Clockwork Heart (Clockwork Love #1) by Heidi Cullinan
Cover Artist Kanaxa
Scattered Thoughts and Rogue Words is happy to have Heidi Cullinan hear to talk about her latest novel, Clockwork Heart and a major inspiration behind the story, airship pirates. Welcome, Heidi.
AIRSHIP PIRATES by Heidi Cullinan
When I began writing Clockwork Heart, I honestly thought it would only be a quick short story, a sort of steampunk Romeo and Juliet cast with a soldier and a tinker. What the story quickly became, however, was about pirates. Airship pirates, to be exact.
I blame, as I do so many things, Neil Gaiman, because I went through a serious Stardust binge, both book and movie, before I wrote this book. He has airship pirates in that story as well, men who sail through storms catching lightning to store in barrels for sale. He also put the burr in my consciousness about how pirates must always have two faces, the tough shell for boarding and maintaining control, and the truth beneath, the human who simply ended up in the role through a quirk of fate.
In the world of Clockwork Heart, airships are the preferred mode of transportation, but because the world is ruled by an endless war, armies and pirates rule the skies alongside a few shuttlers of goods and passengers. Pirates are always symbols of freedom and independence; in the world of Clockwork Heart they have an extra element of escape as they sail through the air. Not bound by land or sea, they go wherever the aether in their balloon will take them.
The thing I hadn’t counted on in writing my airship pirates was how quickly they would become a family. Working closely on a ship means relying on people, knowing and trusting them. I’d meant to only have this one book be the story, but as I wrote the airship pirates, I couldn’t resist their lure to ride off on The Brass Farthing and tell another tale. And another. And another.
I hope you enjoy your trip on my airship in Clockwork Heart, your ride over the Alps, through Calais in a daring attempt to save a life, in a desperate castle rescue. And of course, off into the sunset to the next adventure.
About Clockwork Heart
Love, adventure and a steaming good time.
As the French army leader’s bastard son, Cornelius Stevens enjoys a great deal of latitude. But when he saves an enemy soldier using clockwork parts, he’s well aware he risks hanging for treason. That doesn’t worry him half as much, however, as the realization he’s falling for his patient.
Johann Berger never expected to survive his regiment’s suicide attack on Calais, much less wake up with mechanical parts. To avoid discovery, he’s forced to hide in plain sight as Cornelius’s lover—a role Johann finds himself taking to surprisingly well.
When a threat is made on Cornelius’s life, Johann learns the secret of the device implanted in his chest—a mythical weapon both warring countries would kill to obtain. Caught up in a political frenzy, in league with pirates, dodging rogue spies, mobsters and princesses with deadly parasols, Cornelius and Johann have no time to contemplate how they ended up in this mess. All they know is, the only way out is together—or not at all.
Warning: Contains tinkers, excessive clockwork appendages, and a cloud-sweeping tour of Europe. A little absinthe, a little theft, a little exhibitionism. Men who love men, women who love women, and some who aren’t particular.
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Excerpt from Clockwork Heart
Though Cornelius Stevens had thumbed his nose at his father’s international conflicts since he was old enough to understand what the word war meant, the night he rescued the Austrian soldier from a pile of dead bodies was the first time his disobedience had gone as far as treason.
He’d gone out, as it happened, to spite his father, who had ordered Conny to attend the local magistrate’s dinner party. “A good friend of mine will be there and is looking forward to meeting you,” his letter had said, and then it had gone on to promise Cornelius a hefty raise of his allowance and the set of Italian tools he’d been coveting in exchange for his presence at the event. Normally that would have been enough to lure Conny into even the most dull official gathering, but the letter had arrived with the evening paper, whose headline celebrated the archduke’s victorious conquest of Switzerland in the name of France. Cornelius had been put off his breakfast at the thought of how many innocent people had died so his father could supply the worthless, lazy emperor in Paris with cheap aether, and he’d burned the letter from his father in his brazier, vowing he’d join the Austrian Army himself before he’d attend a dinner party where he’d hear nothing but the glories of the French forces.
Cornelius was not his father. He saved lives instead of taking them. He was a tinker-surgeon, apprenticed to the best tinker in France. He was a master of clockwork. He saw at least three veterans of his father’s horrible war each week, and he gave them surgeries for free and clockwork for cost, or for whatever the soldiers could afford. He was his father’s son, but he was a bastard son, in blood and in spirit. He would never celebrate the Empire’s appetite for war. He donned his white armband for peace with pride. He wouldn’t attend a dinner party where he knew they’d be celebrating more death.
So that evening Conny dined with friends and drank wine, enough to make him glib about the sirens’ warning of an invasion on his walk home, chalking it up to more hokum from his father. Until half a kilometer from his flat he heard the shelling.
Calais, the city that never saw much more than a dust-up between sailors on leave, was being invaded. Uncertain how to respond, Cornelius moved into alleys and side streets to complete his journey. He climbed barrels and stumbled over cats, sobering with every step as he made his way home through fog tinged with the tang of gunpowder. He wove his way into an industrial area, following the path of a service canal—and that was where he found the raft of dead Austrian soldiers.
At first he thought he was hallucinating. It happened more often than he cared to admit, if he worked too long without stopping to eat. But he’d eaten both lunch and dinner, and it had only been one bottle of wine, no absinthe. Also, he’d never hallucinated smells before. Gunpowder. Sea muck. Sweat. Blood.
As a tinker-surgeon, Cornelius knew the scent of life recently ended all too well. The small barge heaved with a stack of dead soldiers, almost six feet high. Each wore the same green-gray uniform with the Austrian insignia, now caked with blood and mud. Some stared sightlessly at the sky, some twisted to their side, gazing at a distant eternity. No one living rode along to shepherd the dead. They simply drifted along with the rest of the night garbage waiting to be disposed of downstream at the city incinerator. No need to guard dead enemies. No need to afford them courtesy.
It was the most horrific, inhuman spectacle Cornelius had ever seen.
This is the work of my father. This is the fruit of Archduke Francis Cornielle Guillory’s terrible, endless war.
Cornelius swallowed the lump in his throat. He’d spent the day erasing the poor Swiss invasion victims from his imagination only to stumble upon barges full of fuel enough for a lifetime of nightmares. Hundreds of men, dead at his father’s hand. It didn’t matter how many lives Cornelius saved in surgery, how many wounded soldiers he gave new life to with surgical clockwork. He realized, standing on the bank of the canal, his entire life was but a pebble in his father’s ocean of blood.
Shutting his eyes, Cornelius put a hand to his mouth and fought the urge to retch. A watery cough made him open his eyes again, and he saw a hand raise and lower feebly on the top of one of the piles of corpses.
One of the soldiers was still alive.
With a cry, Cornelius sprinted across the street, hopped over the rail and vaulted onto the barge.
He climbed the dead men, the soft squish of their faces and necks and creak-cracks of their bones making him shiver as he scaled the heap. Another cough from above spurred him on, and then, at last, when he grasped an arm for purchase, it tensed and flinched under his grip.
Life. I have found you.
“It’s all right. I’m here.” So much blood. The soldier’s legs were broken at odd angles, and the right one had a seeping stain that told Conny it was bleeding out. Shrapnel protruded from the man’s belly and chest, and one great piece of metal appeared to have gone through his left arm entirely. His left eye was a scarred, mangled mess—it wasn’t missing, but it had been highly damaged. If he could see at all out of that side, it wasn’t much. Though that wound wasn’t fresh. However he’d partially lost his sight, it wasn’t from this battle.
The soldier murmured something in slurred German and tried, weakly, to push Cornelius away.
Cornelius stilled him with one hand as the other continued his examination. “You’re badly injured. But everything here is treatable, I think. Certainly I could give you a new eye without any trouble. Your left arm must go, and I can’t promise good things for your right leg, but…well, you floated by the right one for the job.”
The man gasped in pain and tried again to shove Conny. This effort was even weaker, though, and when Cornelius’s hand brushed his, the soldier’s fingers tightened around his own.
Cornelius threaded their fingers together. “I’m so sorry this has happened to you. This is wrong. This war is wrong, this barge is wrong—you shouldn’t be here if you’re alive. You should be at a prisoner-of-war camp, and you should be accorded respect.” He swallowed a bubble of bitterness. “You should be at home. If you came to Calais, it should be for a holiday.”
The man opened his good eye and gazed at Cornelius through a haze of pain. Though he spoke in German, no translation was necessary for the look on the soldier’s face.
I’m going to die, and I’m afraid.
Cornelius drew the man’s hand to his mouth and kissed the bloody, dirty knuckles. “You aren’t going to die. I’m going to save your life.”
Letting go of the soldier, Conny hurried down the corpses and up the bank with his blood pumping as his mind raced through potential plans. When he spotted a small surgery on the corner down the way, he dashed to it, picked the lock and burst inside. Needles, medicine, antibiotic went into his bag, as well as three rolls of bandages. The surgeons had a gurney as well, bless them. Leaving a hefty pile of bank notes on the counter by way of apology, he dragged the gurney outside and toward the barge, which had by now drifted almost out of sight.
His lungs burned as he climbed up a second time, and he feared he would find the man dead after all—but no, the soldier babbled slurred, panicked German as Cornelius arrived.
“Calmez-vous.” Cornelius wished he could offer reassurances the man would understand. He gave him an injection of painkiller, another of antibiotic, and then, to make things easier, he dosed the man with just the faintest bit of aether.
He was glad for it, because even with the gas, the soldier cried out as Cornelius tried to set his limbs. Unfortunately, Conny quickly realized all the soldier’s extremities were crushed except for his right hand. Cornelius bound the wounds as best he could, devised splints out of bits of the ferry rail, and then, with great effort, rolled the man onto the gurney pallet and strapped him in, hoping against hope the shifting didn’t incur too much additional damage.
Getting the pallet off the heap nearly sent them both into the canal. The soldier was broad and tall, and Cornelius was not. Essentially the only way to transport him was to slide the poor man on the pallet as if it were a sled. Clamoring after, Cornelius hoisted the pallet back onto the gurney, unlocked the wheels and rattled into the alley toward his apartments above Master Félix’s shop.
Only God knew what Cornelius would have said if he’d run into anyone on the streets—but he didn’t. Everyone hunkered in cellars, praying they weren’t set upon by soldiers. There were no soldiers on the streets, however, save the one Conny wheeled into the night. Once back at the shop, he found Master Félix wasn’t at home, and the maid was long gone for the night, so Cornelius simply rolled the gurney into the elevator in the back, primed the crank and rode with his patient past the first-floor general tinker shop into the second-floor surgery.
As an apprentice to the most celebrated tinker-surgeon in all of France, Cornelius had seen his share of dire patients, but he’d never faced anything as intense and critical as this soldier, and he’d never done such an intensive treatment alone. He did his best to push his nerves aside as he washed his hands, donned his surgical apron and dosed the soldier with so much aether he wouldn’t feel any pain well into the next week. Once that was done, he stripped the patient down and cleaned him head to toe.
So many wounds. Shrapnel in his belly and chest—some had gone into a lung, Conny was certain of it. The legs did have to go. Both of them, sadly, though the left leg only to mid-calf. The left arm too. For a moment, Cornelius wondered if he shouldn’t help the man cross over, instead of yanking him back to life. Then he remembered the look of naked terror on the man’s face, and resolve gripped him like a vise.
No. I am a healer, a fixer. I hate war and weep for all humans in pain. I will save this soldier. Whatever it takes. And I will give him clockwork so grand he won’t miss the flesh he’s lost.
Amputating and cauterizing the man’s mangled legs stopped the worst of the bleeding, though Cornelius did transfuse some blood into his patient to be certain he hadn’t lost too much. Perhaps it had been a bit of fancy to use his own blood from the stored pints, but he was a universal donor, was he not? Cornelius got rid of the soldier’s burned, crushed arm and sealed up that stump too. He wrapped the belly, then shifted his focus to the collapsed lung.
That was when he saw the bit of metal sticking out of the soldier’s chest, right above his heart. It was so low he’d missed it the first time, tangled in the man’s thick pelt of chest hair. But there was no missing it now.
It was the mortal wound. Conny skimmed his hand over the man’s thigh, scanning his patient’s body with new eyes, taking in the wounds old and new. It was the metal in the man’s heart killing him. Cornelius had healed everything else. If he healed that too, and fixed the lung, the man wouldn’t die.
Cornelius drew his bottom lip into his mouth as he stared at the stub of iron.
Seeing to that wasn’t simply cleaning him up. It was surgery. Clockwork surgery. And to finish the job, Conny would need to give the man a clockwork heart assist. That would be improving. Organ upgrades barely allowed to the gentry, given to an enemy soldier.
That would be treason.
Cornelius sucked his lip deeper into his mouth, biting nervously on the soft flesh.
Going any further than what he’d done was too much. He should give the man an overdose of aether and send him sweetly into death. He should do his duty, then find a pretty thing in a dockside bar or a stalwart sailor willing to let him cry on his shoulder before making him forget the shadows of war.
Cornelius let his gaze rest on the soldier’s big, battered body, his surprisingly pretty countenance beneath the scars, so innocent in sleep. Conny remembered the look of terror on his face and those whispered pleas. The weariness only war could bring. He thought of the dead Swiss men and women and children, who had done nothing but live in a country rich with aether the archduke needed to fuel his war.
He couldn’t save those victims. But he knew, if he let himself cross the line, he could save this one.
Probably he’ll die in surgery, Cornelius told himself as he washed his hands and sterilized his kit. He’ll die, and I can say I tried. Treason with no witness or lasting effect.
Except Cornelius did more than simply try.
Putting the Austrian on the Lazarus machine when the surgery went south was wrong. Siphoning off another pint of his own blood was foolish, because it made him woozy. Setting a tiny assistant pumping mechanism into a dying man’s chest was pointless—careless, even, since he’d end up burying thousands of dollars’ worth of intricate machinery if the man died, which he was highly likely to do.
But breaking into Master Félix’s vault to steal the clockwork heart once the pumping gear wouldn’t turn—that was certainly the most terrible thing Cornelius had ever done.
The clockwork heart was Félix’s masterpiece. He’d only shown it to Cornelius a month ago, after an evening of too much wine. “This is my masterwork, Conny, not that anyone can ever know about it. A clockwork heart. Not an assisting device but a fully clockwork organ, the first and only of its kind. Completely replaces an organ made of flesh, and very possibly functions better than the pump God gave us. It would run forever, until the body gave out. It might well make a body perform better than a flesh heart could. It could change the world.”
“But that’s wonderful!” Conny had touched the clockwork heart reverently, imagining all the good it could do. “It could save so many lives. You should make more of them.”
“I will never make another one as long as I live, and no one will ever use this infernal machine. I only have it here because it was no longer safe where it had been hiding. Soon I must move it again. Unless I can work up the courage to destroy it.” Félix turned to Conny, sodden with wine but burning with intensity. “You must never tell anyone about this. Not a single soul. Not ever.”
Cornelius hadn’t told anyone. Not even Valentin, his longest, dearest friend. But he knew the heart hadn’t yet moved on to wherever Félix intended to hide it next, and he hadn’t destroyed it. As the Austrian soldier lay dying, his heart of flesh too damaged to beat on its own, all Conny could think of was the perfect substitute locked away downstairs, lying useless with its owner vowing never to let it see the light of day.
Surely the safest place to hide the heart was inside of someone. A man who would not live without it.
Cornelius set the clockwork heart next to the mechanical pump, coaxed it into working independently before sewing it up inside the thin gold cavity he made in the man’s chest. He made a flesh-seal and tucked the access port under the man’s right arm, sealing it up with a cap that could pass for a mole to anyone who didn’t get close enough to see this mole had a tiny hinge. He stood over his patient, his own still-human heart thumping madly as he realized what he’d done.
Then it occurred to Conny, since he’d crossed one line, there was nothing stopping him from breaking as many rules as he needed to not only save his soldier but give him every advantage in whatever the next chapter of life brought him.
And that is precisely what Conny did.
* * * * *
Johann Berger was fairly certain he should have been dead.
He couldn’t yet be sure he wasn’t dead, though that he had a headache and ached all over seemed a good indication he was probably still alive. Death seemed like it would either not hurt at all or hurt a hell of a lot more, to pardon the pun. But Johann’s aches felt muted. Annoying, but tolerable. His left arm and his legs felt very odd. His mouth tasted like ash, and his chest felt…strange. He was warm, however. He lay in something soft and fragrant. Inhaling, he caught hints of lavender, sage and the lemon tang of a cleanser. He could not, for the life of him, imagine where he was or how he got there. Hoping for visual cues, he opened his eyes.
After drawing in a sharp breath, he closed them again. Tight.
When he opened them once more, his pulse beat hard against the back of his throat. He could see. Out of both eyes. Not a blurry haze out of his left which his right eye had to ignore. He saw, with crystal clarity, though his left eye saw everything with a sharp-edged tinge of yellow-brown.
He raised his hands to his face. Through the amber edging, he could see his right hand looking normal, his arm bare and scarred and marked with service tattoos. He also saw his left hand, which did not look like a hand at all. In any kind of light.
Oh, there were five fingers, true enough. But they were made of copper casings, not flesh. Tiny wheels held every joint in place and larger gears made up what he could only call a wrist. More wire and more clockwork comprised a forearm he could, technically, see through. What should have been his left arm was now a delicate machine. But even stranger than his new appendage was the discovery that when his brain told his left arm to move, his left wrist to turn, the fingers of his left hand to curl—they responded in kind. He let out a shaking breath and touched his left hand with his right. The clockwork arm didn’t register sensation in the way his right hand did. It felt like a slight fuzzing on his brain, an odd tickle that resonated more in his elbow than in his substitute fingers. He noticed, too, that his movements weren’t as smooth or dexterous with the mechanical arm as with his real one.
This was clockwork. Incredible clockwork. He’d seen some clumsy versions on a few officers who’d lost limbs, and once his unit had been stationed near Italy, where Johann saw a nobleman wearing gears on his flesh arm, but the kind of clockwork fused to Johann was like nothing he had known could possibly exist.
How had this happened? He tried to recall his last memory, but everything felt blurred and confused in his head. Had he ended up back with Crawley? He couldn’t see how. The pirates had left him, the commander had found him, and they’d put him straight onto the front lines. Onto a special assignment, the regiment sent to storm Calais.
A suicide mission. He remembered now. A distraction so the English airships full of Austrian troops could land on the eastern shores. Something about destroying a weapon. Or finding it. Or something. Nothing to do with him—his job was to be cannon fodder for the French.
So how had he ended up in a nice-smelling, soft bed with a yellow eyeball and a clockwork arm?
His belly curdled as he remembered the rumors, the warnings the sergeants had taunted them with at camp. The French are turning their war prisoners into automatons. Don’t let them catch you alive, or they’ll make it so you can never die and can’t do anything but fight for Archduke Guillory.
Terror brought back missing pieces of Johann’s memory. It had been fear of that story that had made him fake death and swallow his cry of pain as the French soldiers had tossed him onto the corpse barge. He remembered lying cold and trembling in the foggy night, waiting for death, knowing being burned alive would be better than the future they had in store for him as a prisoner of war.
And then a pretty young man had climbed the corpse heap, touched his face and whispered in French.
The curtains around Johann’s bed parted, and the pretty Frenchman from his recollection smiled down at him, head backlit by gaslight, his features outlined in a strange amber hue in Johann’s left eye.
“Voilà, vous êtes réveillé enfin.”
The Frenchman sat on the edge of the bed and smiled kindly down at Johann. As he spoke more lyrical words Johann had no hope of comprehending, he touched Johann everywhere. His face. His neck. He laid a hand over Johann’s chest, pressing gently—it was then Johann realized that flesh was slightly numb.
They have captured me and turned me into their slave. That is why I have the clockwork arm and God knows what else. I am an automaton. He began to panic.
The pretty man shushed him, petting his shoulders and entreating Johann once more in French. He didn’t sound like an enemy doctor intent on hacking men into reusable pieces. In fact, Johann hadn’t heard anyone speak with this much tenderness since he’d left his mother.
It was a little drugging. He decided he would gladly fight for Guillory’s army, if it meant this man would croon to him at the end of every battle.
The pretty man explained the mechanical arm, with slow French and pantomime. Johann got the idea the man had installed it, or designed it, or something, because he was intensely proud and could explain how to work it even without a shared language. “Nerf,” he kept saying, tracing a line from Johann’s elbow to his brain. He said nerf as he touched Johann’s left eye too, putting Johann’s right hand up there to feel the strange metal socket placed over the hollow where his mangled eye should have been.
He had Johann sit up, which was when Johann saw his legs.
The Frenchman hushed him once more when he cried out at the sight of his lower half—his right leg was entirely machine, steel and copper skeleton rising almost to his hip. His left leg was natural to his calf, where he had something which looked much like the foot version of his left arm. It was more intricate than the right side by far.
He had no legs. No feet. He was more clockwork than man.
Though Johann wanted to panic, it was difficult to remain upset with his doctor soothing him in what tonight had to be the prettiest language on Earth. The man hugged Johann’s shoulders and spoke quietly into his ear, his lips gently brushing the skin and wresting Johann’s attention away from his artificial limbs.
“Tout ira bien, mon chéri. Croyez-moi. Je vous soignerai.”
Johann shut his eyes, wondering how that worked when one was basically a copper lens. It did shut, though, when he told it to. In fact, all the clockwork parts seemed to respond to his most casual thought.His, not the Frenchman’s. The question was, would it remain that way?
Would he care, if it meant this man would continue to be so kind to him?
“I don’t know what you’re saying or what you’ve done to me, but…” He leaned helplessly into the man. “Please…don’t stop talking. Or touching me.”
With a soft French coo, the man prattled on, his tone even gentler and sweeter now. “Je m’appelle Cornelius. Quel est votre nom?”
Name, Johann’s rusty brain offered up in translation. He wants to know your name. “Johann Berger. Of the Austrian Army’s 51st regiment.”
A shiver ran down his skin as the man—Cornelius—threaded fingers into Johann’s hair. Johann decided he liked it, but it was strange. His mother always said the French had odd ways. He hadn’t realized they were such touchy ways.
Probably he’d have run away to France when he’d first deserted the army, if he’d known.
“Bienvenue, Johann Berger. Sur mon honneur, je jure que je vous protégerai.”
Johann felt a kiss on his hairline, and he curled his mechanical hand instinctively at the touch.
As he lay in the embrace of the Frenchman, Johann recalled his mother. Her gentle hands on his face, her tears as she said goodbye. They’d both known it would be the last time they saw one another. Johann wondered if she had put him out of her heart the way he’d sealed off her and the rest of his family, his life in Stallenwald. It hurt too much to remember a time when life had been good.
In the Frenchman’s arms, Johann broke the seal. He let himself feel the ache of loss, let himself acknowledge how much he missed love and light in his life. A sense of purpose that wasn’t futile. A future filled with hope, not despair. It was a fever, no doubt, that let him turn the incomprehensible French coos into something to latch on to. He had no idea to what purpose this man meant to assign him now that he was a clockwork man, but in that moment he didn’t care. However it happened, whether or not it was real, right now he felt safe and peaceful.
He’d been a son, a soldier, a pirate, a human sacrifice. If it meant he could keep feeling like this, he’d be whatever the Frenchman wanted him to be.
About the Author
Heidi Cullinan has always enjoyed a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. Proud to be from the first Midwestern state with full marriage equality, Heidi is a vocal advocate for LGBT rights. She writes positive-outcome romances for LGBT characters struggling against insurmountable odds because she believes there’s no such thing as too much happy ever after. When Heidi isn’t writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, playing with her cats, and watching television with her family. Find out more about Heidi at heidicullinan.com.
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