First scene from the Hidden Institute

Everybody says the first part is key. They say you have to hook the reader in your first sentence, your first paragraph, the first ten pages, the first chapter. . . So I want to share the first scene from my current work-in-progress with you. It’s a novel called “The Hidden Institute” (working title). Tell me what you think. Would this grab you? Would you keep reading? If not, why not?

Note: This excerpt has violence and some profanity.

Lord Wheylan Simmons was not in attendance when his valet was murdered. If one were to ask him whether he aught to have been there, he would smile kindly and change the subject.

Given that it was a violent and unexpected death, it follows that the event was unscheduled. As such, no gentleman could be expected to keep the appointment with any certainty. As strange as it may seem, this information would please Lord Wheylan Simmons. He was always one for proper actions, in their proper time.

On that night, Lord Simmons was engaged in several proper small things, all supporting an inherent secret vice. He was visiting the town of McFarland, under the Madison fiefdom in a lower realm of West Lake Michigan. He was there to negotiate the release of dairy production rights, seized by a young man who was counting upon his politically illicit background to keep people from publicly recognizing his exploits. While it was a negotiation requiring delicacy, there were any number of subordinates who could have handled it. Lord Simmons chose to handle this himself primarily because of the location.

While negotiating the settlement, Lord Simmons stayed in the manse of a political friend, which is to say that it helped the friend politically for the Lord to visit him, even as it gave the Lord an opportunity for later favors to be recalled. Most important to Lord Simmons, though, it gave him an opportunity to visit a brothel under political cover. The local barony, engaged as he was in improving his social standing by hosting the Lord, would be glad to provide political cover, protecting Lord Simmons from embarrassment. Everything about the trip was carefully planned and efficiently executed without incident, prior to that night.

The valet in question, Sebastian, was also one for proper actions, moreso than his master. On the evening of his sudden termination, he stood in the doorway outside the “Handmaid’s Tail”. He fidgited, gripping his master’s silken gloves tightly behind his back as he stood ramrod straight. Sebastian’s cap was clean and bright, perched at the perfect angle. Every button on his tartan vest shined with the splendor of deliberate attention. The lines of his perfect gray jacket merged seamlessly with those of his perfect gray slacks, making him look more like a granite statue of a man. The shine on Sebastian’s shoes, the glint of his buttons, and the perfect lines in his suit worked to show that this was not a man to be disturbed, but rather a force to be avoided if possible.

He glowered at the street, willing it to ignore him. The grubby street was home to more than just the brothel his master had brought them to. There was a vacant, nameless bar across the narrow alley, windows smashed and boarded up. At one end of the alley, a brightly-lit liquor store did listless trade, the digital single-tone ring playing whenever a customer entered or left. In the other direction, a market storefront had closed in upon itself for the night, dropping a metal mesh cocoon around the door and display windows. The cobbles of the alleyway were slick with fish oil and the evening’s rain. Streetlights cast dim rainbows on the oily road, and flickered as they slowly gave the last ergs of their lives in luminescence.

It was quiet in the alley, save for the dripping of leaky gutters, and the occasional scuttling of a cat on the hunt. It was just as Sebastian wanted it. If they had to come to this den of iniquity, he wanted to be seen by as few people as possible. So it bothered him to see the young toughs leaving the liquor store, and stumble as they saw him.

The largest one put his hands up to his face, running them back through his cyan hair on either side, “Dizzy!”. It was a pompous move, and Sebastian knew it was intended to insult him.

They all snickered and, following the blue-haired leader, shuffled closer to Sebastian. As they neared, Sebastian could see them more clearly. The leader was a thin, wiry teen, who nonetheless outmassed his brethren due to his sheer height. His bright blue hair stood out in shocks all about his head, like an explosion of daylight. Beside him, a younger boy sneered, his face stretching to accomodate the evil leer, “Somebody’s stepped outta place, SkyBo.”

The leader nodded, holding Sebastian’s attention, “Say, boy! Whas’ da AllGood? You droppa bad left turn?”

Sebastian did not respond, but glared directly into the eyes of the leader. As they neared, he widened his relaxed stance, tucking his master’s gloves into a jacket pocket.

SkyBo’s bloodshot eyes narrowed, “Now looka that better-than. Treat a body like he too low to hear. Ain’t polite. Put a lily skin in a nice suit, suddenly he can’t hear a body.”

Sebastian growled, “What do you want me to say?”

SkyBo grinned, “See? Thass all I’m askin’ for! Bitta the common curtesy, right?” As they neared, SkyBo’s followers began breaking off. They slowly flanked the valet, as he crouched slightly and brought his hands up to his waist, open at his sides.

Sebastian nodded, “Then you have what you were looking for. Glad to be of service. I expect you’ll be wanting to attend to other business.”

“You tryin’ to get shut of me, boy?” SkyBo slid closer to Sebastian, grinning, “And here, we was just gettin’ to know to know each other. Now you pull that ‘attend to other business’ chatter, giving me tha brush-off.” His crew laughed maliciously at SkyBo’s insulting impersonation of Sebastian.

The valet’s eyes cast over the group of leering jackals, down the alley to see if there were any witnesses. SkyBo followed his gaze, “Whatcha scannin’ for, boy? Expectin’ your peeps to come spring you?” He stepped up to Sebastian, and took a loose stance, similar to the valet’s. He pulled out a wicked-looking, thin knife, and licked the edge of it, laughing at Sebastian, “Ain’t nobody comin’. Howzis? How bout you gimmie that sweet lid of yours, and maybe I don’t hurt you takin’ it?”

One of the others piped in from behind Sebastian, “An them shoes!”

Another laughed, “An’ your wallet.”

Sebastian lunged, his open left hand reaching for SkyBo’s right. He grabbed the knife hand upside down, twisting it as he pulled SkyBo in, and forcing the boy to wrench himself sideways as Sebastian’s other hand came down in a tight fist across the boy’s temple.

SkyBo cried out and fell back as the others watched. Sebastian waited for them to realize that his skills far outmatched theirs. He knew he could take any of them in single combat. He made eye contact with each of them in turn, to convince them of the fact.

SkyBo dropped to one knee, holding his knife arm tight to his side. He growled, “Get tha fucker!” and they all lunged as one.

Sebastian was at the top of his class in self-defense, excelling in Torat-Shav. He could defeat any man standing, with minimal warning. He even did well in paired sparring, where two opponents would try to attack simultaneously. However, he was completely unprepared for a pack of armed men, all striking out at once.

They had no organization, they did not leap for different parts of his body. They all lunged for his head and torso, stabbing first. One of the boys actually cut another of his gang in the initial thrust causing both to cry out in pain and alarm.

Sebastian grabbed the weapon hand of one attacker while parrying an attack by another, but was overwhelmed instantly by the remaining combatants. Before he even noticed the others, he was stabbed twice in his back and once in the stomach. One of the boys struck his spine and the knife buried itself in the bone, sticking there. Sebastian screamed as they struck, then wheeled around to face them all, stumbling as he did. They attacked and retreated like an ocean wave, full force jumping forward, then receding all at once. Bloodied and feral, they stepped back and watched him, waiting to see if the staggering man would live.

Sebastian looked down at the gouts of blood pouring easily out of his stomach, and put his hands over the wound. He tried to put pressure on the wound, but the strength had ebbed from his arms. A moment later, he was too weak to stand and dropped to his knees. He raised his head to call out, but tumbled forward onto his face and died.

SkyBo walked over to him and snatched the cap off his head, where it had remained perfectly placed throughout the whole fight. He spat on the man as one of the others crouched next to him and grabbed for his wallet.

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  1. TerminusVox says:

    While it did seem to get a little ‘tell’-y what with cobbles being described but it got back to ‘show’-ing pretty quick. I would like to read more.

    • Great. Thank you for the comment. What did you think of the language? Did it seem believable? Too “Clockwork Orange”?

  2. I don’t care for the tone of the first part with the Lord, but I’m not a fan of that -style-, so that’s all me. If I hadn’t enjoyed Tumbler, I’d bail after the second paragraph. That said, I did enjoy Tumbler, so I’d stick around. And good thing I did because I enjoyed the entire scene with Sebastian, to the point where I didn’t want him dead. I want more story with him.

    As for the language, it is a bit disconcerting. I’m left with the feeling that this is set in Shadowrun or some other cyberpunk/post-apocalyptic setting. I was able to understand what SkyBo meant without difficulty.

    • Thanks for the guidance. This story is set in a Neo-Victorian Cyberpunk world, so the language is descended a bit from Clockwork Orange. At the same time, a lot of it is royal court intrigue, so the story may not appeal in places.

      I’m glad you liked Sebastian, because I want this to be more than a single catalyst that sets schemes in motion. The story isn’t as full of violence as that first scene, but I’m it will still have adventure and intrigue.

      Really glad to hear that Skybo & crew were understandable. That worried me a lot.

  3. The “smile kindly and change the subject” part kind of bothers me. Almost gives me the feeling that he is glad his valet is dead. I’d be tempted to say “he would deftly change the subject”. But perhaps I’m missing the feeling you’re trying to evoke.

    Was it important to Lord Simmons to visit *a* brothel, or does this particular brothel have significance to him? And is the cover political, or simply legitimate? He had a meeting, it is not his fault that the person he was meeting with wanted to have it in a facility known for assignations of less repute…

    It does seem to dwell a bit on Lord Simmons motivations when the goal of the scene seems to be getting to the tale of the valet’s demise.

    For the most part it does work for me, however. I like the impression you give of Sebastian’s dignity, and how he didn’t want to be seen in such a low place. The use of slang actually is one of those things that draws me in and makes me want to read more about the culture that formed the slang.



    • Thank you for that. The “smile kindly and change the subject” was meant to show that he could handle an unknown gracefully. Simmons, as we’ll later see, is very good at tact and diplomacy. But I certainly didn’t want to make it look like he was hoping for his valet’s death.

      Also, I didn’t mean to insinuate that Simmons had a meeting in the brothel. He was handling his diplomatic meeting during the day. He was out whoring at night, on his own time. I’ll try to rework it, so that the insinuation isn’t made.

      Actually, Simmons reasons for being there are more important than the Sebastian’s demise. This scene is meant to set the stage whereby Simmons is found kneeling over the corpse of his valet, on the steps of a brothel. The blackmail is more the story than the actual death.

      I’m really glad that everyone likes Sebastian so much. Though a minor (and ultimately tragic) character, I’m glad to see that he is fleshed out enough to have people interested enough in his demise.

      And thank you for commenting on the slang. It’s a difficult language for me, because I’m trying to do a futuristic Victorian serf speech, without it turning cockney, or Clockwork Orange.

      Thanks again, Doc, for your help.

  4. I liked the ironic opening paragraph. The only phrase I question is “cobbles of the alleyway were slick with fish oil”. It makes my wonder why there is specifically Fish oil on the ground, seventy miles inland. I think it would make more sense for the cobbles in the ally to be coated with an unidentifiable oil.

    • That’s an excellent point. I’d seen it as a market kind of street, so that made me think of fish oil. But you’re right. There’s no reason why, in that area, it would be more fish-based than anything else. Thanks!