“An exciting new steampunk adventure” featuring living machines, murderous betrayals, and Ireland ’s most ruthless family ( School Library Journal ).The slow collapse of the British Empire in the nineteenth century meant opportunity for anyone with ammunition and wit. Now the Wildensterns are by far the most powerful family—and the most ruthless. Trained from childhood in the arts of assassination and conspiracy and endowed with the supernatural ability to live for more than a century, the clan has grown rich, vicious, and seemingly invincible. After nearly two years away, eighteen-year-old Nate has returned. But his homecoming is shattered when his eldest brother, Marcus, is mysteriously killed. Following the Rules of Ascension, which allow one male family member to murder another, Nate is being blamed. Nate knows he isn’t the murderer, but who is? With the help of his sister-in-law, Daisy, and his cousin Gerald, Nate intends to find out. Their investigation brings them into the underbelly of the Wildenstern empire, where living machines, conspiring relatives, and undercover mercenaries do their dirty work. But when a disaster uncovers the ancient remains of Wildenstern ancestors, the lives of the family members and their struggle for power will take a bizarre and gruesome turn.
About the Author
Oisín McGann was born and raised in Dublin and Drogheda, County Louth, in Ireland. He studied art at Senior College Ballyfermot and Dún Laoghaire School of Art, Design & Technology. Before becoming an author, he worked as a freelance illustrator, serving time along the way as a pizza chef and a security guard, as well as a background artist for an animation company and an art director and copywriter in an advertising agency.In 2003 McGann published his first two books in the Mad Grandad series for young readers, followed by his first young adult novel, The Gods and Their Machines. Since then, he has written several more novels for young adults, including the Wildenstern Saga, a steampunk series set in nineteenth-century Ireland, and the thrillers Strangled Silence and Rat Runners.A full-time writer and illustrator, McGann is married, has three children, and lives somewhere in the Irish countryside.
Read an Excerpt
The Wildenstern Saga, Book One
By Oisín McGann
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2007 Oisín McGann
All rights reserved.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY
THEY MADE THEIR way down the hillside together, Gerald striding and stumbling, Nate riding the cowed velocycle. As he rode, his hips rocked in reflex. Gerald noticed this and laughed.
"It's not a horse, y'fool! Stop your bouncing. You look like you're trying to rattle the thing! Haven't you bruised your tackle enough for one night?"
Nate chuckled ruefully and settled himself more comfortably on the engimal's back. He had put his rings back on, but he knew he'd need to apply more gold to his skin to speed up his healing processes. And it wasn't on his fingers that he needed it.
"The sooner I get a proper saddle on this thing the better," he commented, rolling his sore tongue around his mouth.
"You going to make it a mare or a stallion?" Gerald asked.
Engimals were asexual. Their owners referred to them as "he," "she" or "it" depending entirely on their taste.
"Oh, I think I'll leave it as the mysterious cur that it is. And it goes like a flash, so that's what I'll call it."
"'Flash,'" Gerald mumbled, lighting another, cigarette. "I like it. And the girls will go potty over it. They'll be like flies to honey."
Nate gave a satisfied nod. He eagerly anticipated riding into town on his monstrous new mount. He would be the envy of every man, and an object of wonder for every young filly who saw him. For once he and not his eldest brother, Marcus, would be the talk of the town.
The mist was thinning out as they descended, and through it they saw a figure climbing through the heather towards them. Nate and Gerald exchanged puzzled looks. The man was quite short, with square shoulders and a ramrod-straight back. He wore a long tail-coat and buckled shoes. He made no attempt to greet them until they had stopped before each other.
"Master Nathaniel, welcome home, sir. Master Gerald." He bowed stiffly, doffing his cap to them.
"Clancy." Nate frowned. "How did you find us?"
"You make your presence felt wherever you go, sir," came the reply.
"I didn't think we'd made that much noise."
"Perish the thought, Master Nathaniel." A pause. "That's a fine beast, sir."
His manservant had an ugly face. Bushy, greying eyebrows hung over lined eyes; his wide, prominent cheekbones combined with a nose that had been squashed flat in his youth to give him features like broken stone. He looked weary now, and not from his climb up the mountain. If he felt any surprise that Nathaniel was riding a wild engimal, he didn't show it. Staring at the ground at their feet for a moment, he took a breath and continued.
"Sir, I'm afraid I bring terrible news. Master Marcus is dead. A climbing accident in the Mournes, I'm told. I'm very sorry."
Nate felt as if the air had been drained from his lungs. "Are you sure?" he gasped in disbelief. It was immediately replaced by suspicion. "Who declared him dead? Has Doctor Warburton examined him?"
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid there can be no doubt. There ... there was extensive damage to the body. There was no chance of recovery. The family are being gathered. Master Roberto will be confirmed as the new Heir after the funeral."
No member of the Wildenstern family could be confirmed dead until one of the family doctors had examined the corpse. With the Wildensterns' special physiology, the opinions of ordinary doctors could not be trusted. Nate twisted the rings on his fingers. Gerald's hand squeezed his shoulder. He barely felt it.
"I'm sorry, Nate." He heard his cousins voice as if from a distance. "It's the damnedest luck."
"Are they sure it was an accident?" he demanded.
"Yes, sir. He was with two friends, and was being watched by more people from below. Master Marcus was climbing ahead of the other two when he fell."
Because of the peculiar traditions of the Wildenstern family, every accident was treated with suspicion. One could never be absolutely sure.
Nate stood there, saying nothing for some time.
"I want to be on my own," he announced at last, handing his backpack to his manservant. "Clancy, you go back with Gerald. Tell them I'll be along later."
And with that, he kicked his heel against the velocycle's side. Snarling eagerly, Flash's wheels gouged holes in the turf and they set off down the hillside. It took only minutes to descend to the bottom and cross a rough stretch of ground, plunging through a stream and scrambling up onto the forest track, spitting mud and pebbles in their wake. Instead of heading down to the road at the bottom of the valley, Nate turned left and raced deeper into the forest.
Marcus was dead. It made no sense. A man like Marcus did not die in some freak accident. His elder brother was the kind of figure that people told stories about, the type of man everyone wanted to have as a friend. He was everything Nate wished he could be. Uncommonly clever, witty, generous and good-natured. Blessed with a natural sense of style, he cut a dashing figure at parties, but was equally at ease in the wild country; when it came to seeking adventure, he had the heart of a lion.
And he was dead.
Marcus was ... had been the Heir, groomed from birth to be the future head of the family. He shouldn't even have been in the country. His place was in America now, where the family carried out most of its business. He had come back for a holiday, and to see his kin.
And now Roberto would be Heir to the massive fortune. Poor Berto; he wouldn't take the news well. Like Nate, he had no interest in the family business. A warm-hearted, social animal, he was happiest amongst his friends, or immersing himself in poetry and music.
Nate rode the forest roads for nearly an hour, and then slowed the engimal as the track in front of him withered to a narrow trail in the glow of Flash's eyes. He had no idea where he was going. Bringing the velocycle to a halt, he climbed off, confident now that the creature would not wander. Gazing down at it, he ran his hands over its back, remembering the letter he had received from Gerald; the one where his cousin had explained why he thought this beast wanted to be tamed.
Gerald had been studying a new work by a man named Charles Darwin, called The Origin of Species. This man, Darwin, claimed that animals were not created in six days along with the Earth as described in the Bible, but had in fact evolved over time, through a process he called "natural selection." Gerald said this was not the first time somebody had proposed the idea, but Darwin had put forward such a thorough and convincing case, he had thrown the world of science into turmoil. And Gerald believed that it could mean the end of religion as they knew it by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Darwin's supporters went on to say what he had not dared — that mankind too had evolved and was in fact descended from apes. This didn't go down too well either, and caused much consternation in polite society across the civilized world.
The church had, of course, denounced him as a heretic, despite the fact that he was a devout Christian. They also pointed to engimals as a failing in his logic. These creatures — named for their engine-like internal organs — had long been held as arbitrary, divine creations, because they were clearly machines, and yet were for all intents and purposes alive. Their flesh could heal to some degree, but they could not reproduce like animals, so they had to have been created somehow, and yet their physiology — their mechanics — were beyond human understanding. These creatures had not evolved; something or someone had made them, and this offered the most obvious challenge to Darwin's reasoning.
Yes, Darwin conceded in his book, engimals seemed not to have been shaped by their environment, and since any given species of engimal did not seem confined to one geographical area, like marsupials in Australia, or the giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, it supported a further theory of his. That they were made by a civilization before that of Man; one which had disappeared before the beginning of recorded history.
This was truly the de rigueur topic of conversation at parties, and the cause of much frothing at the pulpit. And Gerald was hooked. He knew that while engimals had been tamed throughout history, the breaking of these animals had been carried out as if they were actually born wild. The more he studied their shapes, forms and behaviors, the more he became convinced that they were merely feral — that they had been built to perform some function for a master, and had happened to escape captivity, living out the rest of their lives in the wilderness.
Like a farrier judging a horse, Nathaniel ran his fingertips over the creature's curves, feeling the weathered metal, the myriad scrapes in the ceramic, the joints and hinges, the muscular shock absorbers. Its sides were hot from the exercise, and its breath plumed in pale vapor against the dark air. It bulged with power.
Gerald theorized that serving a function for a master should be a natural state for these machines. It only remained to find out what each engimal's function was, and place it in a situation where it would be compelled to carry it out. From drawings of the Beast of Glenmalure, it was clear to him that, like other velocycles, this creature was made to be ridden. Its back was slightly bowed as if to fit a saddle, much like a horse's, and its horns were the perfect shape for handlebars, almost like a bicycle. If it had brake levers, like others of its species, that would be the final proof. All Gerald needed was someone who would be brave, reckless and foolish enough to try and get on this thing's back and stay there long enough for it to remember its true purpose in life.
So he had put pen to paper and presented his thoughts to his cousin, who was away chasing wild engimals around the Dark Continent.
Nathaniel stroked the beast's back and its engine purred. There had been times on the long voyage home when he had doubted himself. With few distractions aboard for a virile young man, he had been troubled by nightmares of injury and failure. There had been every chance that he would ridicule himself, and be maimed or killed in the process. Not wanting to present himself at the house until after the hunt, he had Gerald meet him at the docks and he had booked into a hotel. Two days later, they had the information they needed, and they had set off into the hills.
But now the Beast of Glenmalure was his. And he had been denied his triumphant arrival home atop his prize by the ill-timed demise of his big brother. Even in death, Marcus had stolen his glory.
Despite what Clancy had said, Nate knew that the family would look on this death with great suspicion. They would not believe that this was an accident, any more than he believed it himself. And since everybody knew that he had the most to gain, most of their suspicion would be directed at him.
"Damn you, Marcus," he breathed through tense jaws. "Look where you've left me now."
It was getting late, and now that they knew he was back, the family would be expecting him. It was time to go home. He swung his leg over Flash's back and groaned slightly as he made his tender groin comfortable. A long soak in a hot bath was in order, perhaps with some of those Eastern bath salts he'd picked up on the Cape to sooth his frayed nerves ... and his other bits.
"Right, let's go home, old boy," he said, feeling suddenly exhausted again. "And mind the potholes, if you please; I won't be walking right for a week as it is."CHAPTER 2
THE TREASURE MAP
FRANCIS NOONAN WALKED on tired legs along Sackville Street, making his way home. Most of the lights had gone out now, and the street had lost its glamour to the night. Even the pubs were quiet at this hour. Nelson's Column towered into the night sky, and he looked across at the Imperial Hotel, the most brightly lit building on the street. It reminded him of the times he and the lads would hang around on the corner, watching the "lords and ladies" strut like peacocks; laughing when the toffs had to cross the mucky side streets — acting like they were fording a river, trying to avoid getting mud on their fancy duds.
He didn't laugh at them now. Not now he worked at the Wildenstern stables, earning a good wage. Nowadays it was all "yes, sir," or "no, ma'am" or "thank you kindly, sir" whenever they saw fit to talk to him directly, which wasn't often. Mostly they just spoke to Old Hennessy as if the others weren't there, and the old timer passed on the instructions to the rest of them.
There was a man out in front of the hotel, leading an engimal back and forth over the flagstones of the path. Francie stopped to watch for a while. He had seen this one before, many times. The hotel had been using it for years. The thing was roughly the size and shape of a large chest of drawers, and was rolling along with its downward pointing mouth, licking the muddy footprints off the stone and buffing the surface with its soft, rough tongue. It seemed happy enough, being led on a rope as placidly as a cow, and getting an occasional friendly pat from its keeper. Francie watched until he got bored and then carried on walking.
He shouldn't have been out. He'd hitched a ride into town with the coalman, but he wasn't sure how he was going to get back to his bed in the loft above the stables by morning. He could lose his job if Hennessy discovered he was missing. But they might put him in jail for the piece of paper he had tucked into his shirt. Francie's father had said to let him know if anything big happened in the Wildenstern house; any inside information he could pass on for a price. Francie's da had friends who could use that kind of information. Francie would do anything for his da, and he had a right juicy bit of gossip for him this time.
He crossed Great Britain Street and made his way round Rutland Square. Further up he could see the silhouetted shape of the Black Church. Legend had it that if you walked three times counter-clockwise around that church, reciting the Hail Mary backwards, the devil would appear to you. Francie had once managed two and a half circuits before his nerve had failed.
A metallic noise near his feet made him start, and his heart leaped into his throat as something brushed against his arm. For a silly moment he thought that the Wildensterns were on to him, that they had sent the peelers ... He blinked, squinting into the gloom. Instead of a hulking policeman, he saw it was a small engimal, with rotating blades around its mouth, a wheeled base and a long arching tail. The kind of creature that could be used to mow rich people's lawns. Francie had nearly stepped on it. The thing had probably just escaped from its owners. It stared at him with its tubular eyes and then scurried away down the street. Francie gawked at it for a second, and then sprinted after it. He didn't have time to be chasing around after a lawncutter in the dark, but it was too great a temptation to resist. A good healthy engimal was worth a lot of money.
It was dark, and the streets off the main thoroughfares were badly lit, if at all, but Francie knew these streets blindfolded. The lawncutter led him a merry chase, zigzagging away from him, bouncing up onto the curb, its motor making a shrill whirring sound. He hoped nobody else would hear it. Francie wanted this prize for himself. He was breathing hard and his trousers were spattered with mud by the time he cornered the machine in a dead-end alley. It had turned round to look at him, humming warily. He advanced slowly, making comforting sounds, but it backed away from him into the shadows until its tail touched the wall that blocked off the end of the alley.
"Here ... thingy, thingy, thing," he called softly. "I'm not goin' ta hurt yeh. Come 'ere to me now. Come to Francie. That's a good girl."
He didn't know if it was a boy or a girl, but it probably didn't matter anyway. He wondered where it was from. Not from around here, that was for sure. Nobody in this neighborhood had a lawn, let alone an engimal to mow it. He edged closer, admiring the sweeping patterns on its humped carapace.
"Shhh. That's it. That's a good girl. Easy now."
Excerpted from Ancient Appetites by Oisín McGann. Copyright © 2007 Oisín McGann. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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