Today’s excerpt is an early glimpse of Michelle D. Sonnier’s An Unceasing Hunger, the long-awaited sequel to The Clockwork Witch, book one in the Evolution of Magic series. For those unfamiliar with the series, this is an alternate history setting where witches are the declining power in society, and steam technology is vying to take it’s place. Our protagonist, Arabella, as the first ever technomancer, stradles both worlds.
An Unceasing Hunger – Chapter One
The Story Begins Anew
The witches of Blackstone House cast their eyes to the sky and said that it was a good omen their newest member would be accepted to the Sisterhood of Witches on such a glorious summer day. It was warm, but not unbearably hot. The sun was bright. The clouds were fluffy, light, and few.
Arabella, the young witch in question, restlessly dozed in her father’s carriage as they sped westward to her mother’s ancestral home. The air didn’t move in the stuffy confines. She’d tried to sweep her hair up that morning in the small roadside inn where they’d spent the night, but she was not as cunning with her hairpins as her sisters and escaped curls clung to the back of her sweaty neck. She hunched against the wall of the carriage trying to put some space between herself and her brother John with little success. John had a habit of sprawling out in his sleep, which along with his snoring made him a tiresome traveling companion.
Arabella sat up straight with a huff and began to fan herself with the letters she clutched in her lap. “Can’t we open a window?” she grumped to her father and older brother, Henry, sitting across from her. “It’s unbearably stuffy in here.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” muttered Henry, without looking up from the book he was reading.
“We’re out of the city, brother dear,” snapped Arabella. “We have been for quite a while. I hardly think we need to worry about the miasmas and smells at this point.”
“And I suppose you’d rather be covered in dirt from the road when we arrive then?” Henry finally looked up from his book and arched one brow. “I’m sure that would make such a stellar impression on all the luminaries of the witching world, who I am sure Mother has invited to this occasion.”
Arabella tightened her jaw. “Why, such tender concern! I didn’t think you cared about the opinions of witches.” A peevish tone entered her voice.
“I’m only trying to look out for my baby sister,” simpered Henry. “For so many years I’ve been deprived of the opportunity to attend to my brotherly duties to my sisters.”
Arabella snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. She opened her mouth to speak.
“Children!” Father barked as he snapped his own book shut. John started up mid-snore and scanned the carriage interior with bleary eyes.
“I understand you are not used to being in close quarters with each other,” Father continued. “But for goodness sakes, can you please try to be civilized and not snarl at each other like beasts?”
“It’s just so frightfully warm, Father,” Arabella pouted. “And Henry is not being amicable about opening a window.”
Henry grimaced as he turned to their father. “If Arabella has her way everything in this carriage will be covered in dirt before we’re another mile down the road!” He held up the book in his hand. “This is a rare edition borrowed from the Club’s library. I’m responsible for the condition I return it in.”
“Why would you bring a rare book, that doesn’t even belong to you, on a trip to the country?” Arabella’s voice rose. “You should have left it at home, or at least packed it in your trunk so you could carefully read it after we arrive!”
“I am in the midst of important research that can’t be stopped for some little witchy garden party!” Henry’s voice rose to match Arabella’s.
“My investiture is not just some little garden party!” Color rose into Arabella’s cheeks.
“Enough!” Father roared. He pinned his daughter with his gaze. “Arabella, you may open the window near you, but just a bit. We don’t want too much road dust.” He turned his gimlet eyes to his oldest son. “Henry, you will stop antagonizing your sister. You borrowed the book and you are responsible for it. Arabella is right, if it is so fragile you should have planned for its care better.” He swept his gaze around the carriage. “There will be no more bickering today, Children. Have I made myself clear?”
“But I didn’t do anything…” whined John. “I was asleep!”
Arabella leaned into the small stream of fresh air at the window and let her eyes flutter shut. “Your snoring is loud enough to be considered part of the argument.”
“On that I will agree,” grumbled John as he tucked his borrowed book into his worn leather satchel.
“Two against one is not fair,” said John as he adjusted his waistcoat.
“Don’t whine,” griped Father as he turned back to his book. “It’s unbecoming of a gentleman.”
John took a breath to say something, then clamped his jaw shut and settled back into his seat as he shook his head. Arabella held up her letters to shield her face from Father and Henry, and stuck out her tongue at John with a twinkle in her eye.
“And what are you reading, sister dear?” John chuckled as he reached out and tried to snatch the ribbon-wrapped packet from Arabella.
“These are personal!” Arabella a theatrical gasp as she held them out of the way.
Henry harrumphed as pulled out a portfolio to peruse from his bag. “You delivered most of them, John. You know they are from Julian Pattersby.” He rolled his eyes. “I don’t understand why the two of you must insist on playing such juvenile games while we are in such close quarters.”
“Because we’re hopelessly bored and it’s hours before we’ll arrive at Mother’s,” John replied to his brother matter-of-factly.
He turned back to Arabella. “So I only delivered most of them? I wasn’t your only secret postmaster? I’m wounded… Then there must be some I haven’t read!” He tried harder to get them from Arabella. She giggled as she tucked them behind her back.
“Children….” Father cautioned without looking up from his book.
John and Arabella settled back with a sigh, companionably leaning against each other.
“I really haven’t read any of your letters,” John said after a moment.
“I know,” said Arabella with a little smile. “I’d have to turn you into a toad if you did.”
John looked at his sister from the corner of his eyes. “Can you really do that?” he whispered.
“Not yet,” Arabella giggled. “But I’m still learning.”
“Please don’t scare me like that.” John laid his hand over his heart.
“But a reasonable fear of witches improves your sociability so much, brother dear.” Arabella put her hand over her mouth to stifle another giggle. Father and Henry sighed in unison but didn’t say anything else.
John drummed his fingers on his knee and peered at the country fields outside his window. Arabella fanned herself with her letters and sighed.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me about anything in those letters,” John murmured to Arabella.
Arabella suppressed a smile. “That sounds suspiciously like digging for gossip.”
“I’m not looking for gossip.” John looked abashed. “I’m just trying to be a good traveling companion for once, trying to hold up my end of a pleasant conversation.”
Arabella shifted to face him and raised one eyebrow.
“Alright, I’m also hopelessly bored. Hearing you swoon over Julian Pattersby would be more interesting than watching the countryside go by.”
Arabella tilted her head to the side and raised her other eyebrow.
“Fine,” growled John. “I am actually at least slightly interested in your feelings for Julian. You might wind up married to the lad and then I’ll be stuck with him so I might as well try to learn something about him.”
Chuckling, Arabella nodded. “I see… How amazing! My brother does actually care about someone other than himself.”
“I thought I’d already proven that,” John grumbled as he crossed his arms across his chest. “Fine. I’ll just watch the countryside since you have no interest in conversation.” He turned his head firmly to the window.
“John…” Arabella’s kept her voice soft as she reached for his hand. “I was just teasing you.” She leaned forward to try to get a good look at this face. “Can’t a sister tease her brother?”
John turned back to Arabella and considered her a moment. Then he pulled his face into a mock pout. “Wounded again!” He placed the back of his hand on his forehead. “The outrageous treatment I suffer at the hands of my cruel, cruel sister!”
Henry snorted and turned another page in his portfolio.
John glanced at Henry and smirked, then caught Arabella’s hands up in his own.
“Now that you know how grievously you’ve hurt me, you simply must tell me every juicy detail. It’s the only way to make it up to me.” John grinned.
Arabella broke out into a full-throated laugh. “John, you are absolutely ridiculous. But I still love you.”
He settled back and tugged the lapels of his waistcoat. “Not quite the groveling apology I was hoping for, but I’ll take it.” He folded his hands on his lap, eyes sparkling. “Now, do I deserve even a few crumbs of chitchat? Just as little taste?”
A dreamy smile spread over Arabella’s face as she looked down at the letters in her lap and stroked them.
“Well, I supposed I do owe you at least a little something after the horrible way I’ve treated you.”
John out his elbows on his knees, chin in his hands, and fluttered his eyelashes at Arabella.
“You’re terrible,” she giggled, rapping his shoulder with his fingertips. The dreamy smile returned, and she sighed. “He just seems so perfect. It hardly seems like he can be real.”
Behind his portfolio Henry turned an ear toward his siblings, but he didn’t lower his papers.
“Go on…” John prompted.
Arabella blushed. “It’s silly…” she paused. When John let the moment stretch on, she let her words out in a rush. “He just… He takes me seriously. He seems interested in what I think, the things I have to say.” She bit her lip and looked sideways at John. He tilted his head to the side, giving her an encouraging smile.
Arabella flushed deeper and fluttered her hand in the air. “I should just stop talking. I’m not even sure how I feel about him. Every little butterfly could just be because he’s the first man outside my family to actually pay me any mind. And courting right now? Impossible! I barely survived the Trials, no thanks to Beatrice. If it hadn’t been for Parthena’s quick thinking, I’d be dead. Just a scorch mark on the floor…” Arabella gasped and stopped cold. All eyes in the carriage were on her, stunned. The carriage creaked and swayed but no one said anything.
Arabella finally broke the silence. “Can all of you please forget I said that?” She searched their faces desperately. “I’m really not supposed to say anything about what goes on in the Council Chamber.” She dropped her eyes and stared down at the letters in her lap. Her lips pressed into a thin white line.
Father coughed gently. “Well, yes,” he harrumphed. “I am quite familiar with that restriction given how long your mother and I lived together. I am also quite familiar with conveniently forgetting things I shouldn’t have heard for the good of someone I love.” He reached across the carriage and squeezed Arabella’s hand. She gave him a small, weak smile. He glanced back and forth between his sons, and said, “I’m sure Henry and John will be the respectable gentlemen I raised them to be and do the same.”
“Of course, Father,” John sputtered. “I would never say a word that might endanger Arabella.”
The three turned to Henry, who regarded them all with narrowed eyes and pursed lips. When he still didn’t say anything Father raised an eyebrow and frowned.
“I’m insulted you even think I need to say anything. I am always a gentleman,” Henry huffed.
The three let out the breaths they had been holding and settled back in their seats. Henry shook his head and returned to his perusal of his portfolio. Father leaned forward again and patted Arabella’s hand before settling back into his book. Arabella and John fidgeted with their fingers in their laps.
“So,” John said after a moment. “Is there anything else you would like to chat about? Anything that doesn’t involve death and secrets?”
“Everything in my life seems to involve death and secrets these days.” Arabella sighed.
“Hhmm… Perhaps a secret that only mortally wounds then? We could start small.” John jostled his sister with his elbow. Arabella frowned as she tried to sidle away. John nudged her again. “Just a slightly poisonous secret? Surely you have at least one… You can turn me into a toad if I tell.”
Arabella stifled a giggle and elbowed her brother back. “You know I don’t know that spell yet.” She sighed again. “We could always chat about Mother. There’s plenty of grist in that mill.”
“Hhrrm, yes…” John looked thoughtful, tapping his chin with his forefinger. “I do seem to remember you being in quite a fit of pique when the investiture invitation arrived. I believe it was something about your name?”
“Yes! She addressed it to Arabella Helene Sortilege.” Arabella’s lips quivered and her eyes flashed.
“Here we go…” John chuckled to himself.
“Mother disowned when I wouldn’t come to her heel like a trained dog, but now she wants me back in her circle. She’s trying to hold out the family name like some sort of treat.” Arabella frowned.
“So, when you were a burden she was happy to set you aside. But now that you’re officially a witch and no longer a danger to her precious position, she’s happy to claim you.” John’s brows drew together as he frowned.
“That’s only part of it, John. Things are very complicated in the witching world. I wouldn’t expect a man to understand.” Arabella shook her head sadly.
John threw his hands up in the air. “Yes, I’m just a man and I can’t understand anything. Or perhaps you could try to explain it to me?”
Arabella pursed her lips together. “One of the complications is what House I will claim allegiance to. If I do not claim Blackstone House then the web of loyalties between me, my House of birth, my House of choice, and blood family gets complicated; and I could also tie Houses together where there were no ties before, or strengthen already existing ties.”
“Aren’t you already of Blackstone House?” John’s voice rose in confusion.
“Not since I was disowned,” Arabella said with a bitter smile. “Some Houses will no doubt court me, while others will avoid me like spoiled meat left in the sun.”
“I would think that your magical strength and potential ties to Blackstone House would make you attractive to all of the Houses,” John said.
“And here is one of the things I don’t think you understand,” Arabella said with a wry half-smile and tilt of her head. “There are many in the Sisterhood who do not like change, and who like technology even less. Since my power is centered on technology they see me as a perversion of witchery, an abomination they’d just as soon see dead.”
Henry dropped his portfolio to his lap and blinked in shock. “That’s just ludicrous! Change is part of life. You are a natural and expected adaptation to the world around us.”
Father snapped his book shut. He raised his finger as if about to pontificate. Arabella burst out laughing, silencing them all.
“Did you expect me to turn out the way I did?” She looked at each of them in turn with her eyebrows raised expectantly.
The men blushed and dropped their eyes. Arabella smiled at them fondly.
“I appreciate the support from all three of you, but I am quite aware of the dangers of my position at this point.”
“So what are you going to do?” Father asked in a gentle voice.
“I’m joining the Sisterhood, and I’m enjoying the party. Perhaps I’ll even make Mother stew a little before I declare a House.” Arabella chuckled to herself. “If Mother wants me to declare my allegiance to Blackstone House, she shall have to court me.”
Michelle D. Sonnier writes dark urban fantasy, steampunk, and anything else that lets her combine the weird and the fantastic in unexpected ways. She even writes horror, although it took her a long time to admit that since she prefers the existential scare over blood and gore. She’s published short stories in a variety of print and online venues, and has upcoming projects with eSpec Books and Otter Libris. You can find her on Facebook (Michelle D. Sonnier, The Writer). She lives in Maryland with her husband, son, and a variable number of cats. The Clockwork Witch is her first full-length novel.