So here’s the big reveal… that’s the working title of my NaNoWriMo novel (which will probably not stick, because I’m not at all sure I like it).
It’s an alternate history steampunk story set at the tail end of a protracted Civil War and afterward. Its heroine, “George” Arrington, is a southern belle turned airship owner and pilot after the death of her father, running the Union blockades and bucking every tradition she has ever known, in hopes of making enough money to dig her way out of the debt he accumulated.
Here’s a teaser from my first draft, set after George’s father dies and she announces her intent to assume his debt and pilot the airship across the blockades. Emmanuel is the Creole servant who has been with her father for years, and who was freed in her father’s will.
Aunt Miranda was absolutely silent on the carriage ride back to Arrington House. Seething? I don’t know, there might have been something else there. I think she was utterly shocked that anyone at all had dared to countermand her wishes. From what I’ve seen at Chadwycke Manor during the two summers I spent there, no one dares. Ever. I think that surprised her as much as my proclamation.
There would be no more public spectacle, though. She wanted to avoid that at all costs. So we went back home, and the moment we walked in the door, she exploded.
“Are you out of your mind?”
I folded my arms. “Maybe. I have nothing to lose.”
“You have everything to lose! Everything that is left to you! Here I am offering you a chance to go to England and find yourself a decent match and you are throwing it away on some whim?” She was getting positively apoplectic and the boys came running wondering what on earth was going on. Her hat was even crooked.
“Aunt Miranda,” I said patiently. “I do very much appreciate your kindness and your offer. Come, let’s go into the parlor, shall we?” I gave the boys a wink once she’d turned and stormed that way to let them know everything was going to be all right. It was, wasn’t it? Once we were there I said, “As I said, I do appreciate your kindness and your offer. In fact you have always showed us nothing but kindness. But I am an adult, and I am now responsible for these two boys, and everything else Papa left, and I mean to see it through and not abandon any of it.”
“What’s going on?” Charles finally gathered the courage to pipe up.
“Your sister is talking crazy, that is what is going on,” she said. “Even if you want to pick up where your father left off, you have more debt than you can deal with, you haven’t the faintest clue how to pilot an airship, and you’re a woman. Women don’t do things like that, they get married and behave themselves.”
I laughed. “Like you did?”
“That—” her mouth snapped closed and she looked at me with her head cocked a little, and maybe she saw me for the first time, not as someone to drag around in her wake, but someone who was maybe a little bit like her.
I sat, marshaling all the calmness I could, though I was not at all sure I could pull this mad scheme off. “I’ve been thinking about it. You need your American cotton. Hank needs to go to military school. Charles needs to stay here and grow up to be whomever he’s going to be. I need…” I trailed off. I need that airship, I was thinking, but how do you explain that to someone like her? “I… how can I explain this to you? This was Papas dream. I don’t know where he went wrong. If I throw it all to the winds and sail off to England with you, it feels like I’m letting everything he worked for die. Every dream he had. He’s… I want to keep his dream alive, Aunt Miranda.” My chin was quivering now, damn it all.
She softened. “Oh, my dear,” she murmured, and heaved a sigh. “You cannot keep him alive.”
“I can’t abandon him, either,” I said, staring hard at the clock that was suddenly ticking very loudly in my head to stave off the tears that were threatening.
“My dear, how can you even think to be an airship pilot?” she said, earnest now.
“Mr. Wilcot will teach me,” I said.
She tsk’d. “Do you even know what it is like? What ship’s crews are like? You’ll lose your… respectability….” She didn’t mean just being an airship pilot and acting inappropriate for a woman, she meant that someone on the crew would rape me and then I’d be worthless as a bride.
A rich, deep voice rumbled from the corner. “I’ll not let that happen,” Emmanuel said in his thick Creole accent. “I will go anywhere she goes. I’m a free man.” I turned around and stared at him. He was free, but he would follow me…? I stood up, and walked slowly over to him, and I hugged him. “Thank you,” I whispered. Because it meant he believed in me, and whatever crazy schemes I was hatching. He patted me a little awkwardly.
That was scandalous enough, me hugging a colored servant. Well, I was done playing by the rules. They didn’t apply to me anymore. Another, quieter tsk from Aunt Miranda. I figured she’d get used to it. Eventually.
Poor Hank and Charles. I went to them, and I knelt, my stays cutting into me, taking one of each of their hands in mine. “What do the two of you want?”
“I just want to stay here with you and Hank and Elsie and Emmanuel,” Charles said.
“I want to go to school,” Hank said. “I’m ready.” Ready to kill him some Yankees, he meant. Poor boy. His shoulders were squared, and he did look terribly grown up in that moment. He was right, he was ready.
So I stood, and I faced Aunt Miranda, and I said, “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to buy Elsie and Benjamin and Sarah from the estate, so that they are not part of the inheritance. If this scheme of mine fails I don’t want them getting sold off to someone who won’t treat them right. Charles needs them, he’s had enough change and more to come.” I took my hat and my gloves off because I was working up steam. A lady is not supposed to take her hat off. “And, if you can find it in your heart to help Hank go to school for the first couple of semesters, I will pay you back once I start making a bit of money. I will run your cotton from Charleston to Liverpool, blockade be damned,” oh my… how many times could I shock her in one day? “And I will make this work. I will.” I must have looked like I was ready to fight this 85-year-old woman. Her head was cocked and she was appraising me, and maybe she saw another warrior. I know she saw someone who wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and after all, it was all mine to do with as I wished, except the house. Which basically meant, the airship. That was all I really wanted, anyway.
There was silence, into which the clock’s ticking roared. Finally, after an eternity, Aunt Miranda said, “Very well.”