Excerpt: The Novelty Maker

Cole slipped through the bustling shop, aiming for the door behind the counter. The shop was bustling as usual—the two shop girls had their hands full flitting between customers and the register and the owner was busy showing off his latest creation, some contraption that blatantly ripped off the novelty box Lady Kiely had displayed at her party last week.

He made it to the back of the shop without being stopped, but the girls knew enough to leave him be and the owner was too busy boasting to notice Cole’s presence. The crystal doorknob turned easily under his hand and Cole shut the door quickly behind him.

It was much quieter back here, though no less crowded. Bits and pieces of half-finished machines covered every surface, surrounded further by tools, bolts, cogs, and shimmering jewels and bulbs. The windows in the back of the room were open, letting in the sea breeze and showing off the ships floating out in the bay below. The city of Cadogan was perched precariously on the cliffs of Shinnick; it followed the edge of the cliffs, dipping down when the cliffs smoothed into a giant bay that was Cadogan’s main source of trade.

“Harlowe?” Cole called, ducking under the flexing arm of a life-size caricature of the winter spirit. Its head was only half-finished, a toothless smile beaming unnervingly from the lower half of the machine’s face. The top half was missing completely, and Cole looked away, heading deeper into the workroom. “Are you in here?”

No reply, which wasn’t completely unusual. Harlowe tended to get caught up in what he was doing to the point he forgot other people existed and occasionally visited him. There was a steady ratcheting noise coming from the right corner of the room, and Cole headed that way, ducking under a low-hanging chandelier and pausing every so often to admire the half-finished works.

Harlowe mostly created novelty boxes. They were the latest rage in Cadogan; some of the Ladies in town were in an unspoken contest to see who could commission the most outrageous and outlandish boxes in the city. Cole had seen boxes that did everything from feature a small, dancing figure to those that simulated a small fireworks display when the box was open to those that were of such poor quality that they completely fell apart when they were opened.

Rounding the edge of the table, Cole found Harlowe was kneeling in front of a work table, carefully ratcheting something into place on the box in front of him. He was slowly ratcheting a bolt into place on the side of long, flat box. The box was a dark blue velvet, covered with delicate gold whorls punctuated by the occasional stylized cog.

Cole hovered, not willing to break Harlowe’s concentration at what looked like a pivotal point in the process. There was grease and oil streaked across Harlowe’s fingers, and a small metal cuff around his left wrist. His sleeves were pushed back, crumpled just above his elbows. He wore his usual black vest, frayed at the bottom and filled with pockets into which he tucked all manner of instruments and odds and ends. Cole had more than once wanted to dig through all of the pockets to find out what treasures the vest concealed, but Harlowe had threatened his fingers the first time he’d tried to act on that.

Harlowe finished whatever tweak he was making and tossed the ratchet wrench aside. His fingers touched the lever he’d been winding, caressing it gently, and then he stood, unfolding from the floor with a grace that most of the Ladies Cole knew would be jealous of.

“Who let you back here?” Harlowe asked, startling Cole.

“I always let myself back here.” Cole followed as Harlowe stalked away, crossing through the mess of the workshop without so much as looking back at Cole.

“Maybe you shouldn’t,” Harlowe said, pausing to nudge a drill under a table. He glanced over his shoulder at Cole, half his frown visible and the rest obscured by the mask he wore.

“Harlowe, what in the world?” Cole asked, exasperated. He was well used to Harlowe being somewhat mercurial, but Harlowe had never told him to not visit before. “Are you all right?”

“This isn’t funny,” Harlowe said, finally turning to face him. He reached into his jacket, pulling out a folded, worn page. He tossed it at Cole, who barely caught it as a breeze from the windows tried to snatch it away.

Unfolding the page, he skimmed it, his stomach immediately turning at the opening of my dearest Harlowe. It only got worse, as the letter writer proclaimed their undying affection for Harlowe and their admiration for his work. It was signed, your secret admirer, complete with a little sketch of a heart, and Cole scowled at it.

“What is this? Who gave it to you?” Cole demanded, angrier than he should be. Harlowe was a friend, nothing more.

“You didn’t write that?” Harlowe asked, his voice somewhat unsteady. The mask covering most of his face sometimes made it difficult to read Harlowe’s expressions, but Cole had known Harlowe long enough to be able to pick up some of what he was feeling from his voice.

“No,” Cole said, staring down at the letter again. He didn’t recognize the handwriting, but that didn’t mean anything. Transcribing shops could be found on every second corner; it was no chore to find someone else to write a letter.

“It came this morning, special courier,” Harlowe said, stepping forward and taking the letter out of Cole’s slack grip. He folded it back up and tucked it into his vest again. “You’re the only one I know who could send something that way.”

Cole snorted. “You were going to lock me out of your workroom because you thought I sent you a secret admirer letter? You should be happy to get one of those. It means someone likes you.”

“Well, I’m not happy,” Harlowe snapped, turning his back on Cole and walking away again. “I should lock you out anyway. It’s not professional.”

“You’re never on the sales floor,” Cole said, shrugging, stepping over a half-assembled something on the floor.

“No one wants me on the sales floor,” Harlowe said, opening a door and stepping into a small office. “Did you want tea?”

“No, thank you,” Cole said, following Harlowe into the office. “Your boxes are much better than Bingley’s. Lady Codd had one last week and everyone was gushing about it.”

“Whatever,” Harlowe muttered, flipping the tail end of his braid over his shoulder. He pulled out a small ledger, making a few marks.

He’d only ever removed his mask in front of Cole once, and only then because he hadn’t had a choice. Bingley had managed to set off a machine he’d been working on, spraying Harlowe’s face—and mask—with something dangerous enough it needed to be washed off immediately. Harlowe had never said how he’d come by the scarring that marked the left side of his face and rendered his left eye useless, but it was obviously a sensitive subject so Cole had never asked.

It was the reason he avoided the shop floor and the reason he rarely took commissions personally. Cole had been an exception—he’d managed to come to the shop when the owner, Bingley, was out and neither of the shop girls could answer his questions. So he’d been shunted into the back room to wait for Bingley, and he’d come across Harlowe. Cole had never stopped coming back, even after the music box he’d commissioned for his mother was done and gifted to her.

So how, considering Harlowe was so reclusive, had someone gotten close enough to fall in love enough to send him a secret admirer letter? Or was it a joke? That made sense—some of the Lords and Ladies Cole was acquainted with were rather heartless when it came to their own amusement. They wouldn’t think twice of playing with Harlowe, never mind how much it would hurt Harlowe.

“If you want, I can help you find out who it is,” Cole offered as Harlowe shut the ledger.

Harlowe stared at him, his one brown eye offset by the emerald panel obscuring his left eye. “Why?”

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