I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.
I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.
“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.
“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.
“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”
“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.
“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.
“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.
“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.
“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”
Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.
“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”
“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”
“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”
“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”
“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.
“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”
“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.
“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”
I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.
“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.
An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.
“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”
“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”
“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”
Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”
“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.
“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.
“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”
“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.
“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.
She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.
Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.
On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.
Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”
The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.
“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.
“Would love it.”
I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.
“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”
“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.
“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.
We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.
“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”
“Bring it on.”
He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.
“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.
“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.
“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”
“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.
“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.
“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.
David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”
My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”
“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.
“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.
“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.
We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.
“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.
“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.
“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”
“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”
Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.
“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.
“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.
David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”
I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?
“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.
“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”
“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”
He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”
“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.
David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”
“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.
David’s face fell.
“Wait, you’re not telling me…”
He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”
I went pale.
“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.
“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.
He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.
“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”
David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.
But then, David kissed me.
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.
“It’s perfect!” David shouted.
I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.
A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.
When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.
He frowned. “You actually found something?”
“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.
“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”
“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”
David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.
Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.
“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”
“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”
Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”
“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.
“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.
He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.
The ticking slowed.
“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.
“Never,” he said.
“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.
“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.
Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.
Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.
“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.
“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.
“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”
“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.
“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”
I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”
Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”
“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”
“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”
Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.
“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”
“Wha-” I sputtered.
“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”
I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.
“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”
I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.
“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”
I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.
“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”
“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”
“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”
“I’ll count on it.”
“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”
“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.
“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.
“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.
“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”
“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”
“I love you too, David Weldon.”