Science and magic lead to danger in this sequel to The Unnaturalists, which School Library Journal called “an entertaining mix of steampunk and fantasy.”
After Vespa, Syrus, and Bayne defeated the Grue and restored order to their world in The Unnaturalists, they thought their future was secure. Empress Olivia, committed to peace and equality for humans and Elementals alike, was a fair and just ruler. And the Creeping Waste had vanished, giving them hope for the first time.
But rebellion is brewing in the far-off city of Scientia, and dark Elementals are plotting war in the ruins of New London. Before they know what’s happening, Vespa, Syrus, and their friends are plunged into a new swamp of intrigue, deception, and magic—and the cost of survival may be more than any of them are willing to pay.
I am up to my elbows in green-black grease when I realize I’ve forgotten something.
My favorite spanner.
I curse under my breath. I climb back out of the boiler, my arms stinging faintly from the cold grease.
I’m fairly certain this gunk is the residue from burning myth. Even with so much changed, the remnants of the old Empire still bear painful reminders of a time when Elementals were shoved into the great boilers of the Refineries and “refined” for their magical fuel. My people serviced those boilers, their own gifts and talents twisted by the Emperor.
Sometimes the memories make me want to tear all these machines to bits. But when I think about finding a way to make them work without causing harm, then I think maybe that just might be the best kind of revenge.
The grease is so caustic that it’s eaten holes through the iron. The boiler will have to be patched, but I’m beginning to wonder if I can get the thing running even if it is patched. And on some other fuel besides myth.
Engines have never been my strength. I’ve always done finer work—gearboxes, clocks, that sort of thing.
Part of the problem is just the design. There must be a better way to make this. A different way. It looks like the Refiners were well aware of the corrosion problem but apparently were unwilling to figure out how to change things. Myth hurt as much as it helped, in more ways than the obvious.
Whatever the case, it needs to be done as soon as possible. Winter is on its way, and I promised the Empress that I would have the boiler ready before then. I just didn’t expect it would be this hard to manage.
Empress. It’s still odd to think it, much less say it, in connection with Olivia. Even odder to believe I work for her, but I do.
As I riffle through my tool chest, Piskel drifts down from the rafter where he’s been sitting. He holds a tiny hanky over his nose and mouth to keep out dust and fumes. Truffler won’t even come here because of all the iron.
Zao gao. It’s not here.
“Piskel, I don’t suppose you would . . .”
He backs away a little bit, gesturing toward the iron all around us and grumbling.
Ah well. It would probably be too heavy for him to lift anyway. Sighing, I wipe my hands as thoroughly as I can. I’m sure the spanner is on my workbench, probably somewhere obvious.
“I need to go back to the workshop. I forgot something.”
Piskel dances around me in obvious joy, nearly blinding me in the basement gloom.
“All right, all right. Calm down! You don’t have to come back if you don’t want to, you know.”
He calms but mutters at me as he floats off toward the stairs. Light, broken occasionally by shuffling feet, trickles through the cracks of the warehouse floor. It gleams on a maze of dusty pipes and fittings, vats and pressure dials. Truthfully, there’s more than one boiler I need to fix. But this one keeps the sleeping quarters warm at night, so I’m starting here first.
Or I was. Until I realized I was missing my spanner.
I follow Piskel up the stairs and out through the warehouse loading dock. This building does have some attractive features—the fanciful towers with their slate roofs at the corners, the rows of wheel windows. But many of the windows are out, and some of the brick is crumbling from myth exposure.
I wish Olivia had chosen some other place to set up her household. The Tower fell after the Rousing, as did many of the fine estates in Uptown. I doubt Olivia would have wanted to stay there anyway. Virulen is overgrown with vines and ghosts. It would take a great cleansing before it would be suitable.
Besides, Olivia swore that she would not take up a permanent residence until all who had remained in New London had housing. After a year that time has nearly come. But we’re still not quite there, which is why I must trudge back across the new City in search of a spanner.
The streets of New London will never be as they once were, but on this side of the River nearest the Forest, we’ve rebuilt it as well as we can. The smell of deadwood and dried brick drifts on the air, laced with the smoke from the blacksmith’s forge. Boarding houses have gone up for the builders, interspersed with the remains of old houses and buildings from Lowtown. Shops and offices have slowly returned as well, though there are no hexshops. There’s no longer any need. The gin palace and other such places, though, have returned with a vengeance.
We were fortunate to be given one of the few standing houses left in the City for the offices of the Imperial Unnaturalists, but between Vespa and Bayne, it’s not always the most comfortable of quarters. Sometimes, especially when the wolf seizes me, I prefer to sleep in the Forest.
I’m halfway there, picking my way over a boardwalk laid down to protect those on foot from the sucking mud of the streets, when I notice a crowd has gathered across the way. Piskel, who was floating in lazy circles around me, goes over to investigate, making halos over the heads of both Elemental and human.
He returns to me like a shot, buzzing in my face like a golden hornet. I can make out nothing, except that he thinks I have to go over there. I check my sigh, squinting up at the angle of the sun. If I don’t hurry, it’ll be evening soon. I’m not overly fond of working in dark cellars alone.
Piskel is insistent. Into the mud, then.
I wade into the street, nearly sinking up to my ankles in filth. This is the worst problem we face now, and I’ve been wanting to figure out a better way to deal with it, by putting down either cobblestones or paving stones as in the few remaining old parts of the City on this side of the River. We would have to install drains and sewers here, which will be a great undertaking with only our own ingenuity to help us.
I suppose magic could help us, though I somehow doubt either Vespa or Bayne would be inclined to use it in favor of a sewer.
I dodge carriages and wagons, though one splashes my trousers up to the knee with black sludge.
This day is not ending well at all.
The crowd parts enough for me to slide in. I realize then that my day has been perfect compared to the day of the one who lies before me.
It’s a kinnon, an Elemental of the air, a creature rarely seen around these parts. His brilliant feathers are already dimming, and many of them have fallen in a pile around him.
Piskel is in his face, trying to revive him, but the kinnon moves his head away and gasps for breath.
I kneel next to him, sliding my hand under the feathered neck.
“What happened?” I ask the crowd.
“Well, one moment he were flyin,’ and then the next he were fallen onto the deck,” an old salt says around the pipe in his mouth.
“And why didn’t you send for the Imperial Unnaturalists?” I ask through gritted teeth.
“It just happened a moment ago,” another woman says.
“Piskel.” I don’t need to say more than his name. He is off, buzzing down the streets, skipping over the new roofs toward our townhouse.
The kinnon is trying to lift his head, to speak, to get away. His eyes are wild. His shoulder and neck are wet with silver blood.
He is murmuring something, and I can barely understand him.
“I cannot hear you, brother,” I say, leaning close.
He takes several shuddering breaths. I am not sure if the touch of my fingers hurts him. Sometimes the touch of human hands is as awful as iron to the Elementals. Though my hands are not entirely human anymore.
There is blood, but the wound itself is not as severe as I would have thought. It’s a puckered sore, like a bite.
“They are in the City,” he says. “The . . . the Dark Ones.”
I frown. I don’t know what he means. I have seen no darker Elementals in the City since Vespa and Bayne asked a coven of vampires who were attempting to set up a blood racket to leave.
But the old City across the River has seemed increasingly hostile of late. The salvage crews have stopped going there, claiming a darkness has driven them off, a feeling of terror they can’t explain.
Olivia has been certain that it’s all old, dark magic of her father’s still leaching out from the Tower and the Refineries. Nothing to be too alarmed by. Vespa and Bayne have been planning a cleansing, once the next Council of Elementals meets.
“Rest easy, brother,” I say. “We can talk of this when you’re healed.”
But he shakes his head, his once sky-blue skin dull as lead.
“The Dark . . .” And then I would swear he whispers a word that I’ve not heard since childhood, since the terror tales that Granny would tell around the fire after a Gathering.
“Ximu,” he gasps. The name leaves his mouth with his last breath. The skies have been clouding over since he fell, and now, with his death, rain falls on him and me and the people all around us. It dissolves him in my arms until there’s nothing but a silvery powder.
I think of the wound on his throat that must indeed have been a bite and the whispered name he spoke.
I’m still on my knees in the rain shaking all over when Vespa and Bayne come.
Vespa helps me up and surrounds me with a coat she thought to bring.
“He’s gone, then?” she asks.
“I wish we could have helped him,” she says. “I’ve never seen a kinnon before. They’re quite rare here. I wonder what he was doing this far north.”
“What killed him?” Bayne asks.
Ximu. I shake my head, because I just cannot believe it. I just cannot.
“Syrus?” he asks.
Vespa looks sidelong at Bayne. “I think perhaps he might need some tea to ease his shock, Pedant.”
Bayne takes her ribbing with good grace. “Very well, but we may as well go on to the warehouse instead of returning home. The Empress will need to be made aware of this, I’m certain. That way, you’ll only have to tell it once,” he says, looking at me.
I nod again. That much is true.
We all try not to see the silver trails fleeing like mercury under the boardwalk as the rain grows heavier.
By the time we arrive at the warehouse, it’s pouring. The towers with their rain-slick roofs are forbidding as a fortress.
The faun sentries standing in the foyer look at us with curiosity as we pass. They’ve felt the reason for the change of weather, but they know better than to ask.
We take the elaborate wrought-iron staircase, escorted by a human steward who can withstand the presence of iron better than the Elementals can. This was once a draper’s factory, built in grand style to accommodate all sorts of customers, even in the midst of Lowtown. Each floor has a different decorative theme, though I have no idea what distinguished any of them from one another. The manner in which it was built allowed the most wealthy patrons to peruse the wares free from mixing with folks of lower stations—four internal wells of stairs allow people to pass largely unseen by others.
It’s a grand place to me, but it’s still no palace.
Olivia receives us in one of the many chambers that I suspect were reserved for the Uptown folk. It’s a bit ragged around the edges—the gold-embellished wallpaper is peeling, and there are water stains on the stamped ceiling tiles. It reminds me a bit of Virulen and its tattered glory.
Olivia rises from her chair as we enter and stand dripping on the fine carpet. Her pale hair is swept up in a simple knot at her nape, but little bits of it escape, framing her face. Her gown, as always, is plain but well made. She regards us with the grave, gray gaze that makes my heart squeeze every time I see her.
She had that same look when I found her in Fauxhall Gardens after Tianlong had gone. The Phoenix sheltered her under his wings as the last of the Creeping Waste dissolved into air. I took her hand and helped her up, and together we looked across the smoke of her devastated but free realm.
That day, she kept hold of my hand, saying, “Thank you, Mr. Reed.”
I think it might have been then that I fell in love.
Today she’s just as concerned as she was then. “I suspect by the weather and your faces that your news is not good.”
Vespa shakes her head. “I’m afraid not. But we will let Syrus tell you.”
Olivia holds up her hand before I can speak. She pulls a sash by the door where I presume she must have entered, and I hear a distant ringing. A human maid is soon at the door, bearing tea and the wheaten cakes from the new bakery.
I try not to show any sign of hunger, but Piskel marches straight toward the tray and looks up at Olivia with adoring eyes.
“Please,” she says, smiling as she gestures us all toward the tray.
Piskel is trying to grab one of the cakes and drag it away himself, but it overburdens him and he falls flat on his back, pinned under the cake. I peel it off him. “Let me help, little brother,” I say, and pinch off a few bits for him to stuff into his cheeks after he manages to get back to his feet.
The Empress laughs, and the sound reminds me of Granny’s water chimes—tiny bells she hung outside the train car in the rain to bring us luck.
The tension in the room relaxes somewhat, but I’m still sad. I can’t help thinking about those magnificent feathers fading into dust. I never thought I’d see that again.
“Tell me what you saw, then, Mr. Reed.”
I tell her of the kinnon and how he dissolved into dust in my hands. I tell her of the puckered wound. “I know who made it.”
I look down at my hands and notice the dirt beneath my nails. I’m trying to distract myself from saying what I have to. I don’t want to believe it.
“Who?” the Empress asks. Bayne and Vespa are poised on the edge of their seats; Vespa’s cup is halfway to her lips, a curl of steam rising like a question mark off her tea.
Tiffany Trent is the author of The Tinker King and The Unnaturalists, which won a Green Earth Book Honor. She is also the author of the Hallowmere series and the recipient of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Work-in-Progress Grant. Her short stories have appeared in Magic in the Mirrorstone, Corsets and Clockwork, Willful Impropriety, and Subterranean magazine. She lives with her family in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Visit her at TiffanyTrent.com.
"Lush, with a nice touch of Victorian post-humanism for an original twist."
– Kirkus Reviews
“An intricate melding of fantasy and steampunk.”
– School Library Journal
"Trent moves multiple romantic subplots along smartly while stirring plenty of chases, ambushes, escapes, reversals of fortune, clever schemes, and startling revelations into her Chinese-inflected, gas-lamp fantasy."
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