WordPress ate my post- twice! Quick summary- using about 6,000 words from 2009, wrote about 4,000 more- here’s a prologue that sets up some of the steampunk elements and a chatty Baroness:
Bittersweet October. The mellow, messy, leaf-kicking, perfect pause between the opposing miseries of summer and winter. ~Carol Bishop Hipps
Tiraal skittered across the dry leaves that had scattered across the front garden, towards the black coach and four waiting in the neatly gravelled driveway. She found little pockets of the gloaming under the leaves, pulling it into her, feeling its darkness fill up her poison sacs. Ants, spiders, grasshoppers and other insects fled before her shadowed self as she crawled through their territory. The grass was damp from an early morning dusting of frost, the blades dying, turning yellow and brown as colder and colder weather creeped in. Chilly winds blew the dead leaves to the ground, and the trees looked bare and naked. Muted burgundy, white, and golden mums now decorated the window boxes, replacing the brightly colored roses, irises and hydrangea of summer. Tiraal could taste the smell of burning leaves that was in the air, pungently strange and familiar to her all at once.
Behind her, in the direction of the stately dower house, she heard the green front door open, and a loud voice carried from the hallway into the open air as its owner strode out the door, the sound of her cane changing from tapping smartly on the wooden parquet to crunching softly on the small stones of the gravel.
“I want those handkerchiefs rewashed and starched by the time I return, Flora.” intoned Lady Edwina Amaryllis Beresford, the Dowager Baroness Walsingham. “And have Cook prepare a good meat tea for me- a kidney pie would be excellent. I would hope that Mrs. Hughes would provide a good tea when the Bishop of Peterborough visits, but I have yet to attend one at the rectory. I should have spoken a word in Rector Hughes ear last Sunday, but Constance was hissing in my ear, wondering if I felt it was proper for me to attend the tea at all! Stuff and nonsense. If Queen Victoria can buck tradition and put off mourning clothes a month after Prince Albert passed, God rest him, then I can attend a tea at the rectory to welcome a visiting Bishop! And Judith, God rest her, was only a cousin and passed three months ago- and I am still wearing half mourning for her, despite being utterly fed up with lilac and mauve. I hear this Bishop thinks himself modern, I highly doubt he will scold me, the widow of Lord Harland Beresford, the fifth Baron Walsingham, who donated three stained glass windows when the church was renovated, for attending his welcome tea.”
“Yes, your Ladyship.” the maid Flora answered.
“Its quite chilly out. Snow will come early this year, you see if it doesn’t. Fetch my fur muff, Flora.” the old woman ordered.
“Yes, your Ladyship.” Flora answered. The muff, ready and waiting for the Dowager Baroness’ demand, was handed over.
“Is that the new automaton coachman Reuban sent over? What my son thinks I want with a mechanical man driving my coach I don’t know. If he drives like a jehu I will have words with Reuban. I am not entirely convinced it is safe to have such things as servants. But Reuban and Constance swear by them, and I know the Queen is entirely supportive of them, what with educating all the working class they’ve dispossessed. But really, all those gears turning under the glass is almost unseemly! Remind me to speak with Reuban on having it covered with something more proper.” said the Baroness.
“Yes, your Ladyship.” Flora answered as the automaton handed Lady Edwina up into the coach.
“You, automaton. Do you have a name? What do I call you?” demanded Lady Edwina.
“My designation is Autonomous Robot Coachman RG3729 Dixon, your Ladyship.” answered the automaton.
“Dixon, eh? I knew a Philomena Dixon. Married an Italian of all things. Don’t suppose you are a relation, eh?” Lady Edwina made a muted sound that may have been a self-satisfied giggle. “Automatons don’t laugh, do they Dixon?”
“No, your Ladyship. I am not programmed to show amusement. No, your Ladyship, I do not have any relatives.” Dixon answered.
“Well, I hope you know what you are doing. Take me to the rectory.” Lady Edwina settled herself in the squabs on the coach. “And don’t drive the horses too fast, especially over the quarry bridge, unsightly eyesore that it is.”
“The rectory, yes, your Ladyship. Yes, your Ladyship, I will drive carefully over the bridge” Dixon answered.
As the automaton closed the carriage door and moved to mount the driver’s seat, Tiraal skittered across the drive and climbed underneath the coach. The carriage rocked slightly as Dixon seated himself. Under the driver’s seat, Tiraal felt the horses perk up and start forward, the carriage lurching as they gained momentum down the driveway and through the gates of the estate. As they traveled down the lane, Tiraal felt her gold-lined poison sack begin to swell, filling with her black venom. She crawled to the left side of the carriage, just above the axle for the rear left wheel. She let her venom drip out onto the elliptical spring holding the wheel in place. One, two, three drops. The metal of the spring hissed and smoked as the venom hit it. Even now, Tiraal could feel the ride of the coach change, a slight vibration radiating from the corroded spring, through the carriage body, and up her eight brass legs. She crawled up to the forward quarter of the coach, just behind the boot box underneath the driver’s seat. Ten drops this time, all in a line across the shaft connecting the carriage to the driver’s perch. The wood here scorched and smoked, and the agitation of the carriage become much more pronounced. Tiraal heard the window of the coach being let down, and a thumping as the Dowager Baroness applied her cane to the roof.
“I say, Dixon, slow down! Didn’t I tell you to drive carefully here? I can hardly hear myself think over all this rattle!” Lady Edwina called from the carriage.
“Yes, your Ladyship.” answered the automaton driver.
The horses slowed down, but Tiraal quickly scuttled underneath the forebed, the rear hock of one of the four matched bay horses. The carriage rounded a bend in the road, and Tiraal could see the bridge spanning the old quarry. As the horses in front of her stepped onto the cobblestones of the bridge she plunged her sharply clawed foreleg into the animal’s hock. The horse started, and reared, dragging its mates around in the harness. The automaton coachman tried to calm the frightened animal, but with another stick from Tiraal’s brass claw, it surged forward, the three other horses, driver, and carriage helpless to stop it. As fast as she could move, Tiraal crawled back to the coach, over the buckling shaft, and in through the open window.
Lady Edwina was screaming, pounding on the roof of the coach with her walking stick, demanding to know what was happening. Tiraal extended her stinger to its full length, focused on the Dowager’s watery brown eyes and sprung. The woman never saw what hit her smartly full on the face- but she did feel the bright white-hot burning sting of pain as Tiraal pierced the skin just below her right eye. Tiraal clung with her sharply-pointed legs to the woman’s face as the carriage swerved to the right, then to the left, causing small dots of blood to appear as she gripped tight with her brass legs. She jumped free of the woman’s body just as she heard the carriage shaft snap, followed closely by the left rear wheel axle. As she climbed out the window and leaped to the broken wooden guard rail of the bridge, Tiraal was just in time to watch the carriage tip over the bridge and sail down to the quarry below, slamming into the rocks with a final, fatal crunch. The clockwork daemon could still scent the tang of burning leaves on the cool autumn breeze and she pulled the gloaming around her and disappeared into the dry, dead, and dying grass alongside the road.