Reading Time: 18 minutes
Continuing our serial of GeekMom Corrina Lawson’s steampunk adventure/mystery novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
In a Victorian London where magic fuels steam technology…
Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.
When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.
With Gregor’s help, Joan has uncovered the murderer. She insists on confronting him despite the danger, though Gregor and Milverton object.
Pay particular attention to this chapter’s mention of a ‘duel.’ That will come into play soon.
“You are coming with me, Joan.”
Sir August leveled a very strange pistol at Gregor. The copper-plated weapon had an extra-long barrel with a glass sight at the edge. The trigger and its guard were twice the usual size and another sight, several inches tall, sat above it.
Gregor’s handgun looked like a toy next to that weapon.
“I suggest you put down your gun,” Sir August said. “This is one of the few items left to me by my brother. I won’t miss.”
“Neither will I,” Gregor said.
“Give me my fiancée back and you can live,” Sir August said.
“I’m not anyone’s to give back.” She should be scared. Sir August might easily turn the gun on her. Perhaps after nearly dying last night, she had moved past terror or had grown used to being threatened with death.
That was a horrible thought.
“Stay back. I will handle this,” Gregor said.
“I’ve no doubt of that, but I’m not going to stand here and watch you two kill each other.” She stepped between the two men, right in the line of fire. “I’m staying with him, Sir August, so you will have to shoot us both,” she said, surprised at how calm she sounded.
He pounded his cane against the floor. “I will not have this defiance. I’m offering honorable marriage. What can that one possibly offer you?”
“Truth.” She sighed. “Which, I admit, leaves a sour feeling in my stomach, but it must be faced.”
“You’ve had experience with hard truths. You don’t deny them,” she said. “Put your gun away, Sir August. You don’t want to be a killer.”
That was a guess, but he had been so careful not to use physical force against her. He wanted her to like him, and he wanted them to have a friendly relationship. He had tried to be kind, in his way. He was angry, lonely and still grieving.
Again, pity stirred for him.
“I should be happy to shoot him.” Sir August held the gun steady on Gregor.
The pity vanished. “And then your sisters and the rest of your family will be completely ruined when you are killed.”
“What does it matter if I cannot save them by marrying you?” he snarled and focused past her. “You’ve no right to interfere in my marriage, half breed.”
“An interesting insult for one who planned to marry a Jew,” Gregor said.
“I hired him to find out who murdered Lady Grey and why. So he has every right, Sir August, to be involved. I’m his client and he has exceeded my expectations. He has been able to sort out why my father has fits and—”
She broke off, remembering what Sir August had told her about the ability to sense mage energy as his gift. That was how he had discovered her when no one else had.
Anger stiffened her. She clenched her jaw so tight that her teeth scraped against each other.
“You bloody bastard.” She advanced on him, heedless of the gun. “You knew. You knew something magically was wrong with my father all the time.”
Milverton lowered his gun. “Joan, that is absurd—”
“You knew what ailed my father.” Now it all became clear why her father had agreed to the marriage. “You blackmailed him with that knowledge. That is why he agreed to our match. You blackguard. You vile, contemptible—”
She nearly walked right into the extra-long gun barrel. Sir August lowered the weapon to his side.
“I never blackmailed your father,” he spat out. “He was eager to get you out of that place and away from Roylott’s influence. I offered marriage to save you!”
“To save yourself, you mean.”
“To save us both. I poured my heart out to you last night. And this is my thanks!”
“You poured your fears and dreams out to me last night, never once asking if I had any of my own! And all the while you hid the information that Roylott was a mage! You knew!”
She clenched her hands into fists. She felt the faint stirrings of what she now recognized as her mage gift. No, she would not harm someone, not that way. She opened her hands and stepped back.
“Killing gains you nothing, Sir August,” Gregor said. “On the other hand, cooperating with us may be useful to you.”
“She calls me a blackguard. That’s exactly what you are, Sherringford.” Milverton sneered. “Hiding in that run-down office, claiming to have a higher purpose than magic, acting morally superior and, all the while, relying on your family’s money and influence to solve your cases.”
“It takes brainpower to solve crimes, far more than it does money and influence,” Gregor replied. “Pray put away your weapon and your anger, Milverton. All it will gain for you is ruin. Death, you could face. Ruin, no.”
Joan reached out and took the weapon from Sir August. Frozen, he did not object. She cradled the gun against her chest, surprised at how heavy it was. And there was something else, some faint stirring of power emanating from it.
“Your brother’s gun is beautiful work,” she said.
Sir August leaned heavily on his cane. “And I appear to be the same kind of fool as he, for I can’t even use the weapon, even to save myself. You were my last hope, Joan. Now I will not only be a pariah but a laughingstock. ‘Everyone, look at Sir August Milverton who was made a fool by a Jewish seamstress.’”
“Come, come, Sir August, it is not as bad as all that.” Gregor clicked his tongue. “You might find my brother, the Duke of Bennington, a proper ally in your ambitions to gain back the power lost by your brother’s untimely death.”
Joan put a hand over her mouth. The Duke of Bennington? Not only was Sherringford the son of a duke, he was the brother of one of the richest and most powerful men in the United Kingdom. More, the Dukes of Bennington were renowned for their strong magical abilities.
She looked down at her dress. Who did this properly belong to? His sister-in-law. The duchess? She was dressed in a duchess’s clothing?
“The woman has plenty of dresses, Joan,” Gregor said, deducing what was on her mind. “Victoria can certainly spare one, especially if it is from last season,” he added. “I admit, the stitches are not the quality of Krieger & Sims but my half brother is far too snobbish to patronize any establishment less than one hundred years old.”
“And yet, you offer his influence to me, Sherringford. At his height, my brother Charles could have possibly had an audience with your father but that would have been a reach.” Sir August, having recovered his composure, now stood tall.
“A man who does the family a good turn—as you will—and opposes Moran—as you already have—would be someone of great interest to my brother. He has been opposed to Moran’s appointment to root out mages among the lower classes since the beginning. By your actions in thwarting Moran, you have already aligned yourself with Richard, even if your motives aren’t pure.”
“And yours are? You dressed Joan in your sister-in-law’s clothing, Detective. I would say your motives are more than about solving her case.”
He assumed she and Gregor were lovers.
Not true, but not so far off the mark.
“He offered truth, as I said, as you did not, Sir August,” Joan said.
He had the grace to look away from her.
“Ah. Good. You understand. Now, we need your help. It will solve a dilemma,” Gregor said.
“Oh certainly, whatever you wish,” Sir August sneered.
Gregor ignored the hostility. “You know that Roylott is the culprit behind the murders. We need to lure him out of hiding so Joan and her father can be cleared and so Roylott does not harm anyone else. A rogue mage is a dangerous thing. On that, I agree with Moran. Milverton, you must arrange a meeting with Roylott. Tell him you know what he’s done. Offer him money if he promises to disappear and leave you and your fiancée alone.”
Sir August didn’t respond at all. His face remained impassive and his mouth was frozen into a frown.
“Sir August.” Joan cleared her throat. “You are a driven man. An ambitious one. But you aren’t an evil man. Roylott has to be stopped before he kills or steals someone else’s soul. If you meant what you said, that you were trying to rescue me, you will want to do this.”
He slammed his cane down on the floor again, with enough force that the framed art on the walls rattled. Gregor moved in front of Joan while Sir August seemed torn between rage and doing what he knew was right.
“Put away your prop, Milverton. You and I both know you’ve no need of the cane or the sword it conceals.”
Milverton glared but set the cane against the wall. “I never spoke directly to Roylott. I avoided him and talked only with Alexander Krieger. Roylott made my skin crawl.”
“But I will wager that you investigated Roylott,” Gregor said. “You are a careful man.”
Sir August inclined his head. “I did. And I may be able to get a message to him. If I so desire.” He focused on Joan. “And what will happen if we capture Roylott and clear your father?”
“What will happen between us, you mean, sir?” she asked.
He inclined his head again.
“Surely, all society will think me unsuitable, especially if word is passed that I ran off from your home, to say nothing of spending the night here.”
“I never wanted you for suitability. I wanted you for the mother of my mage-gifted children.” He cleared his throat. “And for yourself as well. As I said, you are not without charm, and I need a partner I can trust to run my various business interests. Your merchant’s background is a help there, not a hindrance. The scandal would fade.”
“I thank you for your honesty. This time.”
Sir August ground his teeth but said nothing.
“I could lie. I could say if you do this to catch Roylott, I’ll marry you. But I’m done lying, and I’m done with trading myself. If you help, it’s because it is right to do so, as it was wrong to hide the source of my father’s condition from everyone, especially me, while you took unfair advantage.”
She handed him back his brother’s gun. Sir August walked past her to the open door of the study where she and Gregor had been working. He halted in the doorway, the gun held loosely in his hand.
“And what is between you and the Indian half breed?” he asked in a low voice.
“Honesty. A common goal.”
“There is more than that.”
“I won’t speak to you of what is between us.”
Joan waited in silence for his decision, Gregor a mute wall at her side. They had all the time in the world. She had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Her only goal now was Roylott. She couldn’t think beyond that. She did not wish to think of the future.
“I will help.” Sir August focused on Gregor. “And I would appreciate an opportunity to speak with His Grace, your brother, as soon as possible.”
Gregor waved his hand, as if approving this exchange by fiat. “Q.E.D. Now, Milverton, where do you think Roylott is hiding?”
“There is one more condition.”
“Which is?” Gregor narrowed his eyes.
“You must see that Joan is cared for and properly trained as a mage when this is done. You must be her patron. She will be a target once her ability is known, and she needs training. You know the only way she’ll be allowed to learn is through your family’s patronage.”
“I won’t promise to you what I would do willingly.”
Aha. Not a marriage proposal but definitely a commitment.
“Do you care at all for her honor, boy?” Sir August asked.
“As the lady said, what is between us is private,” Gregor answered.
And, as yet, very uncertain. Joan sat down behind the desk again, thinking of her painstaking work in translating and how Sir August could have saved her the trouble by revealing the problem at the start. As the men continued to size each other up, Joan wondered how much her mother knew. She had trusted Roylott. But her mother had been strangely reluctant to stop the marriage to Sir August. She might also have guessed something was not right with her business manager. Could her father have confided in her mother about the contract?
“Does she know where I am?” The words slipped out of Joan’s mouth before she knew she had spoken out loud.
“Who?” Sir August asked.
“Her mother, of course,” Gregor said.
“I sent word to her that you were safe with me, as I told you last night,” Sir August said. “She has no reason to believe otherwise.”
“At least that was not a lie,” Joan said.
“Of course not. I haven’t lied to you.”
“Except by omission.”
“And now you are helping, so that we forget omissions.” Gregor glanced at her, as if pleading with her to let it go. “Milverton, how do you propose to contact Roylott, and what will you offer him?”
“What sum would tempt him?”
That was a fine question, Joan thought. Roylott had never seemed interested in material wealth. Oh, he liked having his clothing tailored of the finest material they could procure. But the only jewelry she could remember him wearing was a pocket watch. Perhaps he spent his money on someone else, such as a mistress. She leaned back in the chair. Distressing, how little she knew of someone she had worked with for years.
Sir August and Gregor were talking. She had lost the thread of their conversation. But something bothered her that they had not yet addressed.
“Why did Roylott murder two people he barely knew?”
“Who knows what set him to murder? Whim?” Sir August said.
“But this contract says he will ensure the business thrives in exchange for my father’s soul. Murdering our clients precipitated the end of Krieger & Sims. Why would he break the contract?”
Gregor snapped to his feet. “Your father has been more lucid lately. He could have refused to allow Roylott more, so Roylott ensured his ruin.”
Joan shook her head. “My father has been worse lately.” She stood, hope surging through her, giving her energy. “And did you not say the brimstone was infused into the contract as part of a spell that bound both parties? If Roylott has broken the contract, can we not force him to return what he stole from my father?”
Gregor slowly shook his head. “You are reaching a conclusion without all the facts, Joan. I do not wish to give you false hope.”
“Do you have a better explanation?”
“Not as yet. That doesn’t mean there isn’t another one. One step at a time. Let us pull Roylott into the open first.”
That was not a good enough answer. “Sir August, do you know of any way to cure my father?”
He shrugged. “Only by making another deal with Roylott for someone else’s soul as a substitute. Or by challenging him to a duel in which a soul is promised if he wins or the return of your father’s soul if he loses. Your brother, the duke, is powerful, Sherringford. He would be more than the man’s match.”
“Magical dueling is illegal and, in any case, we cannot sacrifice or risk another soul in this matter,” Gregor said flatly, cutting off any more discussion.
Joan said nothing. Gregor was right. No one else’s soul should be risked or given to Roylott. She had seen what this had done to her father. She would not wish it on anyone else.
“A duel is out, then.” Joan collapsed back in the chair and looked down at her hands, remembering how they’d overcome the trap on the magically locked cabinet. There was a small scab where she’d cut herself to draw blood.
“You are forbidden to even think it,” Gregor whispered in her ear. He had snuck up on her so quietly that she had not noticed he was there.
She turned to face him. “Why not? I could challenge Roylott to a duel. I have power. You said so yourself.”
“You have blind, unfocused power. Roylott has harnessed power over which he has total control. You stand no chance in a duel.”
She looked away. Gregor was right again. She barely knew what she was doing. The only thing she truly knew how to do was sew and design. One could hardly duel with needle and thread. She frowned and stared at Sir August’s weapon. His brother had brought mage-created pistols to a duel.
“I don’t like that look,” Gregor said.
“You mean I have a thought that you cannot deduce? That must be aggravating for you.”
She focused on Sir August, who was still writing out the note to Roylott. His brother had been overwhelmed by a powerful mage in a duel and had died, dragging his whole family down.
I do not have a family to risk.
“If there were a way to save your father, I would,” Gregor said, “but I cannot undo what has been done.”
Joan nodded. “I hear you. My father did this willingly, out of greed and desire. He will have to bear the consequences.”
But that didn’t keep her from wishing there was a way.
Gregor disappeared for a time into a room upstairs, presumably to dress properly for their confrontation with Roylott, if he responded to the letter. Sir August stayed in the library downstairs. He had lapsed into silence once he finished writing.
She knew how he felt. To have one’s long-planned future fall apart was a terrible shock.
Joan went back to the duchess’s room to find a coat. It happened that in the wardrobe there was one to match the dress she was wearing, so she slipped it over her other borrowed clothing. Before leaving, she checked herself in the mirror. She wore last year’s design. This year’s fashion featured more extended collars, but it still felt like she was playing dress-up, just as when she had occasionally modeled clothing for her clients.
The material was exquisite. She smoothed down her hair. She could pass for a lady, if she wanted. Sir August could make her a lady in truth. But as she walked down the hallway and the sweeping stairs, it seemed to her she was a fraud.
She did not want this any longer. Ladies, save for the independently wealthy, seemed to have as little rights as she did in her current situation. What she could be, she knew not. Gregor and Sir August seemed to think she should be a mage, but she didn’t know exactly what that meant.
Sir August walked out of the library as she reached the bottom of the steps. He sighed and shook his head. “Yes, as I thought. You look the part. We can still be a good match, Joan.”
So he had not fully accepted his uncertain future. “I cannot be a match for anyone until I know my own mind, sir.”
She heard footsteps and turned. Gregor practically glided down the stairs, a man in perfect balance.
Joan barely recognized him.
Gone was the intense scientist. Neither was there any trace of the common workman. Even the arrogant thief and would-be seducer from their adventure in her father’s office had disappeared.
Instead, he was the very picture of a lord of the realm. Handsomely tailored trousers, exquisite boots, a white shirt and a cravat embedded with a lotus flower, similar to the one inside her case. Over it all was a fine grey coat with a matching hat.
Truly, Lord Gregor Sherringford, son and brother of dukes of the realm.
He made her heart hurt.
Sir August opened the front door for her. She thanked him and walked out into the London morning. The grey mist she’d glimpsed earlier through the window had grown thicker. Oddly, it seemed more menacing than the darkness last night, perhaps because the fog seemed to hint of otherworldly things. Night was natural.
They walked down the steps to a walkway that went on far longer than Joan had anticipated. She glanced back and finally saw enough of the manor to recognize it. It was the great house she had decided must belong to a royal duke.
After passing through an iron gate to the sidewalk, Gregor whistled. A young boy with rumpled clothing and a dirty hat appeared out of the fog so quickly that Joan wondered how long he had been waiting. Gregor handed Sir August’s letter to the boy. Gregor also gave him a ten-pound note.
The lad’s eyes grew wide. He stuffed the money into his pocket and listened to Gregor’s instructions for delivery. “If you can put this letter into his hands, that will be another ten.”
“Aye, milord!” The boy saluted and scurried off to his task. The fog swallowed him up.
“He is more likely to disappear with my letter and the ten,” Sir August grumbled.
“He won’t cross me. He needs the money to feed his family. He’s the only income they have.”
Joan looked back in the direction the boy had come. She had been wrapped in her own problems of late. She had forgotten that others had worse ones, such as constant hunger. Gregor had remembered that.
Sir August’s steam carriage was parked at the curb, slightly sideways, as if he had been in a great hurry when he’d stopped. Which he had, Joan mused. He must have been enraged when he found her missing. Still, he had known to come to Gregor’s family home.
“How did you know where I was, Sir August?” she asked.
“Sherringford isn’t the only one who can uncover information.” He sighed, seeming to reconsider his words. “I went to his office first but couldn’t gain entry. His family home seemed to be a natural next stop, as he did send a note saying you were under their protection. Their country home would have been next on my list.”
“I would have paid money to see you demand my brother answer for me,” Gregor said.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” Sir August handed Joan the goggles, as he had on their first ride in the vehicle, and helped her to the passenger seat. His expression was rueful and resigned. She liked him better for that.
Gregor helped himself to the seat behind them. He pulled out his own set of goggles from his overcoat. She smiled, realizing that the coat was a Krieger & Sims make.
“Is that the one that ripped at the seams?”
“Yes. I repaired it.”
They set off for Krieger & Sims, where Sir August had asked Roylott to meet him immediately. They might be waiting a long while, but that would give her a chance to look through her home. How Gregor intended to get past the police presence, she did not know—she simply accepted that he would. For all she knew, Moran had withdrawn the guard. He had his killer, or so he thought.
Unlike during her previous trip across town, Sir August drove slowly. She wondered if he had been so reckless on their other drive because he had been trying to impress her, or if he simply liked going fast. The inability to see more than five feet in front of them might well hamper any natural inclination for speed today. Besides, they had time. Roylott had to receive the letter first.
Roylott would come, she thought. He must need money. She shivered at the thought of having come into contact daily with a man who was quite literally killing her father by inches. And not once had she guessed.
“How did Roylott escape Moran’s notice?”
There was a long silence. “Gregor?” she asked again.
“So it is ‘Gregor’, then,” Sir August said as he turned the vehicle onto a cross street.
“You call me ‘Joan’,” she responded.
“Roylott’s ability to hide from Moran and from you concerns me,” Gregor said, ignoring the previous exchange. “Moran has a similar ability to Sir August’s, in that he can sense subtle or underlying magic. And you were in contact with Roylott every day and sensed nothing.”
“He’s extremely powerful,” Sir August said.
“Yes, that would be the logical conclusion,” Gregor snapped.
“How is that possible?” Joan asked.
“Powerful mages can do many things that are not yet understood, and hiding one’s true nature would be a natural use of that ability.” Sir August braked. “I don’t like this. Joan should go back to somewhere safe, Sherringford.”
“Safe?” She laughed. “I was not safe in my own home, Sir August. Where will I be safe now? Nowhere is safe for me unless Roylott is taken into custody and proven to be the murderer. If not, I will stay under suspicion. My life will be one of hiding and whispers behind my back.”
“Truth,” Gregor said. “Though I dislike you walking into danger.”
“Yes, you both have made that very clear. Now, are we there yet?” As if she had anything left to lose.
She recognized the street on which she lived as they turned yet again. Sir August parked and she took off the goggles. Hairstyles, as well as clothes, would have to change, she thought, if women were going to ride or drive in these vehicles as an everyday occurrence.
Not that she could do anything about that. Her dreams were as gone as her father’s soul.
In silence, Gregor led them in through the side door.
“Will Roylott run when he knows three people wait for him rather than just one?” she asked.
“If he comes at all,” muttered Gregor.
“I told him I would have the money with me,” Sir August said. “We shall see how eager he is to fund himself before he disappears. This is your plan, Sherringford. I thought you were surer of yourself than that.”
“I take nothing for granted where Roylott is concerned.”
Gregor took out his artificial torch to illuminate the hallway. Sir August loosened his overcoat to allow access to his custom-made pistol, now sheathed in a custom holster. Joan glanced at the stairs that led to her room. Even if she lived there again, life would never be the same.
Gregor’s eyes were narrowed, focused only on the task at hand. Joan used her keys to open her father’s office again, to await Roylott.
Gregor turned on the desk light. Joan’s eyes widened. Oh. I did that?
The file cabinet was a melted heap, like a wax candle that had burned down to the end. Next to it was a pile of stone.
“Good lord!” Sir August strode over to the mess. “Sherringford, you did this?”
“I have not the talent. Miss Krieger did so in her successful efforts to break into a magical safe.”
“Why is there a pile of stone next to the cabinet?” She could barely grasp what she had done to the metal. She had no explanation at all for the stone.
Gregor shined his torch on the pile to highlight it. “Mage coal, my dear Joan, a side effect of the use of your power. Quite a lot of it, actually, a testament to the power you unleashed.”
“Oh.” She had created an entire pile of mage coal. She blinked. “Is it worth something?”
“A considerable sum, though you may wish to keep some to heat your quarters.” Sir August knelt next to the coal. “I had no idea you held this level of power within you, Joan.”
“Neither did I,” she muttered. A considerable sum? She might then be able to support her mother and herself for a time; perhaps it would even be enough to care for her father when this was all over.
Sir August straightened and stared at her. He shook his head. “I never expected anyone but a member of the royal family could possess so much raw mage energy.”
For some reason, his awe made Joan angry.
“There are some among my people who consider the Cohens a kind of royalty. Ours is a different heritage, but no less valid, Sir August.”
“But a rare heritage, or so I would hope. Evidence of this level of power among the lower classes would certainly scare our nobility. If they decide most Jews are capable of such a feat, I cannot speak for how they’ll react.”
Good, Joan wanted to say, because if it scared them, they might take notice of those who were different, instead of assuming they were the only gifted people in the world.
But bad too. She was well aware of the horrors visited on her people throughout the centuries. The Inquisition was not so long ago. That was part of the reason why her grandfather had changed his name to Sims.
“The peers of the realm are already scared of the power of the lower classes, hence the authority given Moran,” Gregor said. “The idea that they don’t have a stranglehold on mage ability terrifies the realm. Your father was knighted because of his gift, Sir August. The Queen is trying to assimilate those who seem worthy before that power is used against her class. But I don’t believe they realize yet that those like Joan and your father are part of a pattern. I suspect the mage gift occurs among all classes in the same proportion.”
“If they did know this?” Joan asked.
“Mage ability is the true nobility now. Those who possess its riches can rise as high as anyone. The lack of a strong gift precludes me from the highest councils far more than the Indian heritage from my mother. Just as Sir August’s failure to inherit his gift from his father precludes him more than his less-than-noble ancestors.”
“What does that mean for England?”
“Civil war, possibly,” Sir August said.
Gregor nodded. “Quite so. There are those like my brother who seek to do with mage ability what others have done for basic education. They want to make training of the mage gift available to all, so that the country benefits as a whole. Others feel that the lords should continue to horde power among themselves. An untrained mage, no matter how powerful, is unlikely to challenge a trained noble mage.”
“Though I agree with him, I don’t believe your brother has sufficiently convinced his peers of the harm that could result in ignoring the situation,” Sir August said. “That bodes ill.”
“Of course it does.” Roylott stood in the doorway.
Joan turned, expecting the monster who had wrecked her home and her business. But all she saw was the same small, pudgy man that she had seen just yesterday.
Evil had chosen a very banal disguise.
“Those who are lower-class mages will have to take what they need. As I did,” Roylott said.
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