With utmost pleasure we give you the first chapter of our new novel, OverLondon. It's coming out September 12, 2023.
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Clouds drift between the mould-dank edifices that line OverLondon’s Theatreland, which tilt over the streets like gossiping aunts. The moist air wilts the plumes on the floppy hats of the promenading dandies showing off their finery, chills the street urchins eavesdropping for news to sell to the hourly Cry and delights in loosening the Femur’s Animal Glue sticking old playbills to crumbling plaster walls.
Mist sharpens the voices of the touts flogging overpriced tickets to drunken tourists, now destined to see a show about dancing cats that they’d otherwise avoid like gonorrhoea. Halfway along Drury Lane, where the unique aroma of Mister Jim’s Mysterious Pies assaults the air, the mist curls around the sign for The Armory with its iconic painting of a snarling badger gnawing on a mime’s leg.
Inside, we find Captain Alex Reign, former Dread Pirate Purple Reign, who was, until a day ago, the most wanted individual in all of England. She is sitting slouched under a notice stating: NOE Sonnets, NOE Limericks, NOE Rhyminge Couplets And NOE Soliloquies. Or Face THEE WRATHE Ofe GREGOR.
On the table before the captain sits an unfurled letter of marque signed by the OverLondon Academic Council, pardoning her piratical actions and naming her as the city’s only official privateer. Albeit a ship-less one.
Alex Reign tipped her flying helmet back before raising her third pint of gin to her lips, draining its contents and huffing a sigh of frustration at her inability to get drunk. Outside, Drury Lane’s crier took up the Cry, bellowing with a theatricality that fit the location.
Hear ye! Hear ye! The Dread Pirate Purple Reign has been pardoned by the Academic Council and has been granted the title of privateer for services to the city in thwarting the scurrilous OverParisian cowards. Stop. Cardinal Chudleigh denounces all the snivelling worms who aren’t fasting during New Lent and laments the recent drop in sales of hair shirts. Stop. Another lemming Hare Krishna has fallen off The Edge. In response, the Woodkin Council demand nets under each gangplank surrounding the city and more education about homo lemmus. Stop. Ye’ve heard! Ye’ve heard! This bulletin was brought to you by Axiom wig powder. The powder with power. Get powdered with Axiom today!
Alex didn’t find the news about the lemming Hare Krishna amusing, unlike many of the pub’s other inhabitants. No one knew why the various woodland creatures on the globe started to mix their genetics with humans late in the 16th century, but there were many theories about how it happened, most of them unflattering. She didn’t appreciate hearing them rehashed by this room of glorified stage moppers, nor did she appreciate the reminder of her current predicament.
She glared at a nearby table of guffawing actors, making note of their tatty clothing and too-shiny weaponry, no doubt stolen from the prop cupboard of some dire off-Lane production. Curs. She slammed her tankard down and caught the eye of a passing barmaid before pointing decisively at the glaring absence of gin.
“I don’t think it’s working, Captain.” At Alex’s side, Sid Potts employed his usual capacity to state the obvious. His years of being the Purple Reign’s bo’sun had left him with a face resembling the lovechild of a potato that had made love to another, homelier potato. His ever-present brown bowler hat only added to the impression.
“No, Sid, it’s not, but there’s merit in trying. It’s either try to get drunk or storm the docks and take back the Purple Reign, and I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Do you?” Still glaring at the actors, Alex slumped down the wall until her chin rested on her chest. They were so oblivious. Didn’t they understand they were doomed to unhappiness, should some stuffed frilly shirts from a stupid university decide to take away their most prized possession—their very livelihood?
Sid shrugged before downing his pint of Long John’s Extremely Uncomfortable. The movement strained the brass buttons on his waistcoat, which was the same faded brown as his hat. Sid liked brown. “Look on the bright side—they were nice to give us that pardon once you convinced them you were really a privateer only pretending to be a pirate to fool the OverParisians.” He poked the letter of marque with his forefinger. “Especially when they caught us with the booty we’d snaffled from that OverManchester merchantman.”
This had involved some fast talking on Alex’s part. But since no one from the south of England ever visited the north, except to sneer or to be overcharged for gingerbread while holidaying in the Lake District, she’d been able to convince the authorities that her looted cargo of woolly vests, flat caps and strong tea was a Frenchman’s ploy to pretend to be English.
“Were they?” Alex checked her empty tankard, just in case a gin fairy had left a little something extra in the bottom. “I’m not so sure.”
“Yes, Captain. Professor Bottomley was gracious, letting you argue your defence like that. If you hadn’t been so convincing, our bits would currently be nailed on the Wharf Gate and I, for one, don’t think my insides would look good on the outside. Gates aren’t meant for kidneys and whatnot. Especially not mine. I have sensitive insides.” Sid stifled a burp with his fist.
“While I appreciate your efforts to depress me to the point where my metabolism slows and I can achieve inebriation, I’m going to have to kindly ask you to shut up,” Alex said, enunciating her words carefully.
A shadow fell over the table and they looked up at Gregor, The Armoury’s proprietor and one of the few homo meles in OverLondon. The badger man’s huge face was contorted into a cantankerous scowl, the black stripes over his eyes stark against the white skin of his cheeks and neck. The black tip of his broad white nose was turned up in disgust.
“I believe this is yours.” From behind his back he brought an arm bulging with muscles, thrusting it towards Alex. Her cabin boy, Flora, hung limply from his fist, which was wrapped around the scruff of her shirt.
Flora was wearing the benign smile that only homo furo could manage. The ferret girl’s floppy red velvet cap with its bedraggled chicken feather was askew, and the mousy hair sticking out from beneath it was a picture of chaos. Her pointy, fawn-coloured face, with its brown mask around the eyes, was fixed in a dreamy smile even as her torso—much longer than the average human’s—swayed like a rubber pendulum. Her shirt had ridden up to reveal a brass navel ring above her red breeches and mended black stockings. She was wearing the same heavy hobnail ship boots as Alex and Sid—although, if anyone looked closer, they’d see that the soles of Flora’s boots had been augmented with an extra layer of soft rubber. All the better for sneaking.
“Hello, Captain,” Flora said dreamily. “I think Gregor’s upset.”
“Daft ferret. Where’d you find her?” Alex asked Gregor.
“With one hand in my coin chest and the other in my pockets.” Gregor gave Flora a shake and something tinkled to the floor.
A silver spoon glinted in the sawdust. They all studied it.
“That’s not one of mine,” Gregor said. “She must’ve got that off someone else. Who’d you get it off, girl?” He gave Flora another shake, dislodging five threepenny bits.
Alex ran a hand over her eyes. “How much did you take?”
“Nothing much. Just some shiny things from here and there. And a few more shiny things from inside and under, and a few more from out and up,” Flora replied in a singsong voice, her small black eyes alight with happiness. “I’ll return them all once I’ve looked at them. I promise.”
“You’ll return them now.” The vibration of Gregor’s growl liberated another coin and what looked like a brass ring. “And give me back my buttons.”
It was only then that Alex noticed that the big man’s shirt was undone to his waist, exposing a penny-sized longevity trinket, closely resembling a clockwork ladybug, attached to his chest. The complex opalescent patina on its cog-shaped carapace betrayed its worth and explained Gregor’s exceptional health and indeterminate age.
“You took his buttons?” Alex asked Flora. “When?”
“While we were looking at the spoon,” Gregor said.
Alex rolled her eyes. “Vengeful Lady’s spittle, Flora—what are the rules?”
Flora radiated innocence. “Don’t take shiny things from Gregor?”
“Don’t take shiny things from Gregor,” Alex repeated. “Now give them back.”
Flora reached into one of her many pockets and produced five pewter buttons. Her legs were still dangling in the air, but she’d now crossed her ankles. Alex suspected this was to stop yet more objects falling out from wherever she’d hidden them.
Gregor snatched up the buttons, then dropped Flora onto the sawdust before collecting the coins, ring and spoon. “If she does it again, I’ll bite her head off.” He stomped back to the bar, snarling at anyone who got in his way.
Alex held out her black-gloved left hand. “Now he’s gone, hand the rest over.”
Flora jumped up from the floor, her body swaying from side to side as she straightened her shirt and then reached into her pockets. Another spoon and four more coins clinked into Alex’s palm.
“And the rest.”
There were a few more clinks.
“And the rest.”
Flora pouted. “Can’t I keep one shiny thing?”
“Is it yours?”
“It could be mine.”
“But is it?”
“It is now.”
“Give it here.”
Reluctantly, Flora held out another ring, set with a green stone. Given the high density of impoverished actors in the vicinity, the stone would inevitably be glass. Flora then dived under the table and slunk to the seat on Alex’s right. With the extra height afforded by her torso, she was a few inches taller than Alex when sitting down.
Now that Gregor had gone, Sid finally found his voice again. He’d been shy of speaking in Gregor’s company ever since he’d once drunkenly announced that badgers spread disease, and Gregor had threatened to terminally ensure he never caught anything again. “That badger is going to eat you one day,” he said. “Stupid ferret. And if he doesn’t, you’re going to end up wanted by the beadles. Do you want to end up on one of these?” He gestured to the wanted posters plastered on the wall behind them. “I know I don’t. I like my neck attached to the rest of me. It’s the right size, my neck. Not long, or stretched, or nailed to something. Like the Wharf Gate—”
“Alright, Sid,” Alex cut in. “You’ll kindly remember that I’m on one of those posters.” She nodded to the large notice that Gregor had tacked behind the bar some years ago in an uncharacteristic display of good humour. It featured the woodcut of a painting Alex had regretted sitting for ever since its inception.
The portrait was a minor work of Giuseppe Blowhardi, the notorious OverFlorentine artist who’d once insisted Alex kidnap him for ransom. He’d then spent a month lounging on the Purple Reign’s deck, demanding Alex fly him somewhere with better light.
In true Blowhardi style, Giuseppe had decided against depicting Alex as a passingly handsome woman of medium height and stature, instead opting for a questionable interpretation of Botticelli’s Venus in a flying helmet and goggles, with a chest that would cause even the stoutest woman severe back problems. At least the scar slashing across her left cheek was accurate, but the rest? The woman in the painting was otherwise naked except for her hands because, Alex suspected, Giuseppe didn’t know how to paint them. Instead of the usual black leather glove on her left hand, he’d inexplicably given her crimson gloves with gold rings worn over the top.
The woodcut artist who had replicated the painting for the wanted poster hadn’t bothered with colour, but they’d enhanced Alex’s chest to the point where the woman depicted would never have to worry about drowning.
Sid glanced at the poster and then back at Alex. “Well, Captain, it’s not as if it really looks like you, so there was never any fear of them capturing you, was there? And you always said that it was a good advertisement for your services, although I never quite knew what that meant.”
“True.” Alex spent a pleasant moment thinking of all the services she’d performed over the years for the multitude of ladies and gentlemen who’d expressed a desire to be plundered by a notorious pirate.
“I mean, no one would know it’s you because there’s a lack in the…” He cupped his hands in front of his chest. “Height department.”
“And you said it yourself—that poster meant you were able to walk around OverLondon without fearing capture for years. Because you wear clothes, and you don’t have the same sized—”
“Yes, yes.” Alex contemplated banging her head on the table when Sid opened his mouth to speak again. “No, Sid, really, if you say one more thing, I’ll tell Gregor that you said the thing about badgers again. Understand me?”
“Yes, Captain, but—”
“The important thing is working out what to do for coin now that we’ve lost the Purple Reign. Privateer,” she sneered. “Who ever heard of a privateer without a ship?”
“We’ll get it back, Captain. All we have to do is pay off that big tax bill the Academic Council said you owed since you never declared any of your privateering income.”
A pounding started behind Alex’s eyes. When she’d come up with the privateer argument to save their skins, she hadn’t anticipated accountants getting involved.
The barmaid brought over another tankard of gin, and Alex used one of the coins Flora had stolen to pay for it.
“If you need money, you could let me keep my shiny things,” Flora said hopefully.
Alex considered this. While she was a lying, stealing, dreadful pirate, The Armoury was the closest thing she had to a home in OverLondon. She knew every fetid street, alleyway and dead end in this overpopulated floating cesspit like she knew her own mind. This city was hers, and after losing the Purple Reign she couldn’t afford to lose it too. It would be like having a limb amputated. “Or I could just turn you upside down, shake out the rest of whatever you’ve got hidden in your pockets and turn you over to Gregor. I’m sure he’d reward me for my troubles.”
Sid spoke over Flora’s alarmed squeak. “That wouldn’t work, Captain. She’d just steal them back off you. It’d be like that thing the academic blighters found out about last year… What’s that thing called when a snake eats its own tail?”
“Regret?” Flora asked.
“No, no. The thing where it’s happening continuously, like. Only heard it the other day. Wrote it down…” He rifled in his pockets and pulled out a scrap of paper covered in his heavy-handed scrawl. “Ouroboros!” he exclaimed.
“Bless you,” Flora said.
Sid ignored her. “What I mean, Captain, is that we’d have more luck rounding up one of the coves on these wanted posters and turning them in than shaking out Flora’s pockets.” He guffawed. “Wouldn’t that be a laugh? First time anyone was turned in by someone who wasn’t a relative, or some blighter sick of their mate drinking all their gin. But then you’d have to work out who to turn ‘em in to. Some of these posters are for the same blighter from four or five different parish beadles. Look at these!” He waved at a set of woodcuts of varying quality, all of which requested the capture of Lemmy Coghead, a squat man with stringy black hair and a huge mole on his cheek, who specialised in everything from making an unreasonable ruckus to flower snaffling in locations as diverse as Westminster, Soho and Whitechapel. “Wanted by the Bad Habits, the Ushers and the Lepers. I can tell you who I’d want to be handed in to and who I wouldn’t. All the Ushers would do is make him an extra in a bleedin’ play until he died of boredom, the Bad Habits would give him an arse caning—unless he messed with a cat—but the Lepers would tear him limb from limb. Cog cursed devils. I don’t like ‘em. I don’t like ‘em at all. The things they do to people. It’s worse than the Wharf Gate. It just isn’t right. I don’t—”
“We get the idea, Sid.” The Whitechapel rookery’s notorious beadles, the Lepers were a feature of the city Alex wasn’t too fond of discussing. She’d take Mother Superior, the head beadle of OverLondon’s official ecclesiastical body, the Church of Vengeful Acquisition any day.
Mother Superior was considered mild-mannered compared to many of OverLondon’s other religious and civic leaders, with the exception of her love of cats, which was all-encompassing to the point that she got a little Leper-like when she suspected anyone of mistreating a cat. This meant OverLondon’s feline population was the most coddled on the globe. Alex liked cats, so she approved.
Alex studied the posters, her eyes alighting on the number on the bottom of the nearest one. Two pounds. That was a lot of coin. Funny how she’d never noticed that before—probably because her poster hadn’t offered a financial reward. Instead, it had offered the slimy double-crossing bottom feeder who turned her in a certificate of life-long immunity from prosecution by the OverLondon Academic Council. Bastards.
To erase the sting of recent memory, Alex took a slug from her new pint, but it was no use. Anyone who’d accumulated as many trinkets on their body as she had was doomed to an extraordinarily long life of healthy sobriety.
“Why doesn’t anyone go looking for these idiots?” she said. “If they’re stupid enough to stay still long enough for someone to draw their picture, they must be stupid enough to catch, and I say that from experience.” She downed the rest of the gin for the hell of it. At the very least, it was safer to drink than the water in this city.
“Because people can easily get money other ways?” Flora said brightly. Alex noticed that the pile of coins on the table had disappeared and that Flora was back to her normal cheerful self.
“It’s obvious.” Sid rubbed his stomach in a self-important fashion. “No beadle is going to cross the parish boundaries, are they? Could you imagine the Lepers crossing Utopia Street from the rookery to the artificer district? The Hammer Men’d be on them in a minute.” He snorted. “It’d be all-out war again. That’s what the treaties were all about, wasn’t it? No more war between the parishes as long as no beadle crosses into another beadle’s turf. In fact, I’d hazard to say that due to being listed as privateers for the entire city, we’re the only people in this city not attached to a parish in any way!”
Alex tapped her chin. “That’s a surprisingly complex answer for a man with a brain as unique as yours, Sid.”
Sid’s chest swelled with pride. “I have my moments.”
“And he overheard Gregor talking about what your letter of marque meant yesterday,” Flora said. “It was with that Bad Habit who came in to ask him to hang up a poster. I saw Sid’s mouth moving as he memorised it all. He even wrote some of it down on that piece of paper he’s holding, and he didn’t return my pencil.”
“Lying ferret! I can come up with ideas on my own.”
“If someone gives you a running start, a step ladder and an explanatory pop-up book. And give me back my pencil!”
“Now would be the time to be quiet. I’m thinking.” Alex was rewarded by a momentary blessed—though slightly resentful—silence.
She did some arithmetic. There were at least fifteen posters on this wall and although they were old, there was never a shortage of wanted coves in this town. If she could find enough current ones, she’d have enough to pay off her tax debt and get the Purple Reign back. And the next time, she wouldn’t be caught.
“Sid,” Alex said as the idea started to take hold.
“You’ve always been a dab hand at finding our crew before embarkation.” It was a sacred tradition for the Purple Reign’s crew to get bladdered the night before setting sail and to wedge themselves somewhere they swore they’d never be found, only for Sid to inevitably wake them up with a bucket of water the next morning. Finding crew members was one of the many abilities that made Sid one of the best bo’suns in aeronautical history. That, and being reliable, trustworthy and in possession of a stubborn streak which meant that it was impossible to dislodge an idea once he’d grown attached to it.
Sid’s chest swelled with pride, straining the buttons on his vest. “There’s no rock too small for me to look under. No hole too deep. No mountain too high—”
“No bawdy house too bawdy, no dive too divey,” Flora added.
“—be it rain, sleet, hail or typhoon, I always find my man, woman or woodkin.”
“Along with their pies, their gin and their spare change,” Flora said.
“Along with their— What are you talking about, Flora?” Sid said indignantly. “I never took anyone’s spare change.”
Alex ignored them. “And Flora—take that damn spoon out of your pocket and put it back—you can find anything that’s got a shine to it.”
“If it’s shiny, it’s mine.” Flora’s dreamy smile contained a lot of sharp little white teeth.
“And I’ve got brains,” Alex stated. “An abundance of magnificent brains.” She steepled her fingers beneath her chin as she considered the letter of marque with renewed interest. Maybe the Academic Council hadn’t screwed her down as hard as they’d thought.
“I don’t like brains,” Flora said. “They’re not shiny.”
“But you do like money.” Alex stood up abruptly, tugging her flying helmet firmly down on her head.
“Where are you going?” Sid asked, looking alarmed. “Captain, you know what happens when you get ideas. That expression on your face says you’re going to drop us right in it.”
Alex’s gold incisor tooth glinted in the lamplight and the scar that slashed down the left side of her face momentarily caused a nearby table of actors to wonder openly if she was the real Purple Reign, despite her lack of “height”.
She retrieved a cigar from her doublet, lit it and blew a smoke ring into the air. “I’m going to drop us in money, Sid, that’s what I’m going to do. When I get ideas, things happen. So why don’t you mind our table while I go ask Gregor what he’s doing with the room upstairs now that he’s kicked the stomp ballet school out?”