An excerpt from This Strange Engine by Philip Ligon
This way he spoke set off the voice in my head, which said to run. Their game grew tiresome. My arm throbbed, my head hurt, and I needed rest. Yes, even more than wanting to feel the magic in my blood or drinking Branagh’s Ale to excess, I needed rest.
He continued, oblivious to my physical ailments. “It might require killing this time. In fact, I am sure it will. Call it an assassination if you like.”
The words shot cold through my back, which settled at the base of my skull. I glared into the light, and the brightness made my eyes water. “I don’t kill. That line I refuse to cross. You know that.”
I had a sense that Mister Mercy was a smiling cat as he said, “Though we have never asked you to do so, you should have realized the extremes to which we can, and will, call you to service.”
“I won’t kill. I’m not an assassin. Thief? Yes. Murderer? No.”
I would not send a body to Saint James for a funeral. I would not subject his loved ones to such senseless loss.
Mister Important said, “Then you will have the third potion administered immediately. However, the choice is yours. Agree to this assignment and live. Refuse and die.”
To kill and live was no choice. It was a mandate to end Ash as I knew him. Many sins I committed, but of physical murder, I remained innocent.
The canon within me howled in anger and despair. Like Joseph, I should have fled and removed myself from the situation.
Yet no one could flee The Misters. No one escaped their justice. Those who tried always died horrible, violent deaths. Always. I might not be a murderer, but I was a coward. I was a thief. A quitter. A failure. Why else would I let myself fall into the trappings of my addiction?
So did it matter if I became a murderer, too?
Unease moved from my belly and into my throat like I swallowed a pint of lamp oil. I wanted to soak in a bath for days, and cleanse myself of The Misters, of my life.
Mister Mercy asked, “What is your decision, hmmm?” His tone was too eager, too full of self-satisfaction.
“I’ll do it,” I whispered so low I almost couldn’t hear my own words. Did I want to hear them?
“Was that an affirmative? Speak louder.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat, then growled, “Just tell me who I have to kill.”
Both men laughed. It was Mister Important who delivered the fatal words. “You will kill Aimee, your former wife.”
“Who?” I asked as I rubbed my left ear. An extra thumb jammed into it. “I thought you said Aimee.”
Mister Important continued with his gleeful tone. “Yes, our sources tell us she was chosen to transport the Head of Forneil to her employers. Such is its importance that if she fails, she dies. Therefore, she will not lose track of it unless she has either delivered it or met an untimely end while safeguarding it. What she will not do is give it over to the first gentleman to ask. Need I say more?” He sniffed as if already dismissing her. “A nice assignment, yes? You know your former wife’s habits and friends, her strengths, and weaknesses. What better assignment for you?”
He should have asked, “What worse assignment?” They just introduced new rules to their cruel game…unless they wanted to elicit a reaction from me, one worthy of death.
I asked, “You’re sure she possesses the Head? This is the same Aimee to whom we are referring?”
Though my insides roiled with anger, I tried to maintain a calm demeanor. Silently I yelled, “The banker’s assistant who has to account for every shilling and pence that comes through her ledgers? The same lady who wears dresses of a most exacting standard, who believes that a worthwhile evening is spent at an opera?
The same lady who dared to call my life a bore? Who wanted no part of it? Who rejected me? Who threw my love back in my face? Who said I neglected her for two years and convinced the magistrate to agree?
I took a calming breath, then said aloud, “Are you sure you have the correct person? She’s too involved in her sums and figures to concern herself with magic.”
Mister Mercy said, “Hmmm, and yet she is a member of The Gatherers. She has been for many, many years. At least ten we know of.”
Another chill ran through my arms and into my back. “No. She’s not—”
“Yes,” Mister Important said, “she is an active agent for them. And a fine actress she is, our dear Aimee.”
Not our dear Aimee. My dear Aimee.
No, Ash…don’t be a fool. She isn’t yours anymore – if she ever belonged to you at all.
Mister Important continued, “She was sixteen when she tried her first elixir and started down the path of developing the rather despicable habit of purchasing magic elixirs, the ones that let you forget all troubles. Did you not know that?”
That wasn’t correct. Mister Important was wrong. “Aimee told me she tried them once, but they confused her thoughts too much. She couldn’t stand to lose her ability to think clearly.”
Mister Mercy laughed. “She was an addict by the age of twenty, hmmm. She was one of those unlucky few who suffer the worst effects of the elixirs, the slow starvation, and lethargy. By the time she was twenty-one, she had reached her end.”
He was lying. He had to be! “No. She never—”
“The Gatherers saved her, much like we saved you. They introduced her to society and granted her a piece of land you were once the owner of. They also exploited her talents and beauty by placing her in a position where she could maintain an accounting of most of the money and wealth flowing through our dear city. Large withdrawals or deposits mean either blackmail or something valuable has exchanged hands. She could tip her masters and let them learn the nature of the transaction. If you are ignorant of these facts, then what else do you not know about your former wife?”
The accusation hung in the following silence. I wanted to yell, to tell them they were wrong. I knew Aimee like no one else. Did they know she slept on her right side? Or that she had such nightmares she often awoke twisted in sweat-soaked linens?
Did they know a ray of sunlight through a slit in the curtains made her smile?
Did they know she yelled and screamed when she was angry, especially if I dared to buy a bouquet for her without her approval? Because I spent coins not authorized by her accounting?
Aimee. My dear, beautiful Aimee.
But if they were right…
“Go,” Mister Mercy said with a tone expecting no further argument. “You have your assignment. The Head of Forneil will be brought to us in no more than two weeks.”
I said through clenched teeth, “You’re wrong about her.”
This Strange EngineBy Philip Ligon
Once a fine, upstanding member of society, Alexander Asherton has reached the low point of his life. Once he had prospects. A place in society. Once he had a beautiful wife. But that was before Aimee left him, before the explosion…and before magic. His promising future with the Church of England went up in flames with the explosion that wrecked his body.
Now he works for the cruel and mysterious Misters, who keep him awash in the magic he needs to feed his addiction. The magic he needs to live. His only comfort is that he doesn’t do wet work.
He’s a thief, not a murderer.
When they demand he assassinate his ex-wife and steal a dark magical item from the powerful and twisted Duke Schaever, he doesn’t have a choice. The Misters hold the key to his life…and to his death. But all he’s got left is that he isn’t a murderer.
Who is Ash really? A priest or a killer? An addict, or a hero?
And what is the strange and deadly merging of science and magic that serves the Duke?
Philip Ligon’s debut steampunk fantasy twists and turns through a dystopian, alternate Victorian England. Full of magic, elves, dragons, and betrayal, this book will satisfy the most avid fans of dark fantasy and twisted steam-powered machines.
Is Ash truly lost to addiction and darkness, or if he can become something more? Find out by reading This Strange Engine today.