That was a pleasant surprise.

I never thought that offhandedly saying that I was editing a “proto-Steampunk Celtic/Roman Han mashup” would get such a response. “When is it out?” You all asked.

I’d like to give a solid finish date, but I know how it feels I’m excited for something and then three months later there’s nothing after someone promised “soon.” Drives my impatient self crazy. Next thing I know,  I’m in my backyard screaming, “Just give me something! Anything!”

Which might explain the regular visits by the cops. Well, it’s either that or the noises in the middle of the night when I’m working on my death-ray robot. It’s a coin toss, really.

So with the Golden Rule in mind, I’m going to stop working on the robot – for now – and give you guys  a taste of what’s to come with the first free Chapter of Clockwork River below followed by a link for the full chapter if you want even more.

Enjoy!

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Clockwork River

By Christopher Robin Negelein

CHAPTER ONE

Excerpt

Fenella of Clan Ríagáin, hated how the heavy aristocratic dress squeezed her like a giant snake. It barely gave her room to breathe – never mind move. The Imperial carriage’s bumpy ride made it worse as it jostled her tailbone on top of every lump hidden in the seat. All of it felt entrapping, like manacles decorated in fine silks and embroidery.

If she had held still though, she would have been the perfect picture of an Imperial citizen. One with mixed ancestry with her lighter skin of course, but still floating in circles where it would be overlooked in polite company.

From the corner of her eye, she saw her brother, Arwin, pulling at his tight shirt collar as he rolled his eyes and sighed. He sweated under a heavy jacket and the matching hat that kept slipping off his head.

He tried to hold onto an ornately engraved metal box, which occasionally released tiny puffs of smoke. A silent exchange of looks told how the siblings shared their pure hate for these ridiculous clothes.

Fen wanted to say something but bit her tongue and focused on the terrain speeding by. Other young women her age might have noticed that the trees and grass grew taller this far out from the Kanhai desert, which had taken the Ambassadorial convoy a whole week to cross even at its shortest tip. Or that in this new landscape, natural stone columns rose up like gargantuan fingers poking out of the earth, which offered a bit of shelter from the sweltering heat. Fen, though, was a different type of lady and also noted that the stones provided far too many spots for those looking to ambush the caravan.

Even Uncle Monteriso was distracted, keeping his place in the book he always carried with a manicured finger as he watched the distant hills crawl by. His clothes were even more ostentatious, with gold sewn into the embroidery and rings flashing on his fingers as he tugged on a loose shoulder sleeve.

Somewhere, they heard the Ambassador’s wife laughing in a carriage further behind them. Fen let out an exasperated sigh.

Monteriso shook his head. “I told her, and her hens, to keep their cackling to themselves. I -“

A screaming horse stopped her uncle’s tirade. Fen grabbed the window sill so she could lean out and see the injured animal, a crossbow quarrel sticking in its side as it thrashed to the ground, pinning its rider underneath. Swinging her head, she saw a tree crashing down in front of their carriage.

“The rider behind us is down. I see a bolt sticking–” she said.

Monteriso sucked in a gasp as he reached for a long, fat dagger. “I heard a falling tree, yes?”

Fen nodded.

Monteriso grunted. “Bandits.”

Arwin struck a match and slipped it into a hole in his prized metal box as the conveyance stopped. “A distraction? Sow confusion in the ranks and draw the guards away from –” The carriage door swung wide open to reveal a man with his head wrapped in a turban in the style famously worn in the city-states by honor-bound caliphs. A simple scarf covered all but the cold eyes. The bandit grabbed Fen and tossed her out.

“All of you out, now!” He growled.

Monteriso and Arwin gingerly stepped out. Monteriso had his hands in the air as Arwin grasped his box with only his fingertips.

Fen noticed that several bandits had gotten the drop on the caravan. She looked around for back up but then she saw that two of the Ambassador’s men were lying in the dirt, lifeless, and knew they were trapped.

One masked man, taller than the rest and resting a hand on his sword pommel, strutted towards them. “So this is the famous Ambassador and his beautiful family from the West.” His accent was clipped but understandable. From a distance, his clean clothes draped in silks and fine linens with bright dyes would have made for good impression. If not for the mask, he could have been a wealthy merchant or official. Up closer, Fen made out the faded brown spots in the linen, blood stains that had been repeatedly washed out again and again.

Uncle had one hand on his chest as the other gestured to a loaded wagon. “We are just merchants — take our goods and go in peace. Let us bury our dead.”

Arwin slowly tilted the box on its side as if he was going to put it under his arm.

The first bandit snatched it. “What is this?”

“Nothing,” Arwin said. “It’s not worth your trouble.”

The bandit king laughed. “Well, we will see, young man. Have you ever thought about being a bandit?” The bandit king took off a glove and waved his man closer.

His man handed it over. “Careful, it seems warm.”

“As does any metal box you set out in the sun,” the bandit king said, but he still took it with his gloved hand before flipping the catch and opening the lid to get a face full of smoke and flickering metallic wings accompanied by a high-pitched buzzing noise. On cue, everyone in the Ambassador’s party dropped or ducked.

Fen pulled out a throwing knife, with a glittering quartz handle, from the folds of her dress and threw it into the dead center of where the bandits were standing. The unnatural smoke, filled with tiny brass wasps, dived at the bandit king and spread out to the other robbers. Their flailing hands and swinging swords didn’t stop the insects’ razor-sharp bites or the needle-like stingers filled with virulent poison. Within moments, the injected toxins constricted throats, caused blindness as fire ran through the bandits’ arteries, and stopped their hearts.

Fen then got up to fetch her dagger. Too many escaped last time, Fen thought. If we kill enough of them, it will become too expensive to send any more assassins.

She tumbled into the thick of them, stabbing and slicing, using her natural grace, she kept low and avoided the mechanical swarm with a sublime ease. A ripping sound came with a sudden freedom for her legwork as her powerful legs and wide stance effortlessly popped the seams of her silly dress.

Her spirit sang as her power and grace made short work of the bandits. It was in these moments when Fen felt the most alive — fully embracing these gifts of being a martial prodigy, as “unlady-like” as it may be. This was who she was and as long as it lasted, she couldn’t care less what others thought in this moment.

Hearing her dress tear, put a wide grin on her face. Too late now, she thought. This will cost me later, but it’s totally worth it.

Her knee hit the dirt, grinding a smear in the silks, but it still was no substitute for a padded greave. As another bandit fell, his blood splattering on the dress. None of them are escaping this time.

From her peripheral vision, she caught Uncle fighting on the edges of the swarm, sword and shield in hand. Jaw set, he stormed towards his targets like a trotting bull. Without slowing down, his shield bashed one bandit off their feet. Another was downed with his sword stroke.

His motions were brutal — and economic. While hers were elegant and precise. Both methods produced quick and lethal results that no one could deny.

She kept spinning and diving under the swarm, taking out hamstrings and shins. The yells and screams were confirmation of her accuracy.  One by one the little mechanical wasps drifted down around her. Their miniscule reserves of the mystical oil, păcură, exhausted.  She paid them no mind. She was the vengeful tidal wave claiming souls below a roiling cloud of mechanical death.

Distantly, she heard the other legionnaires of the Ambassador’s bodyguard making quick work of the stragglers along the edges of the fight. At a glance up, she saw the metallic cloud thinned out enough that she dared to pop up to give a stab at an armpit or a throat. But otherwise she still stayed as low as she could. She reveled in the extra challenge.

And you can find the full chapter of Clockwork River here.