Rise of the Arcane Fire (The Secret Order)

BOOK: Rise of the Arcane Fire (The Secret Order)
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To my husband, Troy, for all the times we’ve been apart and I’ve only loved you more

CHAPTER ONE


HOP, DAMMIT,

I MUTTERED AS
I pushed back from the table and rubbed my burning eyes. The lantern flickered, nearly out of oil, and my entire body ached from hunching over the absurd little contraption before me.

It was hardly elegant. Or even whimsical.

The oddly shaped mechanical frog stared up at me with enormous eyes that I had fashioned from inky black marbles. It trembled, as if terrified of what I might do should it fail to obey. Eventually the cog in its back wound down without the frog budging so much as an inch.

Sighing, I blinked back my exhaustion, then glanced at the notes from one of a dozen books lying open on the table. Finally I made one last attempt to adjust the spring in the left leg.

It was hopeless. I couldn’t do this.

When I had become the shopkeeper for Pricket’s Toys and Amusements, I’d known it was a very special place. While it may have seemed outwardly like a normal, if somewhat curious, shop in the heart of Mayfair, I knew it held a secret.

The former owner had been part of a reclusive society, the Secret Order of Modern Amusementists. The Order boasted a membership that included some of the finest minds in all of Europe, perhaps even the world. They would gather and challenge one another to great feats of invention, purely for whimsy—and also to line their pockets with a wager or two on the outcome.

I had seen some of the wonders the Order had created. They were haunting, often terrifying, but always beautiful. My own family had been part of the Order for generations. Both of my grandfathers had been high-ranking members. My father as well. But they had kept it all from me.

I supposed I couldn’t blame them, considering that their involvement with the Order had led to their ruin.

If my adventures in the spring had taught me anything, it was that genius often comes hand in hand with madness, and some secrets could kill.

There had been a string of murders within the Order about five years earlier. During that time, my grandfather had disappeared. His carriage had been found in the river, and by all accounts he was presumed dead. But that had hardly been the last tragedy to befall my family. A year ago I lost my parents as well, which forced me into destitution.

I had known nothing of my family’s secrets when Lord Rathford took me into his household as a maid, claiming to be a benefactor. It turned out he’d only wished to use the master key my grandfather had left me, to unlock a horrible invention that had had the potential to destroy the entire world as we knew it.

It was fear of that invention that had driven Rathford’s nemesis, Strompton, to murder. He would have stopped at nothing to keep the terrible invention from ever seeing the light of day.

The entire ordeal had been both terrifying and illuminating.

Now, even knowing the worst of the Order, I couldn’t help myself. I wanted so badly to be a part of it. I took the frog in my hands and stroked my finger over the cool metal plate that formed the top of his head.

Perhaps that is why I’d taken over management of Pricket’s Toys and Amusements.

Simon Pricket had been a gifted young Amusementist and a protégé of my father’s. Tragically, he had also been a victim of the murderer. Before Simon’s death, he had accumulated an entire library of prolific notes from his time as an apprentice, and then as historian and inventor for the Order. Reading them had been a revelation. Unfortunately, the elaborate texts only encouraged me to fancy myself an Amusementist.

It was an admirable, if futile, pursuit. After all, I had seen firsthand the wondrous machines my own family had built. During my adventures I had discovered a dome of stars hidden deep in the earth beneath an iron replica of Stonehenge, a labyrinth complete with a mechanical Minotaur, a set of gilded wings, and a clockwork ship set to do battle with a monstrous leviathan. Within the Order anything was possible, even tearing apart the fabric of time.

All this potential hung like tantalizing fruit before me, just out of my reach. Honestly, I didn’t see the good of being born into a secret society of inventors if I couldn’t make a measly toy frog hop.

I placed the frog back on the desk and rubbed the soreness from my neck. It wasn’t as if dreaming about becoming an Amusementist would accomplish anything. I’d been born a girl, so I could never be part of the Order.

I could rail against the unfairness of it all, but it would be little use. I couldn’t change what was. But no one and nothing could stop me from reading and tinkering in my own shop—except, it seemed, my own inability to create an insipid frog. I slammed my hand down on the desk, and the blasted frog bounced up into the air.

Wonderful.

A substantial lust for invention couldn’t imbue me with comprehension of the finer points of compressing springs.

I slumped face-first onto one of Simon’s journals, the mathematical scribblings turning into blurry patches of gray just beyond my nose. Simon had written that through mathematics, all the secrets of God’s creation could be unraveled. If only those secrets could seep into my skull as I rested. I wanted to invent a machine that could accomplish
that
.

My eyes burned and I couldn’t keep them open any longer, but of course I couldn’t sleep. I could fall over from exhaustion, but I couldn’t sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep for a week. Every time I let go and began to drift off, I saw the flames, heard the ticking clocks and shattering crystal.

I jolted upright out of habit.

The knot in my shoulder grew worse, and I tried to soothe the ache there. My body was wound tighter than the troublesome spring. I didn’t feel I could eat, because, in spite of my appetite, everything I attempted turned sour and made me feel ill.

This was no sort of life for a sixteen-year-old girl. All the other girls my age fretted about dresses, and gossip, who invited whom to tea, and the latest society ball. Instead I spent every waking moment thinking about death—my own and the deaths of the ones I had loved.

My eyes pained me the worst of all. If I cried, perhaps they would burn less, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

One year ago exactly I had fallen asleep in my father’s clock shop on a night as unassuming as the one currently surrounding me. I tried, but I couldn’t remember the book I’d been reading that night. I did recall that it had been the farthest thing possible from advanced mathematics but nearly as boring. It had been a frothy story, and I remember feeling the girl at the heart of it had been a mindless ninny. I don’t know why I’d stayed up to read, other than the fact that, no matter how terrible a story is, I always must know how it will end. So much ended that night.

I couldn’t recall falling asleep, but I did remember distinctly the moment I had woken.

It had been a crash that had startled me. I’d opened my eyes, then fallen out of my chair. Smoke like a heavy fog pushed down. I couldn’t see the ceiling as I pressed my face to the Turkish rug and coughed until I feared blood would pour from my lungs. My eyes burned, tearing so badly, I could hardly see. The heat seared my skin like the fires of hell itself. I saw the flames flickering in the gallery and licking up the walls, turning the drapes to ash as they burned.

Like a horse, panicked and seeking safety in a burning stable, I crawled toward the stairs. Smoke poured up them and away from me, like a murky river flowing topsy-turvy along the ceiling, spilling up into our home above the shop.

I screamed for my parents. There was no answer.

The crystals of the clocks in the gallery shattered one by one with loud pops that sounded like gunfire.

I had to get out.

I dragged myself along the floor until I managed to escape out into the small courtyard in the back of the house. The windows from the upper floors burst from the heat, raining glass down on me as the flames roared out of them. I heard the clanging bell of the fire wagon as I searched the courtyard for my parents, then fervently prayed they had escaped out the front.

They had not.

The disaster left me alone and destitute in Lord Rathford’s house of madness.

It wasn’t until I uncovered Lord Rathford’s dangerous plot to alter the fabric of time that I discovered the true culprit behind the fire.

Rathford’s time machine allowed me a glimpse into the past, and in it I witnessed a man with a clockwork mask that covered half his face. He was in the gallery of my father’s shop at the moment it burst into flames.

I stopped Lord Rathford and his terrible machine and also exposed Lord Strompton as the real murderer of Simon Pricket and several other Amusementists. But it was all for naught, because the man who had killed my parents was still at large. He had hunted me across the English countryside trying to capture my grandfather’s master key.

He was still hunting me.

I didn’t think I would ever sleep again.

Something rattled in the front of Pricket’s shop, a distant tapping, like a wooden bead dropped onto the floor. It brought my thoughts back to the present moment.

I twisted in my chair, immediately alert. Holding deathly still, I listened for any sound at all besides the frantic thumping of my heart. I slid my hand beneath the table and withdrew my pistol from the compartment hidden there.

It felt heavy in my hand as I stood from the table and stepped toward the secret door that led from my workshop to the toy shop out front. The sound could have been nothing, only a rat most likely. I heard something thump.

That was no rat.

With my heart in my throat, I readied the pistol, feeling the strain in my pinched shoulder and praying I didn’t have to use the weapon. My insides twisted into knots as I stepped into the toy shop.

The door to the workshop closed behind me with a soft
snick
and appeared once more as a high shelf of picture books and tins of toy soldiers to the left of the counting desk.

“I’m armed, and I will fire,” I warned the silent shop. Dawn was beginning to break, the first dim light casting the room in eerie shadows. My hand shook, but my resolve did not.

The marionettes hung from the ceiling, their faces staring down on me like macabre grimaces of contorted men at the gallows.

I drew my gaze away from them as I searched for a single thing out of place.

The bell hanging from the front door swung like the slow pendulum of a clock. I even thought I heard a soft ticking.

“Miss Margaret!”

I wheeled toward the door to the living quarters behind the toy shop, my heart leaping into my throat. I brandished my pistol at the tiny old woman before me.

BOOK: Rise of the Arcane Fire (The Secret Order)
5.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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