A couple of months ago, I was in the car on my way back from having dinner with Eve, her husband, and her mum. Without warning, while I was sitting in the car, the first chapter of a fantasy novel detached itself from the firmament and fell into my head.
Think Terry Pratchett meets Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but set in a Victorian London that never happened (partly because Queen Victoria herself never happened).
When Eve went to bed, I stayed up writing it. I roped Eve into helping to develop the world it’s set in, only a little against her will, and it’s taking shape into something big and weird and fun.
As I write the first draft of each chapter, I’m putting them up on a sooper sekrit page that’s only available to people who back me on Patreon.
I’m putting the first chapter here on my blog to give you a taste of what to expect. If you want more, you will have to pledge at least $1 on Patreon, or possibly wait until the book gets published, assuming it gets published.
It was the rain that woke him. At least he hoped it was rain. In his experience, when you found yourself lying on the street with the feel of something wet falling on your face, you couldn’t always assume it was rain. There was a multiplicity of possibilities, nearly all of them far less pleasant than rain.
His head hurt. So did his shoulder, though not as much. And his back, that hurt too. The throbbing in his knee, he could probably ignore for now, though it might present a bit of a problem when it came time to stand. With a bit of luck, he wouldn’t need to run, though that, too, was something you couldn’t take for granted. Something in his pocket was poking most unpleasantly into his thigh, but he didn’t quite feel up to moving his leg just yet.
First things first. Where was he?
Reluctantly, and with great effort, he opened his eyes. Grey. Okay, that seemed right. Buildings towering above him, drab brick faces daubed with soot. Above them, a tangle of electrical wires, strung in hodgepodge fashion from building to building. Above that, zeppelins, a lot of them, floating in a flat gray sky. And rain, an endless drizzle of it. It pattered on the rough cobblestone around him, pooled in the cracks between the stones, formed larger rivulets that sought to find their way to the Thames, that enormous body of what was in theory water, or had once been water, or had water as one of the less odiferous components of it. Some of the tiny streams paused on their journey to join the sluggish mud-colored river of maybe-water just long enough to make him miserable. Cold wet fingers seeped into his cuffs, sent icy fingers of wet misery down along his back, and trickled from his collar to rejoin the rest of the water making its indirect way toward the lowest point of the city.
New Old London, then. The wires were a dead giveaway. That was mildly surprising. He was used to waking up across the river, in Old New London.
It hadn’t always been called New Old London. Once, it had simply been London. It sprawled out helter-skelter until it ran into the banks of the Thames, where it had paused its growth for a bit, building its strength until it had reached some critical mass and sprouted bridges across the river like brick and metal tendrils. Once those tendrils touched down on the opposite bank, the city resumed its growth with vigor.
For a while, the bit of London on the far side was called New London, which made the older bits Old London. Then, about the time the reigning monarch Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Margaret the Merciful, granted that name in a fit of excessive artistic license, was graduating from wetting herself to standing upright, her father, the late Royal Majesty King John the Proud, had decided Old London was a bit fusty and by royal decree had ordered much of it razed and rebuilt.
A handful of people objected to his bold—some said “audacious”—approach to civil engineering, questioning both the cost and the small but nevertheless still important matter of what to do with all the people so displaced, but a handful of beheadings soon sorted that out. It turns out that a man can accomplish quite a lot when he commands both the nation’s treasury and the headsman’s axe.
So Old London became New Old London, which meant that New London, more or less by default, was now Old New London, and there you had it.
He moved his arm, the one pressed quite uncomfortably against the curbstone. His father had always said that any day you woke up looking down at the gutter instead of up at the gutter was a good day. This was not shaping up to be a good day.
His father. That’s right, he’d had one of those, once.
A clue, then. He probably wasn’t an orphan or a golem. Orphans didn’t have memories of their fathers, he didn’t think—or did they? Maybe he would ask the next one he caught trying to pick his pocket. And golems—well, everyone said golems didn’t have thoughts at all. They were frightfully expensive, and as beasts of burden only moderately effective, but they’d been all the rage since that doctor with the German name had started making them a couple of years back. All the trendiest aristocrats employed one or two for manual tasks like carrying heavy loads or in some of the messier parts of home security. He found them creepy, with their weird (and often mismatched) dead eyes and their occasional bursts of unprovoked violence.
I think, therefore, I am not a golem. That seemed a safe bet.
He still wasn’t quite sure who he was, or what he was doing beyond lying face-up in a gutter in New Old London, but he didn’t feel an undue sense of urgency about that. At the moment, he seemed not to be bleeding from anywhere, and nobody was chasing him, so might as well take advantage of this unexpected luxury. He could work out who he was at leisure.
He looked down the length of his body. Both legs seemed present and accounted for, and in more or less the correct shape. Nothing obviously broken…but what were those ridiculous things on his feet? The shoes were gaudy, made of a patchwork of different kinds of leather that was the latest style among the fashionistas, with bright red clasps and pointed metal tips. They were, he felt, certainly not the sorts of things he would wear under ordinary, or indeed even extraordinary, circumstances. They seemed quite impractical for either running or creeping, two things he had a vague sense that he probably did rather a lot of.
The thing in his pocket poked into him with greater urgency. Time to do something about that.
He closed his eyes, summoning his strength, then, with a titanic effort, rolled over onto his side. That should sort it out. He paused, breathing heavily from the exertion. This new position squashed his hand rather unfortunately beneath him, so it wouldn’t be long before he had to move again. Baby steps.
A loud clattering sound from down the alley. He blinked again. A huge machine stomped past him, all black iron and copper. Smoke poured from its chimney. A clanker. Two-legged, this one, vaguely human-shaped—a newer model, then. Its driver, high up in his cage, didn’t even spare him a glance. It continued down the alley, dragging a cart piled high with freshly-fired bricks.
Alley. Another clue.
New Old London was arranged in a grid, the late and much-lamented monarch being of a mind more than a little obsessed with perfect geometry. It was said he could not eat unless every table-setting was properly arrayed, all the plats precisely centered in front of each chair, the service perfectly parallel, the chairs exactly the same distance from their neighbors. There were rumors of an unfortunate noble who had moved his plate from its appointed place before His Royal Highness had been seated, and consequently lost his title, or perhaps his head.
New Old London was arranged in two grids, to be more precise. You would, if you were to look down on it from one of the many zeppelins crowding the leaden sky above, see an alternating pattern of streets and alleys. The streets were broad and level, with wide sidewalks fronting tidy storefronts well-lit by gas lamps or, in the more fashionable districts, electric arc-lamps. The alleys were narrower, and more pockmarked, without sidewalks or lighting. The rows of buildings faced the streets, with the alleys running behind them.
Street, alley, street, alley: two different grids, slightly offset from each other. The people who mattered—aristocrats, merchants, skilled tradesmen; people with money, all—used the streets. Those without money used the alleys. Two different classes of people flowing along two different grids, living in two different cities, in a manner of speaking. It all made sense to somebody. Somebody in the former class, most likely. It seemed that wherever you went, the rich were willing to travel extraordinary distances to look at poor people, but went to equally extravagant lengths to avoid looking at the poor people closer at hand.
He felt at home in alleys.
His hand throbbed. Time to do something about that, then. Summoning his strength, he rose to his knees, then, with another Herculean effort, to his feet.
This must be what the heroes of Greek stories felt like, after they’d just skinned a hydra or defeated a twelve-headed lion or whatever it was they did.
There was a tangle of black silk cloth and bamboo struts on the ground where he’d just been lying, looking wet and broken. Strange, that.
He leaned against a wooden refuse-dump, trying to catch his breath. Its side was caved in, its contents spilling across the ground near the black silk whatever-it-was. By some stroke of fortune, the refuse that spilled around him was mostly vegetative. There were far less savory refuse-dumps around the city, like those behind the laboratories of people engaged in the business of golem-making.
He looked up. The rain gutter that clung to the red tiled roof of the building next to him was broken, two ends sending forlorn little cascades of water down into the street. A wide swath of tikes had been smashed and scattered, forming a path that led from the broken gutter to a large circle of pulverized clay about three-quarters of the way up the roof.
Ah. So that explained the various aches and pains, then. From the looks of things, he’d hit the roof pretty hard, then skidded down and over the edge into the refuse-dump, taking a bit of the gutter with him, and from there, landed in the gutter.
At least it explained the “how,” if not the “why.”
No, he thought, it didn’t even explain the “how.” It seemed that he had fallen onto the roof, and from there into the gutter by way of a large pile of moldy produce, but where precisely had he fallen onto the roof from?
And more to the point, why was he wearing this ridiculous getup? A sodden black jacket with tails—tails, for the love of all that was holy!—clung limply to him. A couple of feet down the alley was what had once been a top-hat, and was still trying against all odds to be a top-hat. He had a vague sense that it belonged to him, though he did not know for the life of him why he would own such a thing. He was still a bit hazy on who he was, exactly, but he was quite certain he was not the sort of chap who habitually engaged in the wearing of top-hats.
Nor in the habit of falling from the sky into a refuse-dump, either, he had to admit to himself, so perhaps he shouldn’t be too hasty in the matter of the top-hat.
A party. He had been to a party. In a top-hat and the ridiculously impractical shoes he was wearing, shoes he was certain he would never wear absent compelling need of the most dire sort.
He frowned, adding up what he knew. A party, a top-hat, shoes, a long fall onto a roof, a sudden slide into a rubbish-bin, and the wreckage of some silk and bamboo contraption that he knew, with abrupt clarity, had once been a kite.
A zeppelin. The party had been on a zeppelin. And he had left the party with some alacrity. Planned, evidently, to do so. From the look of things, he’d made arrangements in advance to depart over the side of the airship, rather than waiting for it to land to make a more traditional exit.
Damn, he thought, it sure would be nice if he could remember who he was.
The pokey thing in his pocket intruded into his consciousness again. The pants he was wearing were just as ridiculous as the shoes. Like much of what the upper class wore, they had been designed to show off the fact that their owner had no need to do something as profane as work, and therefore need not carry around anything larger than a pocket watch. The pockets, therefore, were vestigial, barely more than slits with a small pouch sewn inside. Whatever it was in his pocket was much larger than the pocket was intended to accommodate.
And it had sharp edges, or so it seemed. He would, he supposed ruefully, probably have quite a large bruise to show for it.
He stuck a hand in his pocket and drew it out.
Memory poured into him like wine into a wineglass.
He, Thaddeus Mudstone Alexander Pinkerton, ne’er-do-well and ruffian of the most despicable sort, had just robbed, though only by the skin of his teeth and at, evidence suggested, great personal peril, Her Most Excellent Majesty Queen Margaret the Merciful.
He picked up the battered top-hat, set it atop his head at a rakish angle, and walked, or rather limped, down the alley, whistling.
Perhaps this would be a good day after all.