Tilda Upton's talent at finding things with the aid of a talisman puts her on the edge of the dangerous hellhag category. Rather inexperienced in using her magic, she's prone to mistakes. It is one such mistake that lands her in debt to the Chief Royal Inventor who blackmails her into retrieving an Oriental and his machine. But to find the Oriental she needs to intercept an airship and the best way to do that is through piracy.
Tilda turns to the notorious Black Jack Knight, a sky pirate known for his cruelty and cleverness who dislikes passengers, particularly of the female variety. Fortunately for Tilda he accepts a currency she can provide—the location of a man who witnessed his brother's murder, a murder which Jack was falsely accused of committing. Together they fight corsairs, a mad inventor and their growing attraction to each other in order to retrieve the man Tilda has been forced to find, only to learn his machine could destroy her.
It all started with the dog—a real one, not a mech one. Not that Matilida Upton blamed the poor creature for changing her life in a most dramatic and permanent fashion. No, the blame could be laid squarely at the studded boots of Sir Magnus Grimshaw, the queen's Chief Royal Inventor.
Tilda knelt on the slippery flagstones of the lane running alongside her London townhouse, the elongated and fitted cuirass style of her bodice lending a degree of difficulty to the task. She peered into the underground cavity, wrench in hand. The blasted air filtering system had stopped working again and Tilda, being the only one in the household of four women who knew how to fix it, tinkered with the gears. She loosened a nut and a burst of steam shot out of the pipe, fogging up the goggles of her leather and brass mask. It would have scalded if she hadn't taken the precaution.
She set the wrench aside and peered into the cavity. Warmth and the scent of damp metal drifted out but the smell of something more putrid penetrated the mask's breathing holes. Urine. She wiped the goggles and looked closer. Something was in there. A grey ball of fluff. She reached in and pulled it out. It whimpered and stared up at her with huge brown eyes.
"Hello, little one. Who do you belong to?" There was no one else in the lane, and certainly no one looking for a dog. The animal blinked at her and snuggled closer. It was made of flesh and fur, which didn’t necessarily categorize it as a real animal, but Tilda could feel little ridges through its coat which were unmistakably bones and not metal rods or gears. It was also warm and rather affectionate. Clearly it was someone's pet and used to human contact.
She took it into the kitchen and set it down on the wooden table on which Mary had just finished preparing the vegetables to go into the soup. The maid glanced up from her stool near the cast iron oven and dropped her ladle, handle and all, into the cauldron. "Ew, what's that bedraggled thing, miss?"
"A dog," Tilda said, removing her mask and hanging it on the hook near the door. The air was cleaner in the house than outside but still not fresh. With the filter not working, it would remain that way. "A real one," she added. "I found it outside."
"Are you sure it's a dog?" Mary said, bending down to get a closer look at the animal. She screwed up her nose. "Could be a rat." The dog peered at her beneath fluffy grey brows then buried its nose under its paw. "I mean, who would want a real dog? You have to feed and clean a real dog, and pick up its whatsit."
Tilda patted the animal's matted hair. "Shall we clean it up and find out?"
"Your aunt won't approve," Mary said, casting a cautious eye at the door.
Rather eerily, the door opened but instead of Aunt Winnie, Tilda's sister bounced in. Letitia was always bouncing. She had far too much energy for a genteel lady, even one of only eighteen. "There you are, Til," Letitia said. "I've been--. Oh! What are you doing with that rat?"
"I think it's a dog," Tilda said.
"A real one," Mary added.
Tilda explained how she'd come across it. "We're about to clean it up. Perhaps there's a clue to its owner beneath all this hair."
"Or perhaps there isn't." Letitia clasped her hands as if in studious prayer and bounced. "If not, can we keep it, Til? Pleeeease. I've always wanted a dog."
"Mr. Cranker has mech ones for sale," Mary offered. "With red fur and everything. Red suits your coloring, Miss Letitia."
Letitia stuck out her bottom lip. "I rather like the idea of a real one," she said. "I could take it for walks. And buy it a pretty red collar, studded with pearls—"
"Before you get carried away, we can't afford pearls," Tilda said. She sighed. Her sister was a delightfully fun companion but she was rather trying at times. "And I think you'll grow tired of walking a dog every day."
"And scooping up its whatsit," Mary said. "The Council for Cleanliness doesn't like dog mess on the pavements."
Hence the growing rate of mech pets instead of real ones in the city. "Besides, it may have an owner already," Tilda said. "Come on, let's clean it up before Aunt Winnie returns. She'll have a fit if she sees a dog in the kitchen."
Mary dipped the brass temperature stick into a small pot of water sitting on the stove then wiped it on her apron. "This'll do," she said, showing them the read-out in the panel at the stick's crown. "I was going to use it for washing but it's just the right temperature now for the little mite. Come on, let's dip him in."
"After we feed it." The dog's ears waggled as if it understood. They gave it the ham bone Mary had kept aside for the soup and filled a bowl with water. After the dog had eaten its fill, they plunged it into the pot. It yelped and struggled for a moment then its eyes fluttered closed and it seemed to enjoy being scrubbed, dried and pampered.
It turned out to be white, not grey, and quite a pretty little thing. It wore a slender leather collar studded with black jet surrounded by rings of gold. A lovely piece that must have been worth a small fortune.
"Let me have a closer look," Tilda said, removing the collar. "It might have a name or..." Her sentence trailed away as a sliver of tingles crept from her hand along her arm. Her fingers grew warm, as if the collar threw off heat. Impossible.
And yet she knew it wasn't. This strange phenomenon had happened several times over her twenty-four years. Whenever she touched an object separated from its owner, her skin heated, as if the source of the heat was the object itself. And then a clarity came to her, like a vision of a path to follow.
Her mother had explained what it meant when Tilda had first asked her about it. She'd been barely eight years old. The object was like a talisman and it was using her to find its way back to the owner. Tilda's mother had possessed the skill too, but had warned Tilda to keep it a secret. At the time, Tilda didn't know why but later she did.
Divination was a dangerous skill to possess in a time when machines ruled and the men who controlled them were treated like Gods with wealth and privilege thrown at them. Anyone possessing paranormal abilities—a power not based on mechanics but on the unexplained—was treated with suspicion and fear. The most powerful, the hellhags, were blamed for all the ills to befall a community. An epidemic of disease was said to be caused by the hellhags, the unexplained death of a child or the occurrence of any strange phenomena was laid at the feet of women with even the most tenuous skill.
It only took one accusation, one pointed finger, and an entire community would jump at the chance to punish the person responsible for their tribulations. According to the law, hellhags were to be put on trial and hung until dead. It was a long English tradition, one deeply entrenched in the hearts of even the good. No one would deny the simple folk a target for their fears, least of all the inventors. A cynical person would claim the inventors didn't want rivals more powerful than themselves, didn't want anyone to take their place at the helm of the government and the forefront of progress. And since their class held the ear of the law-makers, the law stated that anyone possessing strong non-mechanical abilities must be put to death.
Tilda, like her mother before her, may only possess a weak and rather useless talent for finding people but it was not a talent she wanted to advertise to the world. She didn't want to be branded a hellhag by mistake. Letitia too had shown signs of some skill at divination but hers was even weaker than Tilda's.
The heat from the collar grew more intense so Tilda placed it on the table and plopped down on one of the chairs. She and Mary exchanged glances. Letitia was too busy cuddling the dog to notice.
"You all right, miss?" Mary asked, eyeing Tilda closely.
"Did it have any writing on it?" Letitia said, nodding at the collar. She scratched the dog under the chin and made coo-coo noises at it.
"Er, yes. An address. I'll take the dog back." Tilda scooped it up.
Letitia pouted. "Now?"
"I'm sure the poor thing would like to see its owner again."
"I suppose." Letitia sighed. "Some little boy or girl must be missing him."
"Be careful, miss," Mary said, fixing the collar around the dog's neck.
"Why?" Letitia asked, frowning at one and then the other.
"There's a lot of construction work going on in the city," Tilda said quickly, scooping the dog into her arms. Its fuzzy little face nestled against her chest. "Of course I'll be careful."
Tilda set off immediately with the dog tucked under her arm. It would be lovely to see it back where it belonged. As Letitia said, perhaps the owner was a child. How happy they'd be to see their beloved pet again! It seemed to enjoy the company of people and didn't mind the loud grinding of digging machines, the whir of cranes and the shouts of workers that had taken over London of late.
She followed the path laid out for her by the divination, a somewhat tenuous thread that pulled her along. Whenever it weakened, she touched the dog's collar and the way was made clear to her once more. The process took a great deal of concentration, and so keen was she to reunite the dog with its owner, she walked right up to the palace gates before realizing where her divination had taken her. Straight to the queen.
It wasn't that the sovereign was so terrible. Tilda actually admired her. It mustn't be easy for a woman to rule over a rapidly changing country dominated for so many centuries by men. It's just that the queen was the one who'd reinstated the law to terminate all the hellhags after a deranged one had tried to assainate her early in her reign. The country had gone nearly three hundred years without incident and hellhags had become normal members of society in that time, neither feared nor loathed until the horror of thirty-seven.
Not that Tilda was a hellhag. A little skill at divination didn't put her into that category. Nevertheless, it was best to keep even her small amount of power from the authorities. They tended to get over-zealous.
With her heartbeat skipping more erratically than it usually did after divining, she walked up to one of the red-coated guards standing to attention at the gate and told him about the dog. She gave him a story about having seen the queen's servant out walking it once and so was able to identify it as belonging to Her Majesty when she found it. The guard gave her an unreadable stare. He opened his mouth to speak when a man approached. He was tall with a pointed black goatee and moustache and bright striped vest of green and gold. Set against his cream colored coat and breeches he looked different to the dreary figures who usually walked the city streets.
"Forgive me," he said, bowing. "I couldn't help overhearing. My name is Sir Magnus Grimshaw. I live in the palace." He indicated the grand colonnaded façade of the royal residence beyond the gates and fountain.
"Oh, then perhaps you could return the dog," she said, holding out the animal.
He winced and shook his head. "The guard will. I simply want to ask you how you knew it belonged to Her Majesty."
Tilda went cold. She hadn't been careful enough. "As I told the guard, I recognize--."
"But there are probably hundreds of dogs who get walked every day in the city. Do you mean to tell me you knew that this particular one was the queen's simply by looking at it?"
"The collar is distinctive," she said, thinking fast. "And mech dogs are more common than real ones nowadays."
"It's not that distinctive." He smoothed his thin moustache with his thumb and forefinger then turned to one of the guards. "Open the gates." The guard pressed a lever set into the wall. The mechanism hissed and the great iron gates yawned. "And take the dog. It does indeed belong to Her Majesty. I believe it was the very one that bit me last week." Sir Magnus strolled through the gates. As they slid closed behind him, he turned and added, "Find out where she lives."
Tilda felt sick. Her stomach roiled as she handed the dog to the guard. Should she flee or stay and pretend nothing was amiss. In the end, she found her legs were too unsteady to run so she answered the guard when he asked her where she lived. She didn't dare give a false address. If her lie was detected, Sir Magnus's suspicions would be confirmed. For he was suspicious. He must have guessed she'd found the dog's owner by using a paranormal skill. She only hoped he would forget about her or decide she was not worth bothering about.
But she knew with a dreadful foreboding that he would not forget.
A week later she was proved correct. Sir Magnus came to her house. Aunt Winnie and Letitia were out and Tilda had to entertain him on her own in the parlor. Mary brought tea and biscuits, forked a brow at Tilda in question then left when Tilda shook her head. This was a person she must face alone. Thank goodness her sister wsn't home. Letitia might have only a little skill at divination but she also possessed the unenviable skill of not being able to keep her mouth shut.
Sir Magnus stared out the window at an airship ascending into the clouds, its sails full and its engine humming, the great iron wings tucked into the side of the hull to minimize the disturbance over the city. It must have come from the docks which could be pinpointed in the distance by the hundreds of craft of all shapes and sizes hovering above it.
"Let's not beat around the bush," Grimshaw said, turning to Tilda. "You have the skill of divination."
He snorted a laugh. "Don't try to fool me, Miss Upton, I can smell the magic on you." He sniffed the air which was now pristine thanks to the filter she'd fixed yet again that morning.
Ugh. "That is disgusting. I have no magic. If this is about the dog, I told you I recognized the collar--."
He held up a hand for silence. She swallowed her retort. She didn't want to antagonize him. If he lived at the palace he was most likely very influential. "I won't tell a soul," he said, "if you do one thing for me."
She swallowed. "Sit down, sir. Please avail yourself of my maid's biscuits." She tried to smile. It was difficult.
He flipped out his coat tails and sat. She poured him a cup of tea and handed him the plate of biscuits. He refused them and ignored the tea. He simply looked at her through eyes as black and round as the buttons down the front of Tilda's gown, and licked his lips.
"It's unusual to find a girl so pretty and not yet married at your age, Miss Upton."
"Twenty-four is not that old," she said, repeating an oft-said line. She was growing a little tired of the comments concerning her marital state, or lack of it.
"Not for a hellhag."
She dropped her cup into her saucer with a loud clank. "I am not a hellhag." It was all she could do to get the words out through her tight throat.
"You can divine, Miss Upton. Is there anything else you--?"
"Nothing else, I assure you! Most determinedly assure you."
He seemed to relax. His wiry moustache stretched as a fleeting smile passed over his lips and he nodded. He had been afraid of her! If she truly were a hellhag then he ought to be. But as a simple diviner, he had nothing to fear. And now he knew it.
"I see," he said. "Very well, then it is most fortunate you've come to me now."
"I wish to commission you, Miss Upton."
"Commission me? To do what?"
"Find someone. An Oriental man is traveling on an airship called the Adrienne bound for France. The ship belongs to the King of France and is heavily armed. I want you to bring the Oriental to me and the machine he carries with him. Understand?"
Tilda's head was spinning. Surely this was all a dream. Sir Magnus could not possibly be serious. And yet he looked quite serious going by the grim set of his mouth and the challenge in his hard black eyes.
"Out of the question," she said. "What an absurd suggestion. I can't simply drop everything to find a man for you, Sir Magnus, no matter who you are."
"I am Her Majesty's Chief Royal Inventor." It was said with a raised chin and pompousness that got up Tilda's nose. "And you most certainly can and will drop everything to find this man for me. If you don't, I'll make sure the relevant authorities are alerted to your...unusual skill."
It was the moment Tilda had been dreading. Her chest suddenly hurt and she felt a little weak all over. "I see," she managed to say.
"Besides, it's not as if you have anything to keep you here. You're not married and you don't work."
So he'd investigated her. "I'm a gentlewoman," she said and winced. Now she sounded pompous. "And I, I..." She couldn't think of a single good excuse not to do as he ordered. "And I don't want to. You can't force me. I'm no hellhag so you may say what you want to the authorities. Apart from a little divination, you have no proof."
He shrugged. "If you think I need proof then you are indeed naïve."
She sat back against the sofa's cushions and concentrated on breathing and not shaking. It all felt so hopeless! The more she tried to dig herself out of this, the more she seemed to bury herself.
"How am I to get this Oriental?" she asked. "I doubt the French will hand him over to me with a smile."
"I don't care how. Just get him. If you don't, you will suffer the fate of all hellhags."
"And your aunt and sister with you."
"B, but they don't have any skill!" she spluttered. "And I have so little."
"You have enough." He sneered, curling his fleshy top lip into his moustache. "You hellhags make me sick, even you pretty ones." He spat into his teacup. "What a waste of sweet flesh."
Tilda recoiled. Her insides twisted and her mouth went dry. She needed to be very, very careful. Grimshaw wasn't a man she could charm or trick into leaving her alone.
So what was she going to do?
Grimshaw cleared his throat and flattened his moustache with his thumb and finger. He dug into his inside coat pocket and handed her an envelope. "This letter belongs to a man traveling on the Adrienne. Not the Oriental, another. It will direct you to the airship."
She stared at the letter and with a sinking, sickening feeling she realized she had no choice.