08 May 2014

Excerpt Thursday: THE BITTER TRADE by Piers Alexander

This week, we're pleased to welcome author and the newest Unusual Historicals' contributor Piers Alexander with his debut novel,  THE BITTER TRADE. Join us again on Sunday for an author interview, with more details about the story behind the story. The author will offer a free copy of The Bitter Trade to a lucky blog visitor.  Be sure to leave your email address in the comments of today's post or Sunday's author interview for a chance to win. Winner(s) are contacted privately by email. Here's the blurb.

“I am Calumny Spinks. Between me and the satin blue sky hangs the hempen noose. It has swung there in the faintest of breezes, waiting for me, all my life.”

In 1688, torn by rebellions, England lives under the threat of a Dutch invasion. Redheaded Calumny Spinks is the lowliest man in an Essex backwater: half-French and still unapprenticed at seventeen, yet he dreams of wealth and title.

When his father’s violent past resurfaces, Calumny’s desperation leads him to flee to London and become a coffee racketeer. He has just three months to pay off a blackmailer and save his father’s life - but his ambition and talent for mimicry pull him into a conspiracy against the King himself.

**An Excerpt from The Bitter Trade**

Chapter 1: Salstead
In which Calumny Spinks carelessly provokes Mistress Ramage

I was born to a raging Frenchy slugabed mother, sired by a sulking silk-weaver with a battered box of secrets under his floorboards. From her I got my flaming hair, so red that the scabfaced villagers of Salstead spoke of the devil’s seed, spitting in the dust for salvation when I walked past. From my father came my sharp tongue, the quick wits to talk above my station, and the shoulders to take the blows that followed.
I was the lowest fellow in Salstead. I had not even been apprenticed by this seventeenth sweaty June of my life. I had to greet men by “Master This”, and “Mister That”, thumbing my forelock. To them I was but “Boy”, a long-limbed red-haired Frenchy gawk, spinning and twisting silk like a halfwit.
The goodwives laughed behind their tippets when they passed me at the wayside, where my father Peter made me sit outside to work. “The silk must be spun in the fresh air, but woven in the dry dark,” he said. If he had his will, I would rot in that village like Squire Salstead, whose bones hung in the rusty gibbet at the crossroads.
I should have been in London, not in this Essex midden swirling with pigeon-chest men and their gossiping dry-venus wives. I was no fighter, could not read or write; but by Christ I had the smooth tongue to fool any man. And so I dreamed of becoming a city gentleman by the power of my own wit. But London was a forbidden, fading memory: of dazzling lights, the broad river bristling with sails, of laughter and scented wealth.
We once had land-title in the city, so my father was known as Mister Peter Spinks then. But he weakly let merchants cheat him from his property and his title, and now he was merely a craftsman.
My own apprenticeship had been delayed so long that in little more than two months, on my seventeenth birthday, I would lose the right to learn my craft and be called Master. And without a trade, I would never have the coin to buy my own land-title, to rise up and become Mister Calumny Spinks.

The night before Peter betrayed my dreams, the rain crushed the slender grass-stems outside my window. For a short while, I watched the fierce dawn make steam swirl from the earth, then went down into the dim workshop. I was hungry, and I had not tasted meat since the spring.
Peter had been at work since before sunrise. Silk-weaving paid less each year, and there had been no silver in our house for many a month, only copper coins, their edges jaggedly clipped by thieving merchants.
I stared at my father between the warp-threads: his long white hair split in the middle and curled inwards to his shoulders, its ends stained yellow from years of weaving-sweat. Though his neck was humbly bent, his back was pike-straight as he sat on a crossbar, his feet on the long slim treadles. He let his fingers see for him in the dark, always flitting back and forth along the weft to pull out flecks of dirt. At night the whole house was filled with his dingy smell, waking me as it rose up through my little coffin-room.
Peter was reaching the end of a fathom bolt of silk. It crept across the frame and slid sullenly over the rolling-bar in front of my thighs. Like a man taking honey from a bee’s nest, he reached up and slackened the nuts that held the warp. Then he ran his cutting blade along the trailing threads, a steel butterfly’s wing clenched between scarred thumb and liver-spotted forefinger. Taking care to hold the finished silk as it was cut away, he swept the bolt into neat folds in the wicker trough.
Leaning my head against the low wormy joists, I cleared my throat.
“Shall we thread the headboards? Will you show me?”
“It is forbidden by the guild law,” he snapped.
“Then let me be apprenticed!” The squeaking in my voice shamed me.
My father reached down into the round basket that held my fresh-thrown silk. He pulled a thread out, running his thumb and forefinger along it, trying to fault my work. Cack-fingered potrillo, his weaving had more flaws even than my throwing.
“Calumny, you cannot be apprenticed without we have it written in the London guild-book. Should I carve the law on the eating-table?”
“And how would I read the words?” I mumbled, picking up my other work-basket and stalking out of the front door. How indeed, when he had denied me the learning?
I was too afraid of him to say it out loud: that by Saint Matthew’s Day, the fourteenth of September, it would be too late. I’d be condemned to a life of servitude or thieving.

Learn more about Piers Alexander

The Bitter Trade is Piers' first novel. He is also a serial media entrepreneur, and lives in London with the singer-songwriter and author Rebecca Promitzer.

Twitter: @thebittertrade

Facebook: /thebittertrade