TITLE: Foxfire
GENRE: fantasy, steampunk
WORD COUNT: 74,725
SUMMARY: After the death of her uncle, a young scientist finds that his research on electricity has attracted much attention--some of it not so benign.


Uncle Elliot’s cremation urn was still warm.

It weighed heavily in Zan’s gloved hands, glinting in the waning sunlight. Father Oberlin stood on the sand, the receding tide lapping at the tips of his boots. He held a small black book in his gnarled hands and he was reading from it. An elegy to Uncle Elliot’s life as a man of responsibility and genius.

Zan’s fingers curled as a breeze suddenly whipped up, tugging at her black veil, Father Oberlin’s silver hair, and the loose bits of clothing of the other funeral attendants. She barely paid any attention to the elegy or the waves on the beach or even the discrete rattling cough from those gathered. She focused in on the warmth in her hands, slowly leeching away and remembered a long ago winter day when her uncle had taken her hand for a walk in the park just outside the Museum. She had laughed, delighting in the steam that her breath had made in the cold air.

Just that morning, she had watched her uncle’s body go into the crematorium. While she had waited for the ashes, black smoke had curled out of the crematorium chimney. Her parents and now her uncle—laid to rest by fire.

She flexed her fingers again. They had been stiff in the morning and she had first thought that it was just the cold or nervousness. But then there had been the hair and her gloves felt more and more strange as the elegy wore on.

Oh God, no. Not now.

When she had been young, her uncle had had a devil of a time teaching her how to control the change. After all, he wasn’t what her father had been. And being not of her kind, Elliot’s teaching had been imperfect. Sometimes, when things were simply too much, her civilized mask slipped. This, his funeral, was exactly the kind of time her uncle would have demanded her to be strong. So she consciously willed herself together. And her hand that had wanted to become a paw became a hand again.

She furtively glanced around her. The Church’s emissary, Jebediah Southmore, in a fine black cloak, stood beside Father Oberlin with his white-flecked head bowed. Similarly, the rest of the mourners, from the irascible Pendergrast and the fidgety Del, had their eyes cast downward toward the sand. Only one man was turned towards her, longish black hair tousled by the wind and narrowed eyes studying as if he knew she had just been struggling with herself. Even with the protection of her veil, her gaze quickly flicked elsewhere. The only similarities between her and Caradon were the color of their hair and the shape of their eyes. Just because he had been Elliot’s patron—that he had been supplying the funds for her uncle’s work—didn’t mean that she had to like him.

Staring at the swirls and eddies that the sand and the seawater made beneath her feet, she slowly became aware that Father Oberlin had finally finished speaking. He nodded to her and reflexively she clutched the urn tighter to her chest.

“Miss Hu, it’s time to see him to rest.” It was Southmore. His clear blue eyes were sympathetic and kind. He was someone who wanted to help in her time of need, had even offered to help her make the arrangements even when she turned down the suggestion that her uncle be buried in one of the Old Amanthus cemeteries. But Elliot loved the sea and a plot of land was too expensive.

When he moved to touch her, she stepped back toward the sea. She didn’t want to let her uncle go—the only bulwark she had since childhood. And now, there was nothing.

The cold water washed over her boots. This was the moment that they expected her to spread the ashes—at the edge. Instead, she waded into the water until it was up to her knees. Her mourning dress rose in the surf like a mushroom. The sea tugged and involuntarily she took another step into the sea. Behind her, the others were shouting. Father Oberlin in his shrill, rheumy tenor. Southmore in a deeper, cajoling tone. Del and Sabina, angry and worried. And Mrs. Philomon in huffy panic.

The lid of the urn had a tiny handle of ivory embellished with violets. With thumb and forefinger, she delicately lifted it as she tilted the urn forward. Gray-silver ash streamed from the lip of the urn into the churning green-blue waters. The sea air swept her veil past her face and for a moment, she could see the setting sun clearly—a globe of red fire—and some of the ash flying into the wind.

Uncle Elliot glittered like stardust and then he was gone. Only the brine was left, stinging her nose as she breathed.

copyright © 2001-2012 S. Y. Affolee