Dirty Gears and Dirty Streets
Second preview for our first novel Thyre: City of Smoke and Shadow. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Jarret Renette, Seven Days Earlier
“The principles of electromagnetism and steam are perhaps the greatest discoveries of our time. Perhaps they are the greatest of all time. Now, the elements held solely in the purview of the Lord and nature are opened to the ingenuity of man. We are seeing a great upheaval of thought fueled by the revolutions of the cog and crank. Never has the destiny of man been so changed since the invention of the wheel.”
~ Alfred Patel at the Third Annual Academic Conference of Bélise
With a clap, Lieutenant Jarret Renette of the Queen’s Sixth Battalion slammed shut the pocket watch. It was impossible to shake the dogged anxiety. Not when he was so close to his destination and certainly not when he was already twenty minutes late.
Outside, a great crackle of electricity shot past the window and filled the air with the shock of its passing. The lingering flash echoed in Jarret’s eyes as he blinked the image from his mind. He sniffled at the smell of ozone as it wafted in from the cracked window. He would have shut it entirely but the heat emanating even this far from the engine would be suffocating.
To this is what I am returning, the young ex-soldier thought with a dry smile.
He could see the land outside. The view of the country offered little distraction from the jostling of the grand machine. The land, ostensibly famed for its lush greenery, was a brackish haze smeared across the bubbled pane. Small drops of rain pattered against the glass, causing once familiar beech trees to become twisted and deformed. They were the wracked, skeletal remains of a distant past that Jarret had nearly forgotten.
Jarret turned from the foreign countryside. He peered absently about his cabin, tired eyes drifting over the worn luggage shaking haphazardly upon the shelves overhead. The edges of those cases were frayed and stained with the grime of travel. Each rip and tear spoke a story – one filled with daring and adventure through the telling lips of unmended bullet holes. It was a life far removed from the trimmed morning coats and patterned ascots that they held. Wedged upon the polished brass shelves, those ratty cases were little rugged barbarians invading the pinnacle of refined society.
A cough from the other occupant stirred Jarret from his thoughts. It was a private cabin but, due to the excess of returning men, Jarret was required to share. Though he would have preferred the solitude – a commodity sorely lacking on the crowded ship – he could not find it within himself to say no.
But his fellow traveller hardly made an impression. The passenger still wore his military regalia, identifying him as a lieutenant of the Queen’s Cavalry. Furthermore, he occupied much of his time reading the local paper. It shook in his hands, though Jarret chanced to read the raised name – the Thyrian Chronicle. The front-page article covered, in exacting detail, a recent rash of thefts plaguing the city.
Curiosity led Jarret to browse the opening. After a cursory interview with a man by the dubious title of Grand Arcanist Loaghairne, the columnist proposed his own theory for the thefts: a secret cabal of sorcerers whisking the dining platters of the wealthy for use in disturbing but unknown rituals. Jarret expected to find mention of the Queen’s troops and the war waged for Empire and throne. But such business had already fallen from the interest of the world’s mightiest Empire.
The Lieutenant cleared his throat before folding the paper and tossing it to an empty seat. He regarded Jarret coolly.
It was hard to distinguish his age beneath the well groomed chops and moustache but he certainly was no more than a few years Jarret’s senior. Neither the cavalryman nor infantryman was familiar with the other. Jarret had only known a handful of the mounted troops and most of them did not returned with him.
“We must almost be there,” the Lieutenant spoke.
Jarret nodded, “That is my hope. It seems that even with these mighty inventions, public transport still fails to maintain decent promptness.”
“Punctuality: the lost art,” the cavalryman smiled. He leaned forward, extending a thin hand. “Lieutenant Remuel Bontflore of the Queen’s Third.”
Jarret grasped the man’s hand. Bontflore squeezed firmly – a trait common in the commanding officers.
“Are you on leave?”
Jarret shook his head, patting the head of the cane stretched across his lap.
It had become his closest companion over the long return home. Simple bands of silver reinforced its humble frame and a plain handle topped the polished rosewood. Only a subtle, weaving design etched around the top betrayed its foreign origin that valued small but exacting detail over obsession with progress in the face of propriety. It was the last souvenir Jarret obtained and was one he would keep with him for the rest of his life.
His companion gathered the meaning immediately.
“Forgive me. Most of the men I knew returning were either wrapped in bandages or born in boxes.”
“As were mine,” Jarret said. “I was fortunate that the offending bullet pierced clean through the flesh. Unfortunately, where the weapon failed the jungle succeeded. The physicians said the infection has been practically purged but the damage left shall be permanent.”
“So you were a member of the patrols?”
“Not exactly but we certainly passed through the jungle enough to feel as such. My detachment was entrusted with visiting the villages and ensuring the rebels found no safe haven there.”
“That must have been a most… difficult task. I confess I rarely left the cities as there were few places that accommodated the equestrians. If only we had been trained to ride those fearsome pachyderms like the locals.”
Jarret gave a smile that belied the tinge of horror he felt. Those beasts and their terrible march were impossible to forget.
“I heard stories of some rebels using the beasts in skirmishes. I can only imagine the courage needed to face down that foe.”
“Courage is a remarkable thing. In the moment, it is nearly indistinguishable from foolishness.”
Bontflore nodded. Another shock of electricity cackled, startling both men. They turned, bearing matching childish grins.
“I am certain we must be getting close,” Bontflore said.
Jarret forced himself to leave his pocket watch tucked away.
“I shall not miss this trip.”
“Nor I!” Bontflore laughed. But the smile quickly faded. “It almost pains me to think that the Empire plans to build these machines back there.”
“Considering the beasts they rode, this wouldn’t be as terrible.”
“Save for the smell.”
To accentuate Bontflore’s point, another cackle of electricity burnt ozone into the air.
“Will you miss it?” the lieutenant asked, following Jarret’s gaze towards the window.
Not an unexpected question, but it was one for which Jarret possessed no answer. He had been through much he had no desire to dwell upon again but for three years those jungles had been his life. The world he left behind was now the one that felt strangely foreign.
“I shall never forget it.”
“I often find my thoughts wandering those distant lands. I mean to say, so many months at sea will make any land appealing and while I loathed it while there, those boats forced me to reconsider the jungles with a touch more affection. And now, it seems all I do is try not to dwell on it. It’s been so long but I wonder if I felt this way when I left the isles.”
“There are things I missed,” Jarret said. “From both home and abroad.”
“Oh, truly. However, heading there carried the great sense of adventure. There was wonder and excitement over the unknown. But the return is so…”
“Terribly so. It is as if the Empire stood still while we were gone.” Bontflore laughed. “But yet, we say this upon the infamous Lighting Rail. This must be the recollections of world-weary sons.”
“I am sure, given enough time, we shall fall back into the familiar routines.”
“If I stay that long.”
“You plan to return?” Jarret asked.
It was Bontflore’s turn to regard the clouded window. His expression grew distant as if his eyes saw past the countryside and to another land.
“I don’t know if I have truly left. My dreams still carry their exotic aromas. Even the nightmares seem more real than this. I fear I left something behind. Something I must reclaim.”
Bontflore shook his head.
“I must sound like some love-struck poet. The truth is my return to Thyre will surely be limited. Arrangements with my trading partner back east are already made and I shall only oversee our business venture for a short time.
“But what of yourself? Are you happy to be returning?”
Jarret knew he should. But there was something familiar in his companion’s words.
“I, too, have some business to address in the city,” he said. “But I fear mine shall keep me for quite awhile longer. Regardless, I fear I am no longer in much shape for distant voyages.”
“Ah yes, the leg. She certainly left her mark on all of us, hasn’t she? That land was a wild mistress.”
“That she was.”
The car shook as it thundered along its rails. Gears screeched as metal ground metal. Between the bright shot of sparks, Jarret noticed the pastoral landscape slowly dissolve. A grand road now wove outside, connecting the growing collection of houses. Farms vanished and Jarret could see the dark, smoky bulk of the city looming in the distance.
The capital of the world’s greatest empire, Thyre, did not rise from the ground so much as erupted from it.
Enormous towers scraped the skies, belching thick clouds of dark smoke into the heavens. Two large escarpments rose on either side of the winding rivers running into the endless sea of steeple-roofed homes. Tall, ancient walls surrounded the old city, ineffectual in containing the sprawl. Those walls were legendary for holding back the barbarian hordes. And now, the city had accomplished what dozens of invaders could not.
One cliff-side of the city was covered in the expansive terraces and gardens of the aristocratic estates capping at the great golden domed palace. Across from it, its twin cliff was pock-marked with porous holes from the endless mining in its side. They were the scars of the never ending search for metals smelted and laid out across the old cobbled streets.
With reckless abandon, the train ploughed maddeningly toward that pile of steel and smoke.
A gurgled, disembodied voice crackled through the cabin as the engineer announced their arrival. With a great lurch the machine’s brakes deployed as a horrific scream – as if the metal beast were screeching its final breath – pierced through the entire cabin. Jarret slumped hard into the seat across from him as his cases crashed upon the floor.
Bontflore was quick with his assistance, retrieving Jarret’s cane and helping the soldier disentangle himself from the fallen luggage. Jarret could feel a flash of anger bite his face but he held back the urge to push the man away.
“We shall leave the trunks,” Jarret said curtly as Bontflore reached for the luggage, “we have almost arrived.”
The engine’s cry lasted the entire descent into the city as the last of the bent trees gave way to cobbled walls. At last the train rolled to a stop amidst a dock of stone and steel. Great cables hung from the girder-lined ceiling like the looping vines of a metal canopy.
Jarret waited until he was sure the machine had stopped before planting his cane heavily against the floor and clambouring to his feet. He turned his attention to the fallen cases, quickly inspecting his things to make sure they survived their fall.
The door shook open and a porter appeared, confused at the bags already waiting upon the floor. Jarret gave a beckoning nod before doffing a simple chimney-pot hat. He waited for the porter to bundle his things before turning to his companion.
“Perhaps we will see each other again, sir,” Bontflore smiled.
“A pleasure,” Jarret nodded. He paused. “Sir Jarret Renette. Perhaps you would be interested in stopping by my estate in the future?”
“Forgive me, I was not aware you were a lord,” Bontflore bowed.
“It is unimportant. We are both soldiers. And I dare say, I would not mind a comrade’s visit before he departs the city once again.”
Bontflore smiled, gathering his extravagant walking stick in his hands as he bowed the Lord out.
“I would like that very much.”
The hallway of the car was lightly carpeted and small brass lanterns jutted from the walls between the rowed cabins. The lanterns hissed at Jarret’s passage, the small flames waving their delighted farewell from the gas pumping through the inlaid pipes. Jarret could hear the raucous chatter of homesick boys and men finally returned.
Jarret pulled his pocket watch loose.
“We are near an hour late.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord, but the machinists are still working out the kinks. We apologize for any inconveniences while riding the Lightning Rail.”
“Have they considered the troubles this could cause the concerning gentleman?”
“Once again, sir, we offer our apologies,” the porter bowed. “But I would like to say that the trip from Dovern could nary be completed within two hours by either carriage or ship. It’s our hope this doesn’t impede your decision to travel with us in the future.”
“Well, it certainly would not be the only thing,” Jarret muttered.
They emerged from the machine and stepped down to the bustling platform. Jarret could feel the hairs on his neck tingle as he passed the energized hull. A footman was waiting to offer his hand and ensure no passenger mistakenly touched the metal. As if bidding farewell, the engine released one last great crackle of energy into the air. The blast struck the retaining rods bolted to the ceiling, discharging harmlessly above the heads of the gasping crowd in a great sheet of forking light.
The train was certainly an experience.
Officers in dusty uniforms shepherded the masses with brass whistles clutched in their teeth. The porter stood apprehensively by Jarret’s side as the gentleman peered about the faceless bodies moving past. Impatiently, he rubbed his sore thigh. The immobility of the journey had caused a terrible cramp to take hold of his leg.
It was just as his crest was falling that a friendly face emerged calling as he strolled forward.
“My word, has there ever been a more haggard visage of a half-dead phantom!”
He was a vibrant gentleman wearing a white wing-tipped shirt beneath a brazen double-breasted vest patterned in bright, swirling emerald and lavender. Great frills poked from the sleeves and collars held barely intact by a mauve cutaway tailcoat. White gloves and a simple black top hat finished the daring ensemble.
“The trip was quite different from that of my departure,” Jarret replied. The two young men embraced. “It is good to see you, sir Theodosius.”
“Ha, such formality is best saved for the unacquainted or the fawning! Come, we have long kept our correspondences during your foolhardy excursion to the wild, far-flung colonies. As I was when you left, still I remain your ever humble Theo.”
“Much has changed my friend but your new-found humility is something even I can not believe.”
“You wound me!” Theo gasped. The gentleman motioned for one of his servants to relieve the porter of his burden then beckoned Jarret through the crowd.
“Come, you must visit my estate at once. My curiosity over your journey will not be satiated until I bear witness to the great trophies of your excursion!”
“I fear I bear little that is worthy of attention,” Jarret confessed, his cane tapping rapidly to keep pace with his friend. “But surely our visitation can wait till after I have caught my breath at my own home?”
“Save such foolish talk. A strapping man like yourself has no need of rest! I simply must hear the story behind this keepsake.”
Theo lightly tapped Jarret’s cane.
Jarret grew quiet.
Theo sensed his companion’s hesitation and paused to examine the mighty Lightning Rail. Despite the lack of electricity, there was still a tangible charge in the air that caused travelers to give the engine a wide berth.
“What are your thoughts? I have yet to ride its magnificent interior. It is the first of its kind, as you undoubtedly know. Works off the principles of electromagnetism put forward by the top scholars of the Academy.”
“Quite the industrious empire we have.”
“Did you not enjoy your ride?”
“We heard tales of the wonder in the jungles,” Jarret related, leaning heavily on his cane. “The officers delighted in the advancements back home and spent many nights discussing the newest curiosities in our weekly rag. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I would have preferred the carriage.”
“Old-fashioned? My boy we are on the cusp of the future and Thyre shall lead the way into a glorious new age! This is a very exciting time for the empire.”
“If it is anything like the factories, I suspect it will be less glamourous than you imagine,” Jarret replied turning and continuing from the platform. “I would be quite pleased if I never saw that contraption again.”
Theo hurried after his friend. They emerged from the busy station to find a solitary carriage awaiting. Jarret’s belongings were already being loaded and the doorman gave a polite bow as the gentlemen approached.
Jarret looked about the street but there were no other persons to greet his arrival. Save for the carriage and the servants, only Theo remained.
“Is this it?”
“Ah, yes. My apologies but it seems your arrival was a touch untimely. I fear most are involved with a rather important ball at the ha Romonte’s family estate.”
“Their son has just returned from the Far East himself. It seems now is the homecoming of the city’s prodigal children.”
“It is always important to remind one’s self of his place,” Jarret said. He climbed as best he could into the carriage. “I presume, from your presence, your invitation was lost in the mail?”
“Dreadful system we have. It always seems my address is cursed by neglectfulness. I harbour suspicions that no service wishes to travel the length of my boulevard.”
“Ha! Of course. Well, if its length has not become too ungainly since my last visit, I would be delighted to travel such an unfathomable expanse.”
“Our course is settled then. I take it as my personal responsibility to remind you of all the finer things likely forgotten since trampling around your smelly wilderness. It would be my greatest failing if you are not once more overcome with your misplaced patriotism by the time I am finished.”
“Since when did you become an avid supporter of the monarchy?”
“Less Queen and Country, Jarret, it is the women and wine where my loyalty lies. They may be awfully pale, but I am sure they are sweeter than what could be found in your muddy adventures.”
“The women,” Jarret asked, “or the wine?”
“Both. To home!”
Thyre: City of Smoke and Shadow is available on Kindle or for online reading from all Amazon sites. Canadian customers can find the digital copy here: Thyre: City of Smoke and Shadow Kindle Edition
Paperback versions are also available but only from a limited number of Amazon sections. If you are in Canada, you’ll need to order from Amazon.com. If you’re in the United States then you don’t need to worry! Check it out: Thyre: City of Smoke and Shadow Paperback Edition