The Alyesford Skull is the first full-length steampunk novel from James P. Blaylock in over twenty years and is being released this month by Titan Books. We have details on a signed limited edition version of the novel, a chance for you to win a copy from Titan Books, and an exclusive excerpt that you can read right now:
Synopsis: "It is the summer of 1883 and Professor Langdon St. Ives brilliant but eccentric scientist and explorer is at home in Aylesford with his family. However a few miles to the north a steam launch has been taken by pirates above Egypt Bay, the crew murdered and pitched overboard. In Aylesford itself a grave is opened and possibly robbed of the skull. The suspected grave robber, the infamous Dr. Ignacio Narbondo, is an old nemesis of Langdon St. Ives. When Dr. Narbondo returns to kidnap his four-year-old son Eddie and then vanishes into the night, St. Ives and his factotum Hasbro race into London in pursuit…"
Exclusive Chapter Three Excerpt
The Aylesford Skull
Dr. Narbondo watched as the woman, Mary Eastman by name, crossed the green and stepped over the stile into the Aylesford churchyard. Even in the moonlight he could see that there was an element of angry pride in her walk, nothing furtive or fearful, as if she had some hard words for him and was anxious to throw them into his face after all these years. “Careful you don’t take a fall,” he muttered, but at the same time he was aware that she still had a certain beauty, her hair still red, as he remembered it. He stepped clear of the shadow of the tomb behind him and stood at the edge of the open grave with its small headstone.
She stood staring at him, the grave standing between them now. “Of course,” she said. “I knew it would be you. I prayed that you were dead, but my prayers clearly went unanswered. I wanted to be certain.”
“Prayer is indeed uncertain, Mary. Flesh and blood are certain enough.” He affected a smile. The night was warm, the air clear and dry. In the grave lay a broken coffin and a scattering of bones, the skull conspicuously missing. A high mound of soil lay heaped at the head of the grave, burying the foot of the headstone. Hidden behind the nearby tomb lay the body of the sexton, his coat soaked in blood. He had taken Narbondo’s money happily enough, and had been richer for the space of some few seconds. Until Narbondo had made up his mind, he wouldn’t let Mary see the dead sexton or the skull that he had taken from the grave.
“The years haven’t been kind to you,” she said bitterly, choosing to look into his face rather than into the grave. “You’ve grown a hump, which is as it should be. It’s the mark of Cain, sure as I’m standing here.”
“The years are never kind,” he said. “But in any event I have no interest in kindness. As for the hump, I’m disappointed that you would cast such stones. That was never your way, Mary.”
“My way? What do you know of my ways, then or now? I deny that you know me.”
“And yet you knew that it was I when you received the note. Surely you did. Edward’s ghost is restless, but it hasn’t taken to writing missives. And yet despite your knowledge you came freely. That gives me a degree of hope.” He kept his voice tempered. There would be no hint of pleading or desire – quite the opposite. Just an even-handed statement of the facts, such as they had undeniably come to be over the long years.
Abruptly she began to weep, the moonlight shining on her face. A breeze stirred the leaves in a nearby willow. Somewhere in the village a dog barked and then fell silent, and there was the low sound of a horse’s whinny nearby and its hoof scuffing against loose stones. She looked up at the scattering of stars, as if searching for solace. He found the gesture tiresome.
“I thought that you would profit from seeing my half-brother’s condition,” he said to her, looking about to ascertain that they were indeed alone. “I won’t say ‘brother,’ for he was never more than half alive to me. The flesh is gone from the bones now, and the skull, the salient part of his skeleton, is missing, as you can see for yourself. He was half a brother and half a man – half a boy, to be more precise – and in death he remains so. Your kindness to him was laudable, no doubt, but misconceived. Sentimentality pays a very small dividend.”
She stared at him now with a loathing that was clearly written in her features. “What do you want?” she asked. “It’s late, and I’m weary of hearing your voice.”
“You ask a direct question. Excellent,” he said. “I have a simple proposition. I want your hand in marriage. You’re a spinster, with no prospects other than that doom that awaits us all, some of us sooner than others.” He gestured at the grave by way of explanation. “I can offer you wealth and freedom from want. I won’t press my affections upon you, however. In short, I desire what was rightfully mine thirty years ago when you were a girl of fifteen. Think carefully before you deny me.”
“Rightfully yours? Do you say so? You hanged your own brother from a tree branch, leering at him as he swung there choking. It’s my undying shame that I was too cowardly to come forward, although I still can, and you know that. You have no right to ask anything of anyone but forgiveness, which I can assure you you’ll never find on Earth. Even your own mother despises you. I’ve been told that you’ve changed your name. No doubt you despise yourself.”
“I have the right to do as I please, Mary, including abandoning a name that I had grown to loathe. And the truth is, as we both know, Edward would have hanged himself eventually, or some such thing, if I hadn’t done him the kindness. He was a sniveling little toad. As for your not coming forward when you might have, that was simply good sense. Surely you recall our bargain, and so you know that your silence has so far gained you thirty years of life. Now I’m offering you that same bargain again, except that the life that I would grant you is considerably more handsome than the life you enjoy. You’re a serving wench, or so I’m told, in my own mother’s employ. Or is it a mere charwoman? It amounts to charity in either event. I tell you plainly that you might have servants of your own, if that’s what you desire.”
She stared at him as if he were insane. “I’d sooner die,” she said.
He nodded, momentarily silent, and then said, “You’ve always been a woman who spoke plainly, Mary, when you chose to speak. One thing, though, before you take your leave…”
He turned and drew out his murdered brother’s skull from where it sat atop the wall of the tomb behind him, holding it out to her as if it were an offering. She stared at it in horror, recoiling from it. Unlike the dry bones in the grave, the skull had a mocking semblance of life: the hollows of the eyes were set with illuminated silver orbs, the mouth agape, the skull itself trepanned, the opening fitted with a clockwork mechanism beneath a crystal shell. It sat on a polished wooden base, like a trophy.
“Your paramour has been well-treated, as you can see,” he said. “In life he accounted for nothing, but in death, thanks to the skills of his own loathsome father, he has ascended to something very like the plain of glory.”
Narbondo’s interest was drawn to a movement beneath a heavy branch of the willow, a shifting glow like misty candlelight on the fine curtain of leaves. He peered at it, turning his head slightly to the side to see it more clearly. He returned the skull to its resting place, and then nodded for Mary’s benefit at the figure that was slowly taking shape in the light that hovered within the wavering shadows. “The ghost walks,” he whispered.
The semblance of a boy, Narbondo’s murdered brother, paced silently toward them, his hand outstretched, the animated branches of the willow visible through his transparent body. He seemed to see Mary standing before him, and she put her hand to her mouth in happy surprise. The ghost flickered in the moonlight, winking away and then reappearing beneath the branch as before, walking toward them again over the same ground, reaching out as if there were something that he wanted – to touch Mary’s hand, perhaps. Again he flickered away, and again he reappeared and set out. His mouth worked, as if he were trying to find words that had been choked out of him thirty years ago.
Mary started toward the ghost, sobbing aloud now, putting out her arms as if to embrace it. In that moment Narbondo sprang across the open grave like an ape, his black cloak flying behind him, a knife glinting in the hand that had held the skull only moments before. She heard him alight, and she spun around, looking in horror at the knife, reaching upward to stop the hand that swept toward her, but too late. The force of the blow knocked her over backward, blood spraying from her lacerated neck, welling out of her voiceless throat where she lay now on the ground beside the open grave. She tried to push herself up onto her elbows but fell back again and lay still.
Narbondo saw that there was a rose-shaped spattering of her blood on the headstone, shining crimson in the moonlight, which struck him as slightly theatrical, although entirely fitting. It would bloom there considerably longer than would a living rose, especially after the summer sun had baked it into the stone.
This article was posted as part of the Aylesford Skull Swashbuckling Blog Tour celebrating the release of James P. Blaylock’s first full-length steampunk novel in twenty years. For the opportunity to win a limited edition of The Aylesford Skull in a jacketed, signed hardcover with a unique jacket design, just tweet “I would like a limited edition of the Aylesford Skull @TitanBooks #Blaylock”.
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