- Purchase the eBook instantly
- Receive Download Link via Email
- Send to Preferred E-Reader and Enjoy!
Book 1 of the Dashkova Memoirs
Exile. Princess. Thief.
After years of running from the Emperor of Russia's assassins, Ekaterina "Kat" Dashkova has finally found an unlikely home in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Benjamin Franklin.
When a mid-level government official is found wandering colonial Philadelphia without his clothes—and his last two years of memories—Ben and Kat suspect otherworldly forces at work. Neither of them know that a dark revolution lurks beneath the veneer of civilization, ready to unleash its malevolent magic unless Kat makes a grim sacrifice.
- Historical Fantasy
- Supernatural Steampunk
- Myths & Legends
Exile. Princess. Thief.
After years of running from the Emperor of Russia's assassins, Ekaterina "Kat" Dashkova has finally found an unlikely home in Philadelphia under the tutelage of Benjamin Franklin. When a mid-level government official is found wandering colonial Philadelphia without his clothes—and his last two years of memories—Ben and Kat suspect otherworldly forces at work. Neither of them know that a dark revolution lurks beneath the veneer of civilization, ready to unleash its malevolent magic unless Kat makes a grim sacrifice.
Intro Into Chapter One
Intro Into Chapter One
Some revolutions begin with the gunpowder sonnets of cannon fire, others with the fiery words of tyrannical men. This one began with a middle-aged gentleman wandering the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia in his knickers—and nothing else.
Ben Franklin and I had been called to investigate, not because half-naked mid-level functionaries of the Custom Hall were particularly interesting to the pair of us, or because he'd broken into a Quaker family's home on an idyllic spring afternoon and was caught trying to put on the oldest daughter's beige dress and petticoat. What drew us was the way the man's memory had been cleaved like an apple struck with a saber, suggesting an air of sorcery.
"You say he has no knowledge of what happened to him?" asked Ben with that familiar twinkle in his eye.
The horrified wife, one Harriet Cooper, tugged on the neckline of her muslin gown and glanced at her husband, who was slurping porridge in the other room at the dining table. Her brow knotted and raised, then bunched in the middle with a concern that bordered on exasperation.
"He still thinks it's 1798," she said, then raised her voice. "That was two years ago."
The woman barely paid me any attention, speaking directly to Ben, though she did not know him as such. Ben went by his grandson's moniker, William Temple Franklin, due to his youthful appearance—one born of alchemy. But Ben had that quality—of sincere competence and a worldly optimism—that led people to trust him implicitly, even when they'd just met him.
Anonymity suited me fine. I'd spent my fair share of time in the spotlight of the public. I'd been a princess of the Russian Empire—thankfully, not one with much claim on the throne—and the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a position that had eventually led to my exile by Emperor Paul.
With attention on Ben, I moved around the parlor, examining its contents for clues that might hopefully explain the odd behavior of Theodore Cooper. The gilded tea set on the darkwood armoire surprised me due to the nature of the man's profession. A lowly manager would doubtfully earn enough to purchase such luxuries, which suggested either that he was not above a little bribery to grease goods through the port, or he was a man moving up the chain—heavy emphasis on was.
The furniture had the markers of French craftsmanship— curved backs and satin cushions. The whole setup could have been a lounge in a Paris salon. The house was the typical Philadelphian style, decently sized with a portico on the front, though the newness of the furniture indicated the wealth was recent.
"Excuse me, madam," I said, trying to practice my English without a heavy French accent. Yes, French. I was born in St. Petersburg and we spoke French rather than Russian since we were a city on the edge of Europe. "Is that your family's steam carriage outside?"
An insincere exclamation slipped out of Harriet Cooper's thin lips. "Oh? And you are?"
"Katerina Carmontelle," I said, giving a brief curtsey even though I was wearing men's attire, "Temple's assistant in these matters."
In truth, my real name was Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova-Dashkova, sometimes called Princess Dashkova, or Catherine the Little. Ben liked to call me Kat, though only in private when we were discussing important matters. We weren't amours, but I can't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind.
"Katerina is an expert on these sorts of things," said Ben, adding his trademark wink for my benefit.
Expert was a bit of a facetious graying of the truth. The word expert connoted a vast wealth of knowledge about the arcane and poorly understood phenomena that had begun to plague our poor world. I was an expert, along with Ben and the rest of the Transcendent Society, only in the idea that our ignorance was slightly less pronounced than the common folk’s, but our studies had begun in earnest as strange events seemed to be happening more frequently as of late.
"Oh, well," said Harriet, her uneasy gaze surveying my attire with a puritan's level of distaste. "Why yes, my dear Theodore purchased it only three weeks ago. He was up in the boughs about it, said it was the latest fashion to own your own steam carriage. Blazes if I know why he bought it, we live two blocks from the Delaware River, not even a brisk walk in the springtime. Next thing, he'll be wanting to purchase an airship. Well"—her voice quivered—"if he recovers."
"I'm sure he'll recover," said Ben, giving her a comforting pat on the shoulder.
"Is your husband an elbow-shaker?" I asked.
Harriet recoiled as if I'd poked her with a hot branding iron. "Madam," she said, disdain dripping from her words, "have you no decency? He does not gamble, throw the bones, or any of those things. He doesn't even know what the inside of a tavern looks like. My Theodore is an upstanding member of the Philadelphia government offices, soon to be, well I hope"—a pained realization began to dawn on her dignified face—"that he is to be promoted to the Head of the Customs Hall, a position that comes with a generous salary."
"I see," I said, raising an eyebrow in Ben's direction and receiving a shrug in turn.
"Madam," said Ben, turning to the woman, "may we speak to your husband in private? Nothing untoward, but we don't want to disturb you unnecessarily."
She paled, straight to a greenish tint. "What under the merciful sun do you think has befallen my dear husband?"
Ben put his arm around Harriet in a comforting fashion, giving her shoulder a little squeeze as he guided her from the room. "Could be a number of things: the French pox, a witch's curse, maybe worms eating his brains out from the inside, it's really hard to say."
When Harriet's knees buckled, Ben gave her a little push out the parlor door and quickly closed it behind her.
"You really don't believe those things," I said, quirking a smile at him. "Trying to figure out if she was behind it?"
"Partially," he said with a wry smile. "The other half was to keep her from gossiping. I have it from a reliable source she couldn't keep her mouth closed if she was drowning. Any of those possible causes would diminish her reputation, if it hasn't already been dragged through the gutter because of this incident."
"The dockmaster's daughter?" I asked. "Or is it the tanner's wife?"
"Who injured Mr. Cooper?" he asked, nose wrinkled in confusion.
"No, the gossiping strumpet you've been sleeping with," I said.
Ben looked as pleased as a pickle. "Wouldn't you like to know." He pressed a finger against the bridge of his nose, a habit from when he wore bifocals. "Either way, Mrs. Cooper has fled to the bedroom for a bout of honest tears. I think we can take her off the list."
"I hadn't been so daft as to consider her," I said.
"Why the blazes not?" he asked.
"For the very reason you just mentioned. Her reputation has been tarnished. We women have little power in this world, a reputation is one of them. A good wife knows that a dead husband is worth more than a diminished one," I said.
"I'll keep that in mind should I ever be foolish enough to court you," he said.
"My dalliance with the Warden should be warning enough for you," I said with considerable regret.
Ben offered a comforting nod. He had that way about him that I'd never encountered in another, to always know when the mood of the conversation had shifted. The twin reminders of my failed romances—the death of my beloved Mikhail when he was in his twenties and the recent incident with the Warden of the city—bookended my life, leaving me with a tragic distaste for entanglements.
"Shall we?" asked Ben, marching into the dining room.
We addressed Mr. Theodore Cooper from across the mahogany table. He had a handlebar mustache and a sloping belly that made him look like a walrus. Porridge dripped from his chin. I could see a pinhole of conscious thought in those beady eyes, as if he was trapped in a tower inside his head.
"Good evening, Theodore," said Ben. "May we ask you some questions?"
Theodore grunted and shoved the empty spoon in his open mouth like an infant.
"What year is it?" asked Ben.
Theodore blinked. "1798."
We shared an uneasy glance. Mrs. Cooper had told us she'd shown him the local paper to prove that it was 1800. Ben waved us back into the parlor.
"Is it possible someone attacked him?" I asked. "Maybe a blow to the head? I've heard of concussions from falling, or a hoof blow from a wild horse. There once was a promising son of Count Razumovsky who was trampled by a cow. He didn't even know his name afterwards and spent his days drooling into a cup. They called him Cow Boy from that day forward."
Ben rubbed his palm across the arching back of the green velvet divan. Even though I'd known him for almost a year, I was still surprised at how energetic he was, always moving, thinking, or conspiring.
"The physician gave him a thorough examination. There was no evidence of a head trauma, though he did find a scab at the base of his neck right in the hairline," said Ben, frowning.
"A wig rub?" I asked.
"Most likely. Probably hadn't yet invested in higher quality wigs," he said. "The physician also said there was a sticky material on his arm that came off with a bit of vinegar—unrelated, I'm sure."
"His furniture is quite new. I'll ask the wife if he ordered a custom fit wig recently," I said, feeling a little guilty we were conversing about the poor sot right in the other room.
"Good idea." Ben glanced at me. "What do you think?"
"More questions, we've naught to go on yet," I said.
We returned to the dining room.
"What if I told you that it was the year 1800?" Ben asked Mr. Cooper.
Theodore squinted as if he was trying to squeeze out a coherent answer. His stare turned watery. He seemed to know deep down inside how trivial the question was and consequently, what it meant that he couldn't answer.
"It's 1798," he repeated with much consternation.
"I assure you with some authority that it's the glorious year of 1800, the turn of the century and another page in the storybook of history. And since it is 1800, do you remember what you did last week?" asked Ben.
"Last week...? I, uhm, greatly apologize, it's rather difficult, I think. Maybe, no wait, yes, I'm sure of it. Last week I painted the parlor for my dear Harriet. A difficult job, that one. I knocked the paint bucket over right in the middle, created such a mess, and Harriet put me under her cat's paw for the rest of the job," said Theodore in an unsteady voice that grew more confident as he spoke.
Ben tapped on his chin. "Well, then, what about—"
"Excuse my interruption, my dear Temple," I said, putting a hand on Ben's arm. "On what street is your house located?"
"Pine and Fifth, madam," Theodore said, and realizing he had porridge on his chin, he mauled it off with a wad of handkerchief.
I raised an eyebrow in victory towards Ben, who shrugged and tilted his head as if to say go on.
"Sir, might I ask you to take a short trip outside to inform us of the street on which you currently reside?" I asked.
Theodore looked about, as uncomfortable as a banker in a poorhouse. "I just told you where I live. What would I gain by reaffirming what I already know?"
"Humor an old lady," I said, receiving a cleared throat and sharp glare from Ben. The alchemical mixture Ben Franklin had devised to extend life also made one's appearance youthful in every way. Since I'd arrived in Philadelphia one year ago, under his tutelage and taking regular supplements of the powder, my fifty-seven year old body looked and felt half that age. Thankfully, Theodore hadn't noticed my slip, and he reluctantly proceeded as requested.
Once he was gone, I turned back to Ben. "There's no reason to think this is magic."
Ben chuckled lightly. "After all you've seen this past year? I have to admit, when anything strange happens, even an unexpected noise outside my window, I suspect a sidhe lord or a grumpkin is creeping through my hedgerow."
"The great Franklin believes in faeries? You should be worried about your reputation," I said.
"Temple's reputation, you mean," he said.
"Right. But why the occult when there are so many more plausible explanations? Must I lecture you on Descartes' principles of analytics?"
The stillness that overtook Ben was immediately visible. Though he didn't usually censor himself, I could tell he was holding back.
"There are other incidents you haven't told me about, aren't there?" I asked.
"That might be one way to put it," he said. "I don't want to taint your perception with my conclusions. But let's wait for Mr. Cooper to return. I sense you've hit upon an important point."
Theodore Cooper returned. His face was milky white and he had a look of pinched thought. It was almost as if part of him recognized the truth and what it meant, while the other part was still trying to work through the problem.
"What street did you encounter outside?" I asked, trying rather unsuccessfully not to let my pride fill the words.
"Chestnut and Twelfth," he said, swallowing. "Why would I not be in my own house?"
"You are in your house," I said. "I believe that you invaded that Quaker family's home because that used to be your home, two years ago."
"I don't understand," he said, looking around as if he were seeing the house for the first time. "This is my house? I thought this was the physician's."
"Sir," said Ben, "do you remember if anyone attacked you?"
Theodore tugged on his lower lip as if he were trying to yank out the proper memory. "I would have remembered something like that, I'm sure of it. But I'm not even sure why I'm here. I was putting on my clothes and then these people were screaming and a fellow accosted me with a wood axe. Have they no decency?"
Ben moved around the table and ushered poor Theodore out of the room, encouraging him to return upstairs to his wife, suggesting he should relax and not think too much at the current moment. Theodore looked rather relieved to be given such an order and appeared more than ready to carry out the mission of doing nothing, though he had to be given directions to his destination.
"An amnesiac would at least know that he was missing part of his past," said Ben. "Poor Theo seems to not even realize that it's missing."
"Deep inside he does, which means something happened," I said. "You were going to show me something, I think. Something back in the parlor."
Ben winked. "How perceptive of you. What gave it away?"
"I recognized your gunnysack, and when you mentioned magic, you glanced in its direction," I said.
"Remind me never to play cards with you," he said.
"First courting, now cards? Do I disturb you that much?" I asked with a grin.
He laughed. "I wouldn't use the word disturb." He put on his serious face. "But I should conclude the business here before the Coopers get tired of us."
"Please," I said, my curiosity awakened. "What's in the sack?" Then I caught the way he talked about the investigation in a singular manner.
"Why don't you trust me?" I said, dispelling the jovial mood.
When he looked up and paused, it wasn't the smile on his lips that I saw, but the cold calculation in his gaze. Though his face was welcoming, behind those piercing grey eyes I imagined there was a great library of information and thought, and he was reviewing dusty tomes and calculating courses of action.
He sighed, his barrel chest heaving and releasing. I recognized the tightness in him—he was holding something back.
"Temple," I said. "What's going on?"
"Can you confirm for me that you've severed all ties with the Russian court?" he asked. "Someone in the Society intercepted a message that could have only come from someone intimate with our struggles. Was that you?"
"This is Voltaire's doing," I spat back. "He's trying to cast doubt on my honesty."
Ben nodded grimly. "I trust you implicitly; however, the evidence is quite damning."
"Will you tell me what it is or am I to be put on trial, sentenced, and hung without representation?" I said.
Ben offered an open hand. "I would prefer not to at this point. But may I point out that your son's life depends on Emperor Paul's support."
"I assure you I am no one's lackey. My goals and the Society's goals are the same. And might I point out that my existence in Philadelphia is a secret," I said.
He gave me a reassuring nod. "That's good enough for me," he said, and though it was convincing, I heard the for now that was implied. "But I promised the Society that I wouldn't show you our most valuable secrets until there's consensus on your trustworthiness."
"I see," I said, a bitter anger rising in my throat like bile. "Shall I offer my teeth for inspection, turn out my small clothes to be sniffed, shave my head to remove the foul taint of being Russian?"
Ben recoiled, his eyes flinching. "Kat...you know my trust in you is absolute, but I've a promise to the Society to uphold." He paused, thoughts balancing on an uneasy scale behind his eyes. "Give it time. They'll find you as upstanding, not just upstanding, critical to achieving our goals. Return to the estate. I'll meet you after I'm finished here."
I sighed. If I couldn't trust Ben, I had no business being in the Society, or Philadelphia, so I nodded and collected my jacket. On my way out, I mulled his words, trying unsuccessfully to take solace in Ben's assertion that the members of the Society would eventually accept my membership.
They'll see me for who I am.
I just didn't know how quickly that assertion would be challenged.