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The Transference Engine

The Transference Engine

by Julia Verne St. John

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Overview

A fantastical steampunk novel of magic and machines set in an alternate 1830s London

Madame Magdala has reinvented herself many times, trying to escape Lord Byron's revenge. She destroyed the Transference Engine Byron hoped to use to transfer his soul into a more perfect body and perpetuate his life eternally. A fanatical cult of necromancers continues Byron's mission to force Magdala and Byron's only legitimate child--Ada Lovelace--to rebuild the machine and bring Byron back.

Magdala now bills herself as the bastard daughter of a Gypsy King. She runs a fashionable London coffee salon and reading room while living a flamboyant lifestyle at the edge of polite society. Behind the scenes, she and Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, use the massive library stored at the Bookview Cafe to track political and mercantile activity around the world. They watch to make certain the cult of necromancy surrounding Lord Byron, the poet king who worshipped death, cannot bring him back to life.

On the eve of Queen Victoria's coronation in June of 1838, rumors of an assassination attempt abound. Both the Bow Street Runners and Magdala's army of guttersnipe spies seek to discover the plot and the plotters. Who is behind the mysterious black hot air balloon that shoots searing light from a hidden cannon, and who or what is the target? And who is kidnapping young girls from all walks of life?

Desperately, Magdala and her allies follow the clues, certain that someone is building a new Transference Engine. But is it to bring back the dead or destroy the living?

Includes a special bonus story, "Dancing in Cinders."


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101637463
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 689 KB

About the Author

Julia Verne St. John fell in love with British History when just a tot and she caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the U.S. With a B.A. in history tucked under her arm, she has since studied many aspects of the subject. Steampunk offers her a wonderfully romanticized opportunity to experiment with costumes and play with the amazing "what if" scenarios of alternate history.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Burgage Manor, Southwell,
Nottinghamshire, Autumn, 1824

In 1802, Lord George Gordon Byron came to live there with his mother, but he disliked the provincial village intensely, describing it as the resort of “old Parsons and old Maids.”

It looked damp, dark, and dismal. If ever a place was haunted, it was this moldering country house. Maybe that was why Byron disliked the place so intensely; the ghosts of his experiments with necromancy followed him around even as a child.

Of all the properties associated with Byron, this is where his widow chose to live. Because he hated it.

Did she believe he would avoid haunting her here? Or did she hope he would?

I had to find out before I revealed how much I truly knew about the poet king and his . . . obsessions.

“Miss Elise Vollans,” Lady Anna Isabella Byron read aloud the last item on my letter of reference. She held a title of her own as Baroness Wentworth, and need not rely on her notorious husband for her honors and income, and yet she clung to his name and title. “Governess and nursemaid for three children in the household of Baroness Von Gutenberg . . .”

She didn’t need to know that I had left the Von Gutenberg household after three weeks when I’d learned what I needed to from her husband’s aetheric powered Leyden jar experiments. Lord Byron’s soul — if he ever had one — wasn’t in one of them.

“Your credentials are interesting, Miss Elise.” Lady Byron looked down her long nose and formed her mouth into a prim moue.

Those references should be interesting, if not impressive. I’d created them specifically to . . . intrigue her. If not the whole truth, they did brush facts occasionally.

I stood before her, tall and straight, blonde hair braided and twisted into a stylish chignon, my dress and jacket suitably modest, and as severe a cut as I could manage, though I hated the tiny pin tucks down the blouse because they looked so prim and proper and never lay flat even after heavy ironing. They were considered right and proper for a woman of my station, or the station I aspired to. I preferred silk for my blouse instead of the new cotton from Egypt, made cheap by the advances in steam power to the separating gin. No governess applying for a new position would wear my preferred white Chantilly lace and vivid red silk roses.

(Don’t rail at me. Of course Chantilly is supposed to be black silk, but some aristocratic bride in Paris had requested white lace from the makers in Chantille and now it was all the rage. No black to be had, anywhere, except Spain.)

The poet’s widow had to look up, way up to engage my gaze, from her perch on the edge of the threadbare satin sofa in her second best parlor.

Today I needed her aware of just how formidable my raw-boned Teutonic frame could be. I stood half a head taller than many men and could lift my own weight when I had to.

“I have never met this woman who pens this letter, Mary Godwin Dessins,” she said, not at all intimidated. She’d survived Byron; why should I intimidate her? She snapped the paper of my carefully constructed resume with disdain. She didn’t need to know of my talent at imitating another’s voice, walk, and laugh, as well as their penmanship.

“You have heard of Mme. Dessins, though.” I kept my gaze firmly planted on hers. Neither of us flinched. This could be an . . . interesting relationship, if word of her charitable good works was true.

She nodded briskly, once. “I know her father preached free love . . .” Lady Byron swallowed deeply as if acid had attacked her mouth. “And my deceased husband and his comrades followed his . . . philosophy.”

“You also know that my previous mistress repented her affaire de coeur with one of those comrades and escaped him. I helped her and her infant son flee the Villa Diodati. We spent ten years together before I put her on a ship headed west from Liverpool.”

Again she nodded and drew her knitted lace shawl tighter around her shoulders. Good black wool, as light as a cobweb and expensive ten years ago, but scant protection from the autumnal chill creeping through the ancient walls.

She had not indulged in steam heat or gaslights in this shabby and isolated home. She must know the dangers as well as the benefits of the new sciences. Or she couldn’t afford them. Rumor had it she was still paying off her husband’s debts with her own money, some months after his supposed death.

At least with a body buried at the entailed estate of Southwell Abbey and the title passed to a distant cousin, George Gordon, Lord Byron, couldn’t lay claim to any of his, or his wife’s, income. Nor could he publish under his real name and reputation without revealing his sacrilegious secrets of rising from the dead. He’d have to earn a living by his wits. Unless he stole cunning along with his new body, which I knew him perfectly capable of.

I also knew he still collected followers through his secret books on the topic of necromancy. Newly penned works, as well as older ones, were still available if you knew which booksellers to approach.

His followers tended to be fanatical about their lord and master. Willing to die for him. Literally.

My mistress Mary Godwin and I had escaped them a time or two. We both knew too much.

“Lady Byron, you will have heard that Mistress Dessins and I spent the last eight years escaping from both Mr. Shelley and Lord Byron.” I didn’t mention the disgraced Dr. John Polidari. His name was even less respectable than those of the poets. Shelley and Byron at least could claim artistic sensibility for their perfidy. Polidari could claim only negligence and unbridled curiosity that had cost at least two patients their lives.

I suspected he’d murdered them in his own quest for immortality through necromantic experiments. He was Byron’s personal physician and constant shadow, hoping to learn from a truly formidable necromancer.

Lady Byron opened her heavily lidded eyes and stared into mine, challenging me with her silence.

“I protected Miss Mary, her children, and her new husband more than once. I know what to look for in a man to know if he is an agent of your husband.”

“My husband died. He is no longer a threat to me or my daughter.”

This time, I held her gaze, forcing her to think about the unspoken truth. She didn’t back down, but she did speak. “My daughter, Augusta Ada, is in need of tutors in mathematics and the sciences. Firm men who will drive any shadow of artistic nonsense from her. They will make sure that she never succumbs to her father’s poetic spells or evildoing.”

I continued my silence. I knew this. I also knew that before his “death” Lord Byron had sought out some of those same mathematicians and scientists to help him rebuild his transference engine. They could still work for him and corrupt his daughter — or trick her into redesigning the engine. I wished, not for the first time, I’d done a more thorough job of smashing the original into oblivion back in that fateful and desolate summer of ’16 at the Villa Diodati.

“What do you know?” Lady Byron blurted out, almost angrily. But I knew her anger was not directed at me.

“I know how to keep secrets.” Secrets of how Lord Byron was obsessed with immortality. He and the incompetent Dr. Polidari had tried more than once to transfer his soul into a different body, more perfect than his own malformed one. He preferred drowning victims — less damage to the external features. Percy Shelley reportedly drowned two years ago in a boating accident in Italy. He was a very handsome man with an exquisite body. He was also reputed to have been seen in Greece a month later. His beauty I knew from firsthand experience. He practiced Godwin’s free love philosophy with less . . . discrimination than Lord Byron. Shelley merely liked his paramours young — his first wife and Mary Godwin had both been fifteen when he seduced them. I was sixteen. Byron insisted they be petite and dark-haired as well as young. I didn’t qualify as female in his opinion.

“Secrets? You will have no secrets from me. If I employ you.”

I arched my left eyebrow in reply.

“I have no doubt that you can protect my daughter, physically. In that we are in agreement. But what can you teach her? She has had the finest tutors.”

“I speak and read four languages fluently.” What child of Switzerland didn’t? Five languages if you counted Romany. I needed to know more about Lady Byron before admitting I was friends with a tribe of “gypsies.”

“I have read history extensively,” I continued. “I have observed politics across Europe. I know the social graces acceptable in Geneva, Paris, Rome, and Copenhagen. They differ, if only slightly. Knowing that difference when dealing with international personalities in London will be an asset to you and your daughter.” I had more arguments in my favor. Lady Byron dismissed them with a tired wave of her hand.

My stomach bounced and wriggled uncomfortably. My vision narrowed. I needed . . . The blackness crowding into my peripheral vision sparkled brightly around a twirling figure that might be a young girl. Or me. Though I’d never had a vision for myself. Then something dimmed the scintillating lights.

I dove for the floor beside the door, dragging the lady with me.

Anything Lady Byron might have said was lost in a sharp shattering of glass. Sharp shards sprayed across us. I tasted blood before I felt the burn of a slice across my cheek.

A rock bounced from the couch where she’d been sitting, to the floor and across the worn carpet. Such a waste of good Turkish weaving.

I did not pay a ruffian to throw that rock. Honestly, I did not. Though my younger sister Trude, budding pirate that she was, would have gladly done it, if I offered her the last gold crown in my reticule.

“Did . . . did you know of this?” Lady Byron turned a glacial gaze upon me as I heaved myself to my feet and straightened my skirt. I retrieved from my sleeve a gray handkerchief that matched my gown in color and serviceability and pressed it hard against my now burning cheek. I surveyed the side yard from safety behind the heavy draperies rather than glance her way.

I saw no movement or strange shadow that might betray whoever threw the rock. He was probably long gone, having run while we sought shelter.

My belly churned and my vision closed down to a narrow tunnel. If I had a cup of tea, or even a glass of water, I might see something in the whirlpool as I stirred.

Was that a misshapen lump huddled next to the beech tree?

Only then did the lady notice the crimson stain on my face. “The glass cut you,” she said flatly.

“Yes, m’lady,” I replied just as flatly. Emotion was wasted on such as she. She wouldn’t allow hysterics in herself, let alone her daughter or a staff member. Oh, well, I could save a bout of tears and shakes for another, more receptive audience.

“The rock could have hit me if you had not acted so quickly,” Lady Byron said with the slightest edge of panic in her voice.

I shrugged. The obvious needed no answer.

“I owe you thanks.” She didn’t actually offer them. I could teach her some manners.

I nodded graciously, keeping a keen eye on the grounds visible from the long window in the small room.

The lump at the beech tree had shifted to the opposite side and seemed larger.

A new thought wiggled from the mid-region to my brain. If the target had not actually been Lady Byron, then the missile was merely a ruse to distract from the true purpose.

“Where is your daughter, m’lady?”

“At her studies.” She rose anxiously and hastened for the bell. Carrick, the reedy butler of indeterminate years, answered too promptly, obviously expecting the summons to escort me out rather than the anxious query of his mistress. “Send Miss Augusta to me immediately,” she demanded, hands reaching out like claws to clutch at his lapels. She restrained her gesture at the last second, not quite touching him.

I surmised they had been together a long time. Just how much familiarity had developed between them?

Wouldn’t be the first time a lady had sought comfort with a trusted servant when she had not seen an estranged and disreputable husband in nigh on ten years.

I wondered if Carrick’s eye strayed beyond his mistress while I assessed his long and lean form. We stood nearly eye to eye, he topping me by at least half an inch.

I smiled.

Before the expression had a chance to reach my eyes, a child’s scream sent my heart pumping and my mind whirling. Without a thought, I hiked my utilitarian gray serge skirt almost to my knees and quite indelicately dashed up the stairs, shouldering aside both lady and butler.

Damn this corset. I’d laced it tightly this morning to make the ensemble fit properly, not anticipating having to run up stairs and breathe at the same time.

Thank whatever gods might be, Lady Byron kept her child close to her in the family living quarters on the first floor abovestairs rather than in some drafty attic two more stories up. A second scream directed me to the last door on the left, facing the front drive.

I kicked open the door, not caring about splintering the lock. A dark-coated figure with a woolen scarf wrapped around neck and lower face held a knife tightly across the throat of a little girl. A long black, vorpal blade glinted in the lamplight. I noted the girl’s dark hair and olive-toned skin — not quite as sunburned and swarthy as her father’s — and her huge frightened eyes.

I didn’t waste time assessing the danger. I’d done this before.

Three strides in, a kick to the knee, a fist to the side of the head.

A squelched squeal and a grunt. I closed my free hand around a slender wrist and twisted.

Snap. A bone broke. Clatter. The knife fell to the floor. I pushed the girl back toward her mother.

The black-garbed creature scuttled out the open window faster than I could follow. It scampered from ridgeline to chimney pot, then using only the left hand and both feet, it swung down a twist of ivy like a monkey from Gibraltar.

I ran back down the stairs. The grounds were empty as far as I could see. Miss Augusta Ada Byron was safe for now. I decided the name was too big and pretentious for such a fragile child. Ada she would be to me. And to the world, though I didn’t know that yet.

“Lady Byron, we need to talk,” I said. “There are things, unpleasant things, you need to know about Lord Byron.”

“I know . . . too much already.”

“You need to know more if we are to protect your daughter.”

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