It was a dark and stormy night…

This past weekend, I hit the halfway mark for NaNoWriMo‘s 50,000-word goal, and today (if I can meet my word count goal) I’ll break 30,000 words! So to celebrate, I thought I would share an excerpt from the beginning of the manuscript. How do you know it’s steampunk? Steam-powered contraption: check. Rolling fog and gloomy rain: check. Gaslit ballroom: check. Automaton with gears and pocket watch parts: check. Snarky, liberated woman: check. I think I got it all in there in the first 2,000 words. Of course, this is a shitty-first-draft, so I might end up changing it or scrapping it altogether. After all, there are probably better ways to start a book than, “It was a dark and stormy night…” But in any case, here you go; let me know what you think!

Yes, I totally drew this myself! Yes, it could totally function as an actual clock mechanism. (I think.)

For you, dear reader, this world may appear strange indeed, and so allow your careful chronicler the indulgence of taking a moment to set the scene of this evening’s tale, in which so many of the events, not a few of which may prove as wondrous as they are bizarre, shall unfold in their due course.

It is a great house in the country, belonging to the respectable Sir Byrnecock and his Lady wife. No mean house at all, though not untypical as such you would expect among the high society elites of the island. Certainly not so very fine as those palatial residences you might find on the continent, but Sir Byrnecock, having a peerage and more than a bit of wealth at his disposal, does very well for himself and his family besides.

The house sits high on a ridge just north of the city, its long, elaborate facade of ribbed columns and peaked archways facing towards that cluster of lights that are all the marks of civilization on the horizon. Even with the steady rain and fog so common to the area, on evening’s such as this when the winds sweep across the valley moving the mists aside in shifting veils, glimpses of the distant ember glow of urbania can be caught now and then from an upper story window of the great estate. It is perhaps the lingering comfort of Lady Byrnecock on nights when her husband has gone to town for business or traveled to the continent to exercise his duty to the court, to sit in her bedroom late into the night, long after the serving staff have all retired and the household fires have been smoored until morning, and to look out from her window on this wild country landscape and see, at its utmost end, the reassuring signs of industry and progress asserting themselves against the darkness of a rainy eve. Or perhaps, it is her bedroom at the end of the hall, with the heavy brocade curtains drawn back despite the draft, and the windows that look out across the great house’s extensive grounds and gardens giving way eventually to wild heather and moorlands to the east.

It is from the east, now, that something new approaches the Byrnecock estate. Along the thin road bordered by hedgerows that cut across the hillsides come a pair of gaslit headlamps, illuminating with their amber light the slanting rain that dashes down through a plume of rising steam. The hedgerows have been thinned by the season to a tangle of bare limbs and would cast long, haunting shadows of grasping phantasms across the dampened earth if not for the low, dense clouds that so thoroughly blot out the moon. The thin, wide wheels of the carriage spin steadily despite the rain, hardly slipping across the slick track of mud and fallen leaves. There is no sad, sodden beast trotting along mournfully before this carriage, no sound of hoofbeats muffled by the wet autumn litter. Instead, a kind of wide, flat cart and on it, a large cylinder of dark metal that sizzles slightly in the downpour. The hiss and sigh of small pistons pumping a series of nested gears on either side quite drown out the low conversation of the occupants who sit, rigid and poised, casting slim silhouettes on the fogged window panes from the dry interior of the cab.

Should Lady Byrnecock have been in her bedroom this night, even now she might have seen the wavering lights of the carriage as it approached along the road. She might have been put in mind, seeing those two seeming eyes glimmering in the evening’s gray twilight crawling closer and closer over each hill and ridge, of the stories told by the household staff of ghosts and demons that lurk on such nights, beneath a half-hidden harvest moon. Had the Lady been at home alone on such a night, her husband called away to town on some matter more urgent than marital comfort, she might have then drawn closed the curtains and turned her back on heathered countryside and gardens, risking not even a hope to glimpse the city lights, a stiffness to her spine that bespoke a chill deep in the bones, deeper than any draft could stir.

But she was not.

Indeed, there were none in the household who saw the strange carriage approaching.

The Lady of the house herself was far too occupied in the front parlour, an easy smile warming her eyes and laughter urging her cheeks to flush as she stood, one arm linked gracefully with her husband’s, ushering guests here and there and greeting late arrivals with cheerful words of welcome. It had been a somber day, as far as holy days went, the dreary weather lending its weight to the morning’s ceremonies when, with all the women of the household staff, the Lady had gone to lay flowers and offerings on the graves of her ancestors at the temple grounds and speak prayers of remembrance to the honored dead. The dull duty finished, and the example of ladylike piety set, Lady Byrnecock might revel now in the jollity that the evening’s party promised.

Two score guests or more were expected. The doors of the great hall that adjoined the front parlour had been flung open wide, and the room’s gas lights burned high and bright along its walls, reflected in the tall, arched windows that had been transformed into dark, wet mirrors by the blackness of the night beyond them. The heavy oaken dining table had been moved aside to clear a space that hinted tantalizingly of the magnificent masquerade dance to be held later in the evening. In the parlour, tables had been set for games of cards and other similar amusements, with comfortable seating arranged for those who preferred the refined pastime of reclining to the heady art of dance. Guests moved and mingled freely between foyer, parlour and hall, murmuring of the delights they took in such high society and pleasant company, complementing one another on the ingenuity of a costume or the clever wit of a mask. Inside the great house, all was bustling warmth and rosy light and lilting music. Outside, the storm slouched on, quite forgotten except for the steady tap of rain against the tall, thick glass of the window panes that underscored each lull or sudden hush of a conversation.

“Oh, Cynthia! What a scandal!” The Lady Byrnecock laughed as the two daughters of the Marquess of Don approached her. “What on earth do you mean by it?” She glanced briefly at her husband, who stood engrossed in conversation with an acquaintance from town, and slipped her arm from out of his and came to meet her friends.

“You’ll never guess,” said Jane, the younger of the two sisters, whose bare shoulders were wrapped in a lush fur shrug and whose gown of soft brown taffeta pulled back into a bustle that sported a long cat’s tail behind. Fascinators done up to resemble two pointed cat’s ears pinned back her hair, and rings on her delicate fingers extended silver fittings into the appearance of claws.

“You’re lucky I don’t turn your sister right out of my house,” the Lady said, her old eyes twinkling.

“And be thought an ungrateful hostess? You wouldn’t,” Cynthia said confidently. “Besides, what purpose is there to Samhaintide if we cannot subvert the tiresome safety of our lives with a bit of scandal? Too pious for demons of any other kind, but not too polished for a worldly kind of joke. And I assure you, there will be far more to come this evening, if our cousin doesn’t lose himself on the road in this weather before he ever arrives.”

“She commissioned the corset specially just for tonight,” Jane spoke up again, blushing at her sister’s bold talk. “You needn’t worry — it’s no more real than my claws are.”

“It is the suggestion, no less than the use, that risks to offend the eye,” the Lady said.

For the elder sister wore a costume that, among less refined society, might have proved too true a scandal regardless of her intent. Below the dipping line of her ambitious décolletage, the corset of stiff velvet cloth clung tightly to her body, curving into a pinched waist before opening out again at the hips. Not at all like the usual undergarment, which a lady might be hard pressed to allow even her own husband to glimpse in all propriety, this corset had clearly been crafted to be seen and admired, with gold stitching along the hemlines accentuating the long lines of the torso and depicting a gear-like pattern in panels along the front and sides, so that the sheen of the velvet caught the light in changing tones of midnight and sapphire. The thing was rigged up with straps and brass buckles so that it appeared less a piece of clothing than a halter. A clockwork contraption, loosely connected to the buttons of the bodice by a delicately-wrought golden chain like that which might be found on a gentleman’s pocket watch, pinned the flowing blue silk of the overskirt aside where it blossomed out from beneath the edge of the strange corsetry, revealing an immodest hint of the hooped cage of the young woman’s crinoline.

Cynthia twitched a bit more of her skirt aside with a careful hand. Jane raised her cat-eyed mask to her face to cover her deepening blush.

“Offends the eye, or draws it,” the older sister said. “I suppose I should be thankful for such sophisticated company, in either case.”

“But what do you mean by it, dear?” the Lady asked again. Her eyes lingered on Cynthia’s neckline, where a series of layered gold bands gave her neck the look of a gear spring wound taut. From the lowest band hung another clockwork contraption, this one in the shape of a heart.

“Haven’t you guessed?” Cynthia raised her mask now, too, and Lady Byrnecock gasped at once with both the shock of recognition and delight at the joke. “I am the perfect woman, my dear Lady Byrnecock. I am an automaton.”

“You’re far too clever for your own good! Who ever heard of such a costume for a Samhain masquerade? I will catch your father out for letting a daughter of his make such a show of herself on a night meant for solemnity and respect for the departed.”

The sisters were already moving away again, arms linked, reentering the ebb and flow of the guests who moved about between the rooms. Lady Byrnecock smiled after them, her face showing for a moment the creases of her age. Had her husband happened to turn his eye to her at just that moment he might have caught a fleeting look in his wife’s expression that gave him more reason to pause than the thoughts of landholdings and investments that normally so occupied his mind.

But he did not.

“For want of a mother….” the Lady murmured to herself as the two sisters disappeared among the crowd of handsomely cut coats and rustling gowns, and she resumed her place at her husband’s side without a word, pressing his arm gently with the fingers of her delicately gloved hand.

To be continued…

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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