A flush raced across Larissa’s face as an entirely improper thought entered her mind. She stifled a grin and turned away from the ledger of credit accounts, placing her hand on her necklace to fiddle with the stone.
Beyond the window and the ferocious blizzard, she could still see the outline of the Hub rising over all of Sallarium City, two of the great towers obstinate in their visibility. The city administration building had stood in place for hundreds of years; it would take far more than snow to blot it out of view. Imagining the freezing air outside didn’t help to lower the temperature in her cheeks. A wry grin spread across her lips once more as her mind conjured more inappropriate imagery.
She forcibly shook her head and stretched her back for a moment, smoothing her hands down the lines of her purple corset, wriggling to adjust the garment’s position on her hips. The tightness of the corset hadn’t been too bad at the beginning of the day, but as the afternoon drew on her ribs started to ache. No doubt Mother would have told her she needed more meat on her bones. But Mother was dead and gone, and friends were few and far between. Except for her elderly boss, Mr. Greyfort, and she could hardly discuss the discomfort of such impractical attire with him.
Heat returned to Larissa’s face yet again; the issue of her corset could be resolved if a certain person were to come in and rip the thing open. She imagined Greyfort’s stunned expression at seeing her spread across the cashier’s desk with reckless abandon.
Larissa sighed and looked back to the ledger, scrunching her nose up at the odd column marked SC. Greyfort still hadn’t explained those income entries to her, yet. They’d had no patrons today. It was a wonder they bothered opening the shop at all in this weather. So the shop was empty, save for the racks of clothing that stretched up to the rafters. Some were filled with suits for gentlemen, brushed leather jackets, waistcoats, cloaks, and hats. Interspersed racks were filled with ladies’ shirts, skirts, hand-crafted corsets, and every type of footwear for which the finest denizens of the city could think to ask.
The fireplace in the corner cracked and whistled as the coals warmed the shop. The consoling heat lulled her imagination to far-off places and secret desires. She pondered romantic gestures by a good-looking gentleman.
“Well, come on…”
Mr. Greyfort had appeared from the back room, shaking his head in disapproval. Larissa hastily scribbled out the last nonsensical ledger entry and looked up at him, blinking.
“What’s his name?” Greyfort continued.
“I…who?” Larissa dropped the quill back into the inkpot.
“The boy who’s on your mind.”
“Boy?” She picked at her necklace again, fiddling with the stone.
“Good gracious, girl! You’ve been smiling like a Cheshire Cat all day, counting down the minutes, and I’m sure your cheeks are actually glowing. It can only mean one thing. So, what’s his name?”
Larissa’s mouth dropped open at the realization that her fantasies were so easy to read.
“Mr Greyfort, I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She turned back to her paperwork, dropping the stone of her necklace beneath the top of her corset, and retrieved the quill.
“Fine, don’t tell me about it. Though mark my words—” Mr. Greyfort was cut off as the trill sound of the shop bell rang out for the first time all day.
A tall figure entered, dressed in a dark red robe, the hood obscuring his face. The customer immediately turned to push the door closed and gave the briefest nod to the window. Sparks burst from the fireplace and the heat inside the shop intensified in an instant. Larissa watched with interest as the man pulled his hood down, revealing his short, spiky blond hair. Greyfort wrung his hands together as he approached the man.
“Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to Greyfort’s Clothing Emporium. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.”
The customer waved Greyfort aside and took slow, measured steps between the racks of clothes, idly thumbing the material as he passed.
Larissa felt a lump catch in her throat; through the window and a flurry of snow, on the opposite side of the street, she spotted a figure looking at the shop. The olive-skinned man wore a thin, white doctor’s overcoat, and despite the cold and snow the sleeves of the coat were rolled up to his elbows.
“Perhaps a wealthy patron who lets his man do his shopping for him?” Greyfort whispered as he appeared at her shoulder; he too had spotted the mysterious figure outside.
“Perhaps,” she said.
Larissa turned her attention back to the man in the robe as he met her eyes with his pale green stare. A shiver coursed through her when she managed to place his attire. He was a Priest; a Cleric, someone who should be tucked inside a Dolanite Citadel praying to the Gods, not out shopping for clothing.
She felt a pressure forming across her throat, as though a set of fingertips were digging into her skin. Her eyes widened as she grasped at her neck, relieved to find nothing there but the necklace.
Without warning, the man pulled his hood back over his head and marched to the door. Once he had left, the fire died down again, though a strange tingling sensation ran over Larissa’s skin.
“What an odd pair,” Greyfort muttered. “I suppose we won’t require a new account to be opened today.” He tapped his finger on the ledger in front of Larissa, a clear indication that she should get back to work.
Long minutes passed and the ledger became filled with neat black ink. Larissa found herself so wrapped up in her musings about the mysterious visitor that she didn’t notice the cool air rushing in again and the shop bell ringing a second time.
“Ah, Professor!” Greyfort exclaimed, his tone jumping a full octave.
Larissa froze, the quill hovering over the parchment as drops of ink fell from the nib, bleeding across the page. The door slammed behind the Professor, shutting out the biting cold.
“Greyfort,” the Professor acknowledged in his aristocratic dialect, pushing flecks of snow off the shoulders of his black cloak. “I was passing this way and thought I would stop to inquire after my waistcoat.”
Larissa watched through the corner of her eye as he removed his top hat, revealing white-blond hair that trickled down just past his shoulders.
“Oh,” Greyfort said, absentmindedly wringing his hands. “No, it hasn’t arrived. The roads have been closed due to snow and the trains have stopped, causing delays to our shipments. I do apologize.”
“Ah, yes, it’s having an effect everywhere.” The Professor paced the shop. As he reached the cash point, he glanced at Larissa, and she suddenly felt compelled to look up at him. Their eyes locked. “Good day to you, Miss Markus,” he added. Then he nodded briefly, placing his top hat on the counter and hanging his walking cane on the edge.
“Perhaps, Professor, you’d enjoy a new cloak?” Greyfort sauntered over, turning his salesman’s voice on for the richest man in the city.
“No, thank you. I’m not in need of a cloak.” The Professor didn’t drop his gaze from Larissa’s eyes as he spoke, eyes which flashed with fire as a wicked grin crossed his mouth.
“I do believe you are unlikely to receive many more patrons today, Greyfort. You may be snowed in within the hour. You wouldn’t let Miss Markus get trapped here with you for the weekend, would you?”
“Uhh…” Greyfort mumbled something under his breath.
The Professor turned to face him. “I shall pay you her wage for the hour if that is your chief concern.”
Larissa watched on wordlessly, fiddling with her necklace again as the Professor handed Greyfort a palm full of gold. She was sure it came to a far larger sum than was necessary. Greyfort’s eyes widened at the offering and he accepted it with a nod.
“Miss Markus.” The Professor turned once again, stretching his hand out to her. “I’m heading to the Hub. I shall escort you there if you wish. I’m sure the cabs are still running to take you home.”
Larissa flashed a brief look to Greyfort, who nodded to her, before wrapping her own cloak around her shoulders and taking the Professor’s hand. In one wordless motion he scooped up his hat and cane and led her out into the snowstorm.
Outside, the street was coated in thick snow. The dull light in the gas streetlamps fought against the rapidly darkening streets, and only a handful of people struggled against the flurry. The Professor wrapped his arm around Larissa’s shoulders as they trudged towards the center of the city.
The Hub was an enormous, domed administrative building that housed numerous government offices and a few private businesses, though only those wealthy enough to afford the rent. The tall central dome stuck out toward the sky, built on the orders of Emperor Fastidus hundreds of years ago during the Golden Age of the Empire. Four great, external towers connected to the dome through a maze of covered moving walkways. The vast number of rooms and offices were joined by these impermanent passages, which could be reconnected when required through a series of mechanical switches and levers controlled from the top floor. That was the Professor’s realm. Through fortunate birth, respectable schooling, and feats of political posturing, he had managed to work his way quite literally to the top.
They reached the imposing brass doorway, which swung open as they rushed through past a team of men who swept away the flurries of snow. The inside was as hot as a steam room, thanks to a series of vents that allowed the heat from the massive furnace below to penetrate above.
Within the large foyer, scores of people rushed to and fro beneath giant paintings depicting the last line of Emperors before the fall of the dynasty. Larissa stared up at them, their foreboding presence an odd extravagance for an administration building in one of Daltonia’s largest cities.
The country had been a Republic for almost eighty years. Larissa wondered why there wasn’t a picture of the first President, Henry Hague Senior, or their current President, Hague Junior, and made a note to ask the Professor about it as soon as she managed to find her voice.
The Professor pushed the snow off his shoulders again. Larissa turned to speak; instead she was knocked to the side by a tall oaf who appeared, huffing and puffing.
“Professor! Thank the Gods you’re here.”
“Mr. Mendle,” the Professor barked as he brandished his cane in the man’s face. “How dare you act so rudely to my companion!”
The taller man spun around and glared at Larissa for a moment. He wore an open white shirt, displaying the dark brown hairs on his chest, and a pair of black suspenders that held up his trousers. She noticed a brass pin on his collar that read “Cid Mendle – R&D”. His hair was a ruffled mess of dark, reddish-brown curls with silver streaks, pushed back from his face by the thick goggles wrapped around his skull. Despite the heat, he wore thick leather gloves.
“My apologies, Miss,” Cid sputtered at Larissa. “Professor, it’s extremely urgent, sir, since the trains have stopped, you know, and the airships are grounded, you realize, and the machine—”
“I understand.” The Professor turned to Larissa, his cool blue eyes catching hers as the corner of his mouth softened into a half-smile. “I’m afraid, my dear, that I will have to take my leave of you.” He stepped in closer and she felt her heart racing. “I do hope you have a safe journey home. Good evening.”
With that he brushed past her, heading with Cid towards a travelling walkway that led to the upper floors. It wasn’t until she had watched him turn out of sight that she realized she hadn’t spoken a single word to him.
I suppose I’ll be taking my corset off myself tonight.
This is the first chapter of The Machine by EC Jarvis. Bookmark Steampunk Journal to keep up to date with the latest news, reviews, articles and previews.
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