Black Powder, Black Magic

As promised, here are the first pages from the novel that I’m current working on — several of you expressed interest, so I’ll be posting occasional excerpts as I work.

Without further ado:

Chapter One

The rope snapped taut.

His neck didn’t break.

In the end, Mercy was as conspicuously absent from the Prisoner’s death as it had been during his life. No sudden snap and enveloping darkness for him, but rather the seeming eternity of strangulation as his feet danced an involuntary jig for the amusement of the rabble gathered at the scaffold outside of the prison. This passed as entertainment for them – entertainment and an object lesson, which is why the authorities allowed it. It kept the population in line. Let them be witness to the wages of sin.

With the odd sense of detachment that comes with the certainty of death, the Prisoner found himself noticing the rough pressure of the hemp rope on the hinge of his jaw and behind his ears, rather than any sense of suffocation. It was simply that he could not breathe, and that fact struck him as a given and hence not worthy of further notice. His vision began to darken at the edges—a narrowing circle of clarity made him feel as if he was surveying the jeering and clamoring crowd through a spyglass. The violent swinging of his body from the rope recalled the pitching of a rolling deck easily enough, and the soft rain, which had been falling on London since yesterday evening, provided a constant mist in his face, completing the illusion.

Despite the rain, a large crowd had assembled. A small thing like weather would not deter the throng from their provided dose of Bread and Circuses. Vendors hawked meat pies and other confections, and the owners of nearby shops and inns sold tickets for choice seating in upper-storey windows, upon rooftops and specially-made platforms to better view the day’s proceedings.

As the Prisoner swung, the faces of the crowd began to lose distinction for him, one face blurring into another: an old woman spitting, a young man cheering, a little girl more engrossed in the hair of her doll than the pageant of life and death displayed before her. He saw, with a clarity that seemed out of place, a pickpocket cutting purses and lifting watches from the crowd, whose rapt attention was held elsewhere. Life went on, but he was slowly sliding off its surface, like a raindrop on leaded glass.

Around him, other criminals were meeting their ends, which the Crown and the crowd alike would call Just. Those few that were lucky enough to have friends or family with the means for bribery were given a quick death, the hangman grabbing their swinging bodies and throwing his weight onto them, the extra force sufficient to break their necks and end their suffering. The Prisoner, however, had no such friends.

Flashes of colored light swarmed at the edges of his vision, like fireflies in a summer field. He could hear nothing of the din of the crowd, nothing of the hoarse croaking of his own death-rattle—the only sound was the tidal rush of the blood pounding in his temples, vainly trying to deliver oxygen that simply wasn’t there. A liquid noise, like waves lapping against the wooden sides of a boat.

He found his sight drawn to a man in the crowd, standing alone as he lit an ornately carved pipe, a gaudy affectation which seemed out of place against the man’s severe clothing. Clad in an immense dark greatcoat whose edges were blurred by the mists, the man stood within the throng of people, and yet apart from them, looking to the Prisoner’s dying eyes like a vision of the Reaper himself. The man’s sharp features glowed slightly as he lifted a wooden match to the intricately crafted ivory bowl of the pipe, his eyes locked upon those of the Prisoner. The Dark Man lit his pipe.

The embers within the pipe’s bowl flared as the Dark Man inhaled. With a sudden rush, the Prisoner felt himself drawn towards the glow, reaching outward from himself. He teetered at the lip of the bowl, like dancing on a volcano’s edge, feeling the heat from below. Just as suddenly, the man exhaled, and the Prisoner felt himself back within his body, the tight rope around his throat and the pulsing of blood in his ears slowing. The reemergence of the pain, palpable by its momentary absence, made the Prisoner cry out, but all he could manage against the inexorable pressure of the rope were a few soundless gasps, his mouth gaping.

Again the Dark Man inhaled, and again the Prisoner felt himself rush outward, towards the smoldering hollow of the carved pipe. The heaviness of his body was instantly removed, and he soared over the heads of the cheering crowd, to again waver precariously at the edge of surrender. So easy to fall, the Prisoner thought. To fall into the embers, never again to return to that ruined shell upon the scaffold….to fall, and to be consumed.

He closed his eyes — his true eyes, not the flesh which by now must have been bulging from their sockets as his body swung from the gibbet. He could feel the warmth of the embers below him. There was no conscious decision—he allowed himself to fall silently towards the heat.

Then he heard the music.

It was very faint at first, a crystalline chiming carried by the wind. An intricate, mathematical sound, phrases within phrases, which turned his attention away from the heat, the embers, the pipe and the Dark Man who wielded it. It wove through the air, turning this way and that, a dancing lattice of sound, which the Prisoner could almost see, winding through the crowd like a pathway.

He followed that path, moving away from the Dark Man and his pipe, feeling the urgent pull behind him as the embers flared again, the Dark Man inhaling sharply in a last effort to ensnare him. There, on the other side of the crowd, he discovered the source of the music. A musical snuff box, the kind that played a clockwork tune upon opening its lid, sat open in the hand of a man seated at a table in front of an inn.

The spot was a horrible one for viewing – the crowd prevented a clear view of the hanging from that angle, but the man was not watching the hanging. To the Prisoner’s astonishment, the man, bedecked in a dandy’s finery and sipping casually from a glass of port, was watching him. Not his body, swinging with the others from the hangman’s nooses, but him – the space that he currently occupied, as he approached the chiming snuff box in the man’s left hand. The man could see him.

Wariness came too late, as the Prisoner found that he could not draw back from the snuff box. The music enveloped him as sure as a fisherman’s net. He tried in vain to struggle, only to realize that the jerking movements that he felt were those of his body’s final death throes. With a final vertiginous rush, he felt himself fall towards the winding gears of the clockworks, before the dandy snapped the lid of the snuff box closed, and everything was swallowed up by an instant and irrefutable darkness.

* * *

A howling flood of stimuli assaulted every one of the Prisoner’s senses at once. Light poured into his eyes, stabbing deep into his brain, and squeezing his eyelids shut only cut the sensation in half. His nostrils were filled with a coppery mix of acrid chemicals and smoke, and beneath that, the musky odor of horseflesh and straw, the sudden strength of those smells forcing their way into his head making him reel. His ears were filled with a world of sounds, deafening in their sudden manifestation from the total silence that had enveloped him.

A man’s voice separated itself from the overwhelming confusion, and insinuated itself, calmly, into the Prisoner’s ear: “Your name is Nathaniel. Nathaniel Blake.”

The Prisoner felt something shift within his mind, like the rotation of lenses in a spyglass drawing objects into focus. Blake. Yes, that’s right. Blake. The world realigned itself around this new information, and locked into place. Blake opened his eyes again.

He lay, naked, upon a rough wooden table. His skin was damp, and burned slightly. Nearby, containers of strange, bubbling liquids gave off foul fumes which gave little clue to their contents, beyond a certain alchemical toxicity, and the smell which rose from his own body gave testament to the source of his burning skin.

A series of copper wires were inserted into his flesh, at the thighs, chest and temples. The wires ran to a device placed near the table—an arcane construction of wheels and levers and glass tubes, whose purpose or function was beyond anything in Blake’s experience. Any pain from the penetration of the wires was infinitesimal to the agony of his hanging, but the revulsion he felt…the sense of violation…crept up from the cold depths like some antediluvian creature, and coiled around his shuddering heart.

The dandy from the inn stood over him, and began to remove the wires. Enraged, Blake grasped at the man violently, striking out in feral, instinctual rage, but his muscles leapt outward with almost no control. His hands impacted uselessly against the dandy’s chest, easily brushed aside. Blake redoubled his efforts, flailing away at his tormentor, only to throw himself off balance, toppling him from the table to the straw covered floor. He felt several of the wires rip free, and the smell of old feed and horses rose into Blake’s nostrils as he hit the ground. A stable, he realized. We’re in a stable.

“What—“ Blake tried to speak, only to feel his throat ignite in raw agony which nearly drove the air from his lungs. The voice that crawled from his ruined throat was a rasping croak.

“Don’t try to speak. Your throat isn’t quite up to it yet, old boy,” the dandy said, placing his arms beneath Blake’s and gently lifting him to a sitting position at the edge of the table. “To be expected, I would think, given that you were hung.” He quickly removed the remaining wires from Blake’s flesh.

Blake gritted his teeth, braced for the pain, and spoke again. “Who—“

The dandy held up one delicate, slim-fingered hand to interrupt. “Please. No speaking for at least the next two hours, or your voice will never return.” He threw a rough horse blanket over Blake’s shoulders, and began to dry away the remnants of the foul liquids on his skin.

“I suspect that you have a great many questions,” the dandy said. “I will tell you, although I’m sure you won’t understand a single whit of it.” He rose and tossed a carpet bag on the table next to Blake.

“There are clothes in there. Put them on. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us tonight, and plenty of time to answer your questions along the way.” He stood back, impatient.

Blake didn’t move. His mind was still trying to get its bearings. He knew who he was, and he had at least the most basic idea of where he was. However, no matter how hard he tried, he could not recall anything of his life before dropping from the scaffold on the hangman’s rope. He looked at the dandy, suspicion in his eyes.

“Not going to move until you have more information…I see.” The dandy smiled slightly. “Very well.”

“Your name is Nathaniel Blake. You were condemned, imprisoned, and finally hung by the neck until dead. You have been revived via the Ingolstadt Process. I have the singular honor of being Doctor Samuel Arthur Love—who, with my not-inconsiderable skills, has snatched you from the very jaws of not only Death, but Bonaparte as well—and I am here as a representative of the Ministry, to whom you now owe your livelihood, your allegiance and your life.”

Blake managed a slight whisper. “The ministry of what?”

Love smiled coldly. “My dear boy, we’re not the “ministry of” anything. Our portfolio is infinite. We are The Ministry…the Definitive Article, you might say. Now get dressed.”

3 Replies to “Black Powder, Black Magic”

  1. If you offered a broader explanation of the plot earlier, I missed it. I’m sensing something along the lines of a Victorian-era La Femme Nikita. Very cool indeed.

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