New Ceres Nights extract – “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart” by Angela Slatter

December 24th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “The Piece of Ice in Miss Windermere’s Heart” by Angela Slatter

Violet liked a challenge, most of the time. But then again, most of the time she was not hanging upside down over the bed of one very fat, very drunk, impossibly rich noble. Breathing in the fumes that rose from him might very well finish her off before she got the job done. Then there was the dog; a very old, superannuated, sleeping kind of a dog to be sure, but large and, well, leaving a puddle of drool on the floor roughly the size of New Lake Lucerne. If nothing else, she might drown were she to fall into it.

The chandelier from which she hung was a sturdy thing (for this fact alone she was eternally grateful), almost two metres in diameter, firmly lodged in the plaster of the reinforced ceiling, its eight arms spread wide and covered in a dazzling variety of cut crystal prisms. She was small, a girl who brought to mind the word ‘wispy’ (Violet herself preferred ‘delicate’) and so her weight did not add much of a strain to the structure. She twisted and slithered her way towards the middle of the thing.

She could see her goal. In the central column, three of the dangling crystals looked quite different to the rest. By the moonlight streaming through the large French windows the fine tracery that wove inside was visible: one set was gold, one silver, one green. All very lovely and subtle, and pretty much undetectable unless you had managed to get inside the crawl space of the house, shuffle your way along the dusty tubes, then slip through the air vent, and hang your very small self off the very large light source and examine each of its component parts very carefully.

Violet shifted position, just a little but it was enough to make the chandelier dance ever so slightly. The pendants tinkled against each other, the gentlest of sounds, but sufficient to bring a snort and a sniff from master and hound respectively. Violet froze, willing the song to cease.

The man below, who happened to be Doctor Lord Shelley Fitzwilliam, Prefect of Prosperine’s Hospital District, snorted and rolled over like a behemoth, displacing sheets, blankets, and a large silver hip flask, which fell off the bed onto the back of the unconcerned dog, then slid with relative quiet to the rug. The Prefect next let out a deafening snore coupled with a phenomenal fart and settled back to sleep. The dog raised its head with an effort, sniffed (no doubt re-anaesthetizing itself), and then it too slipped back into dreams.

Violet breathed out, then in … and regretted it immediately. She estimated the good doctor could power Prosperine’s spaceport for a good few months all on his own.

As she removed each crystal, she replaced it with one of the same size and cut. The theft would not be discovered for a while, she hoped. Violet slotted the last facsimile into place, checked it was fast and began the complicated series of bodily twists and contortions to take her back to the mouth of the air vent.

It was all going so well when she slipped. There was no reason for it to happen, but it did indeed happen. One moment she was holding on tight with her hands while she unravelled her legs from the branches of the chandelier. The next, the air was rushing by, removing her small black cloth cap, and she hit the bed.

To be fair, she hadn’t made much of a noise or an impact. Nor had she landed on its occupant, but nevertheless Doctor Lord Shelley Fitzwilliam sat straight up as if the expanse of his considerable backside were on fire. He looked to his right, then to his left. What he saw was a pale and lovely face, with amethyst-coloured eyes, full Cupid’s bow lips and surrounded by luxuriant red hair.

Violet had just enough time to compose her features and get rid of any sign of guilt. She gave a bright, somewhat sleepy smile and nestled into the soft mattress beneath her.

Fitzwilliam stared.

“Are we? Did we? I don’t mean to seem ungentlemanly, but I don’t remember…”

“Oh, we didn’t, dear,” Violet replied in her sweetest tone.

“Ah. So I haven’t paid you, m’dear?” He looked increasingly confused. She could see that sleep and alcohol still had a good grip on him. Had he been less befuddled he might have noticed the dirty smudges on her face from the crawl through the walls and ceilings of his house. The dog, it should be noted, made no move to attack or, indeed, even to wake.

“Oh, heavens no! I’m not that sort.”

“Are you … you’re not an angel, are you?” His eyes widened hopefully, and she had to stop her own from rolling. She shook her head charmingly.

“No, no, sweetest, not one of them. I’m just a dream.” She opened her arms. “Now, back to sleep with you.”

He was already falling back into the grip of his chosen opiates, snuggling down against her. She had to be careful, she knew, to time it perfectly. If he fell asleep on her she would never get out from under his dead weight and would be stuck until morning — she didn’t trust Holly to come looking for her.

The doctor was quite good, only tried to rub her breasts once or twice, but she gently pulled his hand away and stroked his neck and back as if he were a very large, malodorous baby.

Within ten minutes she was able to extract herself. A small jump from the end of the high, springy bed got the edge of the air vent under her hands and she heaved herself upwards, then pulled the grill shut behind her.

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Smuggler’s Moon” by Lee Battersby

December 21st, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Smuggler’s Moon” by Lee Battersby

One of the very great advantages of living in the Eighteenth Century is that it is considered somehow gauche to do anything in a hurry. It is important, if your status behoves it, to be gentlemanly. I was able to make Mister Collyer wait a full half hour before I was ready to sit with him in our drawing room and ask after the reason behind his brash declaration.

“You don’t seem worried.” He leaned forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. I smiled.

“An innocent man has only the Lord for his judge, Mister Collyer. I can think of no crime I have committed. Am I wrong?”

He studied me for several moments, then leaned back and blew his lips outwards in an exaggerated sigh.

“No, I rather doubt it, actually.”

“Then why the…” I waved my hand towards the front of the house. He made himself comfortable, considered me again.

“What do you know of your neighbours, Reverend?”

“They are my flock. I serve them as best I can.”

“They’re honest people?”

“As much as can be hoped.”

“No thieves? Adulterers? Smugglers?”

“Not particularly.”

“Particularly?

“Well.” I smiled, somewhat ruefully. “They’re farmers, for the most part. Poor, for the most part. If they steal, or covet their neighbour’s wives, they don’t let word of it reach me.”

“And smuggling?”

“Ah.”

“You know something?”

“No. But it was an odd choice to present me with, after adultery and theft.”

He raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement. “You have me, sir.”

“Oh, I’m sure I don’t. You hunt smugglers, then?”

“Only the rumour, Reverend. It is my stock in trade, you might say.”

“Might I?”

“Well, perhaps I might. Rumours, information, connections. I follow them.”

“That must be fascinating for you.”

“Yes, it is.”

“And what do you do when you track down these rumours?”

He bit his lip, flexing the fingers of one hand against the other. “It all rather depends on how true they are. The Eighteenth Century is our domain, Reverend. We are tasked with ensuring it remains … constant. Her Ladyship insists upon it.”

“And someone in my village is smuggling? Something that is not, how could we say it? Appropriate?”

“There are rumours.”

“I see. Would you like wine?”

“What? I mean, I beg your pardon?”

I indicated the clock on the mantelpiece. “It’s after eleven, Mister Collyer. We shall be having lunch soon, and of course, you will join us. Time, perhaps, for a small glass before we dine.”

“I … yes, thank you.”

“Imogene!”

My daughter appeared at the door behind me, just quickly enough that I knew she had been listening in the gap between the kitchen and the rear stairs.

“Imogene, may we have two glasses of the Chateaux Dubois before lunch, please?”

“Yes, Father.” She curtsied to Collyer, and disappeared into the kitchen. Neither of us spoke until she had returned and we had taken glasses from her tray.

“Thank you, Imogene. We shall have lunch in the garden, if that suits.”

“Certainly, Father.” Collyer watched her go.

“How old is your daughter?”

“Fourteen.”

“No Mrs Clegg?”

I sipped my wine and stared hard at him. “Are you a religious man, Mister Collyer?”

“I was raised a Lennonist.”

“And now?”

He shrugged. “I still like some of the hymns.”

“I was born a Catholic.”

“Oh.”

“Exactly.” I lowered my glass. “Not a well-liked sect on the outer planets. But here, well…”

“A somewhat different environment.”

“Yes. Somewhat different. It was one of the more conservative religions on Earth, in the past. When I heard about this planet and the … strictures it had voluntarily taken on, I insisted we come. Marie, my wife, had converted for my sake and, well, in some environments, in some time periods… ‘A man’s home is his castle’. Have you heard that saying?”

“No, I can’t say I have.”

I snorted. “She did what I insisted, like a good Catholic wife.”

“Ah.”

“So we came to this planet, where we could live as good Catholics, with good Catholic teachings, in an approximation of a time when it was good to be a Catholic. And when Marie fell pregnant, we celebrated as good Catholics do and awaited the birth of our first child.”

“What happened?”

I stared through my glass at the fire, distorted by the glass and the red liquid. “Modern surgical procedures, Mister Collyer.”

“I’m sorry?”

I lowered the glass and looked at him. “They don’t exist here.”

“Ah. I’m sorry.”

I drained my glass. “Imogene was saved.”

“A great comfort, I trust.”

“She is my entire life, Mister Collyer. I would do anything to ensure her happiness.” I stood. “Her station in life is entirely my fault and my responsibility. I will not have her suffer the same fate as her mother.”

“No, I expect not.”

“Our lunch will be ready. Perhaps you can tell me more of rumours and smuggling. Shall we?”

I indicated the door. We stood, and proceeded to our meal.

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New Ceres Nights extract – “The Sharp Shooter” by Sylvia Kelso

December 20th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “The Sharp Shooter” by Sylvia Kelso

The track made a faint but distinguishable double ribbon up the valley’s curve, threading spare thickets of the persistent native conifers they called pine and spruce, and at this season passing great patches of native spring flowers. Rashpetal, gold as legendary daffodils, fingersting, delicately purple as mythic violets. The clear, vivid fuchsia of stranglebud, and the tall vermillion spires of touch-me-not. High on either side, native timber furred the valley sides, and behind the farm rose the Savoy peaks, crystal and azure and perilously close, their steep faces threatening imminent avalanche. Mont Isére, Mont Bourbon, and the faceted pyramid of Mont Nouveau Blanc.

Beneath that immensity the solitary rider looked insignificant as any other. But Jean had been right. He was quite alone.

Amadeus swore under his breath. An adventurer, a total stranger, a wandering idiot? Who else, up here, would ride alone?

Nevertheless, a guest was a guest. Suzanne looked out clean sheets, Modestine hurried for more salted meat. Amadeus put his tools away. Washed his face at the pump, safely inside the palisade, found a clean shirt and sat on the front bench to indulge his one luxury: New Ceres tobacco, the only native plant most ordinary folk could tolerate, in a long clay pipe brought all the way from Prosperine.

By the first pinch of the final climb, the mount was clearly a horse. A very good horse, Amadeus estimated, a dark liver-chestnut, at least half thoroughbred, with excellent shoulder and solid bone. Not a wandering idiot, then. An adventurer?

“Pierre,” he said quietly into the house-door. “Load my musket. And stand at the window-slit.”

Then the track turned to reveal the saddlecloth. The Millefleur blazon of the triple fleur-de-lys.

Suzanne was suddenly beside him, voicing his own thought. “Millefleur sent this?”

The horse pricked its ears and tossed its head as the cannies broke into voice. It almost shied, but then came on steadily toward the gate. As would an expected — an official — visitor.

Suzanne’s hand brushed Amadeus’ shoulder. She whistled sharply to the cannies and took them to be tied up.

Amadeus himself stood up, reluctantly, to unbar the gate. The horse halted just beyond. Amadeus looked up, the rider looked down. A young face, under a broad-brimmed hat that was new and well-shaped and maybe offworld felt, but not an aristo’s tricorne. Clear blue eyes, a smatter of freckles across the nose, hinting youth refuted by the crowsfeet at the eye-corners, the firm jaw. The clothes were plain too, far plainer than the horse. No waistcoat, no buckskin breeches, no calf-high boots. And no sword. Just an ordinary man’s homespun trousers and riding boots, a weather-coat strapped over a pair of saddlebags. And the gun scabbard by the rider’s right leg.

Amadeus stared. The lock above the horse’s wither was as ornately chased as one of St. Vierge’s own hunting pieces, but the barrel was twice the length of a New Ceres musket’s, let alone a rapid-blaster. It ended almost at the horse’s knee. No time to gape. The rider was already summing him up in turn. Certainly, with that blazon on his saddlecloth, expecting a salute.

Amadeus touched the quiff of curls that passed for his forelock and mumbled, “Amadeus Lebrun at your service, m’sieu.”

The rider bowed briefly over the saddle bow. “Anne-Hilarion,” he said. “At your service, m’sieu.”

Amadeus knew the aristo habit of giving men women’s names, not to mention two names rolled into one. He had offered to hold the stirrup, as a vassal should, before the omission sank in. But it would be as risky as discourteous to insist: Pardon me, sir, and your second name?

The rider had already given a quick headshake and swung off unassisted. On the offside of the horse, right hand reaching as by instinct for the stock of the gun.

He came round the horse’s head with the weapon at port, as easily as a great dame would wield her parasol, and Amadeus could not take his eyes off it. Not merely the unfamiliar length, but the crescent-shaped butt-plate, the hammer like a rearing dragon that grasped the flint in its jaws, the elegantly slender stock with its acanthus-leaf decoration, a glitter of polished metal and polished wood.

“The Comte de Beligny tells me,” Anne-Hilarion’s French was offworld, just a little too precise and slow, “that you have a small problem here?”

Among his peers Amadeus would have guffawed. Given his will he would have snorted, Small? But the habit of ridiculous understatement was also bone-deep aristo. He bowed briefly. Yes.

Anne-Hilarion’s eyes rose to his. Rose almost six inches, Amadeus judged, and though he looked light and whippy, it was hardly an imposing build. Then the eyes flicked and the gun barrel twitched and Amadeus forgot height and weight together. “M’sieu, that is only my wife! My wife Suzanne!”

She had come to the gate behind him, as the housewife should. He knew the faint scent of hops and yeast and the sound of her skirts. He forced himself not to leap between them with arms outheld.

But Anne-Hilarion had already lowered the gun, and despite plain boots and riding trousers, was making a creditable leg. He did not remove his hat, since his hands were already occupied. His voice was, again, quite courteous.

“Madame.”

Suzanne curtsyed sweepingly. She had been a houseservant before they married, and knew court manners secondhand. “M’sieu.”

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Blessed are the dead that the rain falls upon” by Martin Livings

December 19th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Blessed are the dead that the rain falls upon” by Martin Livings

I stood on the curb of the wet, filthy street in front of a small shop, its closed wooden shutters painted with graffiti slogans for the technoground movement and other half-hearted grassroots rebellions here in the ghettos of Prosperine. The rain ran through the salt and pepper stubble on my scalp anddown my face. I never bothered with an umbrella. I liked the rain. It was better than the alternative.

A temporary marquee had been set up on the corner of Rue Macarty and Lecomte, to shelter the gutter there. I’d already blocked both ends of the sluice, to prevent anything left there being flushed away by the autumnal showers, down through the iron grates, into the sewers and out to sea. It was a futile gesture, perhaps, but one we had to make nonetheless. In a world without modern technology, one did what one could to preserve a crime scene.

“It’s not like in the Lady Detective novels, is it, Bill?” Doc Ulysses asked me, as he knelt down beside the gutter. He was an old man, visibly old, something that still surprised me even after five years living on New Ceres. Anti-aging treatments — cheap and commonplace back on Earth — were illegal here; not unheard of, just too expensive for ordinary men like Ulysses.

“All primped and proper ladies,” he continued, “stuffed shirts and snuff boxes and fast-acting toxins. An attractive bunch of suspects, all high society of course. A thoughtful accusation, a flustered confession, then tea and biscuits all round.” He made a disgusted noise. “Do people honestly believe murders are actually like that in the real world?”

I shook my head. “They’d like to believe that, Doc. But they know it’s not true.” I looked around, at the crowd gathered curiously in the streets, eager for a glimpse of horror. “It’s just dirty and violent. Like we all are here.”

The doctor laughed at that. “Even you, Bill? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you draw your truncheon.” He gestured at the police issue wooden cudgel hanging from my wide leather belt, the only weapon a policeman was permitted to carry in Prosperine.

“Even me, Doc,” I replied. “Even me.”

The doctor snorted at that. Ulysses was a general practitioner but we brought him in to help us whenever we needed a medical man by our side. He seemed thrilled to receive something unusual to examine for a change; most of his work for us involved much less exotic crimes. This area, Canonge, was at the far eastern edge of Prosperine, largely populated by the lower classes, the forgotten majority. The cases down here were rarely complex. A cuckolded husband strangles his wife and her lover. A mugger smashes his victim’s head into a wall. A woman drowns the baby she can’t afford to feed, crying as it struggles weakly under her fingers. Nothing epic, nothing entertaining. Basic humanity, desperate and struggling. Simple. That suited me fine. I just wanted to do my job. Nothing more.

I looked down at the stones where the pathologist squatted. At the severed hand that nestled there, amongst the rubbish and some reddening fallen leaves, fingers curling upwards and inwards, like a fallen bird. It was a woman’s left hand, small and delicate, thin fingers and long nails. The cut looked clean, almost surgical. There was very little blood.

I’d come to New Ceres to get away from things like this.

It had seemed logical to me, when I’d been choosing my destination. Anywhere you like, they’d told me. You’re free to go anywhere you like, as long as you can afford it. I couldn’t afford much, but I’d had some choices. I’d chosen to come here, to a world frozen in time, a world of truncheons instead of rapid-fire flechette guns, in the vain hope that I could leave the horror behind.

No such luck.

Ulysses poked at the hand thoughtfully with his tweezers. “Not much in the way of rigour mortis,” he observed. “I doubt it’s been here for much more than a few hours.”

“Look at the fingernails,” I told him.

“Huh?”

“The fingernails,” I repeated. “Check under them.”

He sighed and bent over further, brass tweezers extended. He inserted one tip of the tweezers gently beneath the fingernail of the index finger of the hand, slid it along its breadth, brought it out. Examined it. “Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing at all. Satisfied?”

“Yes,” I said. “Look around you.”

Ulysses stayed in his kneeling position, though it obviously pained his aged knees, lowered his glasses on his nose and looked over them at the ghoulish people gathered, the rundown buildings, the dirty streets. “What?” he asked at last.

“See a lot of clean fingernails here, Reynard? Especially ones with immaculate manicures?”

He just looked up at me, dumbfounded. Then he smiled. “Damnation,” he said at last, with a mixture of annoyance and admiration in his voice. “William Finnegan, you really would give La Duchesse a run for her money.”

“I’m not a detective,” I reminded the doctor. “Just a cop. And anyway, the so-called Great Detective would never come here. She wouldn’t be caught dead in Canonge, I’m sure.” I looked at the hand again. It seemed almost supplicant. Pleading. “No, Doc, whoever this hand belongs to will have to rely on us for justice. God help her.”

“No, I don’t think He will,” Ulysses said, as he lifted the hand from the gutter by one finger, feeling its weight.

“What do you mean?”

Ulysses frowned. “This hand is in pristine condition.” He turned the hand around, pointed the stump at me. “Look at it,” he told me.

I glanced at it. “I don’t understand.”

“I may not be a trained policeman like you,” the doctor declared, “but I’ve seen enough severed limbs in my life to recognise that there’s something off about this one. The tissue isn’t decaying, not at all. No rigour. Minimal bleeding, as if the capillaries had all puckered shut. And there’s something else.”

“What?”

The doctor tossed the hand at me. I caught it without thinking, and immediately knew what he was talking about.

“It’s heavy,” I grunted, hefting it in my hands. It felt more like a sculpture than a human hand, carved of some soft stone. “Too heavy.” I looked at it closer, at the curved fingers.

“Smooth,” I muttered.

“Sorry?” the doctor asked.

“The fingertips. They’re smooth. No prints.” Our eyes met. “Synthetic,” I said at last. “This isn’t a human hand. It comes from an android.” My blood ran cold, as if I was holding a live grenade, rather than a dead hand. This was trouble.

I turned to the crowd, looking for the men I knew would be there, the men who were always there whenever things like this happened. I spotted them after a moment or two, standing in the middle of the gathered crowd, on the far corner of Macarty and Lecomte. Two smallish men, both wrapped in their robes of office, the famed golden cloth tarnished to a dull brown in the wan grey light of a rainy day. They were watching us. Just us.

Seeing I’d spotted them, the men broke away from the crowd and came towards us. The severed hand seemed to grow heavier still as they approached. They stopped just before the edge of the marquee.

I took a deep breath. “Gentlemen,” I said to them with a polite nod, hoping my nervousness wasn’t showing. “I assume you’ve come for this?” I held up the hand.

The first robed man nodded. He reached into his robe and pulled out an identification badge. Lumoscenti, as I’d thought.

“Detective,” he said. “My name is Brother Thomas and this is Brother Simon.”

The second man nodded. With their pale faces and bald heads, the pair could have been brothers by blood, rather than just by title.

“I’m not a detective,” I replied. “Senior Constable Finnegan, Serious Crimes.”

“Constable?” the second man repeated, thin eyebrows raised. “Aren’t you a little old for that?”

I shrugged as casually as I could. Cold sweat had broken out over my neck and palms. The Golden Monks always made me uncomfortable. They always seemed to be watching, judging. Which was their job, after all.

Doc Ulysses nodded in greeting to the monks, a relaxed smile on his face. He was born here on New Ceres, had lived his whole long life under the Lumoscenti’s careful gaze. He was accustomed to them, and their judgement. He felt safe. I envied him that.

 

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Prosperine when it sizzles” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

December 18th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Prosperine when it sizzles” by Tansy Rayner Roberts

My mistress is never more confident than when engaging in nefarious activities. “Duchesse Claudine Augustille Recherche Dubois,” she announced to the factotum of the spice shop. “Accompanied by M. Pepin.”

The factotum looked alarmed. “Madame, one is not supposed to use one’s real name.”

My mistress paused to consider the etiquette of this. “Would it help if I pretended to be M. Pepin, and he pretended to be La Duchesse?”

“Just write M. and Mme. Noir,” I urged.

The factotum looked relieved. “Very good, Monsieur.”

“Nonsense, Pepin,” protested La Duchesse as I steered her through the shop. “How am I expected to remember a name like Noir? Pseudonyms require subtlety, panache … possibly something from classic literature?”

“I will try to conjure something more literary next time,” I promised her.

Past the foul-smelling shelves and bins of the shop, we found ourselves within one of the more sinister dens of the city of Prosperine. At first it appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary — a selection of well-heeled ladies and gentlemen sat at tables in order to chat, to read from slender volumes, or to embroider while drinking dishes of coffee.

But the flashes of metallic grey, LED green and holographic purple were hard to ignore. For every gentleman with a book, there were another three swapping datacrystals. For every lady with embroidery on her knee, there were several with glowing nano-wands or flat screens. Even setting foot in an establishment like this was illegal on New Ceres. For an aristocrat such as my mistress, there was a great deal to lose. Only one week earlier, the Count and Countess of Chevre had been arrested in Anglais for hosting a scientifiction salon in a speakeasy such as this one. They were currently awaiting trial for sacrilege and treason, and there was talk that the Lumoscenti were pressuring the Lady Governor to withdraw the Chevre family’s rank and titles back three generations.

“Eyes open, Pepin,” said my mistress as we walked among our fellow criminals. “And don’t drink the coffee. It smells positively rancid.”

I recognised the boy first, though I had only seen him at a distance on state occasions. Conrad Nathaniel DeVries had dyed his hair recently, but his black-splashed locks could not disguise the evident family resemblance, including a particularly pointed nose.

I nudged my mistress, and indicated the table where Conrad sat with a group of similarly raucous and badly dressed young gentlemen. They were playing some kind of offworld game with holographic battleships that shot glowing pellets across a flat glass gameboard, and had reached that stage of drunkenness where simply everything is hilarious.

My mistress moved into position behind Conrad before calling attention to herself by plucking at his sleeve. “Young sir,” she murmured. “A word, if you please?”

He shook her off without looking. “Take your wares elsewhere, wench.”

His friends laughed at that, but one of them caught the look in La Duchesse’s eyes, and the laughter stilled in his throat.

“For your mother’s sake, sir,” my mistress said, with glass in her voice. “A moment of your time.”

Conrad whirled at her, eyes bright with absinthe and rage. “Who are you to use my mother’s name—” There he stopped, for he recognised the woman before him. “What are you doing here?”

La Duchesse smiled a winning smile. “Merely a duty visit, my sweet. I knew him in swaddling clothes,” she confided to his friends, even as she drew the resisting lad into her perfumed bosom. As he struggled in her embrace, she whispered into his ear. She was too discreet for even I to hear the words, but I guessed something of what she had said to him.

Don’t be an ass, Nate. The Lumoscenti are coming. This place is being raided tonight, and you know perfectly well that you can’t be caught here.

Everything moved fast after that. Even as the young rascal made his apologies to withdraw, a low whistle sounded from the spice shop frontage.

“The Golden Priests!” someone cried. Many of the patrons simply slipped their contraband out of sight, but others upturned tables and scrambled for the back door.

“Not there,” La Duchesse said in disgust as the brat made to bolt. “This way, Nate. Follow me.”

“My name is Conrad,” he spat at her in disgust. “You’re not my mother.”

“Saints be praised for that, at least,” she said, and dragged him towards a wall thick with tapestries.

There were yelps and howls from outside. “Priests at the exit?” I said, not in the least surprised.

“La Policia, I expect,” said my mistress. “This isn’t an everyday raid.” She pushed us both behind the tapestries. “Is there a door, Pepin?”

There was, though it was old and unused, with a firm lock upon it. “How did you know?”

“No time for questions!”

Within three months of employment in La Duchesse’s household, I had found it necessary to learn the art of picking locks. A beauty such as this one, however, required time and finesse that I did not have. I drew a fountain pen from my inner pocket, thumbed it to draw a fine laser bead and sliced the lock neatly from the door.

Conrad gulped at the hissing sound of metal parting.

“That’s right, lad,” La Duchesse said grimly. “We’re all criminals here.”

Steps led down to a cellar. Conrad clattered down them, and I followed with La Duchesse after bolting the door from this side.

“There’s a tunnel behind the barrels,” she said, without looking to check. “It leads up and out to the alley near the bookshop.”

“That’s why you had Damon wait there with the phaeton,” I said, admiringly. The bookshop was in another street entirely to both the spice shop’s front and back entrances.

She rolled her eyes. “Really, Pepin, I am no amateur in these matters. Make haste, before they find the door behind the tapestry.”

Conrad hesitated by the barrels. I motioned for him to start moving them, and after a moment, he did. Sure enough, there was a small hole in the wall — wide enough for a man to crawl through. Not a woman in current fashions, though.

“You’ll have to leave your skirts,” I told La Duchesse.

“I’m not coming with you. What are you waiting for?’ she barked at Conrad, and he dived into the tunnel as if his life depended on it. In a manner of speaking, of course, it did.

“Leaving you behind was not our plan,” I protested.

“Of course it was, Pepin. I simply did not inform you of that fact.”

“Claudine, you can’t afford to be found here.” I could hear shuffling and shouting in the rooms above. It was only a matter of time before they discovered the cellar.

“For Nate’s sake, I can’t afford not to be,” she said firmly. “The Lumoscenti were tipped off. They’re expecting a ripe sugar-plum out of this raid. If they get me, they might not look too hard for anyone else.”

“Your title won’t protect your from the Lumoscenti! The Count and Countess of Chevre…”

She smiled sickly at me. “That’s why we’re here, Pip. Be off with you, and don’t stop until you and the boy are within the gates of his mother’s estate.”

“Did she know you planned to sacrifice yourself?”

A heavy weight thumped against the door above. The bolt held, for now.

La Duchesse pushed me hard in the middle of my chest. “If ever you loved me, my dear, do as I say.”

How’s a fellow supposed to fight a woman who says things like that?

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New Ceres Nights extract – “A troublesome day for Jacky Midnight” by Matthew Farrer

December 17th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “A troublesome day for Jacky Midnight” by Matthew Farrer

He hated the flat, migranous, colour-bleaching glare of New Ceres daylight. And New Ceres twilight was too like the normal mid-afternoon light of home. It foxed his circadian rhythm, got on his nerves, messed with his concentration, made him careless. Like today. The bought woman and her followers managed to catch him by surprise in a way no-one on New Ceres had done before.

Jacob Camm sat in the cover of an outcrop over the shingle beach where his landing-boat was drawn up, watching the last evening light turn the ocean a weird, depthless greenblack.

When the chimer at his belt vibrated, Jacob shot up as though scalded, almost overbalancing. Breathing hard, he pointed his rifle up the trail and there they were: three fuzzy orange silhouettes against the blue of the gunscope’s lowlight display, the dancing numbers of the ranging software making little halos over their heads. They were less than twenty metres away.

“Close enough,” he called to them. “Stand where you are, I have you covered. The one with the token, come forward, thank you.”

The slender middle figure said something to the others and picked its — her — way forward. He kept the gun up long enough to let the fact of the weapon register. Then, for courtesy, he lowered it and gave a little bow of the sort they liked here. There was a muted clink as she tossed his token to the ground in front of him.

“A sun badge, indeed. The gentleman who gave me that called you an impudent bastard, Mister Midnight.” Her voice was soft, its modulation formal. Jacob’s middleman had told him she was an offworlder, one of the imported brides the silvertails liked to bring home, but he could detect nothing save for New Ceres in her accent. “Not that I should ever be so gauche as to repeat him verbatim.”

“Of course not,” he said, picking the token up. The little iron sun was barely bigger than the farthing spot-welded to one face. The transmitter that had set off his chimer was on the reverse. “Got multiple designs.”

“All of them suns,” she replied as she followed him to where his wooden trunk sat on a grey plastic friction sled. “I cannot believe you chose the symbol of the Lumoscenti by chance. Or is it a play upon your name?”

That name got given me, I never took it, he almost said. He disliked dealing with aristocrats. They gave him the feeling he’d wandered into a game whose rules he didn’t know. He took refuge in gruffness, opening the trunk and activating the lamp clipped to his collar. Metal and glass gleamed among the straw wadding.

“That cylinder’s your main machine,” he said to the back of her head. Her hair was coppery, her skin a shade darker. “The amino churn. That’s what’ll produce your serum. The tap kit’s for the blood samples. My supplier was able to get a text on using the thing. It’s packed at the bottom. It shows you how to adjust the serum for your patient’s blood without killing him.”

“What will we need to keep it going?” Her voice was flatter, more businesslike now.

“Power supply’s self-contained. Should be good for … well, you won’t need to worry about it. But not quite silent. You couldn’t run it in a room right next to the street.”

“I understand. I’ll test it for noise before we…” She cut herself off and dropped the lid back down with one cinnamon-brown hand.

“Keep it in good order,” he told her,  “and I’ll buy it back when you’re done for fifty-five percent.”

He was surprised when she nodded again. He’d been expecting to be haggled into returning at least three-quarters of what she was buying it for. Not everything about dealing with aristocrats was odious. “And on that note, ma’am, we did agree on a price…”

The taller of her men came forward at her call to drop a canvas bag by the trunk. Yanking it a few paces away from them, Jacob let the lamplight hit the notes and coins inside. A quick and dirty tally confirmed roughly the right amount. That and the assurances his middleman had given him, good enough.

“Buy y’self some proper-treated steak, then, Midnight?” asked the short man. “Or are you not yet fed up with twisting your guts around raw seaweed?” He sounded like he was expecting Jacob to laugh, but the woman cut him off.

“Quiet, Garratty. Toxic food is no subject for humour with me. You ought to know better.”

“Ma’am, if I may,” put in Jacob, who felt that the amount he’d just collected merited some extra service, “the churn is more of an antivenin. If you’re after a remedy for untreated food—”

“I’m not,” she snapped, stepping out of the light and becoming a shadow again. “It’s for poison. So frightfully fashionable among the locals, you know. Nobody can say for sure it wasn’t careless food preparation, even if everyone knows damn well it was murder.”

“My condolences,” Jacob said, flicking his lamp off. This was definitely not a usual sale.

“Not necessary,” she said. “Not yet. If we can prepare the serum correctly he’ll be months recovering, weak and bedridden for another half-year. What a lucky devil, hm?” She sighed, and then set Jacob’s every nerve twanging when she said, “We’d better move before they catch up.”

“What?”

“We’ve got a bit of a journey, and this country’s slow going for a hired carriage—”

“You said ‘catch up’.” Shit shit shit. Her men exclaimed in alarm as he brought the rifle up.

“There were people watching us at New Switzerland. We’re pretty sure they followed us to Port Deeping, but we got a good gain on them by Ingot Wharf. Where are you going?”

Jacob was a dozen paces down toward the beach, towing the friction sled behind him. Idiots. Idiots!

“Midnight!” her voice came behind him. “What are you doing? Midnight!

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Fair Trade” by Stephen Dedman

December 14th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Fair Trade” by Stephen Dedman

Deakin sat behind a broad desk cluttered with papers, in front of a large hand-drawn map of his plantation. He was better dressed than his overseer, in a tailored linen shirt and an embroidered waistcoat, though his jabot was crooked and he wore neither wig nor gloves. “Well, Mr Barrington,” he asked, returning his pen to the inkwell. “What can I do for you? Please, take a seat. Would you like some coffee? It’s my personal blend.”

Barrington wondered whether the coffee might be considered a bribe by his superiors; deciding to err on the side of caution, he shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said, sitting rather gingerly in a wicker-seated wooden chair on his side of the desk, then cleared his throat. “This is just a routine visit.”

“The window tax again? I’ve lodged all the paperwork for any new buildings on the property, but you’re free to look around, of course.”

“Thank you. No, this visit is intended to determine how much businesses such as your own expect to import over the next few years.”

Deakin sipped at his coffee, then placed the cup on the desk, his smile becoming a little less genial. “For the purpose of raising import duties, I presume?”

“The spaceport is a major expense,” Barrington replied stiffly. “It’s only fair that if we need to expand it, that the expense should be met by those who benefit from it, proportionally. You’re free, of course, to pass any extra cost on to your customers.”

The coffee grower swiveled his chair around until he could see the linen map. “A lot of the expense comes from your customs inspectors and other bureaucrats, not from maintenance.”

“Don’t forget security,” Barrington countered. The Homefires had long been threatening to sabotage any starships landing on New Ceres, and even to destroy the spaceport completely. While few New Ceresians supported their methods, there were many on the planet who supported their luddite and isolationist views — either out of a dislike for the ships’ anachronistic presence among the reconstructed Eighteenth Century ambience of the world, or because of a distrust of refugees and immigrants. While the spaceport and ships were protected by high-tech automated systems that had so far kept saboteurs at bay, there had been a few assaults on starship crews and off-duty port personnel. These had, of course, driven the price of imports even higher.

“I know that’s a problem,” Deakin conceded. “But we’re already struggling to meet demand. Growing good coffee in this climate and soil isn’t easy, even in greenhouses — and your window tax only adds to the cost.”

“That will be taken into consideration, of course,” said Barrington. The window tax was intended as one of the many consumption taxes on luxury goods, along with the wallpaper tax, hat tax, glove tax, perfume tax, and wig powder tax. All of these created work for the Bureau of Trade, but the Government considered them less unpopular than introducing an income tax.

Barrington’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this time, allowing him a better look at Deakin. His skin was not as dark as that of most of his workers, refugees from war-torn San Benedicto, or of some of the women at the Hotel Utopia (where Madame Genevieve, herself possessed of a rich café au lait complexion, prided herself on being able to cater to a wide variety of tastes), and he was slender rather than muscular, but he could have played Othello convincingly without any need for greasepaint. Barrington found it difficult to judge the age of offworlders, but he guessed that the coffee grower was in his late forties. “But who else do you think should pay? Due in large part to the food problem, the Government is unable to increase the tax burden on the poor … and as I’m sure you know, there are many who wish to make the planet completely self-sufficient. As the bulk of imports are luxury goods… I mean no disrespect to the coffee you import, Mr Deakin, but the locally grown product, including your own, of course, is good enough for most people.”

Deakin looked Barrington up and down as though trying to judge the age and cost of his tricorne, grey frock coat and slightly shabby second-best wig. “Have you ever tried any of my prime blend coffees, Mr Barrington?”

“No. My superior brings your coffee into the office on occasions — but I’m not a connoisseur, and I doubt I would be able to taste the difference.”

“Your boss is Mr Marly?”

“He is.”

Deakin nodded. “He buys one of our exclusive Kona blends. Quite a large order.” His tone was bland.

Barrington didn’t respond immediately. Elias Marly liked his luxuries, but he was also a strong supporter of the Isolationist Faction — whereas Deakin, he knew, sponsored many immigrants from San Benedicto, saying that no-one knew more about growing coffee. Judging from the aroma filling the room, Barrington was prepared to concede that Deakin might have been right, at least about that. “I will need to see your books, if you would be so kind.”

“My … oh. You mean my accounts: I thought for a minute that you were referring to my library. Don’t you already have records of every pound of cargo that goes through the spaceport — and everyone who comes from San Benedicto to work for me?”

“Of course, but…”

“But you need to know how much tax I can afford to pay?”

Barrington’s normally pale cheeks flushed, but Deakin only smiled. “I understand. I have the most recent month’s paperwork here, but anything older than that is in the house.”

He stood. “Shall we go?”

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Tontine Mary” by Kaaron Warren

December 13th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Tontine Mary” by Kaaron Warren

New Ceres Tontine Group, Seventh Meeting

The President of the New Ceres Tontine Group opened the seventh meeting with the litany. “Two dead by hanging. Three by knife. One by gun, five by carriage, eight by illness, two by drowning.”

The people murmured softly, concealing their delight.

Mary scuffed her feet, bored already. She had expected a celebration; the seventh meeting was only three days after her seventh birthday and she had stepped into the great hall in her new button-up boots proud as a peacock and ready to be celebrated.

Her mother had some sweet ginger for her and hissed, “Mary, don’t be a goose. You’re done with birthdays for the year.”

Her brothers, the five of them, all older, sat around her, keeping her safe in their circle. They spoiled her each birthday. They made her toys, found her treasures money couldn’t buy. There was not a lot of wealth in the family, which was why only Mary was signed up to the Tontine.

The coffee men walked around the auditorium with their pots, dozens of them in shiny satin coats, pouring the coffee with stony faces.

“Look at that fool,” Mary’s father said. “Does he think we don’t know he’s working his father’s business? There should have been a test for quality of character for entry to the Tontine, and that fellow would not have passed.”

The man’s name was Calvin, Mary thought. There was a boy at school called Calvin, and he often tried to hold her hand, though the teachers had asked him not to.

Calvin marched between the coffee pourers, watching them as if looking for errors. These workers did not make errors. They knew how important the coffee was.

“Hot coffee! Hot coffee!” Calvin called. The adults tutted and looked away.

“Why he thinks he needs to sell I don’t know. His father never sells. He lets the business sell itself. It’s coffee, for Ceres’ sake.”

Mary felt sorry for the man. He had no friends, no parents with him.

“At his age,” her mother said. Mary thought he must be more than twenty-five, because her oldest brother was twenty-five and this Calvin looked older.

Her father was as distracted as ever. Other fathers shook his hand; they said, “Good job of a tough business, Charles.”

Mary knew they called him an Alienist, and sometimes ‘New Ceres’ foremost alienist’, but she was not sure what that meant.

“I want to go to the Market. They are handing out sweeties, my teacher said.”

“Hush, Mary. Your great-grandmother will give you a sweetie at home if you listen carefully here.”

The President glared at them. “And greetings to our own Tontine Mary, the youngest of us all. Don’t the newshounds love you, young one? You’ll make us proud, won’t you?”

Mary shrank from the expectations of the people in the room. She was too young for such responsibility.

It was late when they came out. Mary was so tired the lights of the street seemed to twinkle like stars. She loved the stars. She didn’t like the newsmen surrounding her, asking her questions about her favourite doll, why she wanted to be rich … silly questions for men to ask a girl.

Her father said, “The next person to come near my child will find themselves arrested and up before the courts.”

At home, Mary’s great-grandmother clapped her hands in Mary’s face. “Don’t blink,” she said. She was so weak the effect was lost; her hands were slow and barely created an impact.

Mary had time to prepare. The old woman told her, “You’ve got good blood. No reason you won’t live forever. The women live long in our family. Much longer than the men. And we can look after you, Mary, keep you safe. Nobody can keep boys safe. The only thing I ask of you, Mary, is that you birth healthy children to keep our line. We’ve got Coopers going back to the French Revolution.”

Mary squinted at her. If she asked what that was, Great-Grandmother would tell her for a very long time. It frightened her, the idea of great age. She felt nothing but horror and revulsion at her great-grandmother. How angry her parents were at her demonstration of such.

“She’s sacrificed a lot to buy you a place in the Tontine. You should be grateful.”

The woman was so old, her skin was almost transparent, and Mary felt ill at what she called ‘the insects’ inside her; her beating heart pushing blood through her veins, crawling. Her hair was still dark and thick, though.

“You have a direct, verbal link going back hundreds of years. The main thing you can bring, Mary, is long life. You need to stay safe, for the sake of the Coopers.”

Great-Grandmother winced; her stomach gave her pain.

“I’ll bring you a cackeral, Grandmother,” Mary’s mother said. Mary decided to hide away. She hated cackeral, the fish they cooked for those who needed to go to the toilet and couldn’t. She thought the fish was full of bowel motions, and she couldn’t understand why anyone would eat such a thing.

She sat on her swing outside, feeling sorry for herself.

Her family loved her dearly, and she knew that should make a warm place in her heart. People told her love keeps you warm and your belly full, but she had to disagree.

..

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New Ceres Nights extract – “Murder in Laochan” by Aliette de Bodard

December 12th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “Murder in Laochan” by Aliette de Bodard

Zhongli Quan first realised something was wrong when Lu Dongbin called him away from the other Transcendents.

Quan went, meekly — for who could refuse their leader and not lose face?

Lu Dongbin’s rooms were the largest on Penlai Station, with a bay window overlooking the vast expanse of the planet of New Ceres below.

“We have a mission for you,” he said. Lu Dongbin always spoke in the plural, even though the decision was likely his alone.

Smugness, the Ancestor said within Quan’s mind. It’s not going to be a mission you’ll like.

Even without the input of his subconscious adviser, Quan would have guessed. “I already have a mission. We’re all going down…” Down, of course, meant planetside: to Dongjing, the capital of New Dragon — and into the Forbidden City itself, where the bitter struggle for the succession of the dying Emperor would have begun, every faction striving to eliminate its opponents in bloody purges.

Neither Quan nor Lu were aligned: their role was merely to monitor, to give the right nudges at the right time to make sure New Dragon was secure from offworld interference.

In other countries on New Ceres, they’d have been called Proctors. But here, in New Dragon, this careful, artificially preserved recreation of eighteenth century China, they styled themselves the Transcendents — the Eight Immortals, forever watching from their lofty heights.

Lu hadn’t answered Quan’s remark. No doubt his own Ancestor was busy grinding data, analysing Quan’s most minute reactions.

“We agreed on this,” Quan said, carefully, quietly. Buddha! he thought, exasperated. How he wished he was not so new amongst the Transcendents, so green and without authority. “My predecessor—”

“—was not head of the Transcendents,” Lu Dongbin said, smug as ever. “Our plans have changed, Quan. You’ll go to Laochan to investigate a murder.”

Laochan?

Small village, the Ancestor prompted, raiding the memories of Quan’s predecessors. Peach-Blossom Ward of Jiangxi Province, New Dragon.

In other words, so small it was barely on the register. “Did someone important die?” Quan asked.

Lu Dongbin’s lips stretched. Malicious amusement, the Ancestor said.

“Important enough to send you.”

In other words, probably not. Lu just wanted to assert his authority, to show the others that as leader of the Transcendents he could send Quan back and forth on trivial matters. The fact that one of Quan’s namesakes and predecessors had founded the order and raised Penlai Station in the sky meant nothing. Nothing at all.

..

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New Ceres Nights extract – “The Widow’s Seven Candles” by Thoraiya Dyer

December 11th, 2012 at 10:00 am (Books)

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Extract from “The Widow’s Seven Candles” by Thoraiya Dyer

“You are the Chandelier called Etienne? You’re the one who made the sunburst-shaped candles for the Lumoscenti?”

“I am.” He frowns. The sunburst candles had been destined for the private chambers of the Director-General. “How is it that you know of them, madame?”

She smiles a small, pointed, vixen’s smile. “I am the Widow Courboin.”

Etienne blinks. Charlotte Courboin controls her late husband’s trading empire. The Courboins founded Port Deeping’s coral harvesting enterprise and now have their hands on the copper, glass, cotton and marble monopolies. Chateau de Courboin is the grandest residence in Port Deeping, even more stately than Deeping Castle, the home of Duke Henry.

More to the point, half the waterfront belongs to her, including Etienne’s chandlery.

It is whispered that the Widow is part Veremaur witch. That she reads thoughts. That no man can resist her. That even the golden monks are not immune.

She knows of the monks’ sunburst candles. Etienne draws a deep breath. The urge to run for his shirt is almost overwhelming.

“How may I assist, Madame Courboin?”

“It will soon be the anniversary of my husband’s death, Monsieur Chandelier. I do not wish unhappy shades to linger at Chateau de Courboin. To flush them out, I am holding seven days of feasting and dancing. Each night will be such a ball as Port Deeping has never seen, and I require suitable lighting.”

“Candles, madame?” Etienne asks stupidly. The wealthy have gas lighting in their homes. They only purchase candles as required by law for lighting the streets where they live.

“Yes, candles,” the Widow says impatiently. “That is your trade, is it not? I require seven of them.”

Etienne has heard stories of the vast, gilded ballroom at Chateau de Courboin. “Will seven candles be sufficient, madame?”

“For my purposes, yes. You will have room for more than one wick in each candle. Like the moulded candles of the monks, I wish mine to have a certain shape.”

“What shape is that?”

“The shape of your naked body, monsieur,” she says brazenly.

..

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