I must apologize, profusely, for ignoring my blog in July. I’m about 45K words into a manuscript I started back in September of 2011. About then the business side of writing took up all my attention for a while. When that was done, the story escaped me. It was less than six thousand words, making me think that (like so many things that start off well) it wasn’t going to go anywhere. But then…
I finished the mermaid manuscript in the beginning of April. I took up something else, but it never set me on fire. I found myself reading old manuscripts to see if anything sparked, and this one did.
To make up for my long absence (sorry again) here’s an excerpt from the story. A few things to know about the world: it’s a steampunk setting, influenced by English society in the 1890s. There’s some technology but it’s not available to everyone. Like English society there are class levels. Andra works in a Manor House as a servant. While she has the ability to purify anything, from a ghost to a cup of water, with just the touch of her hand, she’s a servant and fairly low in the social structure. Still, she’s above Chatham, a bar owner from the very rough town the Manor House overlooks. This piece is their first meeting, written two years ago, and the thing that sparked my interest enough to start me writing on it again.
Ginger slid up to the bar with a grin on her face, like a cat that found a mouse to play with. Chatham expected she’d found a willing man for the night.
Her smiled got half an inch wider. “There’s a girl in back, in a fine purple skirt and a lacey white shirt.”
“Shirt only goes to her elbows.” Chatham’s head shot up, the glass he’d been polishing forgotten. “Says she’d like a glass of water, and wants to know if anyone here has work for a Purity.”
Chatham’s hand was already opening the piece of the bar, stepping outside it. Not this, not in his bar. Behind him Ginger laughed but Matthew just shook his head. He found the girl in a back booth, her body pressed up against the wall, her eyes wide. She sat wrong, with one arm pressed into the wood of the booth and the other on the table. Sure, it was safer, but that’s not how people sat in a booth. The wrongness of it stopped him for a moment, but then he noticed her arms. Slim, delicate wrists, soft looking light tan skin going up to the curl of her elbow, his eyes dragged themselves away from that female flesh and back to her face.
“Can I help you?” He demanded. Ginger might let her dress slip from her shoulders, and a few girls wore outgrown dresses that showed an inch or two of wrist, but this woman, her arms were bare from elbow to fingertip. Even a pair of gloves wouldn’t hide all that flesh. It should have been shameful, but Chatham found it tantalizing. It made him mad.
“I… I was… that is, I hoped I could help you,” the girl stammered. He put her at fifteen, maybe sixteen. Though she could be twenty and passing for younger to help with her con.
“As a Purity?”
“Yes, exactly, you see I lately worked for the Manor House but my employment has come to an end. I’m seeking a new a position, but until I find one- I’m given to understand you have rooms to let, with sturdy locks?” She raised her eyebrows. “Safety is my first concern.”
Chatham laughed so hard he grabbed the edge of the table. “If safety is your first concern, why are you in Downriver?”
“That’s none of your business,” she responded curtly. “I’m able to barter my work for the room. A bar like this must go through gallons of water. I’m sure that costs you a pretty penny, no doubt enough to cover my room and board until I make other arrangements.”
He finished laughing and snorted at the thought, no one in Downriver could afford purified water. They all used cleansed water. It tasted like chemicals but no one got sick or died from it.
“So you’re a Purity?”
“Yes, yes I am.” Andra leveled him with a firm gaze. He looked unscrupulous and beaten. She saw bruises rising along his face. This man, this bar, and these people, were all harsher than anything she’d dealt with in her life. She wished for the safety of the Manor House, the strict regiments of rules and order that protected her there. Not that they’d helped tonight, a small shudder ran through her at the memory and she forced herself to consider the present. Get someplace safe to sleep, some food, and then think about your dismal prospects for the future. “I’m happy to prove my abilities to you.”
“That so?” He whistled between his teeth. “Come with me then.”
She took a minute trying to get out of the booth, finally turning so her face was toward him but the rest of her toward the front. It was an awkward way to sit, and she wished she’d felt secure enough to put her back to the bar. She hurried to catch up with the bartender, his red vest a spot of bright color in the bar. The other patrons wore browns, dirty whites, and the occasional blacks, blended together somehow in a uniform color she would call worn-out or washed out. The women even looked that way, their dressed faded to pale yellows, dusty blues, and watery pinks. Andra kept her eyes on the man, his dark brown hair and lanky frame just a head of her until he opened a back door of the bar and disappeared.
Two steps outside she found him again, standing just beside the opened door. The light from the bar fell on a concave gutter. It ran down the alleyway with a rapid current, two feet wide and deep. Litter swirled as it moved past. A dead rat collided with the side of a broken jar then eventually moved farther down, into the darkness.
“It comes from the river, see.” He pointed down the dark alleyway but Andra couldn’t see. She just nodded. “We keep it running but there’s the piss from the street and blood from the butchers.” He jerked his thumb to the two buildings next door. “Of course, the river’s not clean to start with. You ever been outdoors?”
Andra shook her head.
“Sure, you haven’t.” His voice sounded like he didn’t believe her. “We get plenty of false Puritys around here. They know a little slight of hand, think a bit of bleach or a sanitizer packet slipped in where we can’t see it will make us believe them. Some people are gullible. They tend to die real quick though. The ones that make it through the sickness, they swear they won’t get taken in again.”
“I am a Purity,” Andra insisted.
“It’s the sleeves I guess,” the bartender went on as if he hadn’t heard her. “We got all kinds of whores, but they wear respectable dresses, even if they are lifting them in the alley. The sleeves are distracting.”
“You want me to Purify, this?” She pointed to the gutter water and squatted beside it. Closer to it, she saw it wasn’t so deep, maybe two feet, maybe one.
“I want you to stay out my bar.” She heard the hate in his voice before she felt his boot on her back. It wasn’t a kick, just a shove. She lost her balance immediately, and went head deep into the water. She wanted to shout but stopped herself, clamping her mouth shut against the filthy water even as rage boiled up inside her. She heard the door to the bar slam closed as she put one arm in the water and propped herself up. Her hair had gotten the worst of it. Her shirt was wet but thankfully not soaking. Her skirt just splashed, but filthy with grime where it’d hit the street. How dare he! She offered a reasonable business agreement and he treated her like a criminal.
The door behind her opened quietly, and the red haired girl stepped out, a glass in her hand. Andra thought for a second it was a peace offering, but no. The girl tipped the glass out, adding half a pint of beer to the mess of Andra’s hair. Pushed beyond her limits, Andra’s hand shot out and grabbed the girl tightly by the wrist.
“Owe! Let go of me!”
“Gladly.” Her other hand took the pint glass, then she dropped the girl’s hand. She reached and filled it with the toxic mess, catching some of the grit at the bottom. She pushed the girl aside and stormed back into the bar.
Every eye was on her, every conversation stopped, but Andra didn’t stop to notice it. She kept her eyes locked on the target of her hate.
“You!” She slammed the glass of black-colored water down on the bar. He opened his mouth to protest, but she spoke before he got a word out. “Watch!” She put her fingers into the glass and let the purifying begin. The process ended almost as soon as it started. She was used to gallons, not pints, to high cisterns and vats of soup, not one beer glass. Still, a collective gasp went up from the bar as the water swirled around her fingers. She moved them in a circle, creating a current to catch the flakes of chemicals and sediment. In the center of that swirl the sediment looked first dark black, darker than the rest of the water, and then white, as more and more of the foreign matter got trapped the swirl became bright white, and the rest of the water clean.
“I am not a charlatan. You owe me an apology.” She drew herself up as high as her slight frame would allow.
The man behind the bar took a deep breath and looked at the water. “You drink it and I’ll give you one.”
Andra didn’t bother to roll her eyes, she grabbed the glass and put it to her lips, draining it until the last inch. When she saw the white sludge at the bottom coming toward her she dropped it back to the bar. The room exploded in cheers.
“I’m sorry,” the bar man mouthed over the sound.
“I need a room and work to pay for it.” She shouted to make herself heard.
“Done.” He nodded at her then gestured with both hands, bringing down the sounds of the bar. “You all heard her. She’s staying here. She needs work.”
“Like they can afford it.” Ginger’s sarcasm cut through the triumphant atmosphere. Andra felt the mood of the crowd shift.
“I’m…” She stopped, thinking about how the admission would change the way they viewed her. It was a chance she had to take. “I’m outdoors, and I’m not proud. I’ll barter or take whatever I can get for honest work.”