Firebrand is a steampunk romance comedy of manners inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Angria novelettes, which includes war by means of teapot, kidnapping by means of airship, and the invention of the bustle. It made the 2012 Tiptree Award Honor List, and this is what the jury said about it:
‘Set in the steampunk era, this fun read shows women dealing with the restrictions of society on their way to gaining political and economic power and considers how definitions of “proper” behavior worked across cultural, class, and species’ boundaries.’
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Read the first chapter for free below:
“You’re not what I expected of a Bishop’s widow,” says the woman at the reception, with a thin smile.
“He wasn’t what I expected of a bishop,” I reply, and watch her smile turn brittle as sugar-icing as she turns away. Her broad skirts rustle around her. She’s off to share the latest shocking tale of the Widow Warner with the capital’s gossips. Well, it beats arguing with my stepdaughters. Or, as it has been lately, my stepdaughters’ lawyers.
Next to come puffing along the receiving line is one of those very lawyers. Hat like a steam-funnel, big black crape bow tied round his arm, sense of self-worth bubbling away like the boiler of the 8.47 Iron Gigant service from New Trinovantium to Eversham: he’s dressed as if he was attending a funeral rather than the reading of a will. It’s a pity he’s not: I would have liked to trip him into an open grave. I smile at him. That disconcerts him, but only for a moment.
“I don’t like to see a widow out and about so soon,” he says, the mournful old hypocrite. “And particularly since the occasion is, hem-hem, another bereavement…”
“I’m surprised to see you here, too,” I say coolly. “I wasn’t even aware you knew my mother.”
He didn’t. He’s just come for the gossip, like half of the people at the reception. And he’s followed by someone I like even less.
His name’s Bragaza Lockhart. I’ve known him since I was fourteen and he was a whining brat of five. I hated him back then, too. My sister Kassia once shut him in the coal-hole. We both got sent to bed with no supper, but it was worth it.
He smiles at me, all narrow shoulders and curly locks and eyes as old as sin.
“Kadia,” he says, taking my hand in both of his. His hands are slightly damp, even through his expensive kid gloves. “All my condolences. To lose a husband and then a mother, within the space of a year. So terrible for you.”
“They say these things come in threes,” I say and smile at him like I’m envisioning him in a casket, which I am. His eyes sweep up and down me from my bosom to my ankles, and he smirks and turns away.
After him come my stepdaughters, all five of them in new black satin, bought on credit. My credit, to be precise. I hope they find a way of paying their seamstress when they realise that I’m not going to do it for them. I smile charmingly at them all, from vinegary Adelaide down to sanctimonious little Judith, and have the satisfaction of seeing them fail to smile back.
Fortunately, the rest of the guests are easier to deal with. Ship-captains. Senior employees of my mother’s. A lady in a cuirass bodice with bronze ribbons which I covet deeply, and a smart winged pin on her lapel marking her as a member of the Worshipful Company of Ingeniirs. Wan-looking clerks. Tongue-tied burly men in their Sunday best, some of them with shards of genii-stone powering mechanical arms and legs.
I wonder if any warplings will come to the reception. My mother had dealings with them sometimes. She was one of the few who did.
My mother’s business partner Micah Ellrington holds down the other end of the line. He smiles mistily at everybody as if he’s genuinely grateful for their condolences. Maybe he is. He hasn’t had to spend the last twelve years being lectured about gratitude by a bishop.
The very last person to make her way down the receiving line is a lady entirely draped in black veils after the custom of Alvanda. It’s not quite a political gesture to wear the costume of a province that the Emperor has subdued and taken under his protection: not when such provinces number so many. But it’s odd, all the same.
I hold out my hand to her. “I’m afraid I don’t know your name, Mrs…”
“Mrs Laury,” she says in an unfamiliar whisper. And she lifts her veil, and it’s my sister Kassia.
My breath catches in my throat. I thought she was away from all this, aboard her airship the Islandia. I thought she was safe.
I let my breath out, slowly.
“Mrs Laury.” It’s the name of our nurse, from childhood. “Of course I should have known you. You must be tired from your journey.”
I beckon a footman. “Show Mrs Laury to my rooms and bring her some refreshment. Mrs Laury,” I explain to the gawpers. “She knew my mother better than I did.”
Which is, in almost every way, true. Kassia apprenticed herself to my mother’s engineering business: I got married when I was sixteen to the first man who asked me. After that turned out a disaster I lived alone in the Eastern States until I married the Bishop. That was a disaster, too.
The receiving-line breaks up. The currents and bubbles of conversation leave me uneasily alone. I don’t want to approach a group of people and risk having them sneer at me, so I compose my face and look at the paintings on the wood-panelled walls instead.
Most of them are pictures of airships. Two are not. One is a portrait of my mother. The other shows the Emperor standing casually at ease at the centre of a group of officers. I think it was a gift from him, long ago.
Bragaza Lockhart has stationed himself under the Emperor’s portrait. He did it on purpose, of course, so that people can look at the flashing brandy-brown eyes and dark curls of the Emperor in the portrait and then down at the man below, and draw their own conclusions. My conclusion is mostly that if Bragaza Lockhart found himself among that many men in uniform it’d be because of a court-martial.
For some reason, though, I find myself looking at the man standing at the Emperor’s right hand in the painting. John, Duke of Coranza. The Emperor’s childhood friend. The reason, so they say, why Coranza is the only province that that Zashera – the Emperor – has not yet decided to take under his personal protection.
He’d always been there in the portrait, his arm round the imperial shoulder, and yet I’d never noticed him before. I notice now. Thick brown hair, blue eyes, tanned skin, all of those things fade into the background beside the flamboyant beauty of the Emperor in his youth.
And yet he’s taller than Zashera and his shoulders are broader. I never noticed that before. I wonder why I notice it now. I suppose it’s because looking at a man in a portrait painted fifteen years ago is easier than meeting the eyes of anyone here in this room.
It’s certainly easier than looking at the portrait of my mother. I hope she hasn’t used her Will to say something truly unanswerable about my conduct over the years. If she has, I probably deserved it.
Bragaza Lockhart is talking to his mother, a lady in tight black velvet who is rumoured to have turned to God after Zashera forsook her. From all I’ve heard of Zashera, even if God was at his heathen-smiting worst He must have come as a relief. They are joined by a man I don’t recognise. He’s tall, with greying side-whiskers that almost meet his high shirt-points, and a bland face in between.
Well, mostly bland. Apart from the eyes like staring down the business end of a riveting gun. I feel a sort of shock as he looks at me. I look back with a mild lack of attentiveness. Having to sit through the Bishop’s interminable sermons taught me some useful skills.
Micah comes over to see me to my chair. I tuck my hand gratefully into the broadcloth crook of his arm. He doesn’t mind that I’m only paying attention to half of what he says: he thinks it’s grief.
Which it is, in part. I can feel grief dulling the edge of my senses. I know that it’ll be there for the rest of my life, ready to rise up and meet me whenever I think of my mother and she’s not there. But I can’t give in to it now.
It’s especially hard not to think of her here. This is the main receiving-room at the top of her offices. It was built to impress clients, with its gilded panels and its floor inlaid with a marble map of the Home Archipelago.
A scale model of the Islandia, my mother’s first great creation, hangs above the throng; all delicate bronze warp-vanes and long sinuous hull, it looks like a creature brought up from the depths of the sea. I look up out of habit to see whether anyone’s dusted it lately.
Micah settles me into a small gilt chair and gives me a handkerchief, and then takes himself off with a half-smile to sit in the second row with his wife and his prosperous growing family.
Late afternoon sunlight glitters through the windows, giving me a fine aerial vista of New Trinovantium, the city by the Bay of Glass. The sun flashes off the roof of the Imperial Palace, and picks up the green of the trees that mark the broad radial lines of the boulevards.
This is a new city, younger than my grandparents. A cuckoo city, built on terrain reclaimed from the warplands by the Emperor’s father. A rapacious city, that swallows the tribute its armies bring, and demands more.
And tethered above it all, ready to take flight, is my mother’s last creation, the Concordia. It’s the greatest airship the Empire has ever seen. The brassy reflection of the sunlight on its wings is almost too painfully bright to look at. Its vanes sweep proudly back, ready for flight. Its broad sternpost is painted with the coat of arms of my mother’s company: if that painting were hung from this building, it would cover it from roof to street.
The chatter dies down to a dull murmur as people sit down. I don’t try to pick out the words. I don’t want to hear anything these people have to say about me. I look at the airship instead, and it looks like freedom.
One of my mother’s lawyers rises to her feet. I can’t remember her name. I know it’s Martha something, but Martha what escapes me. She dusts down her businesslike grey-striped bombazine skirts and glides to the front of the room. She is followed by a clergyman whom I don’t know. He has limp whiskers that droop down over his collar and he looks as if he disapproves of me.
The clergyman reads a preliminary address concerning the First Emperor’s original arrival on these shores as a shipwrecked lieutenant of marines with eleven companions: his struggles with the warplings: the discovery of the processes of ingeniiring which allowed the lands that are now the Empire to be cleared and made fit for habitation, and finally to the proclamation of independence that was made nearly fifty years ago.
There’s a stir of excitement which makes me think that the rest of the room finds the account of the Emperor’s adventures more interested than I do. That or they’re excited by the clergyman, though I really can’t see why. Someone in the row behind me whispers that it’s customary for a loyal address to the Emperor to be made when the will includes a bequest to him, which probably explains it.
I suppose my mother left him the Concordia. It would be the prudent thing to do. I hope she’s done it in a way that means he has to pay the costs of its construction. I look out of the window at the ship, and I think, you deserve better, you beautiful thing.
The clergyman bows, and introduces the lawyer. The lawyer bows in her turn, and makes bowing in a crinoline look like nothing out of the ordinary, which is a skill I admire. I always admire skills I don’t possess.
She begins her opening remarks. I speak lawyerese better now than I did when I first encountered the Bishop’s machinations, and I can tell that none of this is of any consequence.
I look at the portrait of my mother hanging behind the clergyman, and I miss her so much that my heart squeezes in my chest. I hope that she forgave me. But mostly, I’m thinking about my sister Kassia, and wondering why she’s hiding in my rooms disguised as an Alvantine refugee.
“I, Melika Islandia, being of sound mind and body…” says Martha whateverhernameis. Her voice is nothing like my mother’s. I feel ridiculously angry with her for saying she’s Melika Islandia, when the world will never have Melika Islandia in it again.
The business goes to Micah Ellrington. It’s fair, because he’s been the mainstay of the firm for the last ten years. Her library goes to Micah’s mother, whom I always called Aunt Zoraide, though she wasn’t any relation. Her pearls go to Kassia. Her emeralds, to me. I hadn’t expected that. She left her prayerbook to Bragaza Lockhart’s mother, which causes a nervous ripple of laughter around the room.
There’s a whole lot of legal stuff concerning the Islandia, which mostly seems to be my mother making Kassia’s ownership of it airtight. My mother gave Kassia and her husband Philip Stockton a life interest in the Islandia soon after they married. It’s theirs for good now.
Then come a lot of small bequests. So many ingeniirs and fitter-trimmers and clerks, each receiving a hundred or five hundred or a thousand imperials – I’m glad she thought of them all, because if it was up to me to sort out the various claims on her posthumous charity, it would never have got done. I don’t know half these people.
I stop listening, and my eyes drift over to the portrait of the Emperor and his officers again. I look at the Duke of Coranza as he was fifteen years ago. I wonder why my eyes were drawn to that particular tall, clean-limbed figure in the Empire’s dark blue uniform.
And then I know. It’s because among all the knowing-eyed men and sprawling dandies in the portrait, he alone looks clean.
Not clean in the body: I know what long campaigns can do, and it’s almost as bad as persistent coal smoke. Clean in the soul.
And even though it’s probably just a trick of the painter’s brush, I’m grateful, because through all the long days of my second marriage and the disastrous days of my first, the one thing I never felt was clean.
Martha Thingummy is looking at me. I sit up and pay attention.
“… my airship, yard number IL025, familiarly known as Concordia, being the ship lying on the first day of the year 68 of the New Trinovantine Empire in berth 01 at Godspeed Memorial Dock, I give and bequeath to my daughter Kadia Islandia known as Kadia Warner, absolutely free of all tax, duties, impositions, and charges…”
I hear a thump and a lot of twittering from behind me. My guess is that one of my stepdaughters has fainted. I don’t know why it took them so long to react. Perhaps one of them has a morbid fear of duties, impositions or charges.
I stare out of the window at the airship.
My airship. A giddy joy uncurls itself inside of me, like the first shoots of spring pushing through icy ground.
It’s mine. Mine, from the soaring tip of its prow to the last jot of gold paint on the keel. Cordage, fittings, port-holes, glassage, hatch-covers, customary appurtenances – whatever those are – mine.
And it means that at the end, my mother forgave me.
Judith, the youngest of my stepdaughters, has burst into snuffling tears and is imploring people to take care of her sister. I’m still not sure which sister it is. I make a bet with myself that it’s Adelaide, the eldest and the one I like least, and I look round to see if I’m right.
It’s not Adelaide. It’s Harriet. Thinking about it, I like Harriet even less: she was the one who took great delight in censoring my letters.
As I turn back, I catch the eye of the man with the starched shirt-points who was talking to Bragaza Lockhart earlier. He is sitting behind me, and staring straight at me: I’m surprised his eyes haven’t drilled bloody holes in my back.
His face isn’t as bland as I’d thought. There’s a scar, curling its way down from behind one ear, that makes him look like a man who’s spent time in the warplands. As I look at him, he manufactures a wholly insincere look of grief.
I catch sight of the small star of the Order of Zashera that glitters on the fine dark cloth of his coat. If the Bishop had had a coat like that, he’d have worn it till the seams were shiny and then tossed it to Adelaide to have the collar turned and the tails cut off to make new cuffs. He’s one of the Emperor’s men. And I’m in danger.
I turn back and sit with my hands primly folded in my lap. I try to pay attention to the legal phrasing, but my thoughts keep breaking away. It’s good to know that my mother thought about what might happen if I was declared bankrupt or insane, or if the Concordia was seized to cover mooring fees, but I can’t think of any of that now.
The lawyer is coming to the end of the will. She clears her throat. She looks nervous, which I wouldn’t have believed was an expression that was in her repertoire.
“… to the Emperor Richard Augustus Valerian the second, commonly known as Duke of Zashera, I give the sum of one decimperial and my best wishes, knowing that he will value both to the same degree,” she reads, tonelessly.
This time it really is Adelaide who faints, with a noise like a cane chair breaking. I didn’t inherit the chairs, so if she has broken one it’s not my problem. As for whether she’s broken her neck, that was never my problem, no matter what she might think.
The residue of the money is to be shared equally between Kassia, Micah, the Charitable Hospital for Aerotime Orphans and myself. No one bothers to faint over that.
I look out of the window at the airship. The sun is setting in the sky, and turning the Concordia to shadows and brass and gold.
I have what Zashera wants, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to get rid of him as easily as Bragaza Lockhart’s mother did.
I have the Concordia. I also have money. So does Kassia, and I only hope whatever trouble she’s in is the kind that money can solve.
One way or another, I’m about to find out.
Copyright © 2012 Ankaret Wells.