Continuing our serial of GeekMom Corrina Lawson’s steampunk adventure/mystery novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract:
In a Victorian London where magic fuels steam technology…
Joan Krieger dreams of revolutionizing fashion for this new, modernized world but a hidden enemy stalks her family’s clothing business, turning her dream into a nightmare.
When Joan is a witness to a client being murdered by magic, she turns to the only man who can help: Gregor Sherringford, consulting detective. Together, they become a formidable team but their investigation pulls aside a curtain of sorrow and secrets that threaten everything in Joan’s life. Only by risking her very soul can she uncover the truth, a truth that Gregor fears she may not survive.
It all comes together in this chapter, as Joan makes a fateful choice to either rescue her father’s soul or lose her own.
Gregor sat in her father’s chair and put his fingers in a steeple. He studied Roylott. Roylott smiled a big, toothy grin.
Gregor had known the moment his quarry had stepped in the doorway, even before he spoke. Of that, Joan was certain.
Sir August drew out his custom pistol.
“I didn’t expect to see you here, Joan.” Roylott did not acknowledge Sir August or his magical weapon.
“I didn’t expect you to be a murderer.” Joan stared long and hard at the man who had dismantled her life. Despite the knowledge of what he had done, he still looked ordinary. Not too tall, not too short, thinning hair, a little too much weight around the middle.
Roylott crossed his arms over his chest.
“You have done my father a terrible injustice,” she said.
“Alexander Krieger made his deal of his own free will. He did himself the injustice.”
“Lady Grey and your other victims had no such free will.” Gregor leaned back in the chair and propped his booted feet up on the desk. “Furthermore, those murders constitute a violation of your contract with Alexander Krieger to make certain this business thrives. Either way, you are in the wrong.”
“You know nothing, Detective. Less than nothing.”
“If we let you leave here in peace and with Sir August’s money, will you return what you took from my father?” Joan asked.
Roylott laughed. “Let me leave? You cannot hope to stop me. You are only two men without a strong mage gift and one untrained girl.”
“Did you come to laugh at us?” Joan asked.
“I came for the money.” Roylott pointed at Sir August. “Pay me, and I will disappear and leave you and your fiancée alone. Refuse to pay and I’ll drain the last of her father’s soul energy and strike back at you when you least expect.”
Gregor snapped to his feet and strode to Roylott. “The more you threaten, the more likely you bring on your own extermination. You say I know nothing. I know more than you would guess or want me to guess. Starting with the fact that Samuel Roylott didn’t exist at all until you were hired as business manager at Krieger & Sims.”
Roylott flushed, his bluster gone. “Of course I used a different name in a previous life.”
“Life? Is that what you call it?” Gregor sneered.
Dash it all, Joan thought. Gregor knew something and, once again, he had not told her what it was.
“Where did you get your training?” Sir August asked Roylott.
“Will you pay me or not?”
“A trap, then, as I guessed.” Roylott grinned. Malice seemed to gather around him. Joan blinked, suddenly not recognizing him at all. She had asked evil to show its true visage. Now it had. Roylott’s face twisted until it seemed he wore a parody of a human smile.
“Why did I not see this in you?” she blurted out, more to herself than for any hope of being answered. She had sensed Sir August’s intense, twisted need to avenge his brother. How could she have not sensed wrongness from a man she’d seen on a daily basis for years?
“Roylott hid himself well, so well that not even Moran sensed what he was the other day,” Sherringford said. “I uncovered him not by magical means but by mundane ones. The brimstone on the gloves told me there was a mage here. It remained only to investigate your employees. His history was curiously blank.” Gregor put his hands behind his back and drew himself up to his full height in front of his enemy. “You may sneer at simple human methods, Roylott, but they were your undoing.”
Was it her imagination or did Roylott seem to shrink? His face settled back to a more human form.
“You cannot hold me.”
“And yet here you are, asking something of us,” Joan said.
“I’ve done no harm to your person, Joan Krieger. Your future is assured with your marriage. You should have no complaints, girl. You’re untouched.”
As when she had realized Sir August had lied to her, Joan felt the anger spread. Her body felt rigid, her brain locked in outrage.
“Untouched? Do you not count all the years I have had to deal with my father’s fits and abuse?” She raised her hands to let the wrist bruises show.
“As I said, he signed the contract, girl. He knew the cost. He bears the blame.”
“You knew that it would affect his family. You didn’t care.”
Roylott advanced on her. “All the years that you have taken abuse from your father and yet you still care about him?” He scowled. “If you care that much about the worthless creature, there is one last thing that can be done for him.”
“Be careful what you say next.” Gregor’s voice was a menacing whisper. “I have the gloves and the contract that you treated with brimstone. I have the word of a respected peer that brimstone is what bound a spell that caused the deaths of two people. Moran will certainly know how to discern what you are once he is pointed in the right direction. You’re done, Roylott.”
“And yet, Moran is not here. I think perhaps you care more about the girl’s reputation than seeing me arrested, yes? Is Joan now your fiancée, Sherringford? Or do you share her with Milverton?”
Gregor’s face lost all expression. She had seen him annoyed. But the eerie calm that descended now was scarier even than Roylott’s menace. It was so unnerving that she forgot to be insulted.
“He is provoking us for some reason, Sherringford,” Milverton said. “He wants something, or else he would have left once he knew this was a trap. Out with it, Roylott, so this farce ends.”
“I wanted to let Joan Krieger know she could do something for her father.”
“Don’t you dare,” Gregor said.
“I echo that. Do not dare.”
Joan turned to see her mother had come into the office.
Just the sight of her mother made Joan feel infinitely less terrified. They embraced, as they seldom did. The clenched feeling in Joan’s insides that had haunted her since her arrest relaxed. Her mother was here. She had family, still, even if she had nothing else.
“Thank you for letting me know of this confrontation, Lord Sherringford,” her mother said.
Yet another thing Gregor had kept hidden from her. Perhaps he had not known if her mother would come and did not want to disappoint her. Perhaps she should stop making excuses for him. Truth, bah. Truth under his own terms.
Her mother turned to Roylott. “Get thee gone, villain.”
“I’m my own master now.” Roylott turned away from her. “I will not leave until Joan hears my proposal.”
“I’ve had quite enough of proposals,” she snapped.
“Ah, but mine is different. I could be persuaded to turn myself into the authorities and return your father’s soul. For a price.”
“Not for any price,” her mother said.
“That is Joan’s decision. Would you risk your soul for your father’s recovery, girl?”
“She won’t risk such a precious thing for anyone,” Gregor said.
“Pray let me speak for myself, both of you.” She focused on Roylott. “Just what do you propose?”
Again, that strange calmness came over her. The very idea of risking her soul should send her running in the opposite direction, especially knowing what had happened to her father. She wondered if this strange emotional numbness—briefly lifted by her mother’s arrival—would ever go away.
“I want to be free. You want your father back. One of us can get what they want. Whichever is stronger. I propose a duel to determine that.”
“My freedom plus your soul if I win. My surrender and the return to health of your miserable father if I lose. I warn you, I don’t plan to lose.”
He smirked. Joan barely restrained herself from hitting the man to wipe that expression off his face.
“Joan, no,” her mother said.
“Joan, you cannot even consider this,” Sir August said.
“You must not do this,” Gregor said.
“Quiet, all of you!” As much as she loved her father, she wasn’t an idiot. “Roylott, what you seem to be proposing is a sucker’s bet. You are obviously powerful and trained. You also just said that I was no match for you.”
But she wanted to accept. Oh, she wanted to. She wanted to hurt Roylott, to wipe that smirk off his face. For poor Lady Grey, for the young man who had been forced to hang himself and for her father, who had let greed get the best of him and paid for the rest of his life.
Roylott looked at the melted lump of the cabinet. “You have plenty of power.”
“Duels are forbidden,” Gregor said flatly.
“And you’re a man who obeys all rules, Sherringford? I’ve seen no evidence of it. Your Indian heritage separates you from society, so you do what suits you and society be damned.”
“Leave with your freedom, demon, and trouble us no more,” her mother said.
“If I am a demon, the circumstances that created me made me so. I offer a fair duel, Joan Krieger.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” Joan said.
“There is one arena in which you are an expert. As Milverton and Sherringford have no doubt told you, your mage ability manifests when you create clothing. It is part of why Krieger & Sims products are so valued. One cannot discern the mage energy that is expended in their creation, but the effects are visible in how they catch the eye and warm those wearing them.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?” Joan said.
“Sir August Milverton can tell you of how his brother proposed to duel with mage-infused pistols. The Duke of Clarence broke the deal and resorted to a stronger, less subtle energy. I would not. I would keep my word.”
“You want a sewing duel?” Joan laughed. That was truly one of the most insane sentences she had ever spoken. She would duel with the equivalent of the devil to win her father’s soul back using her sewing machine?
“That’s absurd,” Sherringford said.
“That is a fair offer, according to the laws of magic. As fair as dueling with magical pistols. The first one to complete an item of clothing wins. We’ll need to bind the duel agreement with brimstone, however, so neither party can back out.”
Joan felt the blood leave her face. His offer whispered to her, enticed her, drew her as nothing else had in the last few days. It was the answer to all her problems.
If she won.
If she lost, she would become her worst nightmare, exactly like her father, a sometimes mindless being with no control over thought.
But I could win.
Her father’s downfall must have started exactly like this. Save that he had risked it for Krieger & Sims and business success, not to save a life. Was such a man worth risking her existence?
“No!” Her mother stepped forward. “I won’t allow it.”
“You’ve lost any power to stop it,” Roylott said.
Her mother stared at the floor.
From behind, Gregor put his hands on her shoulders. She felt the strength in his fingers. She did not need words to know what he thought. Sir August shook his head and mouthed no.
“And if I refuse your duel, Roylott?” she asked.
“Clearly, I will have to fight my way out. We shall see who survives that conflict.”
“I never miss.” Sir August aimed his pistol. “Enough taunting, demon. Surrender or die.”
Roylott twisted his hand, a tiny gesture. Sir August gave a strangled gasp. He lost his grip on the gun and fell to his knees. Joan grabbed at his shoulders to stop him from falling.
He was struggling to breathe. He had risked himself for her.
She held him steady as his breathing returned to normal. “You put your life at stake for me, even though we will not be married. Why, Sir August?”
He shook his head. “Perhaps it’s time I started doing the right thing for its own sake.”
Roylott twisted his hand again. Gregor’s palm flew up, as if to deflect something unseen. He staggered back, but did not fall.
“Parlor tricks, mage. You won’t leave here alive,” Gregor said.
“Maybe not. But neither will you.”
Roylott was more powerful than either of them.
She could easily set the room on fire. She could throw all her newfound power at him. But would she have enough control of the energy? She might destroy this building and everyone in it, just as the power released during the mage duel had permanently scarred the park.
She had gone out into the night, walking in the darkness, and had then faced icy death when opening the magical safe. She had thought she was dying. Yet here she stood.
That risk had been to find out the truth for herself and to decide the course of her own life. That risk had not ended.
No sense stopping when the metaphorical needle was already threaded.
“I accept your duel,” she said to Roylott.