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the damnation affair

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The Damnation Affair
 

Lilith Saintcrow

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Por Gaetano mio.
Te absolvo.

  

Chapter 1

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.

*  *  *

 

The schoolmarm was in blue, with a smart hat perched on slightly wilted brown curls and a smile fixed on her barely pretty face like she smelled something bad. Gabe didn’t blame her—Damnation was none too fragrant even on the best of days. Well,
fragrant
, maybe, but certainly not
pleasant
. But even he hadn’t been prepared for the melee when Collie Stokes took a swing at Em Kenner.

It was a good thing Gabe was quick
and
light on his feet, especially when it came to dodging flung charms and stray mancy. He didn’t have to squeeze off a shot to get everyone’s attention—it was never a good idea to start shooting in Damnation—but it was close.

It took a good half hour to restore order, but fortunately Mrs. Granger descended upon the girl and swept her across the street to the boardinghouse. It was, all things considered, the best place for her…but still, they’d be lucky if that lolling drunk Pete Pemberton didn’t scare her off completely. She’d probably be back on the next coach to Poscola Flats and on the train to Boston without so much as a
how do you do
, and Gabe didn’t much blame her.

When he had finally calmed everyone down—including Em Kenner, who was righteously indignant even at the best of times—and had Collie safely stowed in the jail and someone dealing with that fool banner, Gabe settled his hat more firmly on his head and set off for the boardinghouse. The occasion of a New Arrival was giving everyone the jitters, and he silently prayed that big, bony Granger wasn’t frightening the poor girl even more.

He clumped up the steps and through the squeaking door, straight into another maelstrom.

He’d forgotten about the chickens the Hammis family kept behind the boardinghouse.

Well, honestly, the chickens weren’t bad at all, except for when Boxer was chasing them. Somehow they had all gotten
inside
the boardinghouse, probably one of Tom Hammis’s practical jokes on a day when the entire town was all het up.

That kid was gonna be trouble one day.

Gabe’s temples were tight with an incipient headache. He later found out Pete Pemberton was safely in an alcoholic stupor upstairs, and that was how Boxer had gotten loose. He also further found out that little Tommy had used a simple chicken-leading charm to bring the poultry inside, thinking it’d be a grand idea to scare his harried mother.

A tornado sq">A torof feathers engulfed him. The new schoolmarm had Boxer’s collar, the mastiff straining against her grip and scrabbling on bare wooden flooring. Mrs. Granger was ranting, and Keb and Lizzie Hammis were trying desperately to corral the charmed fowl. Poor round Lizzie, her red face even redder, swatted at a prize hen. “Oh, for Pete’s sake…Keb, grab that one—
Tommy, get down here, I am gonna take you behind the woodshed for sure!
Oh, miss, sorry, Boxer don’t bite—”


Honestly
, Lizzie Hammis, the
one
day we ask you to be respectable!” Granger had her skirts clutched back as if one of the chickens might foul or bite her.

Gabe almost wished one would.

Boxer made snuffling, grunting, pleading noises, lunging against the schoolmarm’s grip. Her hat was askew, and she was flushed. The extra color did wonders for her face, and her wide dark eyes flashed almost angrily before her jaw set and she hauled back on the mastiff’s collar again. “
Down
, boy!” she snapped. “I think if we can get him—
oof
—outside, we can restore some—
ouch
—some order here.” She brightened as her gaze lighted on Gabe. “You! Get over here and help me!”

It had all the bite of a command, and he decided it wasn’t a half-bad idea, either. So he was already moving, striding across the raw lumber, the pale-green rugs askew and everything in the parlour rattling dangerously as Mrs. Hammis started searching for a counter-charm to gather up the chickens and get them quiet. The entire boardinghouse shook with stray mancy as the chickens sent up an ungodly noise and Boxer started moaning. Charing-charms glowed—the marm’s bright and clear, Letitia Granger’s a glitter of indignation, Lizzie Hammis’s sparking as she sought for a bit of mancy, and Keb’s barely limned with foxfire since he had no mancy at all. Gabe could feel his own warming dangerously, and didn’t have time for a breath to calm it.

He grabbed the mastiff’s collar, the schoolmarm worked her gloved fingers free, and in short order he had the dog outside on the front walkway. Onlookers crowded, but he made shooing motions and they hung back. “Someone find Tommy Hammis for me,” he remarked, mildly. “The boy’s gonna hafta give his Ma a reckonin’.”

“The new miss, is she mad?” Isobela Bentbroad hopped from foot to foot, looking scrubbed and miserable in her Sunday best. Her lank brown braids flopped.

“Well, if the music didn’t frighten her off, Ma Hammis’s chickens might. Just wait, Izzie. And the rest of you, don’t cross these steps ’til we’ve got things calmed down.”

Boxer set up a wail as Gabe finished clipping his collar to the chain bolted to the porch. Most of the time, the dog kept Pemberton out of trouble. But he had a regrettable yen for chasing chickens. He hadn’t caught one yet, despite fowls’ inherent stupidity, but he was the original Tip Mancinger in the old nursery rhyme—he just kept
trying
.

“I mean it, now,” the sheriff said. A murmur ran through the crowd.

He squared his shoulders and strode back into the fray.

Granger was still going. “And
furthermore
, the drapes in here haven’t been beaten since this building went up, they’re
stiff
with dust! Honestly!
Chickens
, in the
house!

The schoolmarm stood against the parlour wall, no longer flushed but very pale, staring at the potbellied iron stove. She cast a single imploring glance at Gabe, and he was only faintly relieved to see the chickens had been dealt with.

“This is
not respectable!
” Granger was getting herself worked up but good. Keb Hammis, his meek face cheese-pale, had his shoulders drawn up like he wished he could vanish, his best suit straining at the seams. Lizzie was probably getting the chicff ing thekens back into the coop, but she’d be no use here either.

Oh, Hell.
Gabe sighed internally. A mastiff was one thing, Letitia Granger another entirely.

“Mrs. Granger, ma’am.” He had his hat in one hand, running the other back through his hair. “Thank you. That’ll be about enough.”

It was probably the wrong thing to say. Letty glared at him, her bosom heaving. The cameo pinned at her throat was a sailor on stormy waters, to be sure. The charing-charm on it flashed blue, then green. She didn’t talk about where her original charing had gone, but Russ Overton had once commented that it was no wonder Granger was so sour; anyone with her hard luck would be.

Gabe let his hands fall. “Keb. That boy of yours around?”

The new schoolmarm piped up. “Is he about ten, very blond, and quite agile?” The clipped, educated precision of the words made the entire parlour look shabby.

Well, we do as best we can
, Gabe reminded himself. “That’d be him, yes.”

“I saw him heading down the hall, that way.” She pointed, her reticule swinging. “I believe he has perhaps made his escape. Will you be placing him under arrest?”

For one mad moment he thought she was serious, before the glint in her dark eyes caught up with him.

Jack Gabriel surprised himself by laughing out loud. Keb Hammis outright stared with his mouth open and his colorless eyes wide, and Mrs. Granger was mute with astonishment, thank God.

“He’s a handful and no mistake, ma’am. I don’t pity you having him in school.” It didn’t come out quite the way he wanted it to—he sounded sarcastic instead of amused. “I think we might be able to show you the house now, if you’re so inclined. Garrett’s already taken your trunks.”

Mrs. Granger harrumphed. The house was a sore subject. Or not precisely the house, but the hired help.

The sparkle in Miss Barrowe’s eyes was gone. She reached up, twitching her hat back into place. “Yes, I’d quite like that, thank you.”

And Jack Gabriel, abruptly, felt like a goddamn fool, for no good rea
son at all.

Chapter 2

T
he house was small and trim, freshly painted white and green, and at the very edge of the “town” proper, though no doubt inside the charter-boundaries. Cat kept her back straight with an effort of will, and groaned internally at the thought of more welcoming committees. There had been a crowd of people, some of them scuffed and bruised, all coated in dust and a layer of sparkling mancy, standing agoggle outside the boardinghouse. Stray mancy still vibrated in the street, and her charm was warm again. Sweat slicked dust to her face, her dress would perhaps never recover from the double assault of dirt and feathers, and her entire body ached. The sharp bite of hunger under her breastbone threatened to make her well and truly irritable.

If she never again sat in another rocking wooden contraption pulled over ground by terribly apathetic nags, she would be
ever
so grateful. Mrs. Granger rocked back and forth in the seat behind them, either too mortified to speak or holding her peace for other reasons.

The sheriff pulled the horses to a stop. “It’s small, but it’s safe. The town charter covers a couple miles out past here, so you don’t have to worry about any bad mancy or otherwise. Plus the girl working here, well. She’s a fair girl, in her own way, except she’s Chinee. You don’t mind that, do you?”

Behind her, Mrs. Gratilnger sniffed loudly. It wasn’t quite a harrumph, but it was close.

That’s right; they did mention a girl to charm the laundry and do the cooking.
“Mind? Why on earth would I mind?” The meaning behind his words caught up with her. “A Chinoise girl?”
Does he think we’ve never seen them in Boston?

“Name’s Li Ang. She’s a widow. Good girl, will cook and keep house. She gets half Sundays off, and she’s a fair seamstress. Knows some English. Glad you don’t mind.” It was by far the longest speech he’d given, and he looked straight ahead at the horses while he did so. “There’s good people here, and our charter’s solid.” Still staring forward, as if he couldn’t bear to look at her. “May not be what you’re used to, but—”

“Sir.” She wished she could remember his name. It wasn’t like her to forget such a thing, but a day such as this would strain even a mentath’s wondrously unshakeable faculties. “If I held the comforts of civilization so highly, I would hardly be here. I am
quite
prepared for whatever this town holds.”

For some reason, that made his mouth twitch. “I hope so, ma’am. Hope we ain’t scared you off yet.”

“It would take far more than this to frighten me, sir. On the contrary, I am roundly entertained. Shall we proceed?”

His only answer was to hop down from the cart. Mrs. Granger cleared her throat. The woman was a serious irritant. She reminded Cat of Mrs. Biddy Cantwell in her everlasting black and disapproval, jet jewelry and her habit of lifting her lorgnette and peering at anything that incurred her considerable and well-exercised displeasure. Biddy’s daughter had been a success in Season, and could have had her pick of beaus, but Mrs. Cantwell had driven every suitor off one way or another. It had been the tragedy of the year and was still bemoaned, and Miss Cantwell—none dared unbend enough to address her as
Eliza
, especially in her mother’s hearing—was now officially a spinster and would quite probably be her mother’s handmaid until said mother shuffled off the mortal coil.

Mrs. Granger shifted her weight, and the cart rocked. “This was not my idea, Miss Barrowe. The girl
is
mostly respectable. She’s a widow, and a Christian. But her condition—”

Thankfully, the sheriff again intervened. “Mrs. Granger, ma’am, let’s not go on. Miss Barrowe’s probably worn down by all the excitement.” He offered a hand, and Cat accepted his help. The landing on hard-packed earth jolted all the way through her, and she longed for a bed. Or some cold chicken and champagne. “You look a little pale.”

“Quite fine, thank you,” Cat murmured. “Merely unused to the heat. Is it always this warm?”

“Except when it’s raining. Sometimes even then. And winter’s snow up to your…well, that’s why the town was named, maybe. For the weather.”

“Really?” Now
that
was interesting.

“No. Just my personal guess. This way, ma’am. We repaired the gate.” He said it as if he expected a prize, but Cat only had the wherewithal to make a small sound that she hoped expressed pleasure at such a magnanimous gesture. It was difficult to keep her balance, for the ground was swaying dangerously underfoot, as if it had thrown its lot in with the stagecoaches of the world.

The gate in question was painted white, and opened with only a single guttural squeak. There was a sad, spiny attempt at a garden, cowering under the assault of heavy sunshine, and a pump that looked to be in working order. She hoped beyond hope that there was a little more in the way of plumbing
inside
, and swayed as the ground took a particularly violent turn underneath her.

A hand closed around her elbow. “Miss Barrowe?” The man now soundedth= now so concerned.

“Quite fine,” she muttered. Her stomach twisted on itself, and she hoped it wouldn’t growl and embarrass her. “Thank you.”

“You don’t look fine, ma’am. Let’s get you inside.
Li Ang!
It’s Gabe, open up!”

The stairs tilted most disagreeably, but she received the impression of a small, lovely porch with white railings, blessed shade enfolding them. The sudden darkness almost blinded her. There was a sound of bolts being drawn back, and she swayed again.

“Aw,
Hell
.” Gabriel, she remembered. Gabriel was his name, a herald of woe, and his fingers suddenly bit into her poor arm. “Granger, come on up here, she’s about ready to—”

Everything went fuzzy-gray, as if she had been wrapped in a fog-cloud. Her stomach made an indiscreet grumbling noise, and the embarrassment flushed the gray with rosy pink.

Cat returned to herself with a thump, half-reclining on a black horsehair sopha which had seen much better days. The cushions were hard as rocks, and someone held a cup against her lips. It was sweet water, and she drank without qualm or complaint.

Her vision cleared. A scrubbed-clean little parlour met her, lace under-curtains and brocaded green over-curtains, a small table with curved legs, and threadbare carpet worked with faded pink cabbage roses. The sunlight was tamed as it fell past the lace, and Gabriel the sheriff proceeded to try to drown her with the remainder of the water from a battered tin cup.

Cat spluttered in a most unladylike manner, and an exotic face topped with shining blue-black hair rose over the sheriff’s shoulder. Sloe-eyed and exquisite, the Chinoise girl was in a faded homespun frock that did
nothing
for her, and the high rounded proudness of her belly suddenly made all the talk of widowhood and respectability much more comprehensible. Mrs. Granger hovered near a doorway cut in the white-plastered wall, her long jaw set with a mixture of what looked to be resignation and apprehension. Feathers stuck to the big woman’s bonnet and her quaintly cut brown stuff dress; a completely inappropriate desire to laugh rose in Cat’s throat and was ruthlessly quelled.

“Oh, my.” She tried not to sound as horrified as she felt. “I am
ever
so sorry.”

The sheriff’s face had turned interestingly pale, but he snatched the tin cup away and didn’t offer an explanation for tossing its contents over the lower half of her face. The Chinoise girl moved in with something like a handkerchief, dabbing at said face, and that was how Cat Barrowe began her stay in Damnation.

*  *  *

 

The regular card game upstairs at the Lucky Star was usually blessedly monosyllabic, except when there was news of a surpassingly interesting nature.

It was just Gabe’s luck that the schoolteacher’s arrival was extra-wondrous. It had replaced Jed Hatbush’s fence as the preferred topic of gossip, at least.

Stooped Dr. Howard, in his dusty black, dealt with flicks of his long knobbed fingers. “Little Tommy Hammis, the snot, charmed the chickens into the boardinghouse. And set that damn dog loose.”

Paul Turnbull, silent owner of the Star, smoothed his oily moustache with one finger. He was a heavy man, stolid in his chair, but quick enough in a saloon fight. And he dealt with Tilson, who ran the girls and handled the day-to-day operations of the Star, well enough. At least, he kept Tils mostly in line, and that was a blessing. “Wish I’d seen Letitia Granger’s face at that.”

It was a sight
, Gabe silently agreed, scooping up his cards. Not a bad hand. The whiskey burned the back of his throat, and he tried to forget the dazed loar the dazok in Miss Barrowe’s eyes. Big dark eyes, and surprisingly soft once you got past that prim proper barrier of hers. She probably thought they were a bunch of heathens out here, and she wasn’t far wrong.

Russell Overton, the town’s official chartermage, scooped up his cards with a grimace. Dapper in his favorite dark waistcoat, dark-curled and coffee-skinned, when he was sitting down you didn’t notice he was bandy-legged and had a stiff way about him. You could, however,
always
tell he was aching for a fight, like most short men. “That woman could sour milk. So, what’s she like, Gabe?”

“Granger? Still sour.” He picked up his own cards, his charing-charm cool against his throat. The schoolmarm’s was a confection of lacy silver and crystal; his own was a small brass disc with the orphanage’s charter-symbol stamped on the back. There couldn’t be a better illustration of just how much she didn’t belong here.

Stop thinking about it. It won’t do any good.

Dark eyes. Brown curls. Not like blonde, blue-eyed Emily.

Stop it.

“Not Granger, you buffoon.” Russ chomped the end of his cigar as if it had personally offended him. Smoke hazed between the lamps. “The schoolmarm. From Boston, yes?”

“Far as I know.” Gabe’s mouth was dry. He took another jolt of whiskey, eyed the cards. The room was close and warm, the saloon pounding away underneath them with rollicking piano music and a surfroar of male voices. Every once in a while a sharp feminine exclamation, as the saloon frails and the dancing girls went about their business. It was, Gabe reflected, almost like a steamboat making its way upriver. The noise made it seem like the place was rocking.

“You’re asking Gabe? You should know it’s like pullin’ nails.” The doctor showed a slice of yellowed teeth as he examined his cards. “She
is
from Boston. Highly recommended, according to Edna Bricketts. Why a miss consented to come here, only God knows. She’s a little thing too; I couldn’t see much in the melee. Seemed a bit prim.”

I am so very sorry
, she had kept saying.
I don’t wish to put you to trouble, Mr. Gabriel.
After nearly fainting, for God’s sake. He was willing to bet it was a combination of hunger and nerves; someone should hold her down and feed her something fattening. Little and birdlike. And she acted like a pregnant Chinee girl was no great shakes, offering her hand to Li Ang and murmuring
How do you do
just as she had to him.

He laid his offerings down. “Two.”

For a few minutes, each of them focused on the game. Doc took the round. “Well, I heard Joss Barker’s already sayin’ he’s in love with her. So’s Eb Kendall. Two.”

“His wife won’t like that. Two and a half.”

“His wife don’t like nothin’. Three, and call.”

“You’d feel the same way, married to Eb. Look at this, two Dominions and a Pearl.”

Gabe laid his cards down. He took the round, with the remaining Dominions, two Espada, and a Diamond. There was a good-natured round of cussing before he accepted the greasy cards and began to shuffle. “Who else?”

There was a brief silence. Maybe they didn’t understand. So he added a few more words. “Barker, Kendall. Who else?”

More silence. He glanced up as his fingers sorted through the winnings, blinking a little, and Doc hurriedly looked away. Turnbull’s mouth was open slightly; he shut it with a snap and became suddenly very interested in his own pile of seed corn.

“Nobody,” Doc finally said. “You know how Barker is. Mouth two sizes too big for the rest of him.”

Well, that’s true.
He searched for something else to say, a thing thao. a thint might paper over the uncomfortable silence. “Last thing we need is some damn thing else happening to scare away the schoolmarm. Had a hard enough time finding one as it is, what with recent events.”

Meaning the boy, and the claim in the hills, the cursed gold, and the incursions. Since closing the claim, though, the rash of walking dead had gone down quite a bit. Even if some damn fool sooner or later would be tempted by the rich veins lurking under the claim’s black mouth. Or the bars, each stamped with that queer symbol, just waiting for the unwary to carry them home.

Another uncomfortable silence.

“Well, then.” Doc watched Gabe’s hands as the cards slid neatly into their appointed places, no motion wasted. “Bad mancy, to talk about women at a card game.”

“Aw, Hell,” Russ piped up. “What else we got to talk about? Whiskey and donkeyfucking, and claims up in the hills.”

“Not to mention undead. How’s the charter holding, there, Russ?” Turnbull grinned, and Gabe sighed internally as the chartermage and the saloon owner glared at each other over the cards.

“Charter’s holding up fine.” For once, Russ heroically restrained himself. It was probably too good to last. “No howlings from the hills that I can tell. Gabe?”

And from there it was all cards and business. But Gabe caught the doctor looking at him speculatively, especially as the night got later and Paul and Russ started sniping at each other again. The night ended as it always did—Paul a little behind, Russ a little ahead, Doc and Gabe largely breaking even.

And the saloon below them rollicking on.

Chapter 3

I
t was such a welcome sensation to sink into a bed; Cat almost squeezed her eyes further shut, rolled over, and dove back into sleep. But sunlight gilded the window, and she heard a queer tuneless humming floating somewhere in the house.

I am here.

Where was Robbie? Had he seen her, in yesterday’s comedy of errors? It wasn’t like him not to join in a joke. She’d half-expected the banner to be
his
idea, of course. How it would have warmed his heart. If anyone loved a prank, ’twas Robert Barrowe-Browne.

Cat pried one eye open, wincing as her body protested even such a simple movement. The humming was actually quite pleasant, and she deduced it must be the Chinoise girl. Her charing was blessedly cool, and she rolled over, blinking at the plastered ceiling and stretching gingerly.

All things considered, she was quite well. Merely hungry enough to do shockingly unladylike damage to a platter of breakfast, and sore clear through.

The larger bedroom was at the end of a tiny hallway; the smaller was tucked to the side and held a low corncrib and some few bits of fabric draped on the walls to provide a bit of cheer. Cat made a mental note to find at least a
chair
for the poor girl, and made her way downstairs on slippered feet. The slippers had been set neatly by her bedside, and yesterday’s gown hung to air on a press, charmed neatly enough that no dust or feathers clung to its folds.

Which was a most welcome surprise.

Her nightgown made a low sweet sound as she tiptoed along the back hall, following the humming to its source. Which was, as she had suspected, the kitchen.

The Chinoise, her slim back betraying little of the proud belly in front, was humming as she scrubbed, elbow-deep in suds, at something. The kitchen, bright and airy, was full of a wondrous scent. Thererl. was a stripped-pine table, two chairs, a steaming kettle, and a washtub to the side. The stove, its heat enclosed in an envelope-charm, spun a fresh globe of golden glow aside; the globe, drifting through the kitchen, bumbled merrily out the open top half of a door leading to a porch and a short breezeway. It bobbed along, the mancy on it crackling, and would eventually rise into the sky, safely dissipating away from anything flammable. ’Twas an elegant bit of work, and a relief. At least the house would not burn down around them.

It was a great relief that charterstones and charings would make mancy work reliably even if one was not properly native-born. The great influx of those from other countries seeking a better life, or merely drudgery in a new environ, could practice such mancy as was native to them within charterstone’s bounds. After the Provinces War, the discovery of gold in certain wasted places and the determination to bring the railroad to every corner of the New World had brought all manner of folk to these shores.

It was even quite
quite
to have an exotic as a servant, preferably indentured. The Barrowe-Brownes had not, preferring solid German and French maids, but often her father had spoke of perhaps engaging a Lascar as a manservant, merely to give her mother the vapours.

The Chinoise girl raised a dripping hand, and soap bubbles drifted free into the breezy kitchen. It was a simple charm, meant to amuse, and Cat answered before she could help herself. Her own fingers tingled, and the mancy slid free—light glinting between the bubbles, striking rainbows glittering-sharp as diamonds.

Cat’s Practicality was in light; Robbie’s had been…well,
otherwise
. Light was a very acceptable Practicality in a young lady, indeed, and the Chinoise girl’s Practicality was plain as the bubbles drifted on the swirls and eddies of clear air. For a moment the two charm-streams intermingled, light and water a happy marriage—not like air and fire, or fire and water, though true fire Practicalities were rare, and a good thing too. Metal and earth Practicalities were common, and wood was eminently respectable for a gentleman but
not
a young lady. A stone Practicality was considered rather boorish, for it meant one could pass paste jewels for real; a mechanical one was almost as bad as being in trade. New Practicalities shaped themselves as Science and mancy moved forward.

Soon, there might even be Disciplines, as in Englene and the Continent.

The bubbles popped, the rainbows drained away, and Cat found herself facing a pale, heavily pregnant Chinoise girl in a dun frock, who refused to quite meet her nominal employer’s gaze.

In short order there was breakfast on the table—Cat gave it to be understood that she wished to eat here instead of in the postage-stamp parlour, and perhaps the girl looked relieved? With a modicum of gesturing and facial expressions, Cat asked if the girl had eaten breakfast yet; receiving a small shake of the sleek dark head, she marched to the cupboard with what she fancied was great determination, fetched a second plate and cup of thick, durable earthcraft, and set it down on the small table as well.

In any event, Cat tucked in with a will, and there was even strong fragrant tea.

Their first breakfast passed in companionable silence, and the Chinoise girl looked rather less pale and peaked by the end of it. Cat settled back with a cup of tea—the cup was actually porcelain, and painted with blue flowers, very fine save for its lack of matching saucer—while the girl collected the dishes and returned to her washing.

So far the morning had proven very satisfactory indeed. The breeze was fresh and smelled of sage, fragrant tea and bacon aromas filled the kitchen, and Cat was beginning to feel almost
quite
again when a shadow fell across the back step.

elf step.

The Chinoise girl whirled, inhaling sharply. Her little hand flashed out, grabbed a knife that looked more fit for repelling pirate boarders than cooking, and hissed something in her native tongue. Cat let out a pale shriek and started, almost dropping her cup, and Jack Gabriel peered over the half-door, reaching up to his hatbrim. His hazel eyes were bright and wide, and he ducked a glowing ball of heat drawn from the stove.

“For God’s sake, Li Ang, put that away. Figgered I’d—well, hello, ma’am. Pleased to see you looking better.”

Heat raced furiously up Cat’s cheeks. “
Sir!
I am not even
dressed!
Were you never taught to knock before entering a house?”

“I did. Don’t reckon you heard me.” He took this in, and actually, of all things,
smiled
. “That thing you’re wearing could qualify as a winding-sheet, miss.
Avert
,” he muttered, right away, flicking his hat to brush away bad mancy or ill-luck. “Beg pardon, ma’am. I’ll wait in the parlour.”

Cat, her heart pounding, swallowed a most unladylike urge to shrill like a harridan. Her mother would know exactly what to say to this man to cut him to size. “Very well,” she managed stiffly. “Perhaps you would care for a cup of tea, while I arrange myself.”

He shrugged, leaning lazily on the half-door. Li Ang had gone back to washing, and Cat suddenly noticed the girl’s ankles were swollen. Definitely a chair, and some provision must be made for the baby as well.

“I prefer coffee, but thank you kindly. I’ll wait.”

“I was unaware I had an engagement today,” she floundered.

“Thought you might like to see the schoolhouse. But I can understand if you’d rather rest, ma’am. Yesterday was prob’ly enough to turn a lady’s nerves to ribbons.”

What a gruesome image. Thank you, sir.
“I am made of sterner stuff than most, sir.” Why was she possessed of the sudden feeling that she was coming off very badly in this conversation? “Good morning.”

“Morning.” He didn’t say another word as she retreated, crimson-cheeked and acutely aware she was practically
barefoot
. Her bare ankles were brazenly revealed. And she was in a
nightgown
, of all things, in the kitchen with a servant.

And the day had been going so well.

*  *  *