The stink of St. Francisco crept into Marcus’s nose and stayed there, an unwelcome sensory vermin plaguing him at every step. Fog hung in the alleyways, catching on the corners of buildings and shrouding Little Orient’s arcane-fueled street lamps. The faint orange glow they cast was barely enough to see by on a clear night, and once a heavy soup rolled in off the bay’s murky water, the ill-maintained orbs were dimmed to a pale tangerine wash.
Definitely not enough light to see anything other than dark, slinky shapes at the edge of his vision but certainly bright enough to warn off any cutpurses lurking in the pea-soup thick shadows beyond. He’d been a fool to come down to Little Orient near dusk, but his grandmother had begged, something she rarely did.
Well, unless she thought she could get away with it.
“I thought I had enough.” Her soft, round face sported few wrinkles, and her cotton-floss hair was suspiciously bright gold, but the elderly woman wore her age well. “Please, Marcus. It would be such a disappointment if it wasn’t served.”
She’d been his only maternal influence after his own mother fled the Commonwealth to head back to London, and Marcus hated disappointing her. Hosting afternoon breakfasts for the West Commonwealth’s society were the highlight of his grandmother’s week, and if she needed a particular jasmine tea for it, he would damn well get it for her.
Now in the misty shadows of the district’s spice and sewer perfumed air, Marcus wondered if he’d not made a mistake, and he would have been better off popping down to Woolworth’s Tea Emporium for a more mundane leaf.
“She would know,” he reminded himself, hefting his sword cane up and checking the fill of his pocket where his pistol hung heavy in his overcoat. “She always knows.”
The package of tea was light enough in his other pocket, not enough of a weight to trouble him, but it seemed to weigh him down with every step. Obligations. Family obligations. That was what the tea represented. The need to produce… to succeed in order to further the family line. Even if he was only the third son and a poor representation of the dukedom.
A chance quirk of filial bloodlines gifted him with a title, a viscount to put in front of his name, but it felt awkward hanging on his shoulders. He felt more at home in the boxing ring, schooling lesser men on the proper ways to defend themselves, or even riding with the hounds, chasing after a metallic gewgaw covered in rabbit fur rather than the traditional Reynard.
The industrialists made their mark in odd ways, filling the skies with bloated tick-like balloons strong enough to carry a man across oceans or steam-driven contraptions loud enough to frighten a sensible horse on the roads, but strangely enough, it was the faux fox that angered arcanists the most.
“It’s a violation of the natural order! They’ll be the death of us. The death of the British Empire!” His father harrumphed more than once as he read the Post at the breakfast table. He’d been a walrus of a man, bristling with a thick mustache and even thicker eyebrows, his ever-increasing belly popping more than a few buttons on his waistcoat when he blustered his opinions at the Commonwealth’s House of Lords.
In the end, the duke was right in his own way. It’d been a skitter that killed his father, a hand-sized mechanical leftover from the Society’s attempted coup against the newly crowned Queen. Hidden in the Lords’ Hall voting chambers, the spindly legged mechanism somehow activated and attacked the man nearest to its hiding place, his blustering but large-hearted father. The Duke’s last words as he lay dying on the House floor were of his family and to curse the industrialists who brought doom to the British Empire.