Chapter 1

 

“WHO TOLD you?” My mother, Lady Margaritte Valencus, huffed in disgust—or at least as much disgust as her practiced expression allowed. Perched on the settee’s edge, she sat tall with her poised back never touching the tufted, embroidered upholstery. A woman of her standing could be expected to do no less.

“Not the person who should have.”

Her lips pursed into a tiny, painted frown. “So in other words, your brothers are the culprits. Sometimes I think they delight in tormenting you, Nathan. I swear they’re like a pair of gossiping old women at times.”

My chest pinched at the news. “So it’s true.”

She paused for a moment and sighed. Having been through this herself, she must have understood my concern. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

I knew this day would eventually come, but the proof brought me to a morose silence. Amongst the elaborately decorated furniture of my mother’s salon, on the end table next to her rested a handcrafted hourglass. The elegant glass bulbs were suspended between a framework of brass and gears. All the fine sand had emptied to the bottom, marking the time left to choose my own future. I wanted to invert it, to start my chances over once again.

Mother turned to the small canvas atop the nearby easel and began dabbing a slender paintbrush to the surface. It was an affectation. The bristles were void of paint, and in my twenty years, I’d never seen her finish a single painting. The possibility of staining her sable and gold brocade gown was unthinkable. Women of Deilian lords were expected to fill their days with arts and crafts, while providing the proper trophy for their husbands.

I played along with her fiction, giving myself time to absorb my own reality. Finding the brass dial embedded in the wall along the ebony wainscoting, I gave it a slow turn. The tension of hidden cogs thrummed under my fingertips and the gaslights grew brighter, illuminating the sanguine, patterned fabric lining the walls, giving her more light to pretend to work with. In the late spring afternoon it wasn’t necessary, yet I did so out of polite habit.

“Thank you, Nathan.”

I leaned against the mantel, fingering the edge of my waistcoat. The layers were snug and tailored, the fine wool properly adorned with buttons of fine metal, befitting a young man of my status. In another hour or two, I would be expected to change into formal dining dress to eat. There were clothing standards for every aspect of our lives. Only certain hobbies were permissible, and employment outside of family investments was unacceptable for the nobility.

With little to spend my time on, I’d grown restless and found hobbies my parents frowned upon. However, if I gave them little trouble, they were content to allow me my eccentricities. How odd they must have found my love of clockwork mechanisms. The precision. The order. Given the expectations my parents laid at my feet, one might think I’d be more attuned to my future requirements. The prospect of a marriage held the hallmarks of opportunity and disaster all at once.

“Do you know who he is?”

“A business associate of your father’s. Lord Rother Marsh Delaga III from Marisol.”

“So far away?” I didn’t want to whine—I was accused of it often enough—but this house and land were all I knew. For all my complaints, I wasn’t prepared to abandon it and my family.

Mother gave me a dismissive shake of her head. “Marisol is an airship ride away. Not far at all.”

“Do you know when?”

“Lord Rother will be coming in two weeks to meet you and hopefully accept your father’s offer. I’ve made an appointment with the clothier. We want you to make a good first impression.”

Well, as if that didn’t make me feel like a commodity. “At least I’ll get to meet him first before I’m shipped off.”

Mother slapped her dry brush onto the end table in her displeasure. “Don’t be droll, Nathan. You know perfectly well how things are done.”

“And what if I don’t like him? Will Father force me to go through with it?”

“Most likely. This is an important union for our family.”

“He can’t do that.”

She paused for a moment for effect. “Of course he can. Under Deilian law, until you are married or turn twenty-five, your father has final say.”

Pacing in a circle, I waved my hands in the air. “Wonder of wonders…. All hail the land of Deilia.”

Her delicate snarl was sharp and potent. “Stop that. Given your… orientation, there have been pitifully few options in this area to find a suitable mate for you. You don’t remember because you were an infant, but since the plague struck, Deilia has been focused on repopulating. The Monarch demanded it. And because you are unlikely to bear children—”

I stopped and glared at her. “That’s not my fault.” Layers of ire deepened my anger. I hated when she spoke to me like a vacuous noble who’d never been taught a smidgeon of Deilian history. The mention of the Monarch in this context only made it worse. As if I could forget the day I met him and my fall from grace began.

Mother pulled a brooch from her collar. With a touch of her thumb, it spun itself out, expanding into an exquisite fan with translucent blades. Another affectation. I’d been scolded enough over the years to know she didn’t require fresh air to have an uncomfortable conversation. “No, it isn’t your fault, but it’s the situation you’ve been saddled with. It is our duty to follow the plan laid out for us.”

She was right and I knew it. Being born to privilege had an immense backlash. We were held to a different standard and required to maintain a certain kind of decorum. Every step in our lives was measured by the manner in which we bore ourselves. Act a fool and be cast out. Be the saint and have every good fortune at your fingertips. No matter how hard I’d tried, I wasn’t capable of either.

Choosing the person we’d spend the rest of our life with was a luxury our kind seldom experienced. Marriages were transactions to benefit the family’s longevity. If you were fortunate, you could learn to love your partner.

If you were fortunate.

Sighing, I traced my finger over the clockwork sculpture gracing the occasional table against the wall. Its delicate workings danced under my light touch. Unable to perform without the hand of another, I found a kinship in all things mechanical. “Do you know what’s he’s like?”

“I haven’t met the man. I’ve only read his arrival schedule and his accommodation requests. Your father has been the only contact regarding your betrothal.”

“You said he’s Father’s business associate. What kind of business is he in?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know.”

“Is he well bred?”

“I wasn’t told.”

“Well what exactly do you know about the man you’re foisting me off on?”

“I know that according to your father, Lord Rother’s only rigid stipulation was proof of your purity.” She stopped waving her fan long enough to pierce me with her gaze. “I can assume that requirement will be met.”

My face flamed from embarrassment twined with a resentful fury. “You know well enough that’s true.”

“It must be. The family name depends on it. It’s suffered enough due to your… preferences. A virtue is a small price to pay to ensure a good match.”

A small price. An easy thing to say when it costs you nothing. An ache radiated through my hands from the tightness of my fists. Before I did or said something I might regret, I spun and stormed to the door. I tried with a futile effort to hold back my venom.

And my volume.

“You and Father made sure of that, didn’t you?”

I hadn’t reached my bedroom before realizing my dramatic exit was a waste of time. Mother knew the root of my protest. She’d experienced the same disconnect, how your life wasn’t yours to plan until the works of others completed. It wouldn’t stop her, however.

An eventual marriage was the future of every Deilian noble, ingrained into our behavior from the moment we could speak. Why I found myself so opposed to the prospect, I didn’t know. Perhaps because the decision was made without my participation. All Lord Rother had to do was accept my father’s criteria. My wishes weren’t being considered in the least.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The next hour or so passed with me wandering about my room doing a great deal of nothing. The news weighed on me more than I’d expected. Even my beloved clockworks sparked no interest. The precision of gear and spring was in such contrast to my situation. Where normally it would soothe me, helping me find a calm place when the world sat mired in chaos, today it lacked the power.

I noticed the hour. Dressing properly for dinner would need to begin soon. I didn’t have the patience for a lecture from my father on the virtues of timeliness. Virtues. My world revolved around virtues with all the assurance of clock hands. A dependable thing that could be counted on whether you were ready for it or not.

If I was going to prepare, there was something to be done first or I’d never get through the meal. I turned the brass knob near my bed, knowing a bell rang off somewhere else in the house. Taking a seat, I knew I wouldn’t be waiting long.

A polite knock signaled his entry. Proper protocol when summoned.

“Afternoon, Sir Nathan. Shall we prepare for dinner?” Properly attired in black and white, my valet, Harston, cut a dashing figure as he closed the door behind him. He’d been my personal servant for years, well before so much attention was given to keeping me “untouched.”

“Yes, but there’s one task before we do.” Shifting in my seat, I tried to sound dignified. “I need to use the lavatory.”

“Yes, Sir Nathan.”

Face flushed, Harston strode out into the hallway in search of my father. Something I absolutely refused to do. Minutes passed as I waited in discomfort. On his return, he brandished a key tied with a long distinctive orange ribbon to prevent its loss. We headed for the privy, and inside the sitting area, he began to help disrobe me enough to continue. Which at times, given the layers of costumery Deilian lords engaged in, could be arduous.

Nestled underneath the splayed layers of my breeches and undergarments was a belt of brass with an unyielding codpiece attached to a metal strap running up and underneath, blocking my backside. Intricate carvings decorated the garment—if that’s what you would call it—with a visible series of slender gears and mechanisms forming the lock holding it together. The device was crafted so well, it sat undetectable under my clothing. In another context, I might have found its construction compelling. Now, however, I’d give anything to reduce it to slag in the forge.

“Forgive me, Sir Nathan.”

“Think nothing of it. I stopped being humiliated by the experience a long time ago.”

Or at least I’d stopped admitting it out loud.

Harston was young, not much older than me, with a similar build. Being in service, he kept well groomed, his chestnut hair and brown eyes a contrast to my golden blond and blue. An intimacy forms between a man and his valet when he’s involved in your most private daily accounts. Even so, we’d been through this process every day for years, and he still averted his head each time. The clockwork key turned, and the gears disengaged with a soft grind and snick, making me sigh with short-term freedom.

Within the metal confines, the pouch clutched my genitals. With no room to spare, arousal was painful, designed to bring a quick end to any indecent moment. A strategically placed opening allowed me to urinate, but the strap between my buttocks prevented anything else. Harston wasn’t allowed to leave as I squatted, even as he turned away. I hadn’t known an opportunity for privacy without the ghastly thing in years. Even my bathing was performed under the watchful eye of the governess. Her withering gaze could staunch any man’s ardor.

I remember the day I turned fifteen. In the apothecarian’s office, he took a series of samples—blood as well as others—reading the humors determining my orientation. The discovery was a scandal. My parents, worried I might ruin myself before a suitable husband could be found, had the devilish contraption installed on me. The key always sat outside my reach, in the hands of others.

The first day I wore it, I stood before my mirror in nothing but the infernal undergarment. With my desk paperweight in my right hand, I reduced my reflection to a myriad of jagged shards in a screaming rage. Looking back, I felt sorry for the staff who had to undo the disaster. I was so furious, I attempted to dismantle the lock. I had a fondness for the blacksmiths and clockwork specialists, and I had a penchant for tinkering. I had a variety of tools at my disposal. Who would stop me?

As soon as the first tumbler in the lock fell, a shrill whistle erupted from the belt. Garish purple ink sprayed out from the belt’s edges, staining my hands, torso, and face—an undeniable mark of shame. If breaking the mirror hadn’t alerted the staff, the alarm succeeded. The door burst open, flooding my room with staff and family. Servants sniggered behind their hands, and my brothers couldn’t laugh hard enough.

Father beat me bloody that night. I never touched it again.

I’ve barely had the urge to speak to him since. I told myself it was standard practice amongst the nobles. But after hearing my father’s griping about never having grandchildren from me on more than one occasion, I’m led to believe he meant to punish me for my preferences. A large family made up of multiple generations was a mark of success for a lord of Deilia. I’d partially stripped him of that.

“Harston, be honest with me.”

“Of course, Sir Nathan.”

“Have you ever known anyone to wear… a chastity device?” I cringed saying the words aloud.

“No, sir. But I’m just a poor bloke in service.”

“What difference would that make?”

“I imagine they must cost a fair coin to make, sir. Perhaps it’s more likely amongst your higher classes.”

“I suppose you’re right. My brothers…. Do either of them wear one of these?”

Harston’s ears and neck flushed a hot crimson. “I… I wouldn’t know personally, sir.” His stammer screamed evasion.

“Not personally, but something.”

“I’ve heard rumors from a few of the maids.”

“What do they say?”

Harston shook his head. “It’s not right to repeat such things.”

A subtle fear colored his words. I’d overheard Father threaten Harston’s employment over safekeeping of the key and my virtue. Born from peasant stock, Harston needed this job. As my valet, he was my good right hand. The loss of his help was unthinkable, and I could only guess how he would cope without his wages.

“You and I have been together quite a few years.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I know you would never embarrass or harm me by whispering about, and I would guarantee you the same courtesy. I’d never repeat your confidences to anyone.”

He paused a full minute, staring at the floor. “Thank you. That means a great deal to me.”

“To me as well.”

“About your brothers… if their vulgar stories of dalliances with a few of the maids are true, neither of them could possibly wear such a device.”

My heart sank, even as I suspected as much. My brothers were twenty-two and twenty-four-year-old rowdy bachelors. I’d heard the rumors amongst the servants, yet hoped they were false. Father once doted on all his children, but his manner changed after my apothecarian visit. I was singularly held to a different standard, oddly condemned for my unfulfilled desires. Our relationship was never the same afterward.

Now I was promised to Lord Rother Marsh Delaga III from Marisol. The man would take me away from this family I both loved and despised in two weeks. Was I exchanging one set of chains for another?

Once finished, I stood, returning the imprisoning garment to its rightful position, no matter how tempted I was to find a method to destroy it. With a tentative hand, Harston turned the key in the lock, ensuring my value to my future husband.

 

 

WITH A light touch, a new lens spun into place, magnifying my view. Through my custom monocle, the music box’s internal workings filled my vision. One by one, I placed new gears into the cavity, rebuilding the motor to play a complex symphony. At last they were in place, leaving only the coiled spring to be installed, which would provide the power to function. The gaslight barely gave off enough light, but at this time of night, I had little choice. I was so engrossed in my task, I ignored my bedroom door opening. The presence hovered at my shoulder for long moments, silent yet disruptive. I smelled her perfume and saw the fabric of her dress from the corner of my eye.

I refused to turn in her direction. “Since you insist on interrupting me, I imagine you’re waiting for something.”

“Waiting for you to finish and head to bed.” Mother spoke in hushed tones in the evening, whether anyone slept or not. “It’s late. Lord Rother will be here tomorrow. You need to be fresh.”

“I’d hardly want him to turn me down for having bags under my eyes.”

“It certainly wouldn’t make a good first impression. I saw a package arrived from the clothier. You’ll be wearing your new wardrobe as we discussed?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“I want you to have every advantage when he arrives.”

I set down my tools as my annoyance grew. “My virtue is his only requirement. I’d say your efforts are safe.”

“You’re no stranger to expectations. Why must you be so difficult?”

I pulled off the monocle, sighing in frustration as I dumped it on the table. “I don’t try to be. The last few years have been difficult. It keeps slipping out.”

“You knew, at some point, we would be in this position.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Every noble lad and lady is paired with a spouse of proper standing.”

“Yes, I know.”

“We are working to ensure you and your brothers’ futures.”

She cringed as I shoved my chair backward, scraping it across the expensive floor. I shot to my feet, but Mother was impossible to intimidate. I looked her square in the eye, unlike my brothers who towered over us all. My disdain spilled out, unrestrained.

“Finn is oldest and will inherit the manor. Thomas will wed a wealthy heiress. Both of them will become partners in the family business. Their futures are looking quite grand. I, on the other hand, am being married off like a trophy daughter to the highest bidder.”

“That’s not true.”

“Don’t you think I noticed how my tutors changed my studies after my orientation was determined? I went from finance to protocol lessons overnight. If I hadn’t befriended the local blacksmiths and clockworkers, I’d have no usable skills at all.”

“It was in your best interests.”

“How?”

Mother’s porcelain features began to soften. “You never heard the stories of the losses during the plague. It’s coarse to talk of such things, and you were too young to remember the horrors. Whole families were wiped out. Harston is the only survivor of his own. Until the vaccine was discovered, it was devastating. Afterward, with the Monarch’s lead, public opinion shifted drastically in Deilia. Any union without the chance for childbearing is highly frowned upon.”

“So I’m being married off to prevent a social stigma on the family.”

She ignored my snarling. “It’s far more complicated than that. Some of the fanatically devout rose against men like yourself. They blamed your orientation for the plague, which is ludicrous, but you can’t reason with some people.” A tremor appeared in her voice. “There had been violence, Nathan. Horrible, horrible violence. The temperament of the land has calmed, but I still don’t trust it. I have no intention of allowing such things to happen to my little boy. The best option was to find somewhere you would be accepted.”

As the revelation grew, my resentment cooled. “But you didn’t send me away.”

Glassy, her doll-like eyes caught the glint of the gaslight. “I couldn’t. You were my sweet, fair child. It was the only time I ever openly defied your father. Sending you away was unacceptable. There had to be to another way.”

“Did Father want to send me away for my safety, or to save face? No. Don’t answer that.”

And she didn’t.

Mother’s tiny hand cupped my cheek with rare maternal warmth. “You were always the prettiest of my children. A wealthy man would prize your beauty and give you a new home. Somewhere safe. But certain standards had to be maintained.”

I hated when my appearance was compared to my brothers. I wanted to be rough-and-tumble like they were, not pretty and boyish. It wasn’t my fault I took after her rather than Father. The reasoning still offended me, but I understood. Mother’s resolute tone spoke of her need to protect.

“With or without my consent.” The chastity belt’s presence wore on me stronger since the announcement of Lord Rother’s visit.

“I’m sorry you don’t approve of the method, but I don’t have your father’s penchant for gambling. I needed a guarantee.”

“It’s still not fair.”

Brushing the hair from my forehead, she spoke in whispers. “We were born into privilege, but it comes at a cost. None of us choose who we bind our lives to. I want you somewhere you’ll have a greater chance of happiness.” With as deep a breath as her corset allowed, she straightened and turned away. “Now, finish this quickly, and head off to bed. If Lord Rother is your future, I would like you to embrace the opportunity.”

Delicate as ever, Mother closed the door behind her, making barely a sound. I tried to resume my project, but my motivation evaporated. Her unexpected maternal moment disarmed me. All I could do was push the music box aside and stare out the window into the night sky. I found a bright star in the distance, reveling in its intensity. Turning off the gaslight, I focused on the brilliant pinpoint and made a wish. I hoped they would, somehow, see it was better to let me make my own choices than follow the plan laid out for me.

Of course, I knew wishes were the stuff of children’s fantasies and my time had run out.