Honest Work – a flash steampunk story

Jewellery box

“It’s for security,” Lady Winters explained. “I’ve had broaches stolen by servants in the past. I want a jewellery box that will jab anyone who tries to open it the wrong way.”

“It could make a noise instead,” I said. “A tiny clockwork alarm to scare them off and draw attention.”

“I’d rather draw a little blood, to make my point clear.”

“Aye, I get it.” It was an odd request, but I could follow the logic. It would certainly be an interesting challenge to craft, and I loved a challenge, the thrill of putting the pieces together. “Come back in a week, I should have something for you.”


Most people came to the artisans’ district on clear days. Lady Winters preferred to come in the smog, and returned a day late because of it. She said that she liked the shadows the buildings cast through the grey-brown gloom, but she never seemed to linger.

“I included something to clean the needle as it goes in and out,” I said, slowly raising the lid of the jewellery box. A needle emerged from a hidden hole in the cushioned interior.

“No cleaning,” Lady Winters said.

“It will help preserve the mechanism.”

“Yes, but…” She looked away to the left, as if gathering her thoughts. “I want the blood as evidence when I challenge the would-be thief. If the needle is cleaned it will be less effective.”

There were better ways to prove a case, but if there was one lesson I’d learnt as a maker of mechanisms, it was to give the customer what they wanted.

“I’ll adjust it,” I said. “Come back in two days.”


I sat over the box, carefully taking parts out and putting others in. Removing the cleaning mechanism was satisfyingly simple work that let my mind wander.

What Lady Winter was asking for didn’t quite make sense. I could have made a mechanism that would have stained the thief’s hands, proving their guilt far more effectively, but she’d refused it. The lady’s logic seemed needlessly cruel, but her behaviour showed a calm rationality. Like gears in a poorly made clock, the pieces didn’t fit together.

Could there be a different reason for wanting to stab whoever opened a jewellery box? Some sort of strange prank, perhaps?

It could be a way to deliver poison, but that was absurd. It would be obvious who the killer was, as they’d provided the box. Lady Winter herself would hang for it.

The shop bell chimed and Hooper, a steam mechanic from up the street, walked in amid a swirl of smog.

“You got time to fix a watch?” he asked.

“In a couple of hours,” I said. “I have to finish a job for Lady Winter first.”

“Ooh, one of the nobs gave you a job before they all left town,” Hooper said. “Very fancy.”

I frowned.

“What do you mean, left town?”

“Whole court’s gone to the country until the fog passes.” Hooper chucked me a newspaper. “You need to get your nose out of your gears and learn about the world.” He put his watch down on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow, yeah?”


“I wanted to share a drink before I go,” Lady Winter said. “To toast your remarkable accomplishments.”

She took two tin cups off my shelf, unscrewed the lid of a hip flask, and poured out measures of something sweet and heady smelling.

“But before we drink, could you show me how it works?” she said, nodding to the jewellery box.

“Of course.” I picked it up and started setting the mechanisms. “You know, I saw your picture in the paper yesterday.”

“They never quite get me right,” she said, smiling sweetly.

“Of course not,” I said, handing her the box. “They didn’t even know that you were in town, unlike all your friends.”

“I like to keep a low profile.”

“That’s not what the papers say.”

“Ha. Shall we drink?”

“In a minute. Try the box first.”

She pressed the switch which had previously disabled the stabber.

“Ow!” She dropped the box and looked down at her hand. The sweet calmness of her usual demeanour was gone. “What have you done, you little bitch?”

“A jabber with a set of inked needles. They tattooed my maker’s mark onto your palm. I didn’t want trouble in my workshop, so I told the authorities to look for someone who looks like Lady Winter, with that tattoo on their hand. Told them the person was a poisoner who’d commissioned a killing box.”

“Bare faced lies!”

“Perhaps. If you drink both those cups you poured, then I’ll tell them I was wrong.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I could kill you now,” she said.

“Aye, then Hooper finds me in five minutes when he comes to fetch his watch. He raises the hue and cry and they start hunting you straight away. Or you can leave now and I’ll give you two hours head start.”

She looked at the cups, the box, her hand, and back to me.

“You should have been the assassin,” she said. “You have the cunning for it.”

“You should have been an artisan,” I said. “It’s honest work.”

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


And for the steampunk lovers:

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Out Now – Words of Wisdom

Rahiq wove her way through the crowd, squeezing between bellowing camels and city walls that trembled in their brass tracks, vast blocks of stone rotating around Baghdad’s perimeter. Today was the day. Today she would change her life…

My story “Words of Wisdom” is out now in issue #105 of On Spec magazine. Set in a clockwork version of medieval Baghdad, it’s the story of a young engineer trying to find her place in the world and an aging master trying to preserve what he has built.

Not All Hands Tell the Time – a flash story

Picture by martinak15 via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by martinak15 via Flickr Creative Commons

The heart is a hard book to read, even to a woman as learned as myself. But in retrospect, I suspect that I loved Silvio di Forenti from the moment I saw him, cool and serious, standing in the doorway of my drawing room. I have met many wild animals in my travels, and intensity has come to mean more to me than all the pleasantries in the world.

His bow was stiff yet perfectly appropriate, as if he measured out manners by the ounce. It was hardly a surprise from a master of his craft.

Outside the window a carriage rolled past, and the city hall clock chimed in chorus with the one on my mantelpiece.

“Professor Liveci.” Without pausing for small talk, Master Forenti crossed the room and knelt beside my chair. His gaze focused on the stump of my wrist. “The wound has been well stitched. That will help.”

“My manservant’s surgical skills are excellent.” I nodded to where Antonio stood discretely in his usual corner, and he blushed slightly. He reddened further as Forenti, without so much as asking permission, took hold of the stump. My breath caught in my throat, both at the transgression and at the thrill of his delicate fingers on my skin.

“That makes sense for an explorer.” He opened his bag and took out two carefully jointed metal hands. The ends of their clockwork innards caught the light as he compared their width to that of my arm. “Would you prefer brass or steel?”

“I…” All I had thought about was the need for a new hand, and that I was one of the lucky few who could afford one. Now I felt like a fool – for once I had not done my research. “Whichever you think will look best.”

He ran a finger along my forearm and stared at the colour of my skin. I had only felt so intensely scrutinised once before, facing a mountain lion during the mapping of Gawatob.

My heart raced.

“Brass.” He nodded. “It will bring out your warmth.”

Rising, he placed the gleaming hands back in his bag.

“I will need a month for the main mechanism.” He glanced at Antonio. “Your man can assist with the attachment, or I can bring a surgeon.”

“I would prefer Antonio.” I hesitated as Forenti headed for the door. “Master Silvio, would you care to stay for supper?”

Now he hesitated, back still to me, before shaking his head.

“I understand the compulsion to offer me such politeness,” he said. “But there is no need.”

With that he was gone.


To my surprise and delight, Silvio di Forenti called upon me twice more during the making of the hand, to check the sizing of parts and discuss finishes for the metal. My joy in these visits was alloyed by the stiff formality of his demeanour, which spoke of no interest in me as a woman, and by the knowledge that all this would end once I had my hand.

So I determined to make one last push at conversation, that I might find an excuse to meet again.

Despite an alchemist’s draft and several good measures of brandy, the operation itself was agonising. I spent the following week sleepless, feverish and in pain, while my body adjusted to its new part. By the time Forenti returned to check on his work, I was just about lucid, and had begun to move my mechanical fingers.

“I feel that I should be striking the hours.” With slow, careful movements I brought the thumb and index finger together. It was a strange experience to see them touch but feel nothing.

“Why?” He tightened one of the joints with a tiny clamp.

“Because I have clearly become a clock,” I replied. “I have a mechanical hand, and it is driven by gears.”

“Not all hands tell the time.” He rose and packed away his tools. “I am done. I should go.”

“There is no need to rush.” Flushed with embarrassment at my failed humour, I was still determined to buy a little more time. “Perhaps you would care for a drink?”

“There really is no need for pleasantries,” he said. “I have already taken up far more of your time than I would for most. An indulgence for which I apologise.”

He half turned away, then stopped, staring at the clock on the mantelpiece. Suddenly he laughed, a sound I had never heard before.

“Hand has two meanings.” He turned to face me again. “I am sorry, I am not good with jokes. It is one reason so many find me disagreeable, but I would never wish to be disagreeable to you.”

“I am not good with pleasantries.” I smiled. “But I would like the chance to be pleasant to you. So please, will you join me for a drink?”

“If you mean it, then nothing would please me more.” He set his bag down and took a chair next to mine. “Tell me, what sort of beast took your hand?”

“A manticore,” I said. “Let me tell you the tale…”

The door creaked discretely shut as Antonio, always wise to my needs, went to take his time finding the sherry.

* * *


This week I was going to write a steampunk story, to mark the release of Aristocracts and Artillery, the third book in my Epiphany Club series. I’m really excited to have this book out – based on feedback from my beta readers, each of these books is better than the last – and I hope you’ll all give it a look. If you haven’t started on the series yet, book one is free on Amazon and Smashwords, and book two is only 99c from all the same places.

But despite that excitement, I didn’t manage to come up with a steampunk story. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I suffer from depression, and this week I’ve suffered from the worst patch in a year or two. Writing anything was hard, so rather than fight to write something that fitted my plans, I wrote something that caught my imagination. Thanks to that decision, I’ve written some fresh fiction for the first time in over a week. I guess there’s a lesson in there about writing what you love, but my main take away is a huge sense of relief that my brain is recovering, if only a little at a time.

As always, I hope you enjoyed this week’s story, and if you’d like to have these sent direct to your inbox each Friday, as well as a free copy of Riding the Mainspring, please consider signing up for my mailing list.