In the California of an alternate 1898, Alysseren, a sixteen-year-old missionary, matches people with tochtin—lemur-like familiars who convert their hosts to the church of the Queen of Heaven. When she is admitted to the adult congregation, the bloody secret of the High Service shakes her faith.
At the same time, she meets two intriguing young men who vie for her favor—the handsome priest assigned to prepare her for the next High Service and a dashing Mayan amnesiac—and uncovers a conspiracy among the tochtin to use their human hosts as weapons against the Queen.
Determined to save both the tochtin and the people they control, Alysseren navigates both a land infested with towering, steam-powered war machines and the attentions of her new companions as she tries to stop the rebellion. But every step leads inexorably to a collision with the Queen, and a terrible choice: sacrifice her beloved tochtin … or herself.
The thought of being so wicked had been thrilling, almost intoxicating.
The reality was uncomfortable and dull.
It had been easy enough for Alysseren to slip under the pews at the end of the common service while everyone else was busy. Sister Alice had gone to the vestry to prepare for the High Service. Reverend Dodgson was tripping over himself attending to the high priest who had come to dedicate the new church.
That was fifteen minutes ago—fifteen minutes of trying to stay perfectly still while curled up on the hard wooden floor—and they still hadn’t started the anthem yet. Insofar as she could tell from beneath the pew in the middle of the chapel, the adults were simply milling about. Hiding to see the Inner Sanctum and watch the High Service no longer seemed like such a good idea.
“I told you this wouldn’t work,” her tochtin said quietly. “We can’t even sneak away now. There are too many people.”
He yawned, exposing his cat-like teeth, and stretched in her arms till his furry toes touched her thigh and his delicate hands reached past her head.
The floor vibrated with the heavy footfalls of someone crossing the chapel.
Her tochtin sneezed.
“Hush,” Alysseren whispered. She held her breath until the dust settled. At least the dusky, just-rained smell of the new wood floor didn’t bother her.
“Sometimes I think you want me to get caught,” she said.
“If I wanted that, I could have told the others.” Her tochtin’s long ears drooped. “Not that they ever listen to me …”
Alysseren scratched the fur on his belly until he purred softly, then said, “Someday we’ll show them they shouldn’t think so little of us.”
The bellows creaked for a moment and then the organ sounded the opening chords of the Anthem of the High Service.
Alysseren rolled onto her elbows. Her tochtin climbed to her back. She couldn’t crawl, thanks to her skirt, but she could pull herself under the pews.
They reached the second row as the anthem ended. Most of her view was filled with the brown robes of the people about to go through the High Service. No one, however, stood directly ahead and she could see the ornate screens behind the altar that hid the Inner Sanctum.
Alysseren drew a quick breath and a shiver spread across her back when someone opened the screens and she caught a glimpse of the red curtains in the Sanctum.
A rough hand pinched her ear and hair, and pulled her to her feet.
Her tochtin cowered in the crook of her arm.
“Young lady, this is unacceptable.” Reverend Dodgson’s tone was low and stern, and he kept glancing at the high priest as he marched her out of the pews. “You know you’re too young for the Mystery of the High Service.”
“Hold, Dodgson,” the high priest shuffling toward them said.
He was the fattest man Alysseren had ever seen. In the robes of a Reverend Lord, he looked like a great purple turtle—and she almost said so.
The high priest took a lock of her hair, strained it through his pudgy fingers, and said, “Ah, the color of drying blood. I like that.”
The Reverend Lord turned to Sister Alice. “Is this your ward?”
Sister Alice stepped from among the other brown-robed supplicants and nodded.
Alysseren couldn’t bear to look at her sad eyes.
“The Queen will be pleased to know she’s coming along nicely.” The high priest turned back to the altar. “Take her away, Dodgson.”
Alysseren managed to hold back her tears, even though her ear throbbed in the reverend’s grip, until they were out of the chapel.
“I am shocked,” Reverend Dodgson said, between breaths, as he dragged her down the hall, “that you would do such a thing … to me in front of the Reverend Lord Tuttle.”
Alysseren had never seen the reverend so flustered.
“An orphan should be grateful,” he said as he pushed her into the children’s room, “and mindful of all I have done for her.”
He slammed and locked the door.
Alysseren sank into a corner among the toys, buried her face in the white and brown fur of her tochtin, and sobbed.
“Don’t be sad, dearest,” her tochtin said as he caressed her hair with his tiny fingers.
Alysseren drew a deep, shuddering breath and said, “I so wanted to see the High Service before we go away to the next mission in New Harmony.”
“You know very well that only the adults can go through it.”
“It’s not fair.” Alysseren threw a doll across the room. “I’m not a child anymore. Besides, I know more about the church than most of those people.”
The tochtin rubbed against her cheeks and dried her tears with his fur.
“At least you love me.” Alysseren sat up and studied her reflection in his large blue eyes. “And I love you.” She caressed his fur. “You’ll always be my snuggle bunny.”
The tochtin purred and then said, “I have a gift for you.”
He leaned from her lap, collected letter blocks from among the scattered toys, and arranged them to spell F-f-l-w-d-w and l-l-y-n-w-y-n.
She wrinkled her nose. “Those aren’t words. They have no vowels.”
“They’re very fine words—and they do have vowels.” The tochtin smiled. “In my language, ‘y’ is a soft ‘i’ and ‘w’ is really a double-‘u’.”
“You have a language? What does that mean? How do you say it?”
“Flew-dew lin-win.” He nuzzled her neck and whispered, “It’s my name—a secret we give only to the ones we love best.”
Dave Butler: “Steampunk luxuriates in the self-bestowed freedom to mix any influence, aesthetic, period, pseudo-scientific or fantastic element, and literary or historical character it wishes into its brew and distill therefrom a tale. The Alyscrai pushes the envelope in its wide-ranging and good-hearted pilfering, and the results are fantastic.” [Continue reading]