Caspar Goldstein is the star of the steam car racing scene in the city of Eisenstadt. All he cares about is winning the coveted Autocarriage Cup, and he's in with a chance—until a crash at the track throws his plans into disarray. When a chance discovery brings a new superfuel into his life, he can't resist the opportunity to claim some for himself.
But when Black Mercury powers the first ever flight to the mysterious Drifting Isle, its fame quickly spreads—and everyone wants what Caspar's got. He's made a grave mistake, but it's too late to back out now. Unsure who to trust, Cas must rely on his few true friends for help; but how can inventors, autocarriage drivers and pigeons hope to face down the deadliest of assassins and thieves?
Charlotte English has written several books (her high fantasy Draykon series is very popular), but this is her first steampunk… and I have to say Bravo! I love the steam cars in her tale, and her characters instantly come to life, twining intrigue and mystery with some old-fashioned romance. Black Mercury is one of two shared-universe Drifting Isle Chronicles in the bundle (the other is The Machine God), but it's a powerful example of how, even with a common world, authors always create their own unique works, distinct in voice and vision. – Susan Kaye Quinn
"The latest from one of my favourite authors... I love strong female leads and Clara was perfect."–Rachel Cotterill Book Reviews
"Black Mercury is a fun read with a strong cast of characters and an intriguing story."–The Qwillery
"I thoroughly enjoyed this novel! I liked that Cas was not the typical hero."–Amazon reviewer
Caspar Goldstein—son of Maximilian Goldstein of Goldstein Industries—settled into the seat of his steam-powered autocarriage and tried to take a deep breath. His vehicle was in the middle of a pack of twenty-two similar machines, their engines warming up ready for the day's race, the air around them filling rapidly with clouds of steam. By the time the race began, visibility would be poor, and he had ten vehicles to fight his way past.
An ordinary day, then.
He checked the fastenings on his driving gloves. Sound. Next, he pulled the heavy canvas cross-over seat straps into place and buckled himself in. One of his engineers handed in his helmet and he put that on, too.
He watched as the drivers ahead of him went through the same routine, their engineers performing last-minute checks to engines, boilers and gears. Twenty-odd autocarriages with their engines running put out a lot of heat, and he was already sweating inside the thick, padded leather racing suit he wore.
Today's race wasn't serious, as these things went. Serious began in ten days' time, when the city of Eisenstadt's Autocarriage Cup began. A large and very enticing financial reward would go to the winning driver, but the prestige was a still more appealing prospect. The Cup was held only once every three years, so the title had the lustre of rarity. And only the world's best drivers stood a chance of qualifying.
Cas had qualified. Not easily, but he was in. Now here he sat alongside more than twenty other drivers at least as desperate as he was to win that Cup. Today's race was a test event, a warm-up. It was an opportunity for drivers to test strategies for the Cup races, for engineers to identify and eliminate problems with the vehicles, and for bookmakers to pick out the winning odds. The stands were packed; even the test races attracted huge crowds.
A 'friendly' event it might be, but Cas knew that every driver there was taking it very seriously.
The five-minute signal sounded, and Cas was still horribly tense. He took a few deep breaths, trying to relax his white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. He couldn't see much of the vehicles ahead of him, and the noise of the engines drowned out everything else.
So when a face loomed out of the steam three inches from his window, he jumped violently. The man—one of his team—rapped hard on the frame and shouted something.
Muttering curses, Cas wrenched off his helmet. "What?" he yelled.
The man came closer and Caspar recognised Karl, chief of the engineers who maintained his autocarriage. "Lukas!" Karl bellowed.
"What? What about him?"
"Where is he?!"
Cas blinked in surprise. "Somewhere up there, I suppose?" He gestured at the sea of vehicles ahead of him. Lukas Rosenthal, his best friend and fiercest rival on the track, had scored a higher position than Cas. As usual. He would be up at the front, among the top five.
But Karl was shaking his head. "Not there," he shouted. "Car's ready. He's not in it."
What the…? Lukas's commitment to his career went beyond mere dedicated and emerged somewhere around obsessive. He was never late for a race. Never.
"No idea," Cas bellowed back. He really didn't have any idea where Lukas was. He'd seen the man less than two hours ago. The two of them ate together before every race; it was a tradition that went back years and they'd stuck to it, no matter how competitive the two of them got on the track. Luk hadn't said or done anything to suggest that there was a problem.
The two-minute signal sounded, an incredibly loud bang that still fought to be heard over the racket. Karl shook his head and backed off. "Too late," he shouted.
Damnit. Lukas wouldn't miss a race. He couldn't. But as Caspar formed that thought, someone else appeared behind Karl and grabbed his arm, shouting something directly into his ear. Karl directed a wide grin at Caspar. "Forget it! He's here!"
Caspar didn't have time to reply. Karl was already retreating out of the path of the vehicles, and Cas had to scramble to get his headgear back in place. He couldn't share Karl's relief, not entirely. If Lukas had made it in time, he was only just in time. His car had probably already been pulled out of position and moved out of the way, which meant he'd lost his advantage. Why had he been late?
No more time to think it over. Cas adjusted his goggles and checked his seat straps, his fragile calm destroyed. This didn't feel anything like a routine race anymore. His gut told him something was up.
He pushed those thoughts aside and forced himself to focus. He was ready to go. Thanks to his father, he had one of the best autocarriages in the field. If Cas did well enough in the test races, he might improve his position on the track for the Cup events. That mattered.
For the next twenty minutes, Lukas would have to take care of himself.
The starting shots began to sound. Five… four… three… two…
Cas waited a beat or two for the cars ahead of him to clear a little space. Then he hit the accelerator. His distinctive maroon-painted autocarriage shot forward, and all thoughts of Lukas dissipated as he focused on pulling off his signature manoeuvre.
Cas's vehicle had been designed and built by Goldstein Industries, and that meant it was as technologically advanced as it could get. One of the biggest advantages of the latest model was the steering. It was more sensitive than most other examples, more flexible. He didn't have to throw so much raw body strength behind it.
That meant it was a relatively simple matter for him to weave his way up through the pack, dodging around the leading cars smoothly. He passed two, then three of the autocarriages ahead of him, and aimed for the fourth.
Then something hit his left rear wheel, not hard but hard enough to knock him slightly off course. He had to wrench the steering wheel back to correct for the collision, abandoning his attempts to pass the next car. As he did so, a car the colour of deep umber sailed past him, going too fast. Cas heard a crunching sound as it collided with the vehicle he'd been trying to pass and forced it off to one side. Then the umber driver roared through and chased after the five or six cars still leading the race.
Cas had wrenched his wrist in the collision. He swore faintly at the new weakness in his hand; he could barely keep his grip on the steering, and he was pretty sure his rear wheel was damaged. Anger began to build, slowly eroding his reason.
Autocarriage racing was a gentleman's sport. Ramming the other vehicles and forcing them off the track was not considered an acceptable strategy. He wished he'd been able to tell who the driver was; the car at least was not known to him. His behaviour didn't make sense. Driving like that would get him disqualified from the Autocarriage Cup and probably banned from racing altogether. What could he hope to achieve by it?
Swallowing his anger, Cas managed to pass two more cars, but he had to be careful. Something was definitely off since the bump, and his manoeuvres were considerably less graceful than before.
It was when he passed the third that he realised what was going on.
He was coming up behind the leaders now, and one of them was Lukas. His dark green autocarriage was lying fourth, and he stood clear to move up into third before the end of the lap.
The umber vehicle was right behind him. Cas could only watch as the crazed driver drew level with Lukas and veered sharply to the right. He bumped Lukas's car, pushing it into a half-spin.
Cas expected the umber car to move on to the remaining three, but it didn't. The driver didn't pause and he didn't swerve past Luk's car; instead he kept going at full acceleration, allowing the full weight of the vehicle to slam heavily into the green autocarriage. The whole back end of the vehicle crumpled under the impact.
It all happened in a very few seconds. The damage to both cars looked bad, but as Cas watched, the umber vehicle tore itself free of the wreckage and accelerated away. It wasn't moving fast. Most of the other drivers passed it easily, leaving Luk's car wrecked on the side of the track and the umber car limping away from the crime.
Cas didn't sail past like the others. He slowed down. His mind replayed the image of the crash, Luk's precious and hard-won autocarriage crumpling under an attack that was obviously deliberate, and just as obviously aimed at Lukas personally. Boiling anger rose, swift and choking. His hands shook with it as he gripped his steering wheel harder than ever. To defile autocarriage racing like that was bad enough. To direct such tactics at Lukas was unforgiveable.
Cas forgot about the race. He forgot about his track position, his autocarriage, his rivals. For those few minutes, he even forgot about the Cup.
He followed the umber autocarriage, closing the intervening distance fast. The driver had already been flagged down multiple times, but he wasn't stopping. He was heading for the pits, Cas guessed, and from there he would be looking for an exit. The coward had no intention of being caught and identified.
Baring his teeth in a savage grin, Cas hit the accelerator and powered forward. The final twenty feet or so between him and the umber vehicle vanished and he drew alongside and to the left of the other car.
His tires protested as he wrenched his autocarriage over to the right, giving Umber a taste of the manoeuvre he'd pulled on Luk. He shouted in triumph and pain as the impact jolted his body, hard, and he heard the sound of machinery crumpling.
The other driver shot a look over his shoulder and saw Cas, still keeping pace with him, preparing to ram him again. Just as Caspar prepared to repeat the manoeuvre, Umber pounded the brakes. His car slowed, just enough to send Cas sailing past him.
A glimpse in the mirror revealed the Umber driver throwing himself out of his wrecked autocarriage and running for the stands, shaky on his feet but moving. But Cas didn't have time to worry about that. Momentum had carried his autocarriage off the track and sent it heading straight for the wall. He had three seconds to brace himself—three seconds that felt strangely long as he stared at the approaching obstacle, horribly aware that he didn't have time to avoid the impact. He braked hard, hauling the steering to the left.
Then his precious autocarriage slammed into the wall. He was thrown back against his seat; the straps protected his body from the worst of the impact, but his head whipped back, hard enough to send a severe pain shooting through his neck. He blinked, dazed.
Something else crashed into the rear of his vehicle, sending him flying forward again. His head hit the tall frame of his windscreen, and his vision went black.