membership that included some of the finest minds in all of Europe, perhaps even the world. They would gather and challenge one another to great feats of invention, purely for whimsy—and also to line their pockets with a wager or two on the outcome.
I had seen some of the wonders the Order had created. They were haunting, often terrifying, but always beautiful. My own family had been part of the Order for generations. Both of my grandfathers had been high-ranking members. My father as well. But they had kept it all from me.
I supposed I couldn’t blame them, considering that their involvement with the Order had led to their ruin.
If my adventures in the spring had taught me anything, it was that genius often comes hand in hand with madness, and some secrets could kill.
There had been a string of murders within the Order about five years earlier. During that time, my grandfather had disappeared. His carriage had been found in the river, and by all accounts he was presumed dead. But that had hardly been the last tragedy to befall my family. A year ago I lost my parents as well, which forced me into destitution.
I had known nothing of my family’s secrets when Lord Rathford took me into his household as a maid, claiming to be a benefactor. It turned out he’d only wished to use the master key my grandfather had left me, to unlock a horrible invention that had had the potential to destroy the entire world as we knew it.
It was fear of that invention that had driven Rathford’s nemesis, Strompton, to murder. He would have stopped at nothing to keep the terrible invention from ever seeing the light of day.
The entire ordeal had been both terrifying and illuminating.
Now, even knowing the worst of the Order, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted so badly to be a part of it. I took the frog in my hands and stroked my finger over the cool metal plate that formed the top of his head.
Perhaps that is why I’d taken over management of Pricket’s Toys and Amusements.
Simon Pricket had been a gifted young Amusementist and a protégé of my father’s. Tragically, he had also been a victim of the murderer. Before Simon’s death, he had accumulated an entire library of prolific notes from his time as an apprentice, and then as historian and inventor for the Order. Reading them had been a revelation. Unfortunately, the elaborate texts only encouraged me to fancy myself an Amusementist.
It was an admirable, if futile, pursuit. After all, I had seen firsthand the wondrous machines my own family had built. During my adventures I had discovered a dome of stars hidden deep in the earth beneath an iron replica of Stonehenge, a labyrinth complete with a mechanical Minotaur, a set of gilded wings, and a clockwork ship set to do battle with a monstrous leviathan. Within the Order anything was possible, even tearing apart the fabric of time.
All this potential hung like tantalizing fruit before me, just out of my reach. Honestly, I didn’t see the good of being born into a secret society of inventors if I couldn’t make a measly toy frog hop.
I placed the frog back on the desk and rubbed the soreness from my neck. It wasn’t as if dreaming about becoming an Amusementist would accomplish anything. I’d been born a girl, so I could never be part of the Order.
I could rail against the unfairness of it all, but it would be little use. I couldn’t change what was. But no one and nothing could stop me from reading and tinkering in my own shop—except, it seemed, my own inability to create an insipid frog. I slammed my hand down on the desk, and the blasted frog bounced up into the air.
A substantial lust for invention couldn’t imbue me with comprehension of the finer points of compressing springs.
I slumped face-first onto one of Simon’s journals, the mathematical scribblings turning into blurry patches of gray just beyond my nose. Simon had written that through mathematics, all the secrets of God’s creation could be unraveled. If only those secrets could seep into my skull as I rested. I wanted to invent a machine that could accomplish that.
My eyes burned and I couldn’t keep them open any longer, but of course I couldn’t sleep. I could fall over from exhaustion, but I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep for a week. Every time I let go and began to drift off, I saw the flames, heard the ticking clocks and shattering crystal.
I jolted upright out of habit.
The knot in my shoulder grew worse, and I tried to soothe the ache there. My body was wound tighter than the troublesome spring. I didn’t feel I could eat, because, in spite of my appetite, everything I attempted turned sour and made me feel ill.
This was no sort of life for a sixteen-year-old girl. All the other girls my age fretted about dresses, and gossip, who invited whom to tea, and the latest society ball. Instead I spent every waking moment thinking about death—my own and the deaths of the ones I had loved.
My eyes pained me the worst of all. If I cried, perhaps they would burn less, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
One year ago exactly I had fallen asleep in my father’s clock shop on a night as unassuming as the one currently surrounding me. I tried, but I couldn’t remember the book I’d been reading that night. I did recall that it had been the farthest thing possible from advanced mathematics but nearly as boring. It had been a frothy story, and I remember feeling the girl at the heart of it had been a mindless ninny. I don’t know why I’d stayed up to read, other than the fact that, no matter how terrible a story is, I always must know how it will end. So much ended that night.
I couldn’t recall falling asleep, but I did remember distinctly the moment I had woken.
It had been a crash that had startled me. I’d opened my eyes, then fallen out of my chair. Smoke like a heavy fog pushed down. I couldn’t see the ceiling as I pressed my face to the Turkish rug and coughed until I feared blood would pour from my lungs. My eyes burned, tearing so badly, I could hardly see. The heat seared my skin like the fires of hell itself. I saw the flames flickering in the gallery and licking up the walls, turning the drapes to ash as they burned.
Like a horse, panicked and seeking safety in a burning stable, I crawled toward the stairs. Smoke poured up them and away from me, like a murky river flowing topsy-turvy along the ceiling, spilling up into our home above the shop.
I screamed for my parents. There was no answer.
The crystals of the clocks in the gallery shattered one by one with loud pops that sounded like gunfire.
I had to get out.
I dragged myself along the floor until I managed to escape out into the small courtyard in the back of the house. The windows from the upper floors burst from the heat, raining glass down on me as the flames roared out of them. I heard the clanging bell of the fire wagon as I searched the courtyard for my parents, then fervently prayed they had escaped out the front.
They had not.
The disaster left me alone and destitute in Lord Rathford’s house of madness.
It wasn’t until I uncovered Lord Rathford’s dangerous plot to alter the fabric of time that I discovered the true culprit behind the fire.
Rathford’s time machine allowed me a glimpse into the past, and in it I witnessed a man with a clockwork mask that covered half his face. He was in the gallery of my father’s shop at the moment it burst into flames.
I stopped Lord Rathford and his terrible machine and also exposed Lord Strompton as the real murderer of Simon Pricket and several other Amusementists. But it was all for naught, because the man who had killed my parents was still at large. He had hunted me across the English countryside trying to capture my grandfather’s master key.
He was still hunting me.
I didn’t think I would ever sleep again.
Something rattled in the front of Pricket’s shop, a distant tapping, like a wooden bead dropped onto the floor. It brought my thoughts back to the present moment.
I twisted in my chair, immediately alert. Holding deathly still, I listened for any sound at all besides the frantic thumping of my heart. I slid my hand beneath the table and withdrew my pistol from the compartment hidden there.
It felt heavy in my hand as I stood from the table and stepped toward the secret door that led from my workshop to the toy shop out front. The sound could have been nothing, only a rat most likely. I heard something thump.
That was no rat.
With my heart in my throat, I readied the pistol, feeling the strain in my pinched shoulder and praying I didn’t have to use the weapon. My insides twisted into knots as I stepped into the toy shop.
The door to the workshop closed behind me with a soft snick and appeared once more as a high shelf of picture books and tins of toy soldiers to the left of the counting desk.
“I’m armed, and I will fire,” I warned the silent shop. Dawn was beginning to break, the first dim light casting the room in eerie shadows. My hand shook, but my resolve did not.
The marionettes hung from the ceiling, their faces staring down on me like macabre grimaces of contorted men at the gallows.
I drew my gaze away from them as I searched for a single thing out of place.
The bell hanging from the front door swung like the slow pendulum of a clock. I even thought I heard a soft ticking.
I wheeled toward the door to the living quarters behind the toy shop, my heart leaping into my throat. I brandished my pistol at the tiny old woman before me.
Mrs. Brindle, the housekeeper, screamed and dropped a tray laden with a pair of teacups and a plate of cheese. It crashed to the floor.
I immediately laid the pistol on a shelf and rushed to her side. She had her hand clutched to her chest.
“Mrs. Brindle, oh my goodness. I’m so sorry.” I propped her up. Her wrinkled face had gone ashen. Dear Lord, I hoped I hadn’t just sent the eighty-year-old woman into an apoplectic fit. She was the favorite nursemaid of Simon Pricket’s widow. I had met Lucinda Pricket while on the trail of the murderer, and she had become my best friend. Mrs. Brindle’s death would probably not be received well.
“For love and mercy, child,” Mrs. Brindle scolded. Her arthritic hands shook as she carefully righted her nightcap. “What are you doing with that horrible thing?”
“I thought I heard a burglar,” I said, though that seemed to pale in comparison to the truth of the matter. I feared murder. My own murder.
I helped poor Mrs. Brindle up, her thin white hair standing out at odds from beneath her cap. For as much as we both pretended she was there to look out for me, I knew the opposite to be true. After losing her usefulness as a nursemaid, she had been destitute. She needed both a home and a salary in her dotage, so Lucinda had hired her on as the housekeeper and an informal chaperone for me. I didn’t mind in the least, and was simply glad for her company.
“Well, dear, if it was a burglar, best let him have what he’s after. A fine young girl such as you should never take on something so base as a pistol.” Showing the resiliency that had served her well through eight decades of life, she began cleaning up the fallen tray as if nothing had happened.
I couldn’t quite grasp her logic. I was to become a victim of burglary, or worse, so as not to debase myself by holding the weapon? My recent brushes with death had changed my outlook on many things, especially propriety. I had discovered a newfound sense of practicality when it came to saving my life.
Thankfully, Will understood. In fact, he’d been the one who’d taught me to use the pistol. He didn’t like leaving me alone with only Mrs. Brindle, and occasionally her son Bob, for protection. My hands shook as I helped Mrs. Brindle with the tray.
Will had been the groom for Lord Rathford while I had been a maid serving in his house. I had conscripted poor Will as an often unwilling partner in my quest to discover the truth of what had happened to my family. During that time he had proven himself a brave, devoted, and clever companion. I touched my lips. Not to mention an amorous one.
It didn’t hurt that he was handsome as the Devil, with dark hair, and eyes as still and fathomless as a moonless night.
Will had accompanied me to my parents’ graves the first Sunday of every month since our return to London. Though my fear at the thought of an intruder in the toy shop still stuck in my throat, anticipating Will’s arms around me filled me with warmth. When he held me, the world felt right and no danger could touch me.
Once again I thought I heard the soft tick, tick, tick of a clock.
It must have been a trick of my mind, the old memory of the clocks amid the flames. I was slowly losing my sanity.
Mrs. Brindle touched my arm, pulling my attention back to the task at hand. “Have you slept at all?” she asked, her faded eyes too perceptive.
“Of course,” I lied.
Mrs. Brindle shook her head slowly. “Don’t fuss with this mess. I’ll set it right. Kate will be in later to help straighten things upstairs. Go wash your face and share a cup of tea with me.”
“Thank you.” In spite of her words I found myself bending to gather the ruined tea. Mrs. Brindle was lively for her remarkable age, but I always felt inclined to care for her, much like a dutiful granddaughter would. I had few memories of my own grandmothers, and in my own simple way it made me feel as if I had a family again.
As I lifted the tray to the counting desk in the corner, I glanced at the small picture frame I kept next to the ledger. Frozen in time, my grandfather laughed as he demonstrated a floating top to a young boy and girl. He looked so alive. I felt as if I could touch his image and set it in motion, bringing him back. He was the only true family I had left.
I had seen proof that he’d faked his death to escape being murdered. He was out there somewhere. For the past several weeks I’d been waiting for word from him. I had thought that once I’d unraveled the conspiracy to kill anyone who’d aided in the construction of Rathford’s time machine, he would return. Yet the days continued to pass, and there was no sign of him.
I closed my eyes and prayed that no misfortune had befallen my dear Papa, and yet I knew. The man with the clockwork mask had had something to do with his disappearance. I had to find my grandfather. Wherever he was, I had to somehow reach him and bring him home.
Mrs. Brindle took the frame from my hand. She touched the curls of the little girl in the picture, as if she remembered brushing them the morning the picture had been taken. “Lady Lucinda was a lovely child.”
“And Oliver’s hair still doesn’t sit right,” I added.
Mrs. Brindle’s eyes sparkled. “He was a scamp then, and he’s a scamp now, but that doesn’t mean a mere shopkeeper like you has a right to call a duke by his given name.”
I grinned. It was an Amusementist tradition to call all members of the Order by their Christian names. I had grown so used to calling the Duke of Chadwick “Oliver” that I’d forgotten the company I kept. “I beg your pardon. That should be His Grace, the Duke of Scamps.” I placed the picture back on its perch. “The wedding will be breathtaking. I can hardly wait.”
“If you manage to stay awake during the ceremony.” Mrs. Brindle took the tray. “Go clean up. I’ll have the tea waiting when you return.”
I readied myself for the day, trying to shake off my exhaustion as I donned my full mourning dress for the last time. My year in mourning was over, but the sadness remained. I intended to go to the cemetery to tend my parents’ graves. Every time I did, my guilt overwhelmed me. I felt responsible for their loss, and I felt it deeply. I’d had a chance to use Rathford’s time machine to return to the night of the fire. I could have warned them to escape. I’d had the choice to save them, but I couldn’t do it and risk the consequences of playing God. Instead I’d shattered the heart of the machine that could have brought them back to life.
I knew it was no use wallowing in my guilt, but I couldn’t help it. To let go of the guilt, I’d have to forgive myself.
Throughout the morning, memories of my parents plagued me. I thought about how if my father were alive, he’d tease me for putting too much sugar in my tea, and I wondered what my mother would have worn to church. It would have all been so normal, a quiet life, without frogs or fear.
But it wasn’t the life I was meant to have. For better or worse I chose to live in a world where I knew the truth, even if knowing that truth meant knowing the danger I faced. In spite of my parents’ efforts to keep me away from the Order, living in this world was better than living blindly.
Bob, one of Mrs. Brindle’s middle sons, which put him at a burly and youthful sixty, poked his bald head into the parlor through the door that led in from the kitchen.
“Beg your pardon, Miss Whitlock, Mother,” he said, his kindly face wrinkling around his deep-set eyes. Lucinda had hired him to care for the mews out back and act as a driver for Mrs. Brindle and me. But I knew about the pistol Bob kept in his pocket. He was here for protection, and I was glad for it, but he tended to stay to the back of the house, leaving the front vulnerable.
“Bob, did you hear anything strange during the night?” I asked.
“No, miss. Not a thing. A caller has arrived for you.” He tipped his hat, then left the way he’d come.
I smoothed the knot of braids at the back of my neck even as a deep twisting sensation pulled at my middle.
My composure completely abandoned me as soon as he entered the parlor.
“Will,” I breathed.
He stood in the doorway with the light from the kitchen touching the dark waves of his hair. His skin had been kissed with gold from the country sun, and the low sweep of his lashes gave his shadowed eyes a sinful depth. He held a fistful of wildflowers he must have picked on his way to London from Chadwick Hall. He held them out to me as the corner of his lips turned up in a smile.
He looked stunning, like a changeling prince stolen away from this world to be raised in a realm of mystery and illusion.
I threw myself into his arms, and he held me, dropping the flowers to the floor. I smiled as I gained my senses and tried to put at least a modicum of respectable distance between us.
Mrs. Brindle cleared her throat.
I ducked my head as she skewered me with a single look. Will walked straight to her and flashed a charming smile, then kissed her hand. “Mrs. Brindle, you are looking as lovely as ever.”
“And you are a scalawag. Best mind yourself, boy. In my day, less than that earned you a trip to the altar.” For all her apparent disapproval, she gathered the tea tray with a wry smile.
“I should be so lucky,” he said, the hunger in his gaze heating my cheeks.
Even Mrs. Brindle blushed. “I know what you’re about, young man. Just remember I’ve got my eye on you.” And abandoning her chaperone duties altogether, she turned for the stairs.
I giggled. “I think she wishes to see me compromised.”
“It’s so good to see you,” Will said, stooping to gather the flowers by the door. “I brought these for your parents.”
I sighed and helped him gather them. “Thank you. How long are you in London?” Every moment he had been away had felt like a lifetime to me. Will held my heart, but he was working for Oliver, and the duke kept him busy. Will acted as a personal messenger for the Chadwick affairs in London while Oliver settled his estate in the country and planned his wedding. It meant Will was often traveling for days on end between London and Birmingham.
“I’m only in town for the week. Oliver and Lucinda send their regards,” Will said. “I was also told to inform you there will be a Gathering.”
I looked toward him in shock. “A full Gathering of the Order?” If word reached my grandfather, he would have to return for that. A Gathering meant that as many Amusementists as could muster were to meet in London at the appointed time to discuss Order business and plan the next Amusement.
Will placed the flowers on the table. “Oliver has asked for your attendance. He figures you should address the assembly about your grandfather. One of them must know something.”
“I do hope so,” I murmured.
Will took my hand. “Oliver has asked for me to be there as well.”
I felt my heart skip as I met his eyes. “He’s going to nominate you for an apprenticeship,” I said. Excitement poured through me. “Oh, Will. How wonderful.”
He glanced back at the door and then down. “Aye. It would be a start.”
My heart felt hopeful, and I found myself alight with giddy energy. I knew Will was concerned about making a name for himself. He had started life as a poor tinker in Scotland, then worked most of his life as a stable boy. This was his chance at a real opportunity. I knew he wasn’t satisfied with his current position. He felt it was charity on the part of Oliver to employ him.
Now he had his chance. He could be an Amusementist.
Will was driven beyond the aspirations of most men to make a way for himself. He needed desperately to belong to something. Once he felt secure in his fortunes, we could be married and manage the toy shop together. We could finally begin our life.
Unease set upon me once again. “Will? What’s troubling you?”
He shook his head. “It’s nothing.” His eyes narrowed as he studied my face. He lifted a hand to my cheek and let his thumb slide near the corner of my eye. “You seem tired.”
“I’m fine.” I turned my face toward his hand as he gently brushed his fingers over the hair by my ear. “I’ve been working too hard.”
It was the truth. The shop had suffered from more than four years of terrible neglect. It was once again a shining gem in the bustling storefronts of Mayfair. I had worked myself to the bone to restore the shop to its former glory.
Will led us into the front of the shop. “This looks wonderful.” With the morning sun shining through the sparkling glass windows, light danced over the bright colors of the shop. The dolls, games, toys, and puzzles seemed pleasant and cheery in the new light.
Then I heard it again.
Tick, tick, tick.
I shook my head.
“What is it?” Will asked, turning to me. “The shop is beautiful. Simon Pricket would be proud.”
Tick, tick, tick.
“It’s nothing,” I said, taking a step to retreat back toward the parlor. “I can’t stop thinking about my parents today. I fear it is making me a little mad.”
He took my hand. I turned and stared at my palm folded in his. “You, mad? Never.”
I smiled before I could help myself. “Honestly, mad. I keep hearing the ticking clocks. But that’s impossible. There are no clocks here in the shop.”
The teasing light in Will’s eyes hardened as his smile faded to a grim line.
“Will?” His sudden change of expression sent a pang of fear through me.
“Shhh.” He put his finger to his lip.
Tick, tick, tick.
Will’s gaze locked with mine. He heard it too.
Will set on the piles of toys, knocking things to the side as he overturned half the shop.
I helped him, throwing myself into the muddle. It would take forever to set it all right, but I didn’t care. I wasn’t losing my sanity. Whatever was making the sound was real.
Suddenly Will stilled. The skin over the back of my neck tightened and tingled. I stepped through the scattered toys to stare down at an odd contraption. It was a metal cube, not much larger than a hatbox, with windows cut out on every side. At the center was a heavy-looking orb that reminded me of a cannonball.
Gears twitched on the framework surrounding the orb as a long screw twisted within a metal filigree tube that connected the ball to the solid top of the box. With each ominous tick a ghastly little device that reminded me of a spider on a twisting strand of web moved closer to the ball. With each notch downward a spider leg struck a bit of flint on the spider’s back, setting off a spark.
I leaned closer and detected a terrifying chemical scent.
Dear Lord, it was a bomb.