Lo, several years ago (or more), I decided I wanted to write a short Sherlock Holmes-style story and “steampunk it up.”
I shake my head at my younger writing self because, of course, creating a steampunk world and characters to inhabit it isn’t that simple. But, eventually, that short story became The Curse of the Brimstone Contract, my best-selling book.
And, finally, there’s a sequel, or, rather, a continuation of the story of Joan Krieger, dressmaker and rebel, and consulting detective Gregor Sherringford: A Hanging at Lotus Hall.
A Hanging at Lotus Hall is a murder mystery, it’s a science fiction story that includes some interesting gadgets, it’s a story of how magic changes a world, but, most of all, A Hanging at Lotus Hall is the story of how two people of a different class who love each other attempt to negotiate a partnership, emotionally, logically, and intimately.
Here’s the opening. It’s due out 2/5 and also available in paperback! :
Joan Krieger had fought hard to have choices of her own. But, she reflected, having those choices definitely had complicated her life.
Take the offer that the Headmaster of the Isca School, John Moriarty, had just presented to her, one that seemed too good to be true.
“You do me great honor, sir,” Joan said, playing for time, and set her teacup and saucer on the table next to the chair. A quite comfortable chair, she reflected, upholstered with velvet cushions. It matched the rest of the office of the headmaster, furnished in dark woods and burgundy couches and chairs of the softest fabric. It was a place designed to relax the peers of the realm, who sent their sons to Isca to hone their mage talent.
It had the opposite effect on Joan, setting her teeth on edge. She suspected Moriarty knew that.
How much did he know about her semi-illegal activities with magic?
She folded her hands in her lap to cover her reaction. It was worrisome, of course, that she had gained the attention of the highest official of the Metaphysical Society. But surprising that the headmaster had asked her to teach girls gifted with magic.
Her pleasure was tempered by cynicism. There must be a catch. Again, how well was Moriarty informed of her covert efforts with magic in her detective work?
“Would it be fair to say this would be a massive change in your school’s position that only men can properly handle the power inherent in the mage gift?” she asked.
“The world changes and we must change with it, Miss Krieger.”
“Indeed,” she agreed.
He caught her gaze and held her full attention, something few people could do. It spoke to the power contained in his unassuming form, power that she sensed, even though he kept it leashed. He resembled a clerk with his drab (but well-fitting) gray suit and pants. His hair had receded, revealing a large forehead that showcased his alert brown eyes. Moriarty had the reputation of being able to calm the most rambunctious mage-gifted peers’ sons.
Joan suspected Moriarty missed nothing, from the laces of her fine leather boots to the perfect fit of her self-made dress, this one in gray to match the businesslike, perhaps even somber, occasion. He’d started off by offering her a carrot. Where was the stick?
“In these times, the smallest change is often greeted with suspicion,” Joan said. “This is a great change, not a small one. Is your staff supportive of it? And the Metaphysical Society?”
In other words, what was she getting into if she agreed to take the position? Trouble, of course, and that was interesting in itself. But she wanted specifics. It was always possible Moriarty could be an ally.
Moriarty pursed his lips. He’d expected her to jump at his offer, not question it. She waited for him to say more. After all, he’d asked her to his school, to his office. That meant he needed her, in some form. “Possess the soul in patience,” went the old play, as Gregor was fond of quoting. Good advice in this situation.
“I cannot claim the idea to teach girls to hone their mage talent is without opposition, that’s true. I’m prepared for objections on that score,” Moriarty said.
“Are you, truly?” Did he realize how widespread the wrong-headed perception that women were too flighty and weak to handle the mage gift was?
Moriarty sighed and placed his teacup and saucer on the coffee table with the ornately carved feet. “Those objections are why, for now, I propose only a single course, and that for a limited time, to teach the girls the basic foundations of magic.”
“And what do you propose for later, sir?” Joan sipped her tea. Moriarty was taking his time, leading her down a path by doling out his offer in bits and pieces.
“Once we begin to teach the girls, it will be obvious that some of them will need to continue their education.”
“Naturally,” she said.
“And at some point, depending on how fast they come along, we will need a mage school for girls.”
Oh, she well knew of this need. If she’d attended a mage school or if her mother had, her life would be utterly different.
But for now, only boys who were peers of the realm or sponsored by peers of the realm were allowed to openly learn magic. That law wasn’t strictly enforced because, well, the Empire needed mages.
“And do you propose to teach girls of all classes?” she said, baiting him.
“It is for only noble girls,” he replied, “But, think on this: if a mage school for girls eventually receives the sanction of the Isca School and the Metaphysical Society, you would be able to take in some scholarship students. If you were the headmistress, that is.”
The approval of the Metaphysical Society meant official sanction.
It wasn’t an easy thing to convince anyone to entrust their mage-gifted children to a stranger. Damn it all, she could not even convince her own family to let her test her cousins for the gift. But with the stamp of approval from the Metaphysical Society, girls would be lining up to learn. By dangling the possibility of scholarships at the potential school, Moriarty would give Joan the power to make dreams come true, even for common girls.
“Establishing a mage school for girls is several steps ahead of simply teaching one course, and none of those steps are certain.” She stood, her skirts rustling as she walked to the window of his office, which looked out upon the quad. At this time of day, it was empty, the pupils hard at work in the brick buildings surrounding the quad. The boys were either from the “best” families or approved by them. The feeling was that the “lesser” classes, like all women, either lacked the mage gift or were too stupid to learn how to use it properly. She was proof that both assumptions were wrong.