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The Custodian of Marvels

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The Custodian of Marvels

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Author: Rod Duncan
Publisher: Angry Robot Books, 2016
Series: The Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire: Book 3

1. The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter
2. Unseemly Science
3. The Custodian of Marvels

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

You'd have to be mad to steal from the feared International Patent Office. But that's what Elizabeth Barnabus is about to try. A one-time enemy from the circus has persuaded her to attempt a heist that will be the ultimate conjuring trick.

Hidden in the vaults of the Patent Court in London lie secrets that could shake the very pillars of the Gas-Lit Empire. All that stands in Elizabeth's way are the agents of the Patent Office, a Duke's private army and the mysterious Custodian of Marvels.

Rod Duncan returns with the climactic volume of the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, the breathtaking alternate history series that began with the Philip K Dick Award-nominated The Bullet-Catcher's Daughter.


Excerpt

It had been my practice during the summer to sit out on the aft deck as the light faded, invisible to anyone beyond the boat. Each day the canal had found us at a different mooring place with new silhouettes to trick the eye.

I told myself that the purpose of my nightly vigil was to keep watch for thieves and bounty hunters. The fact that, in those quiet moments, an immense loneliness pressed in on me from every side--this I accepted as a bonus.

That evening, having cut a slice of sourdough loaf from the night before, I crept out to my usual place under the overhang of the cabin roof. The illusion of company is everywhere when the day is busy. Boats pass. People on the towpath wave. It is in quiet that loneliness can be fully savoured.

Whilst I navigated the canals of the Anglo-Scottish Republic, Julia, my friend and confidant, was far away studying law in the Kingdom of England and Southern Wales. Tinker who, in want of a parent but against good reason, had adopted me, was as much company as any boy can be. We could never linger in one place for fear of being recognised. Rootless we wandered, carrying such cargo as would pay for the coal that kept the paddlewheels turning.

A movement in the hedgerow broke my reverie. I watched and waited. Hunting kept foxes rare in the countryside. It was more likely to be a badger. With a whisper of parting grass stems, a dark shape scrambled out of cover. It crossed the path in a hop and a jump, landing silently on the deck, where it resolved into the shape of a ragged boy. I felt sure there would have been a grin also, had it been light enough to see one. He held his day's work up by the ears for my approval, then dived down the steps into the cabin. There would be rabbit stew and two new furs to add to the pile.

Life was good.

I was about to follow him inside, but another movement made me pause. A shadow had shifted on the edge of my vision. It was too big to be a badger. A fallow deer perhaps. It could not have been a man. This I knew for certain because its stature had been too small.

* * *

Tinker had never been to school, but that did not mean he was without learning. He could forage food and kindling. He could set a fire without the use of matches. He could move with little sound and hide where no one else would have found a hiding place. A drunken father had taught him that. Unwittingly. Tinker also had an instinct for sensing trouble before it came. It was an ability I never quite fathomed.

He was waiting for me when I abandoned my vigil and climbed down the steps into our small cabin, bathed in yellow light from the candle lantern. He had sloughed off his over-sized coat and dropped the rabbits on the floor as if they were no longer of interest.

I perched myself on my narrow cot. There was little more than five foot of floor space in front of me. A bottle stove opposite provided the means of cooking. Next to it was a cupboard, which served also as a bench.

The ornamental end plate of the engine had been left exposed in the aft wall. Cast in the form of a woman's torso, it leaned forwards, as if she might with another step emerge fully into the cabin, resplendent in her nakedness. Tinker studiously ignored her whenever I was near.

"Good hunting?" I asked him.

"Yes."

"Did you see anyone?"

He shook his head.

"Two rabbits?"

"Yes."

"Were there any deer tracks?"

"No."

"Then a dog perhaps? It would have been very large--like a Wolf Hound?"

He shook his head, then tired of my questioning, grabbed the rabbits and his knife. "Light the fire," he said, before disappearing out of the hatch.

Without hunger, I slept more deeply that night than was usual. Otherwise I might have been disturbed by the tilt of the boat or the sound of movement in the cabin. As it was, my first awareness came with the feeling of a finger poking me in the cheek. It took several groggy seconds before I realised that it was not a finger but the muzzle of a gun. The squat figure of a dwarf loomed next to me in the near dark.

My cry woke Tinker, who sprang to his feet.

"Back off!"

I don't know if Tinker could see the gun or if it was something in the gruff command, but he did as he was told.

"No one do nothing!"

My head had cleared enough now to recognise the intruder's voice and form.

"Fabulo?" I asked.

"The same," growled the dwarf. "Now, tell the boy to light a lamp. And nothing stupid."

I heard the sound of a log being dropped. Tinker must have been holding it as a weapon. Then he opened the stove door. A dull glow bathed his face as he blew on the embers, coaxing a flame from a spill of twisted paper. In the yellow light I saw that Fabulo held a second pistol in his other hand. One was pointing at each of us. With the candle lantern lit he backed away and lowered himself onto the bench in the opposite corner.

"Come," I said, beckoning Tinker.

The boy clambered onto the cot next to me, his knees drawn up to his chest, more like a spider than a child.

"This is cosy," said Fabulo. Short limbed and stubby fingered, he was the opposite of Tinker. He rested the pistols on his knees, "Let me see--when was the last time we met?"

"You know the answer," I said.

"I'm just being polite. It's what old friends do, isn't it, when they get together--reminiscing. Let me see – Bletchley wasn't it? You blinded Harry Timpson. Ah yes, it comes back to me now."

"As I remember, you'd already double crossed me. Or was that your master?"

"It was Harry," he conceded. "I didn't have nothing to do with that."

"You went along with it though."

"That's what we did," said the dwarf. "With Harry you just agreed. He had a way of making things seem right. Even when they weren't."

"Then you admit it was wrong?"

"Aye," he said.

"I never set out to hurt anyone."

"True enough," he said.

"Then we should be square."

"So we should," he said.

"Then why stick a gun in my face?"

"Wanted to be sure, that's all. Didn't know if you might still hold a grudge."

"I'd find your visit a deal more pleasant if you'd put those pistols away."

He tapped his fingers on the stock of one, as if weighing the risk, then placed them on the floor by his feet. "Better?"

They were still within his reach, I noted. And still cocked.

"Would you like some tea?" I asked.

"I've brought my own." From inside his coat the dwarf slipped a metal flask.

I felt Tinker begin to relax. His strange life had left him more suspicious of bar of soap than a flintlock. This might have seemed like old times to him. We'd all been part of the same circus troop--me cleaning out the beast wagon, Tinker minding the horses and Fabulo performing under the Big Top.

Being a dwarf, Fabulo would always be a spectacle. But more than that, he'd been one of Harry Timpson's close advisors. And now something had driven him to seek me out again. I wanted to know what.

Tinker unfolded himself from the cot. I watched as he fed sticks into the stove. With a crackle and the smell of wood smoke he coaxed the fire back to life. Then he took the empty kettle and slipped out into the night.

Fabulo and I regarded each other. His eyes did not leave me as he swigged from the flask. "This is a pleasant reunion," he said, then looked around the cabin until his eyes lighted upon the casting of the naked woman. "I'll bet that shocks the Republicans!"

"She's called the Spirit of Freedom," I said.

"She's just like you then, eh? And just like me. I knew you wouldn't stay put in one place. We're travellers. We don't belong in the world of the country people."

"I have to travel," I said. "There's a reward posted for my capture. I'm sure you knew that."

"But there're many ways to hide. You took to the canals. I can drink to that." This he did. "We'll always be outsiders, you and me. That's the truth. We've got to look out for each other. You didn't need to run from us. The circus would've taken you back."

It was a kind of truth. One that ignored the fact they'd tried to kill me.

"I thought the circus had folded," I said.

"Just because you don't see us, don't mean we're gone."

"What happened to the big top? The wagons?"

"Sold – most of it. Harry was in prison. The Great Harry Timpson! Who do they think they are to lock up a man like that? It was a sad thing. We needed the money for lawyers and bribes. In the end we got him a cell to himself. And food. And doctors. You know how old he was? One hundred and five. And knowledge you could never find in books. He died in that cell."

"Better than being hanged," I said.

Fabulo stared into the dark corner of the cabin as if picturing the scene. "They'd have come to see that show! Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Can you imagine what tricks we might have pulled for a crowd like that?"

"You think he'd have escaped the gallows?"

"Escape? No. But we'd have given them a show, my friend. A fireball? A storm? Harry would have dreamed up something. The greatest show on earth. They'd have been talking about it in a hundred years. He'd have been happy to go that way."

"Do you blame me for his death?" I asked.

He fixed his dark eyes on mine and said: "If I wanted to see you harmed, I could have pulled the trigger just now. Or I could have turned you in. Do you know how much the Duke of Northampton's offering for your capture? The man's obsessed. The price goes higher each month you're free. No, Elizabeth, I don't blame you for Harry Timpson's death."

The way he delivered this speech made it sound rehearsed. I searched his face but could detect neither sincerity nor lie. We had drawn closer to the purpose of his visit, I felt sure of that. But still I could not see where we were heading. There was something unsettlingly fey about his manner.

The moment was broken by a dull clanking and the padding of feet on the deck. Tinker hefted the full kettle back down the steps into the cabin. He knelt next to the stove, oblivious to the tension.

"What's your cargo?" Fabulo asked, as if making small talk.

"Furniture and small packages."

"They pay you well?"

"Enough."

"No pirates trying to steal your cargo?"

"None."

"So life's good."

"Yes," I said.

"And a new horizon every day." He raised the flask as a salute then took another swig. "What of winter?" he asked.

"We'll manage."

"There's always thieving. If it gets too bad."

"I'll not be doing that."

"Not even a thin chicken from a fat farmer?"

For a time neither of us spoke. I kept my eyes away from Fabulo's pistols, still cocked on the floor. My own pistol lay under the pillow next to me, loaded but not cocked. I shifted closer to it, as if making myself more comfortable.

There was a faint crackling from the stove and the smell of ardent spirit from Fabulo's breath. Tinker had curled up on the floor and seemed to be falling asleep. A pleasant domestic scene. The kettle began to rumble.

"I saw you last evening," I said. "You were watching from the hedgerow. I'd thought you were deer. You should have come and introduced yourself."

"Would you have welcomed me?"

"I'd have wanted to know why you'd travelled all the way into Lincolnshire to see me."

"Ah. I was working round to that. But since the pleasantries are out of the way, I may as well ask. There's an enterprise I'm engaged in that could do with a woman of your talents."

"You're offering me employment?"

"We'd be partners."

"I can't perform in a circus. You know that. There are bounty hunters looking for me."

"Not the circus. If all goes to plan, we'd not be seen. Not by anyone. There'd be payment at the end. Rich payment, at that."

"This is thieving then?"

"We'll take something, yes. But not from any person. None will be the poorer. You've no need worry your pretty conscience. And there could be money up front if you say yes. You could dump your cargo in the canal. Let it rot."

"If none's to be poorer, who'll you be stealing from?"

"That's the part you'll like the best," he said. "You'll be stealing from the International Patent Office."

Until then I'd thought him foolhardy. But as I heard this, I knew that he was mad. To steal from the Patent Office was certain death.

As he'd been speaking, I'd been inching my hand under the pillow. Now I snatched the pistol and had it cocked before he could reach for his.

"Elizabeth?"

"Don't you know the risk you put me to--coming here and saying such things?"

"No one's listening!"

"You don't know what you're talking about!"

"The Patent Office ruined your life," he said. "I'm offering a way to get even."

"You're offering a noose and I want you gone! I'll give you this choice--I can pull the trigger here and now or you can promise to never come here again."

Copyright © 2016 by Rod Duncan


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The Custodian of Marvels

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