Excerpt from “THE FIRE UNDERNEATH OF THINGS” – YA Fiction (Steampunk) – 12 pages
Ivy and Grey stepped out of The Silver Crane Inn. By now it was very dark, almost the middle of the night. Ivy hadn’t realized how long they’d been talking at the inn for. Grey immediately started leading Ivy toward the nicer part of town, and then he started to babble. Whether it was from nerves or excitement surrounding their first date, Ivy didn’t know.
“So, I had Gidgit before and he did okay,” he was saying, all his words coming out rushed and jumbled together, “but I needed something better, so I thought I’d make the best anyone’s ever seen, and we’re gonna see if it works tonight, and I even put a scrying sphere on it just in case something goes wrong. I had to keep it secret, and making it took forever and I think it’s the smoothest piece of work I’ve ever completed. I know you might not like the idea at first, but you’ve got to promise me you’ll try!” He paused his waterfall of words to cock his head at Ivy, obviously expecting her to respond.
“Uh, okay, yeah sure. I promise,” she said, baffled. What was he even talking about? What was he planning? They were deeply entrenched in the rich part of town. Ivy felt a little grubby just standing next to the darkened, opulent houses.
Grey blew a lot of air out. “I’m glad to hear your promise. You might not think you like it, but I didn’t think I would until I tried it once and it was a rush! And I know everyone’s on holiday today so the house should be empty, but if it’s not, that’s why I added the scrying sphere. Should work perfectly. I’m just so glad you’re here with me to see the machine in action.” He smiled, but Ivy saw something start to crawl into his expression.
His eyes were filled with so much concentration and elation. His incomprehensible rambling started to make Ivy fear that he was truly cracked. She’d suspected it a few times over the couple months they’d known each other, but she’d never considered it an actual possibility until now. Dread started to coil in her stomach.
They stopped right outside the door of an enormous house. The house had two turrets, each topped with fancy spikes; it had gables and columns, balconies and a widow’s walk. In short, it was the fanciest house Ivy had ever seen in person.
“Grey,” Ivy said anxiously, “I’m sorry if I’m missing something, but I still don’t understand. What does your machine do?”
“I’ll show you,” he said, and grinned, his expression now looking completely mad. Ivy’s dread deepened as Grey slipped the machine on like a bracer, the metal snug against his forearm. He flexed his fingers experimentally and the long spindles of the machine danced intricately. He approached the door and inserted the needle-like fingers into the keyhole of the ornate brass doorknob. Ivy shuddered at the rasping sound they made as they scraped around in the lock. Then, with a jerk of his wrist, the lock clicked open.
Ivy didn’t know what emotion to feel first. Should she feel impressed that his machine had worked so well? Terror that someone would find them breaking in? Curiosity at what he was planning? Upset that he would think she enjoyed this sort of thing? Disbelief that the guy she had started to fall for would do something like this? In the end, Ivy’s face refused to make any expression at all, and not knowing what to say, she said nothing.
Grey turned to gauge her reaction. He seemed to take a blank face as a good sign, because he smiled that lopsided grin at her, as if he’d just cracked a joke instead of a lock.
Maybe that’s what this is, Ivy reasoned to herself—it’s just a joke. Or maybe he has a good reason for being here, like this is where his parents live. He did say his parents were upper class. But he also said they lived out of town, and why would he have to break in? … I’m sure he has a good reason for this.
“Ready?” Grey asked, but didn’t wait for an answer, instead, he grabbed Ivy’s hand and pulled her closer to him and the door. “Now see this?” He pointed at the small, shiny sphere inset into the machine. Currently, it was reflecting the world around them in miniature. Grey waved at Ivy playfully in the reflection, but Ivy just stared.
“If we put it close enough to the door,” Grey moved his hand as close to the door as he could without obstructing their view of the sphere, “then it can see through walls!” And sure enough, the sphere was no longer reflecting the street and the front door to the house. Instead, it showed a great entryway, lit only by the moonlight that slanted through the window above the door.
Grey grinned again. “All clear. Let’s go.” He opened the door and pulled Ivy into the dark room. Their footsteps were muffled by a thick, rich carpet covered in intricate vines. Grey flipped a switch on the boxy machine strapped to his hip (what had he called it again? a lightbox?). The tip of the glass rod connected to the metal box by a copper coil began to glow. He took the rod in his hand and shone it around the huge entry room. The light reflected off the glass prisms hanging from a huge chandelier and sent small rainbows spinning around the room. Ivy was mesmerized for a moment before Grey grabbed her hand (he had taken off the lock-picking machine), and pulled her toward a door to their left.
The house was so quiet Ivy was afraid to breathe. She couldn’t believe she was letting Grey literally drag her into this, but morbid curiosity held her tongue. What she really wanted to do was shout, “Lennox Greyson! Are you out of your addled mind!?” But she didn’t want to make even the slightest noise. She felt strangely disembodied, as if her life were falling off a cliff and she couldn’t look away.
Well, she hadn’t reacted negatively. She was pretty quiet, but Grey chalked that up to surprise and… maybe wonder at his machine? It worked perfectly. The long, nimble spindle-fingers had felt like an extension of his own arm and they’d cracked open the lock in seconds. But now he and Ivy were inside the house. This is where the fun began. “Alright,” he whispered. “I’m not sure where exactly the thing I’m looking for is, but we’ll find it, and I’ll know it when I see it.”
They walked through decadent rooms filled with fancy furniture, packed with a plethora of portraits, and choked with countless chandeliers. It was mostly lost on Grey. This was the sort of posturing he’d hated so much while he had lived with his parents. The opulence of the rooms mostly just made him sick, and he found himself trying to hurry Ivy along. She was staring open-mouthed at every little trinket. She said things like, “Is this the third library?” and “Do they really have a room just for playing billiards? They really don’t do anything else in this room?” and “What did you say this room was for again?”
“It’s a panic room,” Grey explained. They were looking into a room Grey had been rather hopeful about. The door looked thick and indestructible, and it was set in a remote location of the house. When the door had swung easily open at his touch, however, he knew it couldn’t be right. The room itself was small, almost cramped, and its only furniture was a cluster of comfortable-looking chairs and a well-stocked cupboard.
“What’s a panic room?” Ivy asked, in awe of the house even when faced with a glorified closet. “Is it where they go when they panic about which room to visit next?”
Grey snorted. “That’s something folks like these would do, but it’s not the intended purpose of the room. This is where they would go for safety if someone broke into their house.”
“Like right now?” Ivy’s voice was very, very quiet.
“No, because nobody’s home, and we’re not threatening anyone. It would be used if a murderer broke in. We’re not here to hurt anyone. See this door?” Grey pointed at the inside of the door where there were twelve locks of varying types. “This is a room for keeping people out. That’s why it’s so heavy, too. I think this wood is covering solid stone.”
“Wow,” Ivy whispered.
“But it’s not what we’re looking for, so come on.”
They continued through the house, Grey growing increasingly irritated that they weren’t finding what he was looking for. He knew it wasn’t going to be in the conservatory, but when Ivy begged him to let her see the plants, he relented. It was a date after all. She should be entitled to see some flowers.
The “conservatory” as Grey called it was beautiful. Ivy had never seen so many exotic flowers in one place. It was obvious someone here really cared for plants. When she’d asked Grey about it, he’d shrugged and said, “Eh, probably they pay a gardener to keep things looking decent.” But Ivy, as a florist, could tell these plants were more than a job: someone cared about them deeply. It was nice to see people taking good care of their plants, although the soil seemed a bit dry and some of the plants seemed like they’d gone a while since they’d last been trimmed for optimal growth. Perhaps the gardener had gone on a short vacation. Grey had said that almost everyone in the house was out on holiday.
She took a moment to think when she was behind a bush of bamboo orchids and out of Grey’s sight. It was clear that this was definitely a house that Grey had never been in before, so she couldn’t rationalize that it might be his parents’ house or one belonging to a distant relative. She didn’t like that he had taken her breaking and entering for their first date, but it didn’t seem like he was trying to do any harm, and she had honestly really enjoyed looking at all the lavish rooms despite her better judgement. She didn’t know what he was planning or what he was looking for. It was probably something sweet, Ivy convinced herself. And she had promised to at least try to like the idea. Ivy set aside her fears, took one last look at the beautiful orchids she was hiding behind, and went back to Grey, ready to continue with their strange house tour.
They drifted through a dining room, and Ivy’s eye was caught by the delicate designs of china dishes displayed in glass-fronted cupboards. They discovered a music room with the most beautiful piano Ivy had ever seen, but Grey still wasn’t satisfied. They passed a plain, inconspicuous staircase leading down, and Ivy pointed to it. “We could check down there,” she suggested.
“No, no. It wouldn’t be downstairs. That’s where the servants would sleep. And upstairs is probably just bedrooms. No, there’s one more wing we haven’t checked yet, and I’d bet anything it’ll be there.”
They passed through the grand foyer for the third time, and Grey extinguished the lightbox, so he could slip on his lock-picking machine again. This left only a pale sliver of moonlight to light the room. The foyer’s shadowed stairs and balconies entranced Ivy, and the great chandelier, even darkened, still dizzied her.
“No time to waste admiring this room again,” Grey said, tugging on her arm. “The final wing is through these big doors.”
They were the doors that they had faced after breaking in. They were the largest doors in the building, with ornate, gold-leafed carvings on them. But Grey had insisted they check the left and right wings first. He had thought it more likely that whatever he was looking for would be there. He slid the spindles of his machine into the huge brass keyhole, and the door unlocked with a thunk.
Grey was struggling to turn the lightbox back on, so at first, Ivy couldn’t see anything to tell what kind of room it was. Their first steps into the room reminded Ivy of the Workshop when she had first entered it. It had been dark as well, and, just like this room, it had been filled with echoes.
“Grey?” Ivy whispered. From the corners of the room came a whispery chorus of “Grey? Grey? Grey?”
“What room is this?”
Finally, with a click, the lightbox hummed to life. Grey lifted the lighted rod and shone it around the vast room. “The ballroom of course. If there was a real ball going on, there would be tapestries and cloth decorations, plush furniture and many, many people here to dampen the echoes.” A funny look crept over Grey’s face, and he looked intensely at Ivy.
“What?” she asked, flushing under his sudden scrutiny.
He bowed stiffly. “Would you do me the pleasure of giving me this next dance?” He said this with such ceremony and cordiality that Ivy would never have known it was him except he was the only other person in the room.
“I… alright?” Ivy said, unsure what the correct response was supposed to be.
“Wonderful,” he said, and instead of grabbing her hand and dragging her along as he’d been doing all night, he placed his arm under hers and gently led her to the center of the dance floor. He only paused for a minute to snap the lightbox’s rod back into its place, extinguishing the light. “Sorry,” he murmured. “I need both hands free.”
“I must admit that I never learned how to dance,” said Ivy. “And what are we supposed to do without music?”
“Don’t worry,” Grey said, sounding a little amused. “I’ll lead.”
And so he did. Ivy stumbled a lot at first, unsure where her body was supposed to be going, but soon she found the rhythm of Grey’s movements. She began to trust him enough that when he nudged her one way, she would flow like a river in that direction. It was strange to be dancing in the dark with no music and no one else in the room, but Grey made it feel natural. He held her quite close to him, and this, combined with the gentle spinning motions of the dance, began to make Ivy a little dizzy. Soon she began to stumble again, and Grey laughed quietly and stopped. He turned the lightbox back on and Ivy was surprised to see him looking embarrassed.
“Sorry, I don’t know what came over me,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “I suppose this big fancy place is getting to me.”
Swaying on her feet from being stopped so suddenly, Ivy smiled and said, “Well I enjoyed it immensely. Was this what you wanted to show me?”
Grey looked thoughtful for a moment. “You really liked it that much?”
“Yes! I’ve always wanted to go to a fancy ball in a fancy house, but I never have.”
“Hmm. Well, I’m sure you’ll like the next thing I have to show you even more. Come on, there’s a couple doors over there. I’m sure it’ll be behind one of them.”
Grey pointed to a door seemingly at random, and together he and Ivy crossed the ballroom towards it. Ivy felt light on her feet, still thinking about the dance. When they reached the door, Grey opened it for Ivy to go in first. The dark room didn’t look any different or more special to Ivy, but Grey gasped as he shone his lightbox into the dark corners. The electric light illuminated what looked like an ordinary sitting room. Ivy caught herself thinking that and laughed at herself a little. The sitting room was still far more fancy than any Ivy had ever been invited to, it was just fairly ordinary compared to all the spectacular rooms she’d seen that night.
Grey immediately walked up to a painting that hung on the far side of the room, to the left of a beautiful fireplace. Though it had an ornate frame, the painting itself was nothing special. It was a still-life of some moldy-looking fruit. Ivy never would have noticed it if Grey hadn’t taken a special interest in it.
“What’s with the painting?” she asked curiously, walking up behind him. The center of the painting was level with his head, and it almost looked as if it was Grey who was framed in gilt gold and not a lackluster painting of fruit.
“If I’m not mistaken, it’s what I’ve been looking for.” He turned to Ivy and grinned. The madness was back in his eyes. “Are you ready?”
The dread began to form once again in Ivy’s stomach. “I… I don’t understand, Grey.”
“You will soon.” Then he pulled on the edge of the frame. It swung outward without a noise. Ivy saw now that there had been tiny hinges on the frame, and the frame was so thick because behind it was a thick metal safe with two golden keyholes and a silver handle.
Grey groaned. “Two keyholes? That’s a bit overboard.” He inserted the spindles of the lock-picking machine that was strapped to his forearm into one of the keyholes. He seemed to be gauging the difficulty, because then he said, “Gidgit, I think this is easy enough for you. We gotta do it at the exact same time though.”
Grey reached under his lapel and pulled out the spidery robot that Ivy saw him tinkering with so often. Ivy was usually amazed at how the machine seemed to have a life of its own, but now all she could do was watch in horror as Gidgit fiddled with the lock.
“A safe? Grey, are you going to steal something from these people? Breaking and entering was bad but this, this is just unbelievable!”
Grey seemed almost too focused on his lock-picking to fully hear her. “C’mon Ivy, you said you’d give it a chance. I know you’re going to love it. Ready Gidgit?” The spidery machine made a small metallic chirp. “Now!”
Grey twisted the spindles of his lock-picking device and Gidgit twisted its legs at the same time. A dull “thump” resounded though the safe. Gidgit skittered back to the safety of Grey’s lapel. Grey grabbed the safe’s handle and pulled it open. He inserted his arm into the space behind the door and felt around for a while, before smiling like a mad-man.
“I found it,” he whispered, half-laughing with glee. He pulled his hand out, and for a moment, it looked to Ivy as if he had just extricated a bloody heart from the dark chest of the house. “For the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met,” he murmured, offering the thing to Ivy.
It was blood red, about the size of a fist, and it glimmered almost as if it were wet. “What is it?” Ivy asked, backing away, her voice not revealing the totality of her revulsion. She wasn’t just disgusted by this strange object, but Grey was obviously not the harmless—if odd—boy she had taken him for. She suddenly feared for her safety. She thought she’d known the extent of his eccentricity, but it seemed as if her perception of the strange mechanic was entirely wrong.
“It’s the biggest ruby in the world,” Grey said reverently, almost fondly. “They call it The Lady’s Passion. The story goes that there was a King in a far off place who was killed by his queen. She had gone mad with jealousy when she’d discovered that he was having an affair with a beautiful countess. The countess, finding the king dead when she entered his royal bedchamber that night, killed herself rather than live without him. They say where their blood mixed, this ruby was formed.”
Ivy was even more revolted. What an awful story! She needed to talk some sense into Grey. They had to get out of there as soon as they could. She couldn’t risk being seen with this lunatic who was stealing a priceless gem. “Grey. We cannot steal that. We just can’t. I don’t know why you thought I’d like it, but I absolutely do not. Put it back.”
Grey clutched the ruby to his chest. “It’s not like these people need it. They’ve got wealth out the wazoo. They probably won’t even miss it. They probably won’t even notice it’s gone until the next time the man of the house is drunk up to his ears and is showing off for his other rich friends. That’s not how something this beautiful and precious is supposed to be treated.”
“It’s a rock, Grey! You have to put it back. We have to get out of here! Please. Please.” Ivy began to tear up. She was so panicked, she was finding it hard to breathe.
Grey closed the safe, still holding the ruby tight to his body. He swung the painting back into place.
“What are you doing!” Ivy almost screamed. “Put it back!”
“If you can’t see reason, at least I can,” Grey practically snarled. “I’ll make sure it’s put to good use as a rare and beautiful thing and doesn’t just sit around collecting dust. But I guess you’re right about one thing, we should get out of here. I think I just heard something after you made so much noise just now. Let’s move.”
But before they could even turn around to go, they heard the floorboards creak by the door. “Not so fast,” came a hard voice. “You’re not going anywhere.”
They whirled around, and the lightbox illuminated a face as pale as moonlight with huge, dark eyes. A look of recognition crept onto the face, followed quickly by a look of confused incredulity.