Authors: Liesel Schwarz
“Oh my Steampunk God!… If you like steampunk you definitely have to give this jewel a try. It would be a sin not to, really.”
“A wonderful sense of fun on every page … Visit [your] nearest bibliographic emporium and seek this rather magnificent tome out.”
—The Eloquent Page
“I truly enjoyed this novel and strongly suggest it to Steampunk fans. I’m convinced
A Conspiracy of Alchemists
will rock your world!”
“Pure fun to read.”
—Karissa’s Reading Review
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to events, locales, or actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
A Del Rey eBook Edition
Copyright © 2014 by Liesel Schwarz
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
and the H
colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
eBook ISBN 978-0-345-54131-4
Cover design: David G. Stevenson
Cover illustration: © Nekro
Such is the language of flowers: wormwood whispers of the longing felt for a love that is gone; the willow mourns and the aspen laments.
The seasons have turned one and a half times since I returned from my sojourn with the Traveling folk.
The girl with the auburn hair survived. In the dark days that followed the loss of her warlock, her face had grown angular, where it was once soft. She rarely smiles now and hardness glitters in her eyes, a brittleness that only those who have felt true grief will ever understand.
The great dirty city of London still languishes in the aftermath of those who were lost to
La Dame Blanche—
the Lady in White—and her evil schemes. In the end, over a thousand souls were saved from a terrible fate.
All is quiet in the realms of Shadow and Light. There has been no word from those who wish to see the girl bound in chains. Those who had hoped that she would rise up and bring a golden age have watched with sadness as the Oracle turned her back on the Shadow.
And all the while she searches for him. By day her eyes scan the crowds around her for the slightest glimpse, and by night she trawls the realm of dreams. But sometimes even blind determination is not enough, and day after day her search yields nothing. Dawn after dawn she returns from the Shadow with nothing but sadness.
The Warlock is lost to her now; some say he is lost forever.
And so, in her grief, my mistress takes to the sky. But no
matter how far she travels or how dangerous the work, she cannot outrun the melancholy that haunts her.
The odyssey is not over though. Much as my young mistress wishes it, she cannot turn her back on her destiny. No matter how fast one runs, fate always has a way of keeping pace. And all the while, the wyrd-weavers spin and spin their fine silver strands, weaving all our futures into the crystalline web that binds us all together.
This is a path the girl must walk alone, yet she is not abandoned. I watch and wait, for we remain bound together, she and I.
But there is still hope. When I close my eyes, I hear the soft words of green: lavender speaks of devotion; phlox and olive herald the promise of souls reunited; and lily of the valley whispers of the return of happiness.
For such is the language of flowers. It is the language that only us fairies can hear. And words of green are never lies.
~ The lamentations of La Fée Verte ~
KHARTOUM, 29 OCTOBER 1905
Eleanor tightened her cotton keffiyeh round her face and squinted through the shimmering haze of the afternoon. Before her, the mud-baked flats of the North Sudan spread out as far as the eye could see. They shimmered in the heat, shades of cinnamon, flint and ochre.
Her camel grunted and stepped sideways, instantly disrupting the caravan of beasts as it wound its way along the dusty track.
“Whoa,” Elle said. She leaned forward and, using her long riding cane, patted his sand-colored neck to reassure him. In response, he turned his head and tried to bite her foot, leaving a trail of foul greenish snot over the leather of her polished boots.
“Oh you are a beast!” Elle said as she shook her foot and crossed her ankles in the place behind the camel’s neck. Even though they had set her stirrups to suit a Western lady, she preferred to ride Bedouin-style as her guides did.
Behind her, one of the guides laughed behind his keffiyeh. “That one, we call him Hamsa. It means “Lion of the Desert.”
“Well he’s going to be camel stew of the desert if he doesn’t behave,” Elle retorted.
In reply, Hamsa grunted and farted loudly although he did step into line with the other camels.
The Bedouin guide dropped the fabric from his leathery face and smiled, revealing two rows of white teeth.
“He likes you because you have the fire that burns inside. Not many women can ride the ships of the desert.”
Elle smiled back. “Yes, I am quite proficient at piloting ships—only not so much the ones that bite. But say, how much farther do you think we need to travel?” The silence and the vastness of this place made her uneasy. Out here there was nowhere to hide.
“Not too much more. We will be at the place soon. From there you can see for days,” her guide replied as he turned his attention back to the invisible path they were following.
They were about half an hour’s ride from the fort, which was near Wad Rawah, to the south of the city of Khartoum. And it was here, off the beaten track in the depths of Sudan, that her ship the
was moored, ready to fly a shipment of Nubian artifacts to the British Museum.
When the archaeological expedition that had chartered the
had not returned on schedule, Lieutenant Crosby had ordered a search party of guides to be sent out. It was not unusual for people to run into trouble or lose their way in these parts.
The opportunity to explore this mysterious place had been too strong to resist. So Elle had volunteered to join them. The lieutenant had objected. Elle had argued with him. Vigorously. To this day she had rarely lost an argument—and anyone who had ever tried to disagree with Lady Greychester once she had made up her mind soon learned that resistance was futile. Eventually Crosby had relented, but with much reluctance.
That was before Elle had discovered the quirks of traveling by camel.
“They should have been here by now.” Elle peered out
into the distance. Before her the landscape was barren. The sight of it made a lump well up in her throat. Being out here in the vastness of the Sudan was far from a distraction from her inner woe. The emptiness of her surroundings perfectly matched the emptiness she felt in her heart—she felt desolate and alone.
Sensing her inattention, Hamsa lurched forward to bite a lonely tuft of grass, which was poking out from beside a rock. Elle had to grab hold of the saddle to stop herself from being flung over the camel’s head and on to the ground.
Elle tried to bring her mount back under control but in her struggle with the camel, her sleeves had ridden up to reveal a series of delicate pink scars that snaked over her hands and up her forearms. She adjusted the fabric of her shirt quickly. Even though the burns had healed up well and were barely noticeable, she did not like to look at the marks. They were a painful reminder of things she preferred not to think about.
Eighteen months had passed since that freezing night in February. The night she had lost her husband and her heart. Despite the desert heat, she shivered at the thought. Had it been that long already?
The Bedouin shaded his eyes and pulled out a brass spyglass and slipped it open. He studied the horizon for a few long moments. Then he let out a shrill whistle. The other guides started chattering and gesturing animatedly.
“What’s the matter?” Elle said as she followed the line her guide was pointing out.
In the distance, two fine plumes of dust appeared. Someone was coming.
The Bedouin turned to Elle. “You are lucky he is a racing camel,” he said cryptically.
Elle squinted at him. “And why is that?”
The Bedouin shook his head. “Because now we must run.”
Elle scanned the dust plume. The familiar glint of sun reflecting off gunmetal caught her eye.
“Bandits!” she breathed.
As if in answer, the distinctive crack of gunfire rose up in the distance.
Hamsa bellowed and soon all the other camels joined in. They could smell trouble and by the looks of it, it was heading directly for them.
“There are too many. We cannot face them with so few guns. We must go back to the fort for reinforcements!” her Bedouin guide said as he gave the signal to retreat.
“Hold up a moment. Shouldn’t we stay and lend them assistance?” Elle said.
Her guide shook his head emphatically. “You do not know these bandits. They are of the most bloodthirsty and cruel kind. We have orders to make sure we turn back if there is any sign of trouble. Lieutenant’s orders,” he added for good measure.
With surprising speed, the small caravan wheeled about and took off in the opposite direction, leaving Elle and Hamsa behind in the settling dust.
Elle did not really need much more persuasion. She had heard terrible stories of violence and cruelty that befell those hapless travelers who chanced upon desert bandits. Her guide’s decision to run was not entirely without merit.
“Hold up, wait for me!” she called out, but her companions had no intention of hanging about. That much was clear from the way they were all urging their camels ahead.
Rather clumsily, she led Hamsa round and started following the guides, who were already in the distance. Fortunately her camel needed little persuasion and soon
they were kicking up a fair old dust plume of their own. Elle coughed and pulled her goggles over her eyes.
“Hup hup, Hamsa.” Elle nudged the camel with her cane and the beast accelerated, his long legs making short work of the distance between her and the rest of the search party. Soon she was bringing up the rear guard of their caravan.