Adelaide, 22 February 2019
Hi, one and all.
My name is Nicki, and I am thrilled to share with you my historical, paranormal romance, cogpunk novel For the Devil a Crown.
This is a sixteen-chapter work which I will be releasing as a serial--one new chapter every fortnight between March and September 2019.
Check back each Saturday-fortnight for a new installment. Or, if you think you're likely to forget, follow me on Twitter, as I will announce the posting of each new chapter there.
The first chapter will go live on Saturday 2 March, so I hope you'll all join me then.
Nicki J. Markus
A mechanist's daughter
A haunted spy
And a malevolent force that threatens all
Clara, only child of Royal Mechanist Sir Miles Corvington, is not a young woman prone to jitters. However, she will need to draw on all her skill and fortitude in the dark days ahead.
Aided by the enigmatic but haunted Eldon Finch, she must find a way to combat the malevolent forces that threaten not only the queen but the entire world... before it's too late.
Who followed her she couldn’t say, but every instinct prompted her to flee. So run she did. She made a sharp turn, out of the small laneway and onto The Strand. Passersby protested as she swerved around them, but she did not slow her pace, moving as fast as feet and skirts allowed. A few bystanders would not deter her pursuer. She was uncertain how she knew this; however, the assertion rang with the clarity of truth inside her head. She had to keep running until she reached a place of safety. At present, that was her only goal.
Her breath came in sharp gasps as her corset restricted her lung capacity, the boning digging into her skin with every inhale. Her skirts, too, hampered her movement, the crinoline violently swaying, so she hoisted them higher, no longer caring how much of her lower legs she displayed. When she risked a glance behind her, she stumbled. Regaining her footing, she cursed her stupidity. What had she expected to see? Her pursuer was yet to reveal himself. For now her focus should be on finding sanctuary.
St Pauls came into view ahead: a pale beacon amidst the blacks and greys of the soot-choked city streets. The clockwork angel atop the dome appeared in flashes of gold through the shifting smog, providing a landmark visible for miles around, shining through the gloom, fulfilling its purpose. As she peered upward, she saw its arms and wings twist in the familiar pattern, preparing to strike the hour. A little farther and she would be safe inside. She had never been much of believer, but it seemed unlikely her pursuer would follow her into the cathedral, so she quickened her pace in an effort to reach the confines of its walls.
She made it to the first of the steps as the bell struck. She scurried up them, eyes fixed on the doors, but in her haste her heel caught on her hoop and she plummeted. She flung out her hands, squeezed her eyes shut and braced for impact. However, she never hit the ground.
Someone wound an arm about her waist and pulled her forward. Up the steps they went, the action so fast she could scarce register the movement. Then they stopped and her new companion released her.
That her saviour was a man came as no surprise, for his firm grip around her torso and his strength in lifting her had already attested as much. She tried to meet his gaze, and for a brief second, she thought she saw a flash of red. It was gone the instant she perceived it, though, and she attributed the sight to an overactive imagination following her fright. The brim of his top hat cast a shadow over his face and he further obscured his features when he reached to tilt it in a respectful greeting. It was that polite action which belatedly reminded Clara of her manners.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, inclining her head. “So clumsy of me.” She adjusted her skirts, relieved to find her attire mostly in order. When she looked up again, her rescuer had stepped away and now stood in the shadows to her right. She could make out his tall, slim form but little else.
“Hardly. If I may be so bold, I would venture to surmise that any lady is liable to move without her usual grace and poise when being pursued.”
“You saw my assailant?” At this reminder of the reason for her flight, her heart, which had started to slow, returned to an elevated state. “Who was it and where did he go?” She peered down the steps, but seeing nothing unexpected—only people going about their business, walking fast to combat the chill wind—she calmed her breathing.
“A well-bred young lady such as yourself should think twice before walking the streets alone, especially when evening approaches. Dark things lurk in dark places.” She sensed his close scrutiny when he paused. “For now, however, you are safe. Your attacker will not return.”
Her fear was gone, for, indeed, she no longer sensed the strange malevolence that had set her running. In its place was a burgeoning curiosity. Her rescuer appeared to know many things and she had ever possessed an inquisitive mind. The thought occurred to her that he may have been her pursuer, but she dismissed it at once. It seemed unlikely, and he had done nothing to arouse her suspicions. Doubtless he only intended to comfort her. Nevertheless....
“How can you know that?”
“I have some experience in these matters.” There was a faint touch of humour in his tone, along with something else she couldn’t name. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on my way.” He bowed and turned.
His decision to leave without offering to escort her home or even hail her a carriage seemed in marked contrast to his otherwise-gentlemanly behaviour and it made her all the more determined to learn his identity.
“Wait,” she called after him, a little louder than would be deemed proper.
He halted and glanced back over his shoulder but remained silent.
“I don’t yet know your name.”
He shook his head as he turned to face her once more. “That’s unimportant.”
“It matters to me.” She stepped toward him. “You helped me, sir. At the very least let me thank you properly, by name.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before he said, “Finch.” He retreated backward into the darkness. “Mr Eldon Finch. At your service.”
“Well, thank you, Mr Finch. My name is—”
“Miss Clara Corvington. Only child of Sir Miles Corvington, Royal Mechanist.”
“How do you—”
The sound of thumping footsteps, fast approaching, made her glance away. It was naught but two small urchins playing chase up and down the steps; however, by the time she registered that and turned back, Eldon Finch was gone.
Clara stepped in the direction in which he’d departed, but then she changed her mind. His whereabouts was no concern of hers. He had rendered her assistance and had received her thanks. What more was there to say?
Her flight had taken her far from her intended destination, so she hired a Clarence to return her to Mayfair. During the journey, she pondered the day’s strange events. She had been on her way home from a late afternoon stroll when she felt a presence and sensed eyes upon her. A glance around had revealed no obvious assailant, yet something compelled her to flee. She was no coward and was unaccustomed to shrinking from shadows, so her actions perturbed her. She could have dealt with a pickpocket; this had been something else entirely. Even now, she could recall the fear that ran through her—alien and absolute. She had never before experienced the like and hoped she never would again. She hated being robbed of control.
Once she reached Grosvenor Square, she strode into the house and headed straight for her father’s workshop. Others would have called the room a library, but over the years her father’s cogs and contraptions had taken over to such an extent they littered every available surface, even hanging suspended from wires strung from wall to wall overhead. The books in the shelves around the room seemed little more than decoration since it was impossible to reach most of them without clambering over an array of half-built inventions and piled boxes.
“There you are, my dear,” her father said as she entered. He didn’t look up from his work but beckoned her over. “I wondered what kept you.”
Clara prevaricated, but in the end she decided to tell him of her adventure, which now she was back in familiar surroundings seemed little more than a wild fancy. It would make him laugh, no doubt, to hear tell of her uncharacteristic terror, and he would confirm it had been nothing but a momentary folly.
“I have had a rather eventful afternoon, Father. As I made my way home, for a moment I believed myself pursued. It was the strangest feeling. I saw no one, but I was certain someone followed. It gave me such a fright I ran in a most unladylike way along The Strand, as far as St Pauls. For some reason, I believed I needed to find sanctuary.” She laughed.
Her father didn’t look up, but she knew he was listening from the slight tilt of his head. His brow furrowed at her final statement and, worried she had alarmed him, she hastened to add, “It was utter foolishness, of course. The only thing pursuing me was an overactive imagination, regardless of what Mr Finch said.”
“Finch?” This time her father did cease his labour. Not only that, he dropped the small clockwork device in his hand. It banged onto the desk and broke apart, sending cogs and springs flying in every direction.
“Yes.” Clara bent to retrieve some of the escaping parts and set them back on the table. “I tripped upon the steps when I reached St Pauls. Mr Finch happened to be nearby and caught me.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Why, little of any consequence. He advised me to be careful when out walking alone. He seemed reluctant to reveal his name until I pressed, yet he knew mine. I believed I was unacquainted with him at first, but now I think about it, did he not attend several society events in the past? Indeed, I do think his name is familiar. Do you know the man, Father?”
Her mind on her story, and on the springs she gathered from the floor, she didn’t realise her father had moved from his spot behind the desk until he grasped her hands. He stared deep into her eyes, as if searching for something. Although, what that something could be she had no idea. Whatever he found there appeared to satisfy him, however, for he visibly relaxed and gave her hands a squeeze.
“I’m glad you arrived home unharmed, Clara. Though I must ask you to promise me one thing. In future, stay away from Eldon Finch. He is not someone with whom you should associate.”
A protest was on the tip of Clara’s tongue. Mr Finch had aided her. He had done nothing to suggest he was anything other than an honest gentleman. Why should she avoid his company? Nonetheless, she bit back her arguments. Her father was a liberal man. He granted her a broad education and more freedom than other young women of her age and rank enjoyed. It was rare for him to forbid her anything; therefore, he must have his reasons for this request, even if she could not presently discern them.
“Of course, Father, if you wish it. Though I deem it unlikely we will meet again. At most we will cross paths at parties, and then I will be sure to do him no more than necessary courtesy. He has never approached me at events before, in any case, and I see no reason why he would do so now.”
“I’m sure you’re right, my dear.” He smiled, and the remaining shadow fell from his countenance. “Come. I am working on a new trinket for Her Majesty and I could use your slender fingers to hold the pieces in place while I attach them.”
They worked until late into the night. Consumed with the joy of tinkering alongside her father, all thought about her strange encounter fled Clara’s mind. She reflected on it once before she climbed into bed, but immediately laughed at herself for her silly notions. Phantoms did not pursue young women down laneways. That was the stuff of ghost stories, not real life, and she was the daughter of a renowned scientist and inventor, not a Penny Dreadful scribbler. With that decided, she turned off the light and settled down to sleep.
A short way across town, in Cavendish Square, Eldon Finch was still awake. He rarely slept for long these days and he couldn’t decide if that was a blessing or a curse. He had walked the London streets for several hours after his encounter with Miss Corvington. Now home, he dismissed his new valet and retired to his study, deep in thought.
He paced awhile, hands clasped behind his back. Then he closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. He had many questions and feared most would result in unwelcome answers. Still, it was better to know what lay ahead than to face a threat blind. His circumstances may have changed, but he hoped he still knew his duty.
“Did you recognise her pursuer?” he asked his companion, who at once launched into a garbled narrative. He shook his head. “No. Stop. Wait a moment.” He strode to his desk, procured a notebook and pen and then sank into the armchair beside the fire. He waved his hand. “I’m ready now. Please proceed.”
His unease grew as he listened to the lengthy response. He noted the key points in a hand that started out elegant but soon degenerated as he hastened to scribble the details onto the page.
“For him to send someone like that there must be serious plans afoot. Are you able to glean any information? I know they cut you off from main lines of communication but surely—”
He listened, nodded once, twice and then frowned. “No, I understand. That's quite all right.” He paused and tapped the pen against his lips. “What about the girl? I can understand why she would be a target. Any threat to her gives them power over Sir Miles. Yet, in and of herself, she is insignificant. They would do better to attack Sir Miles directly. It would be far quicker and smoother.”
He no longer addressed his companion but spoke to himself, vocalising each question in the hope hearing them aloud would provide clarity. Sometimes it worked, but not today. This case was too complex for so simple a solution. There were many forces at play. Some he could see and address. Others remained hidden—at least for now.
Sir Miles Corvington had no wish to see him. Their recent estrangement was not unexpected; nevertheless, Sir Miles would have to overcome his distrust and revulsion. There was too much at stake for them to remain at enmity. Eldon needed to meet with him as soon as possible; however, Sir Miles would doubtless rebuff a direct, unscheduled approach, which would waste valuable time. Luckily, Eldon knew to whom he should apply. Sir Miles was nothing if not loyal and an order from that quarter guaranteed Eldon a rendezvous.
With that decided, he retired to bed. He went through the motions of disrobing and slipping beneath the covers. If nothing else, it provided a sense of normality as he closed his eyes and waited for the sun to rise.