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.
This the chapter I spent the most time on, not only just writing the duel, getting into Joan’s emotional state, but also in researching commercial sewing machines, fabrics from the Victorian age, and how a steam sewing machine would work. The duel was the one I was most worried about when I finished the book. Happily, my editor loved it and so do many readers. Whew.
But, of course, there’s a little bit more to the story than potentially winning the duel. That would be too easy.
Roylott immediately pulled out a contract and a pen.
He had planned this, Joan thought. He had known this would be a trap and devised a way that might not only lead to his escape but to his becoming more powerful.
“You knew I would accept,” she said.
“I had hoped.”
“What clothing design did you have in mind for the duel?”
“I forbid this,” Gregor said.
“You’ll have to restrain me to stop it,” she told him. “This is my business, my family and my life.”
As Sir August struggled to keep his balance, Joan grabbed the contract from Roylott and signed it before anyone could stop her. As she signed, she noted that Roylott had already applied his name.
“You did more than hope. You knew I would accept.”
“I’ve worked with you for the past seven years, lass. I know you, possibly better than your family.”
“Then you know that you will lose.”
Roylott shrugged. “That’s always a risk.”
Gregor swept between them. “Where do you propose to have this duel?”
“In the seamstresses’ room. It should be no matter to restart the boiler, especially with all that mage coal available.” Roylott stuffed the contract in his outer coat pocket.
Gregor extended his long, elegant fingers. “I’ll hold that, now.” His face held no expression. She had disobeyed him. She suspected that meant they had no future. If she even had a future after this duel.
Roylott glared but handed it over. Gregor took a step back to study it. He frowned. No wonder. It was in Hebrew, the same contract her father had signed, save it made her soul’s loss contingent on the outcome of the duel. Her father had directly signed over his soul.
“What item of clothing shall we create?” Joan asked.
“We can use one of your designs, one that you have not made yet. That will give us an even start. Your mother can collect the materials and then we will sew them.” He grinned. “The first one to finish wins.”
“I will do no such thing,” her mother said. “Never. Your worthless father does not deserve this help, Joan.”
Hatred shone through her mother’s words. “My decision is final.”
Joan wondered how long her mother had known of her father’s deal with Roylott. She didn’t ask. She had had enough truth for today.
“If you refuse, Mrs. Krieger, then you will have to let me collect and cut my own material, as Joan will do hers. Do you trust me to do that?”
“I trust you with nothing, false man.” Her mother looked at Joan. She closed her eyes and sighed. “You should never have done this.”
No approval or compassion, not even when she was about to risk her life?
“What’s done is done. Will you gather the materials for the new traveling jacket that I have yet to make?” Joan said with clenched teeth.
“Fine.” Her mother turned on her heel. It might have been her imagination but Joan swore she stomped her feet in anger. After, if there was an after, Joan needed to sit down with her mother and truly speak.
“I will start the boiler.” Gregor brandished a lump of the mage coal that she had created.
“That is acceptable,” Roylott said.
Sir August leaned on his cane. “I will watch you until the duel is ready to begin, foul one, to ensure all is done fairly.” He stared at her. “I have underestimated you since the beginning, Joan. I’ve been blind.”
“Say, rather, that you have been wrapped up in your own pain,” she answered. “I know how that feels.”
Sir August nodded. Joan turned and followed Gregor down the hall. If these moments were part of her last hour of lucidity, she wanted to spend it in his company, even if he was not speaking to her.
Gregor lit the boiler with matches kept near for that purpose. His movements were sharp, short and full of anger. She stood at the wall quietly while the mage coal caught fire.
“Will that little last through the duel?”
“That little will last through the week.” He slammed the door of the boiler shut, checked the water level and added more to the tank.
“How long will the boiler take to provide the proper amount of steam?” How long did she have left to live?
“It should be creating steam by the time your mother is done cutting the pattern, Joan.”
His words no longer slapped and the way he said her name felt like a caress. Hold me, she thought, so I can feel one more time before this begins.
He put a hand against the wall, effectively trapping her between him and the wall.
“You are deducing my thoughts again,” she said, her voice weaker than when she’d accepted the duel.
“No.” He laid his palm against her cheek. “Only following my own inclination.”
“You were so angry with me. It was hard to tell if you were so inclined.”
His breath warmed her neck. But he drew back. “Perhaps the promise of my, ah, inclinations will be incentive for you to win.”
She pushed him away with the flat of her hand. “What do you mean by that? I already have plenty of incentive to win.”
His stare felt like she’d been cornered by a hawk. “Do you? It seems to me the risks you have taken in the last day indicate a serious lack of concern toward your future.”
“The future offered was not the life I wanted.”
He trapped her head between his hands. “What I want to know is if you have any future in mind at all.”
“You are an insulting man.” She was not suicidal. She only rejected what was easy.
He kissed her lips, a soft touch, and then he stepped back. “You smell of almonds,” he whispered.
She swallowed hard. “If I have a future, then I hope that you are in it.”
“If you do not have one, then neither do I.” He turned away from her as her mother arrived in the room with two sets of material for the jacket.
“I want to use my own machine,” Joan said.
“That’s not the deal,” Roylott said, arriving with Sir August in tow.
“You specified sewing machines. You did not specify which one. I want my own.”
“I will fetch it.” Gregor swept out of the room. She was grateful for the chance to collect herself. Thinking of him and the future was distracting. She could not afford that now. She must empty her mind and go back to her first love, creating clothing with needle, thread, and sweat.
“Is there anything I can do, Joan?” Sir August asked.
She decided to take his offer seriously. “I need a promise from you, sir.”
“I want you to promise me that if Roylott wins you will see that my mother is cared for.”
“I so swear.”
“If Roylott wins, I won’t care what happens to me,” her mother said.
“You should have done something about this sooner. At the least, you should have told me the full truth.”
Her mother hung her head and looked away.
Gregor reentered in a clatter of machine and thread. He set it on an empty desk, and she sat down to attach her machine to the foot pedals and thus connect it to the steam lines that would provide power.
He waved her away from that task.
“I’ll do it for you.” He lingered some time over the connections. Taking extra care, she thought. He could not speak of emotions but he could show them. She must remember that in the future. If they had one.
“No tricks, Sherringford,” Roylott said.
“I am ensuring this is a fair fight. Be sure to check your own connections.”
“Just how do you have knowledge of sewing machines, Gregor?”
Of course. How not.
She rested her fingertips on the rear wheel of her machine. This was an extension of herself, the best ally she could have. Unlike other things in her life, this had never let her down.
She turned to Gregor again. “Will you see that somehow people know the truth if I lose?”
“I cannot promise what I may not be able to accomplish.” He tightened his lips. “If Roylott wins, the energy from you will make him far more powerful. He will far outstrip me, a fact he no doubt realizes. But if he walks out of here, it will only be past my lifeless corpse.”
Her mouth grew dry. She put her hand over his. “You are saying that your life is also at stake in this duel.”
He nodded. “Yes. Our futures are bound as one.”
“I did not intend that,” she whispered.
He brushed her cheek with the back of his hand and smiled. “You will simply have to win.”
“So I will.” She touched her hand to where he had just caressed her cheek.
Her mother held up Krieger & Sims’s design sketchpad and flipped to the page with the jacket they would both make. “This is Joan’s design for a short woman’s jacket to be worn when traveling in the new open steam carriages. It’s similar to a man’s jacket and so will not be difficult for your skills, Roylott. It’s a shorter, updated version of what Lady Grey wanted.”
Her mother abruptly set the precut leather torso and sleeves next to Roylott’s chosen machine.
Without a word, her mother set more leather pieces next to Joan. Leather was an unforgiving material. Once a hole was poked in it, the damage remained forever. A single mistake and the entire jacket would be ruined. That was why there had been two sets of material already available. One for the first try as practice, one to correct any mistakes.
She would have to be perfect on the first try, now. And, in a sense, she was lucky. Years ago, a much larger sewing machine with a larger needle would have been necessary to sew leather properly. Thanks to steam power, she could use her personal machine.
“Reconsider, Joan,” her mother said.
“Will you wish me good fortune in this?”
Her mother closed her eyes and sighed. “Yes, but…”
“You believe I will lose.”
“Roylott is very skilled.”
“Thank you for the vote of confidence, Mother.”
“I will pray for you.” Her mother shook her head and stepped back.
A typical reaction. Her mother had never much liked confrontation, the earlier hug notwithstanding. Look at the way she’d vanished when Moran came to arrest her husband and daughter. Though, at least she had sent word to Sir August and precipitated her removal from Moran’s custody.
“You, Milverton. You start us off,” Roylott said.
Sir August cleared his throat. He raised his cane. “Prepare to begin.”
Joan lost herself in the familiar task of spinning the hand-wheel of the machine to fill her bobbin. Leather required a stronger thread than she normally used. Once the bobbin was full, she popped open a compartment just below the needle’s foot, replaced the old one with the stronger thread and pulled a strand to thread the needle.
She took a deep breath, licked the edge of the thread—more from nerves than any need—and threaded the needle. She drew the thread far enough to make sure she had enough tension. She felt along the needle to make certain it was secure. It would never do to have it break during the duel.
Still, just in case, she took a spare needle and set it within easy reach. If she had to take time to replace it, she might lose. If she had no replacement quickly available, she would most certainly lose.
She glanced over and saw that Roylott had not only mirrored her actions but he had the two pieces of the body of the jacket placed and ready to begin.
They were more evenly matched than she wanted to admit.
She pressed the treadle with her foot, testing the power. She reminded herself, as she always did, that the use of the pedal was counterintuitive. Open equaled power, closed equaled stop. So went the chant her mother had taught her.
She set the edges of the shoulder seams together and slid the beginning of the material under the needle’s foot.
Gregor knelt down next to her. “Whatever happens, Joan, keep working. Stop for nothing. Promise me that.”
“I promise.” He was the only one in this room that she could trust fully, even if he had not told her everything. “I should have consulted you sooner. Perhaps there would have been another solution then.”
He looked over at Roylott. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” He smiled and straightened. “Remember, do not stop.”
Sir August cleared his throat. “Ready?”
Joan and Roylott nodded.
She loosened her foot pressure on the pedal and fed the shoulder seams to the needle. A voice screamed at the back of her head that she was going far too slow but she ignored it. She would do this right.
She no longer saw Gregor, Sir August or her mother. She no longer heard Roylott’s machine working furiously on the other side of the room. Her focus was solely on sewing.
For the first time, she was aware that she was pouring mage energy into the task. It flowed from her hands into the cloth as she fed it through the machine. It was a feeling she’d experienced many times but now she knew what it was. She let the mage energy spin out from her, and the world narrowed only to her and the machine.
Such was her intense focus that she was almost surprised when the first shoulder seam was finished. She clipped the thread and reset the material to do the other shoulder.
Loosen pressure on the treadle, feed the leather to the hungry needle, keep the seam even, watch the fingers, watch the tension in the thread…
The second shoulder seam was done quicker than the first. She moved on to the side seams, forcing herself not to glance at Roylott to check his progress.
Sewing the sleeve together was next. Careful, careful, she needed to feed that even slower or she would get an uneven sleeve with too much material pulled at the top.
Her leg ached from keeping the pressure steady. Sweat gathered on her forehead and she hoped it did not drip onto her arms. Her fingers grew numb from holding the leather in place.
She bit back a cry of triumph as she finished the second sleeve. One more task, fit the sleeves to the front and back, and she was done. Of course, fitting the sleeves was the trickiest part of the project.
Roylott had not cried out in triumph. He had not won yet, then.
She readjusted the foot to compensate for the bulk of two pieces of leather. Then she reset the needle for a gathering stitch and began sewing again. She finished and started to backstitch.
But the needle moved too fast and began gobbling up the leather. She pressed down all the way on the treadle, attempting to stop the machine before an irrevocable mistake was made.
But the machine did not slow, dragging her fingers closer and closer to the needle as she refused to let go, intent on salvaging the leather.
The machine’s speed surged even faster. She cursed. I am going to lose…
The needle caught, jammed and shattered.
She threw her hand up to protect her face just in time. A shard stabbed into her palm. She was too shocked to cry out. That was almost my eye!
Her machine fell silent. Behind her, she heard Roylott’s machine, still running, still churning.