‘Carmer and Grit’: Read an excerpt from the steampunk-infused middle-grade novel

A magicians’ apprentice (and aspiring inventor) teams up with a faerie princess in Sarah Jean Horwitz’s Carmer and Grit.

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The duo partners up when Grettifrida Grit recruits Felix Carmer III (a.k.a. “Carmer”) to help her investigate a spate of recent faerie disappearances. In return, the flightless princess — she only has one wing — will use her (real) magic to give Carmer’s magical illusions some much-needed aid against his competitors in the Skemantis magic contest so he can win the cash prize and save his boss’ show. Only, as the pair eventually learns, maybe magic and machinery don’t work well together.

Horwitz’ steampunk-infused middle-grade hits bookstores on April 25. You can preorder it here.

It took Grit a good part of the afternoon to steer Carmer in the general direction of the Arboretum, hampered as they were by Carmer’s unfamiliarity with the city. The altered perspective of being at human height threw Grit off as well; she was used to either soaring above the city on one of Ravene’s birds or making her own way on foot or squirrelback. Carmer received more than a few pokes and prods with her hatpin sword.

After the fourth time Carmer squashed her head down into his pocket, Grit had had enough.

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“What are you doing that for?” she demanded.

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“Someone will see you!”

“Please, do you think I’m daft? My magic’s been diverting their attention since I appeared to you in the alley.” Really, he should have known that from the start, Grit thought. How does this boy think the fae have survived for thousands of years? It certainly hasn’t been by letting every bumbling human in the world see us plain as day.

“You mean like . . . filtering their perception?” Carmer asked. “You’re not invisible, but . . .”

“But when people glance our way, they suddenly remember something very important they’ve forgotten to do, or an appointment they have to make, or what have you. And they forget all about us. To be honest,” Grit continued, looking out at the harried and distracted faces they passed, “most of them won’t even look at me. For the most part, humans only see what they expect to see.”

Carmer was quiet for a moment. As far as Grit could tell, they were approaching the western side of the Arboretum. With any luck, she wouldn’t be at the mercy of this dimwitted boy much longer.

“And you’re doing all of this? With your . . . magic?” Carmer asked, eyes wide.

“Of course! Though it took me a while to learn without faerie dust.” Truth be told, Grit wasn’t supposed to be doing magic at all. Her mother had forbidden it except in small, controlled practice sessions.

“Faerie dust?!”

“Well, I can’t very well make my own dust without two wings, can I? And most faeries use their dust for magic, so—” Grit stopped, suddenly gripped by doubt.

They passed an old stone church, its arches and gargoyles with cold gazes and slavering mouths hovering above their heads.

“You should know all of this,” she said, suspicion creeping into her voice. “Why don’t you know all of this?”

Carmer looked down at her guiltily. Before she could protest, he ducked behind the church’s garden gate and into the empty courtyard, away from prying eyes.

“I . . . ” He trailed off.

Grit tried to conceal her growing panic. “You’re not a Friend of the Fae, are you? The presence I sensed, that had nothing to do with you at all!”

Carmer shrugged.

“Put. Me. Down!” exclaimed Grit, stabbing Carmer with her sword and kicking his chest with the thorn spurs on her boots.

“Wait! Grit! Ow!”

“No! You’re a liar and a—”

“I’ve just never seen anything like—”

“Oh, I’m a thing now!”

“Just hold still, then!”

Carmer thrust his hand into his pocket, careful of Grit’s flailing sword, and set her down just in front of the fountain in the middle of the garden. It gurgled pleasantly, the cool water utterly indifferent to their fight. Grit scrambled to her feet and glared at him with a mutinous expression.

“Look, I’m sorry. I’ve never met anyone like you before, and . . .” The boy couldn’t seem to find the words. He rubbed a hand across his face and through his messy black hair, making it stick straight up.

Grit would have laughed if she hadn’t been so angry. She marched off in the opposite direction, only to realize after a few steps that the garden was walled in on all sides but the entrance. She doubled back as gracefully as she could.

“Where are you going?” Carmer crouched down and scurried after her, though a single stride of his was worth about ten of Grit’s.

“Home,” spat Grit, head held high.

Carmer watched her helplessly. “We’ve got a quarter of a mile until the edge of the Arboretum. You said so yourself. Think you’re going to make it there at your pace before dark?”

Before dark. The words sent a shiver down Grit’s spine. She knew what unnamed horrors might find her on the open streets in Skemantis after dark. Echolaken, and whatever the Wingsnatchers had done to her, was proof of that.

A second shiver ran through her, and Grit noticed a change in the air. A shadow passed over her, disappearing in the next instant.

“Don’t move,” warned Grit, her eyes darting around the garden. She silently cursed the tall grass and shrubbery around them, providing cover for something that had obviously caught their scent.

Carmer obligingly froze; he must have sensed something wrong as well. “Do you . . . smell that?” Carmer whispered, and Grit realized she did. The heady, unmistakable smell of—

“Oil?” They both guessed simultaneously.

And then the thing pounced.

Grit saw only a metal monster, legs outstretched as it leapt over her from behind.

“Grit!”

She dodged just in time, the air next to her still humming from the sharp snap of the creature’s jaws. The claws came next, paws striking at her with ferocious determination. She didn’t even have time to draw her sword, though she doubted it would be much use against this beast.

“Hey!” Carmer shouted. The creature stopped in mid-swipe, distracted. Carmer had picked up a large stick and was waving it back and forth in front of him. “Here, kitty kitty,” he said tentatively.

As Grit scrambled backward, she saw that Carmer was right. The thing that had attacked them was a cat, but a cat unlike any other Grit had ever seen. Twice the size of a normal house cat, it was made entirely out of metal, with no skin or fur to speak of. Grit could see every tangled nest of wires, gears, and spring that made up its insides and connected its limbs. It even had a tail, silver and sleek, with a nasty-looking barb on the end that Grit was sure no real cat ever possessed. Just before it turned around, Grit caught a glimpse of pointed, razor-sharp teeth and glowing orange eyes.

The cat—for Grit could think of nothing else to call it—watched Carmer curiously. It seemed almost confused, as if it were not sure what to do with Carmer there.

Carmer cautiously tapped the stick on the ground. “You, uh . . . you want to play, huh?” he asked the creature, tapping the stick again. “You want the stick?”

The cat licked its lips, making a metal scraping sound that set Grit’s teeth on edge.

“Then go . . . get it!” Carmer threw the stick in the opposite direction and the cat bounded after it. In a flash, Carmer was at Grit’s side. He hurriedly scooped her up, and this time, she didn’t protest. He ran for the garden gate, their only means of escape—

But the cat was ready for them. Carmer’s distraction hadn’t lasted long enough, and the cat was already blocking the exit. It growled—a horrible, grating sound—and lunged right for Carmer. The force of the beast’s attack sent Carmer’s feet out from under him. He fell flat on his back, the breath knocked out of him, Grit still clutched in his hand.

The cat’s full weight pressed on his chest, rows of gleaming teeth gnashing and hissing in his face. It went straight for Grit, but Carmer rolled to knock the creature off balance.

And so they fought, in a dizzying back and forth: Carmer, dodging the cat’s claws and gaping maw as best he could, and the cat, pushing Carmer back down again and again.

“What . . . is this thing?” Carmer panted, holding Grit out of harm’s way. The oil lubricating its joints dripped into Carmer’s face, dark and sticky.

Grit glimpsed something silver and shining inside the cat’s writhing body. It was moving too much for her to tell, but she was pretty sure she knew faerie dust when she saw it.

“We’ve no chance!” Grit shouted to Carmer. “It’s using fae magic! I don’t know how, but it is!”

Carmer dodged another swipe from a vicious claw. His coat, already bedraggled, was getting torn to shreds.

“And what about you?” Carmer asked plaintively. By sheer luck, he managed to land a good kick. The cat flew backward, giving Carmer just enough time to get to his feet.

“What about me?”

Your magic. You made a lamp explode!” Carmer said breathlessly. “Explode that!”

The that in question was circling them again. Grit felt her cheeks burn. How could she tell him—this silly human boy—that her magic wasn’t strong enough to defeat this powerful a foe?

Before she had a chance to answer, however, the cat jumped again—straight for Carmer’s head. He threw up his arms in self-defense, prepared himself for the worst, and—

SLAM. Something tackled the cat to the ground in mid-leap. A miniature soldier jumped to his feet beside it; for a second, Carmer thought it must be his own automaton, but this figure was nothing like his. He noticed the waxy, painted skin and wooden joints, and he realized their savior was not an automaton at all. It was a puppet.

As Carmer pondered this strange new development, more puppets emerged from the garden’s shadows until the cat was entirely surrounded. The marionettes were a strange lot. Some of them were clearly soldiers and knights, outfitted with wooden swords and shields, while others seemed less suited to impromptu battles; a ballerina, a milkmaid, and a pointy-capped wizard. But they advanced on the cat all the same, herding it away from the garden gate. It swung its barbed tail and yowled with impatience.

The milkmaid approached Carmer. “Well, what are you waiting for?” it asked crossly in a low, gravelly voice that clearly belonged to someone else. “A magic carpet service?”

Carmer didn’t need to be told twice. He shoved Grit in his pocket—Again, Grit sighed to herself—and took the puppet’s proffered hand. As they ran past the cat, it yowled pathetically, batting at the marionettes now harrying it from all sides.

Grit shook her head at the puppets, eyes wide. They didn’t look any less terrifying than the cat.

“This is madness!” she yelled, kicking Carmer’s chest.

“Would you rather stay back there?”