A Lady Can Never Be Too Curious

By: Mary Wine

Steam Guardians 01

For Deirdre Sargent. A Queen, an author, but most importantly…a true friend. A gem among pebbles, may you always know how brightly you shine…


Great Britain, 1843

“You are going to be caught one of these times, Janette.”

“Don’t lecture, Sophia,” Janette begged. “I get too much of that from my father. Sometimes he turns red because he won’t stop long enough to draw breath.”

Sophia choked back a giggle. “Well, he isn’t the only one who thinks the Illuminists are uncivilized. Besides, we well-brought-up girls must be…mindful of appearances.”

Sophia lost the battle to remain prim-looking and dissolved into laughter.

“Their Solitary Chamber is anything but uncivilized. Look at those arches, just like the Romans built,” Janette remarked in a hushed tone to keep her words from drifting to where Sophia’s father was minding his shop in the front of the house. “Doesn’t it drive you simply mad to not know what goes on in there?”

Janette leaned on the windowsill, trying to gain a glimpse of what the large building kept so secret. On the outside, it was an imposing structure more suited to ancient Greece than England. Smooth columns held up the three-story roof, and all the doorways were constructed with arches. It was only the front of a four-block enclosure. No one outside the secret Order really knew what was inside, but there were plenty of rumors.

Wild sexual indulgence…

Strange science experiments…

Satanic rituals…

But the members coming and going looked normal enough. Even if their vests were constructed with additional pockets and the females among them were often seen openly wearing the pantaloons style so scorned by upper society.

“I don’t find it as fascinating as you do. So where’s the science circular? You only come to see me when you want to buy one without your father knowing.”

“At least your father doesn’t mind your reading them.”

“So long as I do so in the back room,” Sophia remarked drily. “Society is unforgiving of ladies who try to expand their minds. Such drivel.”

Janette shrugged off her shawl. It was rolled lengthwise to contain the circular. Unrolling it, she began scanning the articles.

“Isn’t it fascinating, Sophia? Look at this one; it’s about currents of electricity being used. There’s a lecture next Tuesday in the Solitary Chamber. How I’d like to see that with my own eyes.”

Sophia scoffed. “It will cost you every friend you have to experience it.”

Janette looked up at her friend. “Including you? Would you shun me if I challenged the exam to become an Illuminist?” They were bold words, but a little jolt of excitement went down her body when she said them. Her father’s insistence that she remain meek and obedient was overly constrictive, but what annoyed her was the expectation that she refrain from education. Her mother had secreted tutors into the house to instruct her. The circular in her hand was nourishment to her ravenous mind. Yet she was forbidden to discuss the tantalizing data because it wasn’t considered ladylike. There were times she feared being crushed by the rules of her society.

“Well, perhaps not me,” Sophia muttered. “But my father would most likely insist on your using the back door if you started wearing one of those gold lapel pins of the Illuminist Order. Our esteemed clientele might find another designer if we had any Illuminists in the main salon. You wouldn’t want my father to have to resort to producing clothing like a factory worker, would you? He must maintain appearances or lose his clients.”

And there was the bitter truth—the definite boundary between the Illuminists and society. You were either one or the other. “There are no demonstrators today. Perhaps everyone is ready to begin accepting the Illuminists since the Queen has spoken well of them,” Janette offered hopefully.

“The Queen is young,” Sophia remarked. “Everyone will listen to her with smiles on their faces, but it will not stop the calls for the Illuminists to be run out of the city. People fear the unknown. The Constables are always here hassling the members on their way up those steps.”