QSFer R J Theodore has a new queer sci-fantasy steampunk book out: Salvage.
Peridot is headed for its second cataclysm. War has broken ancient alliances, sealed borders, and locked down the skies. The Five, Peridot’s alchemist gods, have seen one of their number die and another fall in their efforts to protect their world from invaders beyond the stars. Defeated and diminished, they have ceased to answer the prayers of their people and have left the rapidly unraveling world to fend for itself.
Talis and the orphaned crew of the lost airship Wind Sabre have a plan to set things to rights, but they’re stranded on a rock far from the heart of the conflict. When an old enemy comes and offers them a ship and a path forward, it comes with strings that will pull them further from the home they are so desperate to save.
Can Talis and her crew chart a course through hostile skies, shifting allegiances, and subverted governments before the true enemies of Peridot claim a power that can destroy the world once and for all?
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Emeranth woke to a hand over her mouth. As she tried to sit up, its owner pushed her back down. The room was dark, and she could barely see the outline of her bed’s curtains and a person leaning in over her.
“Sorry, Em. Sorry.” The voice was deep with a solid center, but it was raspy at this hushed volume.
She nodded, and the man removed his hand, allowing her to sit up. “Uncle? Why are you—”
Uncle pressed something soft and heavy into her hands. Her jacket. “We need to go. It’s not safe. I’ll tell you on the way.”
“Where are my parents?” But she did as he said, sliding out of bed and into her slippers while pulling her jacket over her nightgown. The fabric tangled around her hips and knees, and her sleeves bunched up around her elbows.
In the limited nexuslight that made it past the curtains, Uncle’s pale skin—many shades lighter than Em’s own—allowed her to see him step back toward the bedroom door. “I’ll tell you on the way. Quietly. It’s not safe.”
When an adult said things more than once, they were nervous or mad. Uncle sort of sounded both, and she obeyed with no more questions.
He led them down the hall outside her chambers. They didn’t pass anyone else. Em was even more alarmed than she had been to wake with a hand on her face. There should have been people in the corridors. Guards. Someone. The air seemed to buzz, and she thought she could make out distant shouting but couldn’t tell what direction it came from or what was being yelled. She clung tighter to Uncle.
A familiar voice sounded from very nearby. Em almost yelled in fright. Uncle stopped them before they crossed in front of a doorway that spilled lamplight across the hall. The silver fingers of his left hand reflected the meager glow as he signaled her to be still. She focused on the words coming from within the room, staring at the familiar cogs and pins of Uncle’s beautiful gearwork knuckles.
“She is nowhere to be found.” The voice was irritated. She recognized Patron Demir’s voice. He always sounded like he smelled something unpleasant.
Another voice responded, heavily accented with throaty stops, hums, and hisses. This one, too, was familiar. Familiar and terrifying. She could imagine the tall Yu’Nyun Representative of Culture even without seeing xin. “Unacceptable. You were to have taken care of this first.”
When the Yu’Nyun visitors had first arrived, Em had thought they were fascinating and pretty. They looked like living versions of the carvings airship sailors made from sirenia teeth and bones, and they walked with the kind of grace and poise the court folk tried to train into her. Their clothes were beautifully made, even with the burns and tears from the attack at Nexus. As if they were right at home in the royal court, though they looked very strange.
Lately, though, she found it hard to breathe around the aliens. She could tell everyone was trying too hard to be nice to them.
“The child must be found and secured. Search the grounds again.”
They were looking for her! When she gasped for breath, Uncle tapped one finger on his earlobe. She nodded. He backed away from the door, moving them into the shadows along the other side of the hall.
Why were they looking for her? She gripped Uncle’s arm with both hands and stayed as close as she dared without tripping him.
“She can’t have gotten far.” Patron Demir sounded like he was in trouble.
“Be sure of it. With the emperor and empress dead, she is now the legitimate ruler of the Cutter empire.”
Em stumbled. She forgot about being quiet, but as she tried to repeat the words, no sound emerged from her constricted throat.
Her parents couldn’t be dead. She had just said goodnight to them at bedtime. Maw’n sat with her as she finished her needlework, and then they talked about what they’d like for breakfast the next morning.
That seemed like a strange dream now. The alien’s voice seemed all too real. Too sharp.
Her parents were dead.
Uncle tried to pick her up—even though she was nearly fourteen years old, and a princess—to keep them moving. She wrested her arms out of his grip. His metal arm was beautiful, but the joints were fragile. A cog ground its metal teeth at her rough treatment. She didn’t stop or calm down. She had to find her friend Annie. There were killers in the palace!
R J Theodore (she/they) is an author and graphic designer. Her short fiction has appeared in MetaStellar and Fireside Magazines as well as the Glitter + Ashes and Unfettered Hexes anthologies from Neon Hemlock Press. Learn more at rjtheodore.com