Tangwen realized that she couldn’t go back the way she came. The dumbwaiter shaft that ran up the townhouse’s four stories was blocked somehow. In the pitch black, she groped around until her fingers found the edges of a door. She pushed; nothing. Locked or even nailed shut.
Nothing else to do, she thought, and put her shoulder to it, pushing off the shaft’s wall. The nails screeched as they yanked out of the wood and the door banged open, disgorging a cloud of dust. Tangwen fell forward onto her face, halfway out of the shaft, onto a plush carpet.
Squinting in the sudden light, Tangwen realized she was in the top-floor sitting room, a bright and airy chamber with bay windows illuminating plush maroon furniture.
Tangwen’s current employer, Miss Ccri – star of the theatre, famed courtesan and notorious adventuress – looked up from her morning tea and newspaper. In her dainty slippers and loosely-tied maroon silk bathrobe on her fainting couch, she was still striking, a picture out of a magazine.
Tangwen, in nothing but her dirty shirt and bloomers, got to her feet, leaving another deposit of dust on the azure carpet, and sneezed.
Unperturbed, Miss Ccri raised an eyebrow and said, “Work is proceeding apace, I assume?”
Tangwen made a perfunctory bow and said, “Almost done, mahm. ‘Ad a spot of trouble.”
“Splendid!” The older woman put her paper and teacup down and rose, silk whispering about her tall frame as she walked to the makeup table. Her back to Tangwen, she powdered her face.
Tangwen pulled the cable out of the shaft, shut the door and connected it to the Wire terminal in the corner of the room.
Miss Ccri insisted on nothing but the best. The Wire terminal was the latest model from Imperial Telegraph and Wire, reserved for official use, but Miss Ccri had pulled strings and obtained one of her own. Beneath the clear glass dome, the workings were polished brass. The rostrum was polished cherry wood with gilt trim, and the keyboard was an array of enamel circles. Ordinarily, the Wire company would connect it, but since this was off the books, Miss Ccri had hired Tangwen, who specialized in unlicensed terminals.
Tangwen sat on the stuffed horsehair cushion in front of the Wire terminal and turned the main key. Now connected, the machine hummed, crackled, clicked and buzzed. Diagnostic messages scrolled up the display.
She twitched when Miss Ccri leaned over her shoulder, looking at the display. Tangwen smelled expensive soap and face powder.
“How ingenious. Slide over just a tad, would you?”
Tangwen did so. Miss Ccri daintily perched on the bench so they sat side by side, like sweethearts at a piano. “And how does this infernal device work?”
Tangwen’s fingers danced over the keyboard. The machine chittered, precision rods and gears moving, and displayed a list of Wire messages. Judging by the subject lines, they were from Miss Ccri’s admirers.
Miss Ccri ran a manicured fingertip down the list. “Yes, yes, no, not again, ask again next week, not for all the jewels in Samarah, and I’ll think about it.” She smiled at Tangwen. “Lovely. Every home should have one.”
Their thighs touched, Miss Ccri’s embroidered silk pressing against Tangwen’s patched linen. Their hands were side by side on the console, smooth and elegant against callused and nimble. “And it’s all private, mahm,” Tangwen tried to get back to business.
“Ooh!” Miss Ccri made a mock effort to cover the screen with her hands. “You shouldn’t have seen that. All my admirers.”
“They bought yer this ‘ouse, dinnay?” Tangwen decided to needle the other woman a bit.
Miss Ccri looked at her directly, and something sharp and hard in those dark eyes that made Tangwen think twice. “I bought this house, through my own work.”
“What do yer know about work?”
“It fascinates me. I can sit and watch it for hours,” said Miss Ccri, all smiles again.
“I was on the assembly line making these in the Honeycomb,” Tangwen told her, getting ticked. “That’s work.”
“Really. One hears stories about all those girls in the Honeycomb and what they do to pass the time.” Miss Ccri’s long-fingered hand now rested on Tangwen’s shoulder, coyly. She knew perfectly well what she was doing.
Tangwen was born and raised among the disowned girls locked up in the Honeycomb, where the only men were the guards and other staff. Since her escape, she’d learned that few women outside the Honeycomb wouldn’t touch each other the way Tangwen liked; most couldn’t even imagine it. Tangwen was a dab hand at spotting those few women who could.
Sure, Miss Ccri looked pretty, every part of her an invitation to look, and that got you thinking about touching. Tangwen curled her hands into fists, desperately trying not to think about the tall, graceful body under those rich clothes, about cupping her hands around that slim, supple waist….
Miss Ccri leaned so close Tangwen could feel her breath brush across her neck. “Would you like to know my secrets?”
This close, Tangwen could feel that pull, like a magnet, so powerful that it had bought this house and all the beautiful things in it. “Secrets are usually more trouble than they’re worth.” She kept her eyes fixed on the terminal’s screen.
“Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?” Her full lips brushed Tangwen’s neck, making her shiver.
“Folks don’t often say ‘no’ to yer, do they?” Tangwen managed to say.
“Not many.” Her full lips embraced Tangwen’s earlobe and nipped, making her gasp. “Are you one of them?”
Tangwen wriggled out of the older woman’s grasp, nearly falling off the bench. Blushing, her nipples poking against her shirt, she said, “I really need to tidy things up downstairs.‘Scuse us, mahm.”
Tangwen bowed, scrambled out the door, and hurried down the servants stairs, desperate to get out of there before she did something she’d regret.
This was intolerable. “Bloody tinker girl,” Miss Ccri muttered to herself. Her silk robe swirling about her like the wings of a phoenix, she descended the oak staircase that spiralled through her townhouse.
The little tinker girl had been oddly fascinating, with her street swagger and her hair full of metal clips and pins. Even before she burst into the sitting room, Miss Ccri had been flirting with her, just experimentally. But this was unacceptable.
It took her a moment to remember how to get to her house’s cellar. She rushed past Cook in the kitchen and pulled the cellar door open so she could stand at the top of the steps. In the dim light that filtered through the dirty sidewalk-level window, she could see the tangle of water and steam pipes, the cinderblock hulk of the furnace next to the box of coal, the condensation on the stone walls. Pride and vanity had brought her down here, nearly underground.
In the middle of the copper pipes and insulated cables, the tinker girl was fully dressed now. She’d put her corset back on over her shirt, a flagrant defiance of propriety, then rational trousers and a tool belt over that. She looked up from lacing her steel-toed boots. “There a problem, mahm?” she asked, cheeky now that she was back in her element.
“The only problem is–”
Just then, somebody opened a water tap upstairs, and the pipes groaned. The tinker girl pointed at her ear. “Can’t ‘ear yer, mahm.”
Miss Ccri’s lip curled and she walked down the steps to the floor, lifting her robe so that its hem didn’t brush the damp stone. Invading the enemy’s territory was one way to throw them off balance.
“Oh, yer don’ wanna come down ‘ere with us, mahm. ‘S dirty.” Tangwen kicked a bit of coal dust towards Miss Ccri, daring her.
Miss Ccri would not be intimidated in her own house. She took another step forward until she was in arm’s reach of the girl. “I said–”
Tangwen scooped up a handful of coal dust and blew it onto Miss Ccri’s carefully powdered face.
Miss Ccri gasped, wiped her eyes free of the dust and glared at her employee, who grinned back. “Oh, you little–”
Who started it was irrelevant. It was part fucking, part wrestling, staggering back and forth against the cellar walls, grappling for dominance over aroused flesh. Miss Ccri was a full head taller and kept fit with stage acrobatics, but Tangwen was like a terrier, small and densely muscled. She almost crawled inside Miss Ccri’s silk robe, small strong hands digging under her nightdress, finding her most sensitive spots, making her growl.
The thought that she was irreparably soiling her luxury clothes with dirt and moisture made it even better, heightened the sense of abandon. After months of elite dinners and formal balls and upper class etiquette, she was fit to explode, and this grubby rude mechanical was just the trigger.
Miss Ccri dug between the girl’s corset and belt, into her trousers and bloomers, and finally discovered the soaked, burning mound between her legs. One squeeze made Tangwen squeal and stop, but she rallied in an instant, one hand on Miss Ccri’s breast, another tangled under her nightgown’s hem.
Miss Ccri bumped into the wall, the cool stone not dampening her passion in the slightest, and clutched Tangwen to her. Their hands worked at each other, feeding on each other’s desire, each determined to push the other to climax first.
Riding the wave of pleasure, Miss Ccri swallowed her ego and gave in, letting the pleasure burst inside and fill her body. She would have collapsed to the ground if Tangwen wasn’t holding her up.
She managed to keep her fingers working inside Tangwen; it was only fair. After a moment, the tinker girl made a noise like a cat growling.
Still locked together, hand to sex, their breathing slowed to normal.
“I have to go sometime,” Tangwen said in between kisses on Miss Ccri’s neck.
“No, stay,” Miss Ccri said, not pleading, compelling, promising oh so much, the way she made generals and ambassadors crawl on their hands and knees before her. “We’ve only just begun. Stay.”
Miss Ccri could see it in Tangwen’s face, making a decision. Something shifted between them. Even though Miss Ccri’s hand still cupped her sex, it was as if Tangwen had stepped away.
“By necessity, they’re very discrete.”
“And yer admirers?”
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
“And yer’d buy us nice things?”
“If you like.”
“And what about us? When yer sweethearts come ‘round, where do I go? Cupboard under stairs?”
That made Miss Ccri pause. “It’s not because I’m ashamed of anything. It’s… necessary for my work.”
“And there’s the problem.” Tangwen let go of Miss Ccri. “Put yerself in me boots. Would yer give up yer work?” She looked down, apologetic. “Even for somebody special?”
“No,” said Miss Ccri. “I suppose not.” She pulled her hand free from Tangwen’s sex.
They were both silent for a moment. Miss Ccri struggled to say something that wasn’t hopelessly inadequate, and Tangwen seemed also at a loss.
Finally, Tangwen coughed, picked her cloth cap off the floor and put it over her hair. “Just the way it is, innit?”
“Yes, I suppose,” said Miss Ccri.
“Yer’ll get my bill.” Tangwen left through the servant’s entrance.
The tinker girl’s wetness drying on her hand, Miss Ccri walked back upstairs.
Peter Tupper is the author of “The Innocent’s Progress & Other Stories”, a steampunk erotica collection, as well as several other pieces stories. For further stories about Tangwen and Miss Ccri, go to www.innocentsprogress.com.