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Authors: Lilith Saintcrow

The Damnation Affair

BOOK: The Damnation Affair
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The Damnation Affair
 

Lilith Saintcrow

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Por Gaetano mio.
Te absolvo.

  

T
he stagecoach creaked to a stop, fine flour-white dust billowing, and Catherine Elizabeth Barrowe-Browne gingerly unlaced her gloved fingers from her midriff. Her entire body ached, both with the pummeling that was called
travel
in this part of the world
and
with the unremitting tension. Her nerves were drawn taut as a viola’s charter-charmed strings.

For a moment, the sensation of not jolting and shuddering over a bare approximation of something that in a hundred years’ worth more of wear might possibly be generously called a
road
was exquisite relief. Then Cat’s body began reminding her of the assaults upon its comfort over the past several days, with various twinges and aches.

Also, she was
hungry
. A lady was far too ethereal a creature to admit hunger, but this did not make the pangs of fleshly need any less severe.


Damnation!
” the driver yelled, and the coach creaked as the two men hopped off. The fat, beribboned woman in mourning across from Catherine let out a tiny, interrupted snore, spreading herself more firmly over the hard seat.

Ceaseless chatter for nigh unto fifty miles, me jolted endlessly backward because her digestion won’t permit her to share the forward-facer, and now she sleeps.
Cat grimaced, .

Growing enough for a schoolteacher, apparently. Otherwise her plan would not have progressed nearly so smoothly.

“Damnation!” the driver yelled again, and the stagecoach door was violently wrenched at. Catherine’s fingers took care of pulling her veil down securely and gathering her reticule and skirt. There were other thumps—her trunks, sturdy Boston leather, and thank Heaven for that. They had been subjected to almost as many assaults as Cat’s temper for the past few days. “One for Damnation, ma’am!”

Yes, thank you, I heard you the first time.
She slid across the seat, extended her gloved hand, and winced when his fingers bit hers. Feeling for a stagecoach step while half-blind with dust and aching from a bone-shattering ride across utterly Godforsaken country was a new experience, and one she had no intention of savoring. Syrupy golden afternoon light turned the dirt hanging in the air to flecks of precious ore, whirling like dreams of a claim in a boy’s fevered head.

Oh, Robbie, I am just going to
pinch
you.
Her point-toe boots hit dry earth, the burly whiskered stagecoach driver muttered a “Ma’am,” as if it physically hurt him to let loose the word, and she took two staggering steps into the dust cloud.
Is there even a town here? It doesn’t
look
like it.

Any place a coach halted would have charterstones and a mage to hold back the uncontrolled wilderness. Still, the sheer immensity of the empty land she had glimpsed through barred train windows and the stagecoach’s small portholes would trouble anyone properly city-bred. Across Atlantica’s wide heaving waves, the Continent was not troubled by the need for charterstones; but even after almost two centuries on the shores of the New World, civilization was uneasy.

She reclaimed her hand, quelling the urge to shake her most-certainly-bruised fingers. “Thank you,” she murmured automatically, manners rising to the surface again. “A fine ride, really.”

“Miss Barrowe?” A baritone, with a touch of the sleepy drawl she’d come to associate with the pockets of half-civilization she’d been subjected to in the last several days. “Miss Catherine Barrowe?”

In the weary flesh.
“Yes.” She even managed to sound crisp and authoritative instead of half-dead. “Whom do I have the pleasure of—”

“She’s here!” someone yelled. “Strike up the band!”

The dust settled in swirls and eddies. A truly awful cacophony rose in its place, and Cat blinked. A hand closed around her arm, warm and hard, and it could possibly have been comforting if she had possessed the faintest idea whose appendage it was.

“Hey, Gabe,” the stagecoach driver called. “No trouble all the way.”

“Thanks, Morton,” her rescuer replied. “Those her trunks?”

“Yes indeedy. A very polite miss, glad to’ve brought her. Mail’s there, picked up a bag of it in Poscola Flats. And the chartermage’s order—”

“I see it, thanks.” Now he sounded a trifle chilly. Cat had the impression of someone looming over her—dust coated her veil, and she blew on it in what she hoped was an inconspicuous manner. The sun was a glare, sweat had soaked the small of her back, and she devoutly wished for no more than a chance to relieve herself and procure some nourishment.
Any
food, no matter how coarse. “Godspeed.”

“Yeah, well, from here to Tinpan’s a long ride and the country’s fulla bad mancy and walkin’ dead.” Creaking, as the driver hefted himself up. “See you.” The whip cracked, and the stage began to rumble.

Oh yes, mention living corpses! That is
justA v is
the thing to do before a journey.
Cat’s skin chilled, and she had the distinctly uncharitable thought that if the stagecoach
was
attacked by those who slept in unhallowed ground, at least the hefty woman in mourning would awaken for the event.

Or at least, so one hoped.

“Moron,” the man holding her arm muttered. “As if he’s not going to stop at the livery and pick up Shake’s whiskey. Well, you look rattled around, miss. Let’s get you through this.”

Her veil and vision both cleared, and Cat found her rescuer to be a lean, rangy man of indeterminate age, a wide-brimmed hat clapped hard on his head and a star-shaped tin badge gleaming on his black vest. Guns slung low on his hips, and the chain of a charing-charm peeked out from behind his shirt collar, glinting blue. The guns gave her a moment of pause—not many in Boston carried them openly. Her own charing-charm, safely tucked under her dress, cooled further.

At least with the charing she could be certain
he
was not of the walking undead. It was faint comfort, given the way he scowled at the retreating stagecoach’s back. He looked stunningly ill-tempered.

The cacophony crested, and she realized with a sinking sensation that it was meant to approximate music.

“Good heavens,” she managed. “What on earth is that noise?”

The corner of his thin mouth twitched up as he glanced down at her. He was quite
provokingly
tall. “Your welcome committee, ma’am. I’ll try to see it don’t last too long.”

How chivalrous—and ungrammatical—of him.
Oh, Robbie. I am just going to pinch you
, she thought for the fiftieth time, and braced herself.

The town center was a single street framed with raw-lumber buildings, a wide dirt thoroughfare that probably was a sheet of glutinous mud if it ever rained in this hellish place, and the greenery-cloaked mountains in the distance might have been pretty if they had been in a painting. Instead, they were hazy, oppressive shapes, grimacing in distaste.

An attempt at bunting and colored ribbon had been made across the front of a building whose sign proclaimed it to be the
LUCKY STAR BAR SALOON
, a smaller sign depending from it creaking as it swung and whispered
WHISKEY SCALES HOT BATHS
. For a moment she wondered just what whiskey scales were, but the sight of the crowd arrayed on the saloon’s steps under the bunting and spilling into the dusty street managed to drive the thought from even her nimble brain.

A gigantic banner flapped in the moaning-low, sage-scented wind, and a cord snapped. The banner, its proudly painted length folding and buckling, began to descend upon the motley collection of men beneath it playing instruments with more enthusiasm than skill.

WELCOME TO DAMNATION
, the banner read, as its leading edge dropped across a man playing a fiddle and continued its slow descent.

“Oh, dear.” She tried not to sound horrified, and suspected she failed miserably. “This is not going to end well.”

He gave a short sharp burr of a sound. Was that a
laugh
? It sounded altogether too painful to signify amusement. “It never does around here, ma’am. Jack Gabriel.”

“I beg your pardon?” She watched as the banner continued its majestic downward crumble and the music hitched to an unlovely stop. People scrambled to get out of the way, and one or two children crowed, delighted.

So there
were
children in this Godforsaken place. Miracles did occur. Of course, who would she be called upon to teach if there were none?

“Jack Gabriel. Sheriff. Your servant, ma’am.” He even touched the brim of his colorless, suts olorlesn-bleached hat. “I thought you’d be older.”

Oh, really?
“I am very sorry to have disappointed you, sir.” She reclaimed her arm with a practiced twist. “Thank you for your assistance. I suppose I’d best restore some order here.” She took two steps, found her balance and her accustomed briskness, and stalked for the milling group on the saloon steps.

“Oh, Hell no,” the sheriff said, low and clear. “Can’t restore what never happened in the first place, ma’am.” He fell into step beside her, and she might have been almost mollified if not for the swearing. “My apologies. I just meant, well, we were prepared for…something else.”

Prepared? This doesn’t look prepared.
She tucked her veil back, summoned her mother’s Greet The Peasants smile, and told the pressure in her bladder it was just going to have to wait.

The crowd was mostly men, in varying stages of cleanliness; the few women were in homespun and bleached-out bonnets. She suddenly felt like an exotic bird, even though she’d left everything impractical or
very
fashionable at home in Boston.

Home no more. Her chin lifted, and the smile widened. “What a lovely reception!” she gushed, as the banner finished its slow descent and wrapped another portly, bewhiskered fiddler, who was almost certainly drunk, in its canvas embrace. The resultant package blundered into a man with a drum slung about his neck, and the two of them careened into a trio of men holding what looked like kitchen implements.

The first fiddler seemed to think this was an infringement upon his honor, and—uttering a most ungentlemanly oath—swung his fist at a bystander, a man in red suspenders and a stovepipe hat, a moth-eaten fur on his skinny shoulders. Who also turned out to be a mancer of some sort, since he promptly snapped a crackling flash of energy off his thin fingers and knocked his attacker backward.

“Oh,
Hell
,” the sheriff said, with feeling, and Miss Barrowe’s reception turned into something the locals told her later was named a “free-for-all.” A tall, broad-shouldered, and very bony matron in brown descended on Cat and ushered her across the street, toward a lean wooden building—
HAMMIS’S BOARDINGHOUSE,
according to the sign hanging from an upstairs balcony railing. It was squeezed disconsolately between two other nondescript buildings, one of which seemed to be some variety of shop.

“Very sorry, miss. It is
Miss
, isn’t it? I am Granger, Mrs. Letitia Granger—”

Yes, we corresponded; you are on the Committee that hired me.
“How do you do?” Cat managed, faintly. Behind them, the brawl spilled off the steps and into the dusty street, and the sheriff bellowed
most
impolitely. Charm and mancy crackled uneasily, the dust whirling in tight circles, and her charing-charm warmed a little, sensing the flying debris of malcontent.

She couldn’t even care, she was suddenly so desperate for a few moments alone to relieve herself.

Oh, I hope they have some manner of plumbing, or I am going to explode.
She reached up to straighten her hat, and Mrs. Granger whisked her inside the boardinghouse, which did have a small room for her to freshen herself. That paled in comparison to the watercloset down the hall, of which she availed herself with most unladylike haste.

The room given to her temporary use was an exceedingly small cubbyhole; the vicious sunlight pouring in through a small, dusty glass window had already scorched and faded everything in it. It could have been a palace, though. For one thing, it was not moving. For another, it was
private
, even though she could hear the brawl outside and the furious yelling as stray mancy bit and spread. Much of it was language she would have been shocked to he a hocked ar, had Robbie not taken deep delight in teaching her certain phrases and their meanings.

Dust had crept into every fold of her dress, and she was far too fatigued to charm it free even if she had a moment of privacy to do so. Instead, she pinned her veil back and stretched with rare relief, and wondered if this would be her lodging. They had mentioned something of a small house—and just then the noise outside faded, and she suspected she was taking far too long and there might possibly be a prospect of something to eat by now. She checked herself in the sliver of mirror, decided she looked as proper as circumstances allowed, and eased out of the tiny room and down the stairs.

As soon as she reentered the hall leading to the boardinghouse’s parlour, her hat repinned and some of the dust swept away, she was almost bowled over by a lad of perhaps ten, with cornsilk hair and an engaging gaptooth smile. “
BOXER!
” he yelled, and the slavering biscuit-colored streak behind him was obviously a dog. “They’re in here, boy!”

The dog nipped smartly past her into the parlour, feathers exploded, the boy let out a crow-cry and hopped down the hall—and a chicken, its wings beating frantically, knocked over a lamp and tried to flap straight into Cat’s face.

*  *  *

BOOK: The Damnation Affair
2.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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