The Empty Hourglass (A Deal with a Devil Story)
This title is part of the A Deal with a Devil universe.
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Thomas Escott has always wanted to be a toymaker, yet just as he achieves his dream, an accident claims his right hand. He’s certain his life is over—until he hears about groundbreaking prosthetics being made by a reclusive inventor.
Jethro Hastings is perfectly content to live alone up in the mountains working on a secret masterpiece: a humanoid automaton that will change the scientific community forever. He’s behind schedule, and the date of the unveiling is fast approaching, so when Thomas shows up on his doorstep offering help in exchange for a mechanical hand, Jethro agrees. Time, after all, is running out on another deal he’s made: one with the devil.
The devil gives Jethro’s inventions life, but he can just as quickly take life away—Jethro’s, to be exact. As the sand in the devil’s hourglass falls, marking the time until the end of the deal, inventions go haywire, people get hurt, and Thomas realizes he needs Jethro just as much as his prosthetic. Now he must find a way to save Jethro’s soul, but negotiating with a devil is just as difficult as it sounds.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Thomas Escott jolted awake, almost tumbling out of his seat as the train’s brakes screeched. He rubbed his left hand over his mouth. He was sweating under his threadbare brown jacket—he’d been having that nightmare again.
It was always the same, always left him out of breath and soaked with perspiration. He reached over to his right arm, placing his hand over the stump, the searing pain further branding in his mind the memory of what had happened. The explosion. The spilled oil. His toy shop burning to the ground.
A tinny sound swept into the compartment, getting louder by the second. Thomas craned his neck to see the wooden box slowly huffing along the corridor, its ancient wheels clunking and creaking as it squeezed between the seats. It had a red enamel gramophone bolted to the top, and it puffed out small, quick clouds of steam as it announced, in a scratchy voice: “Montrale! Montrale station next!”
The train crept up to a dark platform, only lit dimly by round glass gaslights bolted to the walls. Thomas grabbed his meager luggage, containing the few clothes he’d managed to salvage from the fire, and made his way through the narrow passage to the door. Two bronze steps tried to unfold to lead him to the platform, but they clacked and banged and resolutely remained half-straightened. Like the wings of the little clockwork owl he’d been trying to fix when his sleeve had caught fire . . .
With a sigh, Thomas jumped over the steps and landed on the station’s stone platform. It was utterly deserted. Nobody else got off the train, and it started huffing again and rolled away before he even had time to turn around and watch. He’d known this village would be different from the capital of Lunaris, but it was only just past dinnertime.
Perhaps there is something going on in town tonight, he reasoned. This is the hometown of the esteemed Jethro Hastings, after all.
Showing up on the inventor’s doorstep hadn’t been an ideal plan, especially when he needed to ask such a big favor. He didn’t even know what Hastings was like, if he’d kick Thomas out, annoyed at being disturbed, or welcome him in, seeing Thomas as another opportunity to show off his state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs.
Thomas looked around the station. An old clock hung from the iron rafters, marking three o’clock—it was quite obviously broken—and there was a dim light coming from a little dilapidated station building to his left. He tugged on his right sleeve to hide his stump and headed toward it.
When he stepped inside, his breath caught. A ragtag crowd of men were gathered there, and they turned to stare at him. Some seemed surprised, but most were decidedly hostile. He eyed them for a moment. They were not similar in the slightest to the assortment of thieves and beggars he was used to encountering on the streets of Lunaris. He was accustomed to the drunken, the mad, and a cunning, thieving, murderous lot, loud and always smoking and drinking and constantly moving, just like the capital itself. But these men stood or sat stiffly, wrapped in thick dark cloaks that all looked the same, with dark gloves and dark hats and well-trimmed mustaches.
And they were staring at him. Each and every one of them.
Thomas swallowed. He had seldom felt so out of place. He was painfully aware of his too-light, too-modern clothes that moderately smelled like smoke, despite his best attempts to get the stench out of them, and of the blond hair that he kept long, as was popular in the capital at the moment. But mostly, he could feel their gazes almost piercing the right side of his head, where the hair had been scorched off in the fire and was now replaced by tender, gnarled skin, thin scars running from his mangled ear to his cheek and spreading down his neck before disappearing under his collar.
At least they couldn’t see his arm . . .
The men were still looking at him, slowly advancing, forming a semicircle that barred his way to the exit. He flexed his hand, feeling the pressure of the metallic bracelet hidden under his sleeve, a small mechanism he’d devised that held a long, thick screwdriver that would snap out with a flick of his wrist. Pretty useful contraption down in Lunaris. His gut was telling him to just throw his luggage at one, kick another, and head-butt a third, then run out the door, but he restrained himself. That tactic might have been the most appropriate in the city, but he had a feeling it wouldn’t work as well in this little village.
He cursed inwardly. For all his experience as a street rat, he didn’t know how to behave here.
He glanced at the somber-faced men again and decided perhaps being friendly and using good manners might be the best way to start. He paused to collect his inner charlatan—he’d had plenty of experience with that—and took a deep breath.
“Good evening, gentlemen!” He beamed. “What a pleasant surprise to find such a, er, warm welcome in this lovely town of yours. Pray tell, would you happen to know where a fellow might find a hansom cab?”
His bright, cheerful tone echoed in the darkened room like inappropriate laughter at a funeral, and the cloaked men seemed to react with just as much disdain. Thick eyebrows furrowed, lips turned thin and severe, and mustaches trembled in outrage.
“We don’t like foreigners around here,” a gray-mustached man said, his forehead etched with deep wrinkles.
Thomas’s smile wobbled. “I’m not a foreigner. I come from the capital. I’m just a visitor.”
The men exchanged looks, and the man with the gray mustache continued. He seemed to be the leader of the pack.
“Well, we don’t like visitors, either.”
Thomas opened his mouth to say something else and found himself at a loss for words. He was quickly beginning to regret his rash decision of coming to Montrale unannounced and uninvited, and he wished he could be anywhere else. At this point he feared he wouldn’t even make it to Hastings’s house.
His silence seemed to spur the men on, and they started advancing again, raising their hands as if to grab him, probably toss him onto the tracks or something like that. He wondered if that was why he’d never heard of this town before. Did the villagers get rid of all its visitors and bury them in the woods or something?
He raised his arms, spreading the palm of his hand wide, trying to pacify them. “Look, gentlemen, why don’t you let me offer you a pint, and I’m sure we could all—”
Gray Mustache lifted his own hand, and the other men leaped forward. In a split second, Thomas flicked his hand to release the screwdriver, but he knew it was useless. There were too many of them, and he only had one hand, for God’s sake. He lashed out, striking a tall fellow on the cheek, but within seconds, he was being grabbed by a dozen hands, and lifted bodily off the floor.
“Wait! Stop! What the hell do you think—”
They stomped out onto the platform as one, carrying him as he thrashed and kicked in vain.
“What are we going to do with him?” one of the men asked.
“I know. Let’s tie him to the rail tracks!” a skinny scarecrow of a man piped up. The others giggled like schoolboys.
Oh, man. Thomas knew these kind of people. They were like the older kids living on the streets of Lunaris, who would chase after the younger, weaker ones to throw them in the sewers or push them around until they cried. Looked like people weren’t that different, even in a village lost in the mountains.
“Oh, come on. There won’t be another train coming for days,” Gray Mustache said. “What are we going to do, leave him there for everyone to see?”
“Well, yes. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?” the scarecrow replied.
A pudgy redhead shook his head. “No, let’s shove a rag in his mouth and toss him in the bushes. Nobody will ever know.”
They weren’t serious . . . were they? No, they couldn’t be serious. They were just playing a prank to frighten the newcomer.
“Hey, let me go!” Thomas twisted his shoulder, managing to yank his left arm free. “Are you kidding? I’m just here to—”
“Everybody stop,” a deep, rough voice bellowed from the station building.
The men froze, their gazes snapping to the door, like children caught elbow-deep in the marmalade.
A stocky dwarf was standing in the doorway, a storm of anger darkening his face. But it wasn’t his weatherworn, wrinkled face that attracted Thomas’s attention, nor his thick black beard or frayed stovepipe hat. It was the mechanical arm emerging from the cut sleeve of his coat—a heavy-looking contraption of tarnished brass reaching all the way to his elbow, the joint shielded by a black leather sheath, masking the point where it connected to the man’s dark skin.
Thomas’s lips parted. He’d never seen anything of the sort in the capital. Judging from it, maybe this Hastings character was exactly the person he needed after all.
“Mind your own business, Herman. We’re just having a little fun,” Gray Mustache tried, but he didn’t sound so confident anymore.
The dwarf snorted. “Fun is over. Put him down. Now.” He strode forward and forced his way through the gaggle of men, effortlessly shoving them out of the way with his mechanical arm. Then the hands holding Thomas let go almost at once, and he landed on the stone floor with an undignified ooph.
“Fuck,” he muttered. Instinctively, he made to brace his right palm on the floor to push himself up, and stopped himself in time, remembering to lean on his elbow instead of his stump. A pair of boots moved into his line of sight, stepping right beside him while everyone else backed off and, when Thomas glanced up, he saw that the dwarf’s eyes were fixed on Thomas’s right wrist. He fought the urge to jerk his arm back and hide it from sight, his face heating up. But the man’s eyes were filled with neither disgust nor sympathy, not even the morbid and disturbing curiosity he encountered all too often since the accident.
“You here to see Hastings, boy?” the dwarf asked.
Thomas swallowed and nodded. “I . . . Yes, sir. I am.”
The dwarf watched him for a few more seconds, then turned to the others and sharply raised his hand. “Back off and let us leave.”
“Come on, Herman, we were just playing around . . .” one of the men commented.
“I said back off now, before I tell Hastings you’re harassing one of his very rich customers, whose money and commissions could feed this village for months,” Herman growled, dramatically pointing at Thomas. He raised his chin, doing his best to look important and aristocratic, even though he was barely more than a bundle of rags on the floor. “Is that what you want? For Jethro to stop selling prosthetics, to go bankrupt and leave, so if your son’s arm stops working, Franz, there will be nobody to fix it? And if you, Evan, get silicosis in the mines you will die instead of getting your lungs fixed? Eh? Is that what you want?”
The men’s mouths clamped shut. They exchanged glances, shuffling from foot to foot, then reluctantly stepped back and waited in silence, their heads hung low. Except Gray Mustache, of course, who continued to shoot dark, mistrustful glances at Thomas.
Herman stared at Thomas and nodded sharply toward the door. “Come, boy. Let’s sort you out.”
Thomas pushed the screwdriver back in his sleeve and scrambled to his feet and followed him back into the building, picking up his luggage on the way. He cast a last glance toward the cloaked men. He was mostly relieved, but he was also tempted to throw a quip behind him. He thought better of it, though. They could still change their mind and tie him to the tracks.
Herman held the door open for him, and they both stepped out onto the street. “Thank you, sir,” Thomas said. “So you . . . you know Jethro Hastings?”
“Of course I do. Who doesn’t, around here?” The dwarf grunted, heading toward a handful of dark, rickety hansom cabs waiting by the other side of the station. They were old models and still had horses, not steam-powered like the ones Thomas was used to. His eyebrows rose. Considering this was where Jethro Hastings lived, well, he was expecting something more advanced.
But then again, maybe the man just focused on his miraculous prosthetics. Why on earth would he waste his talent on common toys like hansom carriages? Let the others handle things like that.
Curiosity was whirring in Thomas’s head. The inventor inside him was dying to take a closer look at Herman’s arm, to get an idea of what might be waiting for him in Hastings’s laboratory. Maybe it was his chance to get some more information, prepare himself a little better before he got there. “Excuse me, sir, if I may be so bold . . . I was just wondering, is that one of Jethro Hastings’s prosthet—”
The dwarf banged on the side of a carriage, resolutely ignoring and interrupting him at the same time. A grunt and a curse answered him, and a rumpled mass of brown hair appeared from the driver’s seat. “What?” the man slurred.
“You wouldn’t happen to be drinking again on the job, I hope,” Herman chastised the man in a stern voice.
The driver hurried to sit up, rummaging around to shove a mangled cap on his head. “No, sir. Most certainly not.”
Sure. And I’m prince regent, Thomas thought. He could smell the whiskey all the way from where he stood, as if the man had recently bathed in it.
“Take this young man to Hastings’s house,” Herman directed. “Now.”
For the first time, the driver craned his head to take a look at Thomas. He seemed very much unconvinced, much like the men inside the station. “But sir . . .”
“Now, Jens. Thank you.”
“Of course, sir. Right away, sir.”
And with that, he clicked his tongue and barked something to the horse. Herman nodded and turned to leave, without so much as a second glance at Thomas.
“Sir! I wanted to— I might be getting a mechanical hand too, and if I could just take a—”
The dwarf stopped and looked over his shoulder at Thomas. “Listen, boy, I said what I had to so they’d back off, but don’t get your hopes up. It’s true that people in this town don’t like strangers, and Hastings is no exception.”
Thomas opened and closed his mouth.
“Good luck.” The dwarf walked off, his mechanical arm gleaming under the few streetlights.
Thomas watched him go. Good Lord. What a welcome.
He sighed and put down his luggage in order to open the door, then laboriously maneuvered into the cab and dragged the luggage after him, not holding on to anything but keeping his head low to avoid hitting it on the ceiling. He’d barely shut the door behind him when the carriage started moving, the horse’s hooves clopping steadily on the cobblestones.
He let himself fall onto the seat, closing his eyes, repressing a sigh of relief at having gotten over that first hurdle.
What a strange place this is, indeed.
When he opened his eyes, he was startled so abruptly he almost banged his head against the low roof.
A giant pink plume vibrated with the movement of the carriage. It sat atop an impressively large pea-green hat, and under the hat sat what was quite possibly the strangest man Thomas had ever seen, and considering the fellows he routinely came across in Lunaris, that was quite a feat. He pressed back against the seat and looked at the man, silent for a moment. The man was a bundle of pea-green and pale-yellow rags covered in medals, pendants, and faded cockades, sporting that extravagant plumed hat and a scruffy blond beard. And he was staring right at Thomas with a vaguely sinister grin on his face.
“God. I . . . I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t see you there.” But how the hell had he missed him? He might have been tired and it might have been dark, but . . . Hell, he wasn’t that tired.
“Never mind. I do tend to go unnoticed most of the time,” the man said, scratching his beard. His sleeves were rolled up, and in the light seeping in from the windows, Thomas could see a smudged tattoo of a large black spider on his forearm.
Yeah, I’ll bet . . .
In such a small village, the guy had to stick out like a peacock among blackbirds.
“If I may . . . What are you doing here, exactly?” Thomas asked. As odd as the guy was, somehow he felt more at ease with him than the fellows at the station. It made him feel like he’d found a little bit of Lunaris even in this remote place.
“Why, I was waiting for you, of course.”
Thomas gaped but, before he could manage to speak, a grin slowly spread on the man’s lips. “I’m kidding. I just sneaked in to have a nap. Better than spending the night on the street, don’t you think?”
Thomas had spent his fair share of nights huddled on the floor of some alley, so he supposed it was a valid explanation. But there was something about the man’s grin, something cold and wolflike, that made him feel a different kind of discomfort.
“I see. We should, um, we should stop and let you off.” He was about to turn to bellow for the driver, but the guy raised his hand, which was covered in big, mismatched silver rings.
“And then what? I’m left stranded on the street in the cold? No thanks,” he said. “The driver will go back to the station anyway. I might as well enjoy the ride on these comfortable seats. And in your company, of course, sir.”
Thomas opened his mouth to reply, but he couldn’t think of a convincing reason to say no. Once again, though, while the stranger’s words sounded perfectly reasonable, his smile and his piercing aqua-green eyes were making Thomas’s nape prickle. He discreetly flexed his wrist, still holding the man’s gaze, feeling for the reassuring pressure of his hidden weapon.
He cast a quick glance out the window. It looked as though they had left the town and were now taking a narrow, winding path up a steep mountain. Even though he didn’t really relish the idea of having company right now—his every instinct was telling him to be wary of the guy—he couldn’t bring himself to leave the odd stranger in the middle of nowhere.
“So you’re going to see Jethro Hastings, are you?”
Thomas jumped again and looked down at his arm, mindful of his stump resting in plain sight on his knees. There probably weren’t many other reasons that would bring a stranger all the way to Montrale. “Yes. As a matter of fact, I am.”
The guy leaned back against the seat, crossing his legs. “You’re not the first one to require his services. Although, to be honest, his . . . customers are mostly local. How did you find out about him?”
Instinctively, Thomas reached into his pocket and brushed the paper again. The slip of paper that had started it all, that had led him all the way here to chase after one last ray of hope that might turn out to be nothing but a mirage. The strange note that had been delivered on his doorstep one week ago, in the middle of the night without a return address or any clue to identify who had sent it. He didn’t need to read it again; by now he knew it by heart.
Sorry to hear about your unfortunate accident. It has come to my attention that the esteemed Jethro Hastings, from the town of Montrale, is leading groundbreaking experiments involving mechanical prosthetics. I strongly encourage you to head there at once, for he is the only man on this Earth who might be able to help you.
Thomas had done his research, of course. He’d heard mention of that name before, so he’d consulted all his contacts in the scientific circle. They had confirmed that Mr. Hastings was an authority in the field—a skilled, if somewhat odd, inventor who lived holed up in a godforsaken village in the mountains. Rumor had it he was indeed an authority on prosthetic limbs, revolutionary implants that were far superior to the prosthetics commonly found in the capital. Hastings seemed to have isolated himself lately, however, and hadn’t been at a single conference in months. In fact, nobody Thomas had spoken to could remember the last time they’d seen him. He wouldn’t answer any correspondence, either. But still, it was a glimmer of hope, and Thomas was desperate. A train ticket was a small price to pay.
“He was . . . recommended to me,” Thomas said carefully.
The guy seemed to be eager to chat, even though that sinister smile still hadn’t faded from his lips. “Really? I wasn’t aware his prosthetics were known outside of Montrale. He seems to be quite keen on keeping it secret, at least for the moment.” The man rubbed his fingers over the tattoo on his forearm, drawing Thomas’s gaze to it. He blinked. It must have been the pale, trembling evening light, but it looked like the spider was wriggling its legs. “Whoever recommended him must be very knowledgeable.”
Thomas cleared his throat, fighting the urge to reach into his pocket and rub the note between his fingers. He wondered again who this F was that had sent him the letter. A few of his associates shared that initial but had denied any involvement. They had agreed, however, that the suggestion had been a wise one. And they certainly had known of Hastings. Clearly this man was uninformed. Regardless, Thomas wasn’t about to admit that he’d come all the way here because of an anonymous message. He felt foolish enough admitting it to himself, thank you very much.
“Yes, indeed,” was all Thomas said in response.
The stranger shrugged. “Anyway, you might have come all the way here for nothing. Mr. Hastings is very busy right now. I doubt he will have the time to help you.”
Cold spread through Thomas’s body, freezing him in place. “I— What do you mean?”
“Well . . .” The guy leaned forward, conspiratorially cupping his hand around the side of his mouth. “He’s working on some big project, you know. He hasn’t wanted it out, but he’s got a big event planned. Some kind of soiree ten days from now. He’s been inviting all sorts of fancy inventors from all over the country. He wants to reveal some revolutionary invention or other, and I hear he’s way, way behind on it.”
“Oh . . .” Thomas didn’t quite know how to reply. Of course, it stood to reason that Jethro Hastings would be a very busy man. Why would he have time to drop everything and help a stranger who came knocking on his door asking for one of his inventions? Thomas had chosen to ignore that line of thought. No, he’d stubbornly and determinedly ignored it as he’d rushed to buy his ticket and jumped on the first train before he had time to think it through fully and was forced to admit the many reasons why it had been a stupid, stupid idea. Once he was there, he would figure something out.
Or so he’d hoped . . .
“You seem disappointed. You in a hurry?”
“Well, yes. Pretty much.” Thomas was planning to leave it at that, but the guy’s piercing eyes were fixed on him, waiting for him to continue. So he sighed and let his head thump back against the seat. “I need to make a living, you know? I’m a toymaker. I need two hands to do that.”
“A toymaker? How delightful.” The man’s tone sounded anything but delighted. His voice reminded Thomas of a snake’s hissing. “So you make marionettes, wooden toys, and such, yes? There’s quite an industry here—”
Thomas groaned, stopping the man midsentence. Thomas had played out this conversation more times than he could count. “Not those kind of toys. Clockwork, mostly.”
“Oh?” The man’s eyebrows rose. “Well, I’m afraid you won’t have much luck here with that.”
“Well, neither would I in the capital, really.” Thomas snorted. At the man’s interrogative gaze, he raised his right wrist and shrugged. “I haven’t got a workshop anymore, and nobody wants to hire a toymaker with only one hand. So I’m afraid that until I get fixed, I am out of a job.”
Granted, there were other things he could have done. If all else failed, he could always join the crowd of crosswalk sweepers, mud larks, and petty thieves that inhabited Lunaris’s underbelly. But he had dedicated his entire life to his little clockwork machines. It was the only thing he’d ever wanted to do. It had taken him years to work up from assembling scrap metal on the streets and selling his little toys at the market to finally being able to open his own little workshop. And it had all disappeared in an instant.
He would get his hand back, and he would get back to work. It was the only option. There was nothing else for him.
“Well, I understand Hastings’s current work will be his priority now,” Thomas continued, swallowing the knot in his throat. “But I suppose he could have some time afterward . . .”
“I don’t think he’ll be able to do that, either. I hear he’ll be leaving the village.” The stranger’s smile was beginning to get on Thomas’s nerves now. As if he was making fun of Thomas, enjoying stringing him along, playing with his meager hopes. If the man kept smiling like that, some of those jingling silver bells attached to his clothes might end up lodged in his throat, instead.
“Surely after his invention is unveiled,” the man said, “he’ll be whisked away to present it all over the world. I don’t see how he would still have time to tinker with such trivial toys.”
Trivial toys? Heat flared through Thomas’s body. The prosthetic limb would change his life. It was nothing short of a miracle, and this guy was dismissing it? What the hell did he know about it, anyway?
Keep talking, fellow, and you’ll have to hike your way back to town.
“Why, you seem awfully well-informed. What are you, Mr. Hastings’s assistant?” Thomas asked, not quite able to keep the snark out of his voice. “So pray tell, what is this amazing invention he’s working on?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t know about that. I don’t understand technology stuff. I’m just a poor beggar.” The guy tilted his head, looking at Thomas with those infuriatingly cold, blue-green eyes. “But you and Jethro are colleagues of sorts. Maybe that will make him more inclined to help . . . After all, maybe you can return the favor, somehow. Help him with his work, stuff like that.”
That dampened Thomas’s rising temper a little. At least it seemed that the guy had gotten the hint that he had better back down.
“Or maybe you can just make him feel sorry for you by telling him your sad tale. I hear he’s quite sensitive. What happened to your hand?”
Then again, maybe not.
Thomas gritted his teeth at the stranger’s invasive question. And those eyes . . . those snake eyes of his were telling him it wasn’t an innocent question at all. He was trying to push Thomas’s buttons, wasn’t he?
For a moment, he considered punching him. Even with just one hand, he’d had enough experience fending for himself on the streets. He was fairly sure he could take the man. But the inside of a cramped carriage as it barreled along on the edge of a steep cliff didn’t seem like the best place to start a brawl, and he didn’t want to show up at Hastings’s place with a black eye or a bleeding lip, not to mention a passed-out beggar to explain. His chances with Hastings were slim enough as it was.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” he said at last. He crossed his arms over his chest, glaring right back at the stranger, determined to hold his gaze. Let him back down. And back down he did, although he did so while shaking his head and chuckling in a way that made the impulse to deck him almost irresistible.
If nothing else, it would be a good distraction from the memories that the man’s question had brought rushing to the forefront of his brain. He had no intention of thinking about that. He relived it often enough in his dreams and every time he looked at himself in the mirror. He didn’t want to remember what it had felt like rolling on the floor, screaming as the flames enveloped his right sleeve and the fire bit into his flesh, devouring his skin and . . .
He shook his head as his stomach twisted. No. He’d said he didn’t want to think about that. He had to focus on his impending meeting with Hastings. Now he needed the stranger to kindly keep quiet for the rest of the ride, as he seemed intentioned to do since he’d pulled his hat over his eyes and peacefully folded his hands over his stomach. Thomas took the opportunity to surreptitiously slip his hand in his pocket to rub the letter between his fingertips. He’d all but worn the paper thin. But it was all he had, his last hope of going back to who he was before.
He would do anything it took to persuade Jethro Hastings to help him. He’d sold everything he had left, which wasn’t much after his laboratory and equipment had been mostly destroyed. Even so, the cash he was hiding in his inner pocket was a pitifully small amount. He wasn’t sure how much one of the prosthetics might cost, but he was fairly sure it would be way beyond his means. But he could work for Hastings, doing . . . something. That had already been the plan, even before the stranger had mentioned it. Unless the beggar was right about Hastings being whisked away to tour the world, of course. So much for his hopes and dreams then.
The hansom cab shuddered to a stop. “We’re here,” the driver bellowed.
“Thank you, sir,” Thomas said, his voice wavering a bit as his nerves really started to set in. He had to get that under control before he met Hastings.
After a quick look at the stranger, who didn’t even budge, except for the pink plume on his hat gently moving up and down as he breathed, Thomas opened the door and glanced out. They were near the top of the mountain, nothing around but rocky cliffs and dark evergreen trees. They had stopped right in front of a large mansion with stained glass windows, the facade almost entirely covered in ivy. It was completely dark and silent, more than a little ominous. He repressed a shiver. It seemed abandoned, and even though it was barely past dinnertime, the darkness all around made him wish he’d waited until morning to go knock on Hastings’s door.
A second hansom was parked nearby, refined and apparently extremely expensive. It was a steam-powered one, with the driver seated in front with his eyes closed. Someone must be home.
Here we go, Thomas. Time to get this show on the road.
With a deep breath, he turned to collect his luggage and nearly fell backward out of the carriage. The stranger had apparently awoken, then moved quietly as a cat because he was now mere inches from Thomas, staring straight at him, that somewhat mocking expression on his face again. Thomas choked down a curse and very nearly head-butted him in the face to send him back.
The beggar’s lips curled up in the coldest smile Thomas had ever seen. “Good luck, toymaker. I’ll see you soon.”
Yeah. And next time you’ll walk away with a black eye.
Thomas backed out of the hansom cab, his eyes never leaving the stranger, ready to drop his luggage and whip out the screwdriver should he make any more sudden movements. Thomas had barely set foot on the ground when the beggar slammed the door shut behind him.
And here I thought I’d met enough strange people in Lunaris . . .
With a last suspicious glance at the door, Thomas paid the driver, then turned to look at the house, trying to clear his head from that strange encounter, and focus on not botching the upcoming conversation. His whole future depended on it.
Thomas stood on the doorstep, trying to gather the courage to ring the bell. He looked up at the large, dark mansion. He couldn’t see any lights on, and the facade, which must have been beautiful at some point, was all but crumbling to pieces close up. He wondered whether the hansom driver had played a trick on him and just dropped him at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe Hastings was already asleep, though that would have been a little absurd at the current hour. Anyway, Thomas was there now, and he certainly couldn’t spend the night camping in Jethro Hastings’s garden.
He tucked his hand in his pocket, nervously brushing the letter between his fingertips as if it were a magic amulet, trying to draw some strength from it. Just one more hurdle and he would get a new hand.
He could do this.
Thomas raised his unsteady hand, reaching for the doorbell rope . . .
And the door exploded in his face, flying off its hinges. It shattered into a spray of splinters as Thomas dived to the side, landing heavily on his elbow, rolling onto his back in time to see a blurred, metallic shape career out the doorway, tearing away the frame, leaving a jagged hole where the massive wooden door used to be.
Screams were coming from behind it, the sound of running footsteps as a woman shrieked and a man’s deep voice yelled from inside the house. “Come back! By Jove, somebody stop that thing!”
Thomas’s eyes went wide. It was a machine, an agglomeration of mechanical arms and pipes surrounding a rounded, steaming container, the vapors hissing furiously as it sprayed a jet of boiling hot liquid all around. Tea, judging by the scent. He scrabbled to his feet as the thing stopped, spinning around as if seeking a target for its fury. Then it seemed to focus on the elegant hansom parked nearby. It started toward it, and Thomas had a split second to take in the driver’s frightened eyes, the way the carriage was so close to the edge of the cliff, the size and impetus of the tea machine . . .
Without even thinking, Thomas sprang forward. With a flick of his wrist, the thick, sharp screwdriver snapped out of his sleeve, and he brandished it like a weapon, his brain spinning frantically as he assessed the tea maker. The brass boiler, the junctures, the coils of wire, mechanical limbs cutting the air, and right there, at the center of it was a steaming and shrieking valve, barely able to contain the pressure.
Right there. If I knock that valve off and let the steam out . . .
The tea maker raised up on its legs, aiming its boiling-hot jet at the carriage, and Thomas dove under it. He rolled, coming up below its belly, and he slammed his hand forward, the tip of the screwdriver hitting the base of the valve, knocking it off with surgical precision.
The effect was instantaneous. The machine stopped moving, the wheezing and hissing dissipating as it deflated. A spray of boiling steam erupted from the broken valve and missed Thomas by an inch, singing his eyebrows. He covered his head to protect himself should the machine fall on him, but the thing just slumped, folding in on itself and remaining still and silent, a last trickle of tea spilling all over Thomas’s clothes.
There was a moment of silence, then the shrieking resumed, coming from the plump, middle-aged woman who was running out of the shattered doorway in a flurry of green velvet. “This is outrageous! We will never buy such a devilish creature! We would never allow a thing like that in our home. You are nothing but a madman!”
A short man tottered after her, adjusting his monocle with pudgy hands, an expression of fascination on his face. He studied the slumped machine, completely ignoring Thomas underneath it. “But come on, Poopsy Doodles, darling, maybe we could—”
“Not another word! Get in this carriage right now, Hector, or God help me I’m leaving you here!” the woman yelled, wriggling to climb through the too-narrow door. Casting a dejected, apologetic look behind him, the husband followed suit, and within moments, the hansom came to life.
An olive-skinned man hurried out the door after them, adjusting his round, golden glasses on his thin nose, not even sparing a glance at the broken tea maker. Or to Thomas, who was still on the ground beneath it.
“Mr. and Mrs. Hildebrand,” the man called to the couple, “please don’t make any rash decisions, this was just a . . . a minor malfunction that I can assure you will never—”
The door was slammed in his face, and the woman shrieked something through the window—something that sounded like, “Over my dead body that thing will come in my house, you rascal!”—and the hansom took off at full steam, leaving the man standing there in his rumpled pinstripe trousers and vest. He scratched his head, then sighed and took off his crooked glasses. He wiped them with the hem of his button-down shirt, muttering a disconsolate, “What the hell.”
Meanwhile, Thomas had rolled out from under the machine, clothes soaked and tea dripping down his neck, and he’d been torn between examining the thing, and watching the scene that unfolded right before his eyes. Here he was with his dusty shoes, tea-soaked clothes, and his meager luggage resting small and lonely at his feet, anxiety and trepidation fluttering wildly in his stomach. When had this become his life?
The man noticed him then and turned toward him, wide-eyed. “Who the hell are you?”
For a moment, Thomas forgot he was supposed to ingratiate himself to this man and was about to snap back in kind, because his shirt was soaked and ruined and his hip hurt where he’d landed on the ground and, what the hell, a little gratitude, man. Why, there’s no need to thank me or anything . . . But he caught himself and took a deep breath . . . and a good look at the man while he was at it. He was young, probably just a few years older than Thomas. For all his ragged appearance, with those untidy clothes and messy black hair, he was a handsome man, tall and slender with olive skin and green eyes shimmering behind his glasses. If that was Hastings . . . well, he was a far cry from the old man Thomas had been expecting.
“My . . . my name is Thomas Escott, and you’re most welcome. Mr. Hastings, is it?”
The man opened his mouth, apparently intentioned to reply unkindly, finger already lifted midair. Then he deflated, turning meek much as his tea maker had done. He ruffled his curls with his hand, seeming suddenly very tired and fed up, something apologetic in his eyes. “I . . . You’re right. Thank you, Mr. Escott.” There was a moment of silence as he looked at Thomas, really looked at him for the first time. Instinctively, Thomas tried to hide his stump, suddenly painfully aware of his own ruined clothes and generally bedraggled appearance. “And I guess, um, if you’d like to come in and have a seat for a moment . . .”
Thomas glanced down at himself. He was soaked in tea, growing steadily cold in the night air, the sweet scent mixing with the smell of smoke he might never be able to wash out of the fabric now. “Why, that would be great. Lead the way.”
“So, Thomas . . . Is that right?” Jethro asked, taking a seat in front of him. He kept running his fingers through his unruly curls, pushing them away from his forehead. “Your presence here was providential. I really can’t thank you enough.”
They had dragged the broken machine inside and were now sitting in a small parlor, crammed with furniture covered in dusty blankets. Judging from the additional layer of dust and the spiders running around on the small table in front of him, Thomas was fairly sure that the room had not been used in years. Thomas was sitting somewhat uncomfortably on one of the stiff velvet armchairs, shivering in his soaked clothes.
“Well, I’m glad I could be of help,” he said, trying to keep his teeth from chattering in the cold room. He eyed the big marble fireplace, dark and empty along the wall, desperately wishing there was a nice, roaring fire he could warm up beside. His gaze fell on the slumped tea maker, awkwardly folded by the door. “Pretty dangerous contraption you’ve got there, Mr. Hastings.”
“Jethro, please. And really, it’s not supposed to be.” He shook his head, shooting a frustrated look at the thing. “My machines are not supposed to hurt people. This was just a . . . minor accident. A little malfunction, nothing more.”
Little malfunction? If you say so . . .
“Of course. I-I understand,” Thomas replied, and this time he couldn’t prevent himself from stammering when a shudder ran down his spine.
Jethro’s gaze snapped to his. The inventor pushed his glasses up his nose. “I’m sorry, would you like to change out of that sodden shirt? I’m sure I could find you something to wear.”
“Oh, I do have a few changes with me.” Thomas pointed at the luggage resting at his feet.
Jethro nodded. “Please do feel free. I would offer you some tea, but . . .”
Thomas snickered, getting up to unbutton his jacket, shrugging it off before dropping it on the armchair’s back. “Thank you, but I think I’ve had enough for tonight. Or we could always squeeze some out from my shirt.”
Jethro laughed at that, a rough, deep chuckle that sent a different kind of shiver up Thomas’s spine. He turned around and quickly undid the buttons of his shirt, hating the way the cold, wet fabric clung to his skin, the way it peeled away, and as he was pulling it off his right shoulder, he froze. He didn’t know whether Jethro was looking, but he suddenly felt a knot in his stomach at the thought of revealing the ruined skin of his shoulder and arm. In his haste to get out of his wet clothes, he’d forgotten about it for a moment.
He closed his eyes, hoping his hesitation wasn’t long enough to be noticeable, and inhaled deeply through his nose. After all, he would have to show Jethro, to let himself be examined, if he wanted to have a prosthetic implanted. Might as well let him see now. He supposed it was the best summary he could give of his reason for being there in the first place. And besides, Jethro must have seen plenty of people in similar conditions, Thomas tried to reassure himself. The inventor wouldn’t be horrified and disgusted by what he saw.
Even so, the thought of revealing his scars to the handsome man sitting at the table was unnerving. Thomas swallowed. He shouldn’t care about that. He was there with a precise goal, and he needed to stay focused on it.
The silence was heavy in the room, only the wet sounds of the shirt suctioning to his body as he pulled at the fabric. The air was cool on Thomas’s damp skin as he used his teeth to ease the sleeve past his hand, then folded the fabric over his arm and placed it on top of his jacket. He bent to retrieve another shirt from his luggage—this one a bit darkened on the sleeve—feeling exposed like he never had in his life. He could practically feel Jethro’s gaze on him now, and he closed his eyes, glad that the inventor couldn’t see his face as he laboriously slipped his fresh shirt on and buttoned it one-handed. Just another skill he’d mastered in the past five months.
“So,” Jethro said, his tone serious. “I get the feeling you were not accidentally passing by.”