Fladstrand, Upper Peninsula, Denmark
My dear impulsive brother,
If this letter is in your hands instead of on my desk where I left it, you must have flown to Fladstrand without first collecting your correspondence in Port Fallow—where the note I sent to you would have saved you a trip. Don’t be alarmed by my absence. The guards you recommended to me have seen to my safety commendably. Since they have come into my employ, I have not been kidnapped even once.
I have had an unexpected visit from an old friend, instead—you will remember Helene Krause, though she is now Mrs. Basile Auger. She has invited me to accompany her to Australia, and I have accepted that invitation. It will be the perfect opportunity to research the location of the next Lady Lynx adventure.
Do not stop reading this letter, Archimedes! Your instinct will be to drop it and rush up to your skyrunner, where you and your captain will make hasty plans to follow me. I forbid you from undertaking such a stupid effort. Helene’s husband serves as an ambassador in the French diplomatic corps, and we will be traveling aboard a naval airship to his station in the Red City. No pirate would dare attack our escort, and we will not fly too near the smugglers’ havens. I have also assumed an alias to conceal my identity. Rest assured that I have taken proper precautions.
P.S. I warn you again, Archimedes, do not even think of pursuit! I don’t need you and Captain Corsair to chase after me, shooting everyone who crosses your path.
I shall write to you frequently—if you have any brains in your head, you will recognize my assumed name. Remember to collect your post, and you’ll see that I am getting on perfectly well. If ever I am forced to narrate the tale of my upcoming journey, the title will surely be The Scribbling Spinster and the Uneventful Voyage.
Three days after his brother walked into the brushlands south of town and didn’t return, Ariq went in search of him.
He left in his mountain walker just before dawn. Meeng yawned in the gunner’s seat and was asleep again before they passed through the town gates, where a dying kraken’s monstrous tentacles still slithered and coiled in the white sand. Within minutes, the sandy shoreline gave way to dense red earth. Wagtail birds in eucalyptus trees chittered their warnings over the hiss of the walker’s hydraulics. The segmented legs carried them over low shrubs, the steel joints methodically rising and falling through the crackling brush.
Meeng snored until midmorning, but Ariq followed his brother’s trail without the tracker’s help. The skies had been pouring the night Takamasa learned that his beloved had married another, and he’d set out the next morning over thick mud. The sun had returned the following day, baking his footprints into an unmistakable path.
But the same heat that had set Taka’s early prints like stone had hardened the ground as he’d walked. By midday, Ariq couldn’t detect a trace of his brother’s trail. He relied on Meeng, who was guided by the faintest disturbance of dust here and a broken twig there.
Ariq didn’t need to see each print to recognize where the trail was leading, though—south around the head of the bay, then veering back toward the ocean. His brother had gone to the cliffs.
The rocky rise to the sheer edge lay ahead of them, the red earth studded with flat boulders and scrub. A straight course would have sent Taka to the beach far below.
Ariq steered the walker onto the same path. High overhead, the sun glared down accusingly. He shouldn’t have waited so long. But Takamasa had gone on these treks before. Meeng had accompanied him into the unforgiving landscape the first times, but in the past years Taka had ventured off alone. He’d always returned within a few days or weeks, thin and dirty but alive.
Ariq had known this time was different, though. So different that he intended to use the faint excuse of a beached squid to bring his brother home. Now Ariq couldn’t bear to drive up the rise, or to look over the cliff and see what might lay on the shore below. He couldn’t bear it, though he’d faced warriors from the Golden Empire with a steady hand. With a calm heart, he’d stolen into the bowels of a Nipponese prison. He’d been outnumbered and outgunned more often than he liked to remember. Yet he couldn’t recall one danger that had filled his body with such dread as weighed on it now.
“Why do you slow?” Meeng glanced away from the ground. “The trail is clear.”
And the tracker assumed that Taka had simply walked along the cliffs rather than thrown himself over them. Meeng didn’t know of Ariq’s fears for his brother—even Taka didn’t know of them. Ariq had never spoken them aloud. A word of worry might be taken as a question of Taka’s courage and shatter his brother’s tortured spirit. So Ariq had held his tongue.
But the news of his beloved might have broken Taka, anyway.
He stopped the engine. “We’ll walk.”
Frowning, Meeng studied the rise ahead. Their walker could have navigated through the boulders and brush. The machine had been designed to crawl over the treacherous mountains within the Golden Empire—and with a few modifications, the walker had proved just as suited to this flat, dry land.
Ariq was suited to this place, too. If he hadn’t been, he’d have also made the necessary modifications.
Taka had tried to adjust to their new life. Five years had passed since the Nipponese had discovered their mother was a spy and Taka had been imprisoned on suspicion of treason. Five years since Taka had lost everything except a half brother he hadn’t met until Ariq had freed him from his chains. But some days, it seemed as if Taka had never escaped. As if he opened his eyes, yet there was still only darkness and pain.
Ariq had fought in the rebellion against the Golden Empire from almost his first step, yet he’d never seen a battle as continuous as Taka had waged.
That battle might have been lost today.
He followed Meeng up the rise. The ochre rubbed into the tracker’s black ropes of hair was almost the same shade as the dirt beneath his toughened bare feet. The earth was softer here, and Meeng walked alongside the faintest impression of Taka’s boots. Then Ariq’s boots trampled over them, his footprints so much bigger than his brother’s. Though his step was almost as quiet as Meeng’s, each one seemed to thud against the ground, heavier and heavier. Approaching the cliff’s edge, his head seemed weighed down, too. He couldn’t lift it. He didn’t want to look over.
“Get down, you fools!”
Ariq immediately dropped, his hand flying to his pistol before he recognized his brother’s voice behind that urgent warning. Crouching, he spotted Taka sprawled on a stone shelf overlooking the cliff, his body partially hidden by brush.
Meeng glanced back at Ariq. Exasperation tightened the tracker’s cheeks before he slowly sank to his heels.
Taka gestured them closer. Ariq crept to the edge, flattening himself beside his brother. A single inhalation later, he began breathing through his mouth. Taka had been walking for three days, two of them humid and hot, and he obviously hadn’t stopped to bathe in the ocean.
But the ripe odor was sweet—the fragrance of life, not the stench of death.
So what were they hiding from? Ariq glanced into the sky. No airships, and a deeper blue than the sky he’d known as a boy. The ocean below was brighter, greener. In the distance, Fujimaru steamed toward the horizon, dark smoke threading from her stacks. When the Nipponese ironship had left Ariq’s town that morning, she’d been heading south. Now she was striking out to the west.
But Taka wasn’t looking at the ironship. Ariq dropped his gaze to the narrow beach at the base of the cliff. Two men. Two small, sleek flyers, the balloons shining like silver beneath the sun.
His heart slowed to a strong, heavy beat. His breath lengthened. His body calmed, preparing for battle.
Marauders had plagued the coast since the previous winter, indiscriminately attacking incoming airships. No balloons remained at the port in Ariq’s town or the mining settlements farther north. Supplies only came in by boat and with higher prices attached. Ariq had originally suspected the source of the attacks were the dealers who’d seen the most profit when the air trade stopped. But the marauders hadn’t struck only merchant airships—they’d taken down passenger and smuggler ships, too.
He and Meeng had scoured the nearby coast trying to locate the marauders’ camp. The ironship’s commander had been searching the seas. Neither had found any sign of them.
This wasn’t the camp. But answers might be found below.
“Only two?” The few survivors of the attacks had reported more than a dozen flyers. The two men on the beach were either scouting or waiting.
“Twelve more have already gone.” Taka pointed to the horizon. “A half hour past.”
West. Ariq searched the sky again. The flyers were already out of sight.
And the ironship was headed the same direction. Commander Saito must have spotted the marauders and moved in pursuit.
If the flyers were after an airship, Saito wouldn’t catch them in time. The machines were quick and maneuverable, with a dried-jellyfish balloon shaped like a bullet. They weren’t as fast or as silent as living jellyfish, but those balloons were difficult to keep unless they were always piloted over the water. These smaller flyers could travel over land as well as the sea.
But they didn’t have a long range. “Did you see where they came from?”
“From the south. But over land or ocean, I don’t know,” Taka said. “They arrived under the cover of dark.”
Concealing their movements by traveling at night. Ariq had often done the same when he’d led rebel warriors against the Golden Empire’s forces. He glanced at Meeng, who was peering over the cliff. “How best to climb down and surprise them?”
“There will be no surprise unless you are a boilerworm or a kraken.”
Attacking the marauders from beneath the sand or dragging them into the ocean. Neither was an option.
Without the advantage of surprise, attempting to take one of the men alive posed too great a risk. He and Taka would have to go in shooting, and keep firing until the two men couldn’t shoot back.
And there were twelve other men on flyers who might have answers. Ariq just needed to follow them west—and stop them from destroying another airship.
If it wasn’t already too late.
* * *
So far, the journey had been as eventful as Zenobia had predicted—and not nearly as eventful as she had hoped. After years of writing about her brother’s adventures, she’d been looking forward to a little adventure of her own. She’d wanted to fly over the zombie-infested lands of Europe and Africa, which she’d described in dozens of stories but had never seen for herself. She’d wanted to glimpse the terrors of the deep and the sky, which Archimedes had fought and escaped so many times.
It seemed he never stepped out the door without encountering some danger. Whereas Archimedes flung himself at every peril, Zenobia intended to observe it from a safe distance.
But the airship’s route had taken them along the west coast of Africa and around the southern tip of the continent before heading into the Western Ocean, and she’d only observed water, instead. Beautiful waters, dull waters, rough and calm, in every possible shade of blue and green and gray. She’d spent hours leaning over the rail, searching for a megalodon’s razor-sharp fin slicing through the ocean’s surface or a kraken’s massive armored body and endless tentacles. Her eyes had watered from staring into the bright sky, hoping for a glimpse of New Eden’s balloon city. But aside from a bit of excitement when a pod of sperm whales passed below the airship, there was little that she’d done on this trip that she couldn’t have done more comfortably at home.
And at home, she wouldn’t have had to share a cabin with her friend.
She’d accepted Helene’s invitation too quickly. She’d never imagined that she’d like the other woman much better when the Atlantic Ocean was between them, or that she would have preferred the letters they regularly exchanged to conversations in person.
How could she have expected it? As girls, they’d been as close as sisters. With similar brown hair and easily tanned skin, they’d even been mistaken for sisters from time to time, and Zenobia had used any excuse to visit Helene’s home. Now sharing quarters with her old friend was like being wrapped in wet wool. Though not a small cabin—with a sitting area, a bed for two, and space enough in the wardrobe to hang a week’s worth of dresses for each—when Zenobia sat at the writing desk and Helene settled down to read, the room felt very tiny, indeed.
“Oh, my. Listen to this, Geraldine!”
“One moment,” Zenobia responded without lifting her head. A villain had let loose a pair of zombies aboard her heroine’s airship; in the water below, monstrous sharks circled a lifeboat filled with her crew. Zenobia had just thought of a brilliant quip to accompany Lady Lynx’s leap into action, but she was still a sentence away.
“Geraldine, you must listen!” A rustle of cotton and the creak of wood said that Helene had risen from her chair. “We might jeopardize my husband’s position if we don’t take care!”
Blast it all. She couldn’t avoid the interruption now. Zenobia scribbled the quip in the corner of the page and looked up.
Helene stood beside her table, cradling a leather-bound volume in both hands. She’d braced the bottom of the heavy tome against her breasts, the pages open to the middle of the book.
Using her breasts as a shelf was the most practical thing Helene had done all day.
Zenobia opened her mouth to respond, then realized they weren’t alone. In the sitting area, her guard occupied the seat beside Helene’s abandoned one. Mara was stabbing a needle through a hem, and the lace cap over her black hair fluttered as she shook her head.
Zenobia hadn’t even noticed that Mara had entered the cabin—which was yet another reason she needed the mercenary around while she was writing. It wouldn’t do at all for a pirate to prance up behind her and snatch her from her chair.
On this voyage, however, Mara had been offering protection of another sort. She’d provided a buffer against Helene’s constant chatter, allowing Zenobia opportunity to work.
Though, to be fair, Helene didn’t know that Zenobia wrote more than letters. To Helene, she wasn’t Zenobia Fox, the author of popular serial adventures and the oft-kidnapped sister to one of the wealthiest men who’d ever flung himself into danger. She was only Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste, who’d lived in the house next door to Helene until fourteen years before, when Geraldine’s mother had died. Since then, Zenobia’s letters to her friend had concealed much and lied often.
Which meant that Zenobia hadn’t been a very good friend at all. She should try to be a better one. She owed that to Helene, who had been at Zenobia’s side through the worst of days—and a minor interruption did not count as the worst of anything.
Determinedly, she pushed aside her irritation. “What does your book say?”
“That we must bow upon meeting a Nipponese man and upon taking our leave.”
Why did that warrant such urgency? Women and men curtsied and bowed everywhere. Half the people in the Americas and what was left of Europe bobbed up and down with regularity.
Perplexed, Zenobia glanced at the title. Dancing Through the Red Wall: A Ladies’ Handbook of Nipponese Traditions and Customs.
Zenobia couldn’t conceive why such a handbook would only be for ladies, but she wasn’t surprised to see it in Helene’s possession. Her friend had taken her role as an ambassador’s wife to heart, applying herself to learning as much of the language and the history as she could during their journey.
Much of the information Helene had shared was fascinating, but Zenobia was skeptical of its accuracy. For centuries, almost from the date that the residents of the far-eastern islands had fled from the Mongol Horde and settled in northeastern Australia, Nippon’s borders had been closed to foreigners. Only recently had the empire begun to loosen those restrictions—probably not enough time for the author of the handbook to gain a comprehensive understanding of traditions and customs.
After all, Zenobia had lived in Fladstrand for ten years, and she still sometimes felt like the odd duck. She didn’t expect to feel any different in the Red City, handbook or not.
“What sort of bow?”
Turning the book around, Helene tapped her finger alongside a drawing of a man bending over at the waist so far that his forehead was almost level with his feet.
She was supposed to fold herself in half? “That’s not physically possible.”
“It’s important,” Helene stressed, though when she glanced down at the figure, a little crease formed between her brows, as if she were also wondering how to attain the position without toppling over. “Failing to bow is a slap against his honor—and a man who is dishonored will kill himself.”
“If someone doesn’t bow?” At Helene’s solemn nod, Zenobia stared at her in disbelief. This had to be utter nonsense. “Will he do it at that very moment?”
“Yes.” Helene pinched the first fifty or sixty pages of the book between her fingers. “All of this explains how critical it is not to insult a man’s honor.”
How unfortunate for any men who crossed paths with Zenobia, then. She sometimes gave offense when she didn’t mean to—though when she did give offense, she usually meant to. Upon reaching the Red City, however, she might inadvertently leave a trail of corpses in her wake.
“That custom favors women, I think,” Zenobia said. “If a husband strays or if he proves a disappointment, the wife only has to refrain from bowing and she is quickly free of him.”
Two spots of color appeared on Helene’s cheeks. “It is not well done to mock their customs. And I would never have imagined that you would make light of losing a husband.”
And it was fortunate that women weren’t so ready to kill themselves when offended, or Zenobia would be short one friend. But she bit her tongue. Helene desperately wanted to prove herself an asset to her husband, and she had more to lose when they arrived at the Red City than Zenobia did.
But Zenobia couldn’t imagine that Helene would be an asset if she made a habit of greeting men with her bottom in the air and her head between her feet.
She glanced at Mara. The other woman met her eyes and shook her head. So the book was nonsense. Several times, the mercenary had corrected Zenobia’s pronunciation of the Nipponese phrases Helene had taught her, but doing the same for her friend might have invited too many questions about how and where Mara had acquired her knowledge.
The woman whom Helene knew as Geraldine could have no reason to keep two mercenaries in her employ. So on this journey, Mara posed as Zenobia’s lady’s maid—a role that didn’t sit easily. Zenobia’s brown hair had never looked more terrible than it had under Mara’s care, and her needle had tortured the hem of Zenobia’s favorite dress beyond repair. More than once, Helene had quietly suggested that Mara was unsuited to the position.
More than once, Mara had quietly suggested stuffing a gag into Helene’s mouth until they reached the Red City.
But although Mara was the sort who took pleasure in gagging people—or shooting them, if they attempted to kidnap Zenobia—she had a heart full of love for two things: her husband and money. If offered a bonus, Mara would help Helene.
Zenobia raised her brows. Mara sighed before nodding.
“Helene,” Zenobia said gently. The other woman’s color was still high and her mouth pressed into a thin line. “Mara worked within the Nipponese enclave in the Ivory Market for many years. She might be able to point to anything in your book that might have been exaggerated or misunderstood.”
“In an enclave?”
With a sweep of her blue skirt, Helene turned to study Mara, and in that moment Zenobia disliked her friend very much. The examination wasn’t the sort one person gave another when taking their measure. Instead, Helene looked upon Mara as if she were an unusual insect.
Helene’s head tilted. “I thought you were Horde. Your eyes are slanted, so you are obviously from the Asian continent.”
“My family fled the Golden Empire—what you call the Horde—before I was born, ma’am. We settled in the enclave with people from all regions of the empire.” Mara smiled sweetly and jabbed her needle through pale green cotton—nowhere near the hem. “Just as people in other enclaves fled their nations. Yet many of us retained our customs and languages.”
“But the Ivory Market is in Africa,” Helene said, hefting the book. “This author lived in the Red City for more than a year. Much closer, you must agree, and the people he observed more genuinely Nipponese.”
“If you say, ma’am,” Mara responded easily, and Zenobia decided to double that month’s pay.
“And there is much the author was able to observe that a girl could not. He tells us how the women are kept hidden away, silenced and meek. Like maids, I suppose.” Helene sighed. “It’s unfortunate that all of those honorable women should live in such a way.”
The needle stabbed through another virgin stretch of cotton. “I suppose that to avoid offending men who are accustomed to meek women, you would also have to be very quiet. Ma’am.”
“Yes.” With a thoughtful frown, Helene stroked her fingers down the book’s spine. “Or perhaps my example will open their eyes to a more modern view of women and their roles.”
Oh, dear. Mara’s sweet smile had begun to look more like a tiger’s, and Zenobia had never wished so hard for a kidnapping. The four times she’d been taken for ransom had not been so horrible, in retrospect. She’d been fed and treated with care. The pirates had only wanted money, and they wouldn’t have received a single coin if she was harmed. The hostility brewing in this cabin seemed far more dangerous.
Then Helene set the book aside, as if signaling that she was finished with the topic for now, and Zenobia breathed again.
She glanced down at her page. The scribble in the corner had been a brilliant quip, she remembered. Lady Lynx had been going to draw her gun and say . . . what?
She couldn’t remember. And she couldn’t read the scribble.
Blast. She dipped her pen and scratched out the useless note. It had been a foolish thought, anyway. Lady Lynx wouldn’t quip. She would simply shoot, and coldly watch the villain fall dead.
Zenobia sometimes wished that she could be as ruthless.
“Are you well?” Helene softly touched her shoulder before sinking onto the nearby bed. “You look quite fierce.”
“I’m frustrating myself, trying to think of a suitable word to describe the waters in this part of the ocean,” Zenobia lied. “What color would you call it?”
“‘Blue,’” Helene offered. “You are penning another letter? It seems to me that there is only the horrid food and the rumbling of the engines to remark upon. And the seagulls. Never has there been such incessant cawing, or so much reason to wear a bonnet. It’s astonishing that you have so much to say.”
Zenobia hadn’t had much to say at all—and had only managed to complete two chapters in the weeks aboard the airship. Perhaps she’d have made more progress if she hadn’t been writing by hand, but the clacking of her typesetting machine gave Helene headaches.
“Are you writing to your brother again?”
Though she loved Archimedes, Zenobia couldn’t pretend such fondness that she would write him every day. “This is to Grandmother Inkslinger.”
Another lie, on top of an older one. Several years before, she’d described her living situation to Helene, and it had been simpler to claim she had been briefly married and widowed than to try convincing her friend that it was perfectly proper for a young woman to live alone. In Zenobia’s experience, admitting to spinsterhood only resulted in good-intentioned attempts to steer men in her direction. But a widow’s independence was rarely questioned.
The lie served her well during this trip, too. She hadn’t wanted to travel as Zenobia Fox and make herself a target for every pirate and fortune hunter. Yet her maiden name, Gunther-Baptiste, might have brought as much attention in this part of the world. Her brother had smuggled weapons for Horde rebels under that name, until he’d run afoul of a powerful general. Archimedes had changed his name then; Zenobia had done the same, fearing that any assassins would come for him through her.
Archimedes had recently paid his debt to the general, but Zenobia didn’t want to take the chance that someone who hadn’t heard the price on her brother’s head had been lifted might recognize her name. So she traveled as Geraldine Inkslinger, instead.
“It’s wonderful that you still correspond with your late husband’s family.” A wistful note softened Helen’s voice. “You must have gotten on very well with them.”
“Not at all. I continue writing to them so that they feel obligated to respond, even though they must hate that obligation.” Which was another lie. If Zenobia had possessed a dead husband and resentful relatives, however, she would have taken great pleasure in making it true. She glanced up with a smile, but it faded as she took in Helene’s pale face and compressed mouth. “Are you well?”
Swallowing hard, Helene managed a sickly nod. Her hand pressed to her stomach. “It is the swaying again.”
Perhaps. The motion of an airship did make some passengers nauseous.
So did pregnancy.
Helene had not yet confided whether she was, and her petite figure did not yet show evidence of it. But pregnancy would explain why she had arrived at Zenobia’s home so unexpectedly, without companions or a single word in advance, and why she’d wanted to immediately travel to Australia. She had been separated from her husband for the better part of a year. If Helene was with child, either Basile Auger had astonishing ejaculatory capabilities, impregnating her from halfway around the world, or she’d lain with another man.
Zenobia had never met Helene’s husband and she didn’t know his temperament. She didn’t know whether the worry and strain she often glimpsed on Helene’s face came from the guilt of betrayal or fear of his reaction. But many years before, Helene had offered her support when Zenobia’s mother had worn the same worried look—worry that had become terror when her father returned home. So Zenobia would help her friend now, until she was certain Helene had nothing to fear. If that meant staying with her until the baby was born, she would. And if it meant using every resource she possessed to help Helene escape, she would.
But hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Not all men were like her father.
Zenobia glanced at the porthole. Bright sunshine streamed through the window and fell like a warm cape across her shoulders before spilling over Helene’s bed. “If you want to lie down, I can shutter the—Oh!”
A hard jolt tossed her forward against the writing desk. Her inkwell skidded across the surface and tipped. Zenobia wildly grabbed at it, black ink splattering over her fingers. Her pen clattered to the boards.
Then all was still.
On the bed, Helene stared at her, wide-eyed. “What was that?”
She had no idea. Zenobia looked to the seating area. Mara was already on her feet, the needle and hem dropped to the floor. Despite Mara’s black dress and lace cap, there was nothing of a lady’s maid about the mercenary now. A pistol was in her hand; Zenobia didn’t know where it had come from—under Mara’s skirts, beneath the chair, out of thin air. Anything seemed possible.
The mercenary tilted her head and flexed her jaw, activating the listening device grafted into her ear. But if Mara heard anything to indicate what had happened, she didn’t say.
Her flat gaze swept the cabin before landing on Zenobia. “I’ll return shortly.”
Zenobia nodded. Unspoken was the command that Mara and her husband Cooper had given to her every time a would-be abductor had broken into her home: Don’t leave this room unless you have absolutely no other choice.
Shouts and the pounding of boots filled the quiet as Mara slipped into the corridor, and were muffled again when she closed the door.
Zenobia stood, wincing at the sharp pain in her ribs where she’d struck the edge of the writing desk. Likely nothing cracked or broken, but she could expect a nasty bruise.
It wouldn’t be her first bruise, however. She couldn’t let it slow her down now. She sank to her knees, reaching past the trunks stored beneath the bed. Her fingers hooked around the leather straps of her glider and she dragged the folded contraption out.
As she returned to the desk, running footsteps sounded along the corridor. Four or five men by the sound of it. The copper pipes overhead began to ring as someone on the deck above struck a warning, signaling everyone in the airship. Zenobia didn’t know what that particular pattern of rings meant, but it didn’t matter. A warning could never be a good sign.
She shoved her pages into the glider’s waterproof satchel. Only two chapters, but she didn’t want to lose nearly a month’s work. What else would she need?
She hauled out her trunk from beneath the bed and tossed out the clothes and books. The combination lock to the false bottom was hidden beneath the handle. She peeled away the cover and twisted the number dial.
The bottom compartment popped open. She grabbed her identifying documents and the packet of letters from Archimedes that she’d been using as the basis of her story.
Helene watched her in confusion. “What are you doing? It’s likely only a problem with the engine.”
Which was still huffing away, the ever-present rumble in their ears and the vibration through the boards. If the boiler had blown, causing that jolt, the engineers would have already stopped the engine.
“It’s best to be prepared, don’t you think?” Zenobia needed the strength of both hands to lift out the bag of gold—enough coins to convince anyone that there would be a hefty ransom available if she and Helene were kept alive. “Where are your travel papers?”
Her friend’s face cleared. “In my trunk.”
While she retrieved them, Zenobia looked out the porthole. Only a cloudless sky above and turquoise water below. If they were under attack, it was not coming from this side of the ship.
She crossed the cabin and peeked out. They’d been quartered on the officers’ deck, toward the front of the airship. The door across the passageway was closed, blocking a view of the opposite porthole. The corridor was empty—except for the companionways. Aviators rushed up and down the ladders. Her heart racing, Zenobia withdrew into the cabin and shut the door.
A terrible rumble came from the rear of the airship, rattling the wardrobe against the bulkhead. An explosion? Standing absolutely still, Zenobia strained to listen. In the center of the cabin, Helene did the same, her face white and her eyes wide.
Then the floor fell out from under her feet.
Zenobia slammed into the deck. The impact knocked the breath from her chest, cutting short her terrified cry. Black spots swam in front of her eyes, but the airship seemed to have steadied. Zenobia hadn’t. She wobbled onto her knees as Helene retched her lunch onto the bed. Pregnancy or fear. It didn’t matter.
Desperately swallowing down her own panic, Zenobia buckled the glider straps over her chest and shoulders. Unfolded, the contraption could carry two. They’d be all right.
The door flew open, banging hard against the leg of a toppled chair. Hope leapt into Zenobia’s heart—but it wasn’t Mara and Cooper. After weeks of dinners in the captain’s cabin, the face and uniform were familiar. Lieutenant Blanchett. His usually good-natured expression had tightened into sharp lines. Blood dripped from a cut at his hairline.
He held out his hand. “Come. We must run to the lifeboats.”
“Not yet.” Zenobia caught Helene’s wrist when she took a step toward the door. Blanchett was a nice man. Likely a capable one. She wasn’t placing her life into his hands. “We are waiting for my maid and her husband.”
“Geraldine!” Shaking her head, Helene tried to tug Zenobia forward.
“Madame, I must insist—”
A gloved hand clapped over his shoulder. His lean face streaked with soot, Cooper said, “Help the others, Lieutenant. We’ll escort them.”
If Blanchett was surprised to see a maid and valet heavily armed with guns and blades, he didn’t show it. He only glanced into the cabin again. “Is this acceptable to you?”
Zenobia was already rushing forward. “Yes.”
He nodded to Cooper. “Take them through the aft cargo hold. The main deck has caught fire.”
Then she was racing down the corridor, her hand linked with Helene’s, Cooper ahead and Mara behind. The battleship had astonished her with its size when she’d first boarded—at least six times longer than the skyrunner her sister-in-law captained—but now the length of the deck seemed terrifyingly endless. Amidships, smoke boiled from the companionway and rolled across the ceiling. She held her breath passing through the acrid cloud, trying not to hear the screams from above.
Fire. That was almost always the end of an airship. A naval battleship’s balloons were hardier than most, but with a single leak in the envelope, an explosion became inevitable.
She shouted back to Mara as they ran. “Who’s attacking us?”
“Men on flyers!”
From another airship? Or from a boat?
Ahead, Cooper dropped into the companionway to the deck below. Zenobia climbed down the ladder as quickly as she could.
“Pirates?” she asked breathlessly.
Shaking his head, Cooper reached up to help Helene down the last few steps.
Mara joined them. “The flyers are of Nipponese design, but the pilots don’t wear a crest.”
So possibly smugglers, pirates, or mercenaries. But Zenobia couldn’t ask anything more. They rushed down the next ladder to the cargo deck.
Wooden doors barred their way into the hold. With his blunderbuss, Cooper blasted through the wood surrounding the locks before shattering the bolt housing with two kicks from his mechanical legs. Zenobia’s ears were still ringing as they entered the dim, humid bay, quickly making their way past stacks of crates and barrels. Muffled gunfire from outside sounded through the thick hull. No cannon fire. But that had to be the purpose of the smaller flyers: They were more difficult to shoot down than another airship would be. It would be like a bear swatting at bees—except the bees had stingers that could set the bear on fire.
They reached the loading doors built into the ship’s hull. Mara urged Zenobia and Helene to the side before hauling down the lever. With a rattle of chains, the heavy steel doors slid apart.
Sunlight spilled in. Zenobia blinked, her eyes watering. Her shoulders ached, the gold in her pack a deadweight on the glider’s wide leather straps. A hot breeze caught her dress, the cotton saturated with sweat and clinging to her skin. Helene’s palm was slick against her own. Her friend’s breath pumped in short, sobbing gasps.
Outside, gunfire cracked over the rattling huff of the airship’s engines. Fewer shots rang out now. Were the marauders being driven off or had the aviators been forced to retreat from the burning deck? Zenobia couldn’t tell.
Gripping the edge of the door in one hand, Cooper leaned out and glanced up before pulling himself back into the hold. “The flyers are concentrating on the upper decks, but a few others are circling.”
A high-pitched engine whined closer, louder. Mara pushed Zenobia and Helene up against the door—out of sight and behind thick steel. A flyer buzzed past, then another.
Zenobia had expected they would look like the machines from New Eden, resembling dragonflies, but these had light, slender frames suspended beneath sleek, silvery envelopes. She’d never seen anything with a balloon move so quickly.
“There,” Mara said, pointing out over the water. Cooper looked through the loading doors and nodded.
Zenobia sidled closer to the opening, the hot wind from outside blowing into her face. Her gaze searched the sky before she spotted a dark shape floating on the horizon. A ship.
“You think that’s where the flyers came from?”
“No. That’s a Nipponese ironship—and that’s where we need to go.”
To an unknown ship? But she wouldn’t question it. She’d hired Mara and Cooper to keep her safe. If she couldn’t trust that they knew how to best go about it, they weren’t worth a single denier.
There was no time to discuss it, anyway. Her heart gave a heavy thump when she saw the smoke billowing from the airship’s bow. The flames hadn’t reached this part of the vessel yet, but it wouldn’t take long.
“What about the lifeboats?” Helene’s voice was high and thin.
Cooper spared her a glance. “There’s blood in the water and this is megalodon territory. Without quick rescue from that ironship, soon there won’t be any lifeboats.”
“They’re coming around again. Two flyers.” Mara’s warning preceded another high-pitched whine. “Back. Get back.”
Holding her breath, Zenobia pressed back against the steel doors, her fingers gripping Helene’s.
But they weren’t the only ones stepping away from the opening in the hull. Cooper dropped a kiss to Mara’s mouth and backed away from the doors, making his way down the narrow row between the stacked crates. Crouching at the edge, Mara lifted her hand, five fingers extended. She began to fold them down, one by one. Counting.
The whine grew louder. Mara’s hand clenched into a fist.
Her husband sprinted to the open doors and leapt from the airship.
The crack of Mara’s pistol cut Zenobia’s cry short. Then astonishment stopped her dead when Cooper slammed into the first flyer pilot.
They’d perfectly timed his jump. The machine rocked wildly, then a body tumbled from the pilot’s seat and Cooper gripped the steering lever, straightening its course. The second pilot had slumped over—shot by Mara, Zenobia realized. His balloon slowed to a stop, hovering beside the battleship’s hull.
She still hadn’t found her voice again when Cooper brought the balloon alongside the loading doors. Mara squeezed onto the seat behind him, the machine bobbing under her added weight. She glanced at Zenobia.
“We’ll return shortly with the second flyer.”
Zenobia nodded. The balloon’s engine wound higher and Cooper flew forward. Less than fifteen seconds later, Mara kicked the dead pilot from his seat and took his place.
“He’s your late husband’s valet!” Helene stood beside her, staring after the pair. “And she is only a maid!”
And Zenobia couldn’t think of a single lie to explain it. Fortunately, their approach saved her from a response.
Hovering just inside the loading bay, Mara pointed to Helene and called over the noise of her engine. “You’re lighter than Mrs. Inkslinger, so you will ride with my husband!”
The taller Zenobia rode with Mara—keeping their combined weights as low as possible, because the machines were designed to carry one. The flyer tilted when Zenobia stepped onto the runner. She followed Mara’s example and pulled her skirt up over her knees before swinging her leg over the small bit of room left in the saddle. The engine’s vibration instantly made her entire bottom itch.
“If you have a handkerchief, wave it behind us,” Mara said over her shoulder. “We don’t want the aviators to shoot us in the back by mistake.”
She didn’t have one. But Helene did—and was already waving it through the air, though they hadn’t yet left the cargo hold.
“Stay close to them,” Zenobia suggested.
And then they were off, Zenobia’s stomach swooping as they fell into a shallow dive—keeping the airship’s bulk between them and the other flyers, she realized. Hiding until they gained more distance from the battleship.
She glanced back. Oh, dear God. The flames had completely engulfed the upper decks. Smoke billowed around the airship’s balloons in an angry cloud, almost obscuring their white envelopes. As if a giant hand had snapped off the tip of the ship, the bow had broken away from the hull and hung suspended over the water by the forward balloon’s tethering cables.
In the ocean below, aviators in lifeboats rowed from beneath the hovering battleship. Silvery, deflated balloons floated on the swells around them. Some of the flyers had been shot down, then. How many more were there?
Her gaze searched the air. At least four or five, their shapes barely visible through the smoke.
Then not-so-barely visible.
Zenobia’s grip tightened on Mara’s hips. “Flyers are coming this way!”
Though not in a straight line toward them. The three flyers at the head were bobbing and weaving—though the two behind held a steadier course. As if they were giving chase, and the three ahead were fleeing.
Gunshots cracked. One of the retreating flyers’s balloon collapsed, the silvery envelope crumpling in on itself. Engine whining, the machine dropped into a spinning dive, the metal frame flashing beneath the bright sun. The marauder’s scream scraped terror down Zenobia’s spine, then he slammed into the water and the silence was even more horrifying.
But better him than her friends.
“There’s still four!” she cried out when Mara banked right, her gun in hand. Cooper did the same—intending to face the flyers down rather than risk a bullet in the back, Zenobia realized. “But the two behind shot out another’s balloon!”
“I saw,” Mara said. “Hold tight.”
Zenobia did, as tight as she could without restricting the other woman’s movements. Their flyer slowed and turned.
The others were closer now, not coming directly toward Zenobia’s flyer but on a path that would pass by about a hundred yards to their right. The two in front looked just like the other marauders, prepared for flight in goggles and helmets. She’d assumed their pursuers were aviators who’d managed to commandeer the flyers, just as Mara and Cooper had, but they weren’t wearing naval uniforms. They weren’t near enough for her to make out their features, just dark hair and white shirts.
The two men in pursuit veered apart, as if flanking their prey. One of the flyers in front turned and shot wildly behind him—then his balloon collapsed, the report of a gunshot echoing through his cry of terror.
The last of the three hunted flyers banked toward them. Arm raised, the pilot leveled his gun in their direction.
Zenobia stiffened, her heart pounding wildly. “Mara?”
“He’s too far away for an accurate shot.” The mercenary’s voice was tense. “But so are we.”
Cooper didn’t seem to care about that. He’d opened fire with both pistols. Maybe hoping for a lucky hit. Behind him, Helene had pressed her face between his shoulders and was desperately waving her handkerchief over her head.
“Come on, you bastard,” Mara muttered. “Just a little closer . . . Ah.”
It was like a sigh of pleasure. The hammer of her pistol fell. A puff of smoke accompanied the loud crack. The marauder’s face exploded and his body toppled backward, his arms swinging up.
Another crack sounded. Not Mara’s or Cooper’s guns. Zenobia had half a second to wonder whether the marauder had managed to get off a shot before Mara’s bullet had killed him or if squeezing the trigger had been a dying reflex, then the balloon over her head collapsed in a sickening rush of air.
“Zenobia!” Mara screamed. “We need to jump for Cooper’s—”
Then they were dropping, dropping, but Zenobia had done this before. She and her brother had leapt out of balloons so many times, because he’d needed the excitement, and she’d needed to imagine that it was her father’s airship they were escaping—and that she was free, finally free of his fists and his rules and his locked closets.
She wrapped her arms around Mara’s waist and jumped.
The deflated balloon flipped past them, spinning around and around, and Mara’s weight felt as if it would tear her arm out of its socket when she let go with one hand to yank the lever on the side of her pack.
The glider’s wings snapped open. The frame creaked as the canvas caught air, and Mara was almost ripped out of her grip, but Zenobia held on as the mercenary began to laugh wildly.
Zenobia couldn’t laugh. She could barely breathe. Wind tore at her eyes. Her arms shook with strain. She couldn’t control their direction, there was too much weight and none of it evenly balanced. They descended toward the ocean—but there was nowhere else to go, anyway. At least the landing would be softer than it would have been on the flyer.
Clear turquoise water rolled gently below. She didn’t see any shadows beneath the surface, no monsters of the deep, and she couldn’t believe that she’d ever wanted a glimpse of one.
A flyer engine whined behind them. She couldn’t look around, but wasn’t surprised that Cooper was following.
“Let me go now!” Mara called when they skimmed closer to the water. “It’ll be easier for you to land without me!”
True. And it was only a ten- or fifteen-foot drop.
Letting go was almost as painful as holding on. Her muscles screamed as she eased her arms open, and Mara splashed feet-first into the water.
Zenobia shifted her weight to slowly turn, gliding in a circle back to Mara’s position so that she wouldn’t land too far away from her guard. As it was, she’d probably have to swim until they figured out how to get four people aboard a flyer designed to carry only one.
Swim. Even though her arms were dead things, and she had a heavy bag of gold strapped to her back.
Oh, dear God. Frantically she tried to unbuckle the straps, but her hands were weak and the tension of her weight suspended from the glider prevented her from wriggling out. She pushed at the wing lever and dropped when the wings folded.
The water rushed up, slapping at her feet and her stomach then dragging her down, warmer than she expected, but no less salty and terrifying when it closed over her head. Her skirt tangled around her thrashing legs. A watery buzz filled her ears and the wavering shape of a flyer appeared overhead. Cooper. She just had to reach the surface. She pushed her thumbs under the leather straps at her shoulders, trying to force them off, but they were tight, even tighter now, as if she were still hanging from the glider.
Or being pulled upward. She broke the surface, coughing and grabbing for the flyer’s foot runner.
But that wasn’t Cooper’s boot. Instead of hard brown leather, it was soft and supple, and covered in a fine red dust.
She looked up. Black hair. Dark eyes over high, arching cheekbones. A firm mouth and an angular jaw clenched with effort. He was close, so close, leaning out of his seat and holding her up with his fingers wrapped around the glider’s straps. Then he lifted her out of the water with just one hand, even though she was a tall woman, her pack filled with heavy gold, and her skirts soaking wet.
The ocean rained from her dress, splattering his loose trousers and a white tunic streaked with dirt the color of rust. He set her on the runner and slid forward a little, an unspoken invitation to fill the space behind him.
What to do? She looked for Mara. The mercenary was climbing onto another flyer, taking the seat behind the pilot—her rescuer’s companion. Cooper looked on and nodded at Zenobia when she sent him a questioning glance.
Very well, then. She glanced down at the seat. She couldn’t straddle it properly unless her skirts were up by her knees, but she wouldn’t be missish. She yanked them up and swung her leg over, her dress squelching as she sat.
A moment later they rose into the air—heading toward the ironship. Her body stiff, she gripped her rescuer’s sides. This shouldn’t be any different than sitting behind Mara.
But it was.
He was much taller than she. Even sitting, her eyes were only level with the back of his neck. His shoulders were broad, and his thick black hair was tied up in a short knot. With so little room, she had no choice but to press up against him, and he was hard with muscle everywhere they touched—against her breasts, cradled between her inner thighs, beneath her hands. His abdomen was ridged steel against her fingers.
And she was wet. Dripping everywhere, and she’d soaked him through. He had to be just as uncomfortable as she was.
More so. Blood stained his left sleeve. He’d been shot—yet he’d still pulled her from the drink.
With one hand, and a marvelously strong arm.
She’d never been so glad that Helene had taught her a few Nipponese phrases, including expressions of gratitude. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said against the back of his neck, and hoped that she hadn’t garbled the pronunciation.
His body tensed against hers and he responded with a terse nod.
Well. Now this was awkward.
She leaned back a tiny bit, trying to put a little space between her breasts and his back. Saturated, his tunic was all but transparent. The silk clung to the thick muscle hugging the groove of his spine, revealing a design tattooed across his shoulders, black against smooth brown skin. An animal, she thought, but with too many limbs and a cone-shaped head—
Oh, dear God. Her stomach clenched into a tight ball. Those weren’t limbs. They were tentacles.
He had a kraken inked across his back.
And she’d seen that tattoo before. Not on a man, but in a letter that her brother had sent in the days when he’d still been smuggling weapons. The tattoo had belonged to one of the most powerful men in the Horde rebellion. Archimedes hadn’t known the man’s real name, only the name the others had called him—a man who was just as ruthless as the creature tattooed across his back, a man who became just as fixated when something attracted his attention, a man who never loosened his grasp.
This was far more adventure than she’d hoped for. She’d only wanted to see a little danger from a distance.
Instead she’d fallen straight into the clutches of the Kraken King.
* * *
The calm of the battle had given way to fire. Ariq’s arm burned. His blood raced. His flesh hardened. He only had to glance down to see the woman’s leg, smooth and as pale as a fish belly. But he didn’t need to look. The image had been painted behind his eyes.
A yellow ribbon tied the stocking over her left knee. The right stocking had slipped down her calf. Above that was only skin.
Ariq didn’t know if she was bare all the way up, where she cradled him between taut thighs.
He forced himself not to wonder. He forced himself not to feel her slim form against his. He forced himself to forget the sight of her bare skin.
Instead he remembered her expression when she’d jumped from the falling balloon. Serenity. Acceptance. As if her entire life had been leading to that moment and she faced it without fear. Her expression mirrored how Ariq imagined Taka would look before going over the cliffs, and through Ariq’s calm had crashed the thought that, once again, he’d waited too long. He’d left too late. And he’d narrowly avoided the agony of finding his brother’s body only to watch this woman leap to her death.
Then her pack had become a glider. By the relief and gratitude that had burst through Ariq’s heart, it was as if she’d saved both herself and Taka—and saved Ariq from watching his brother die.
It made no sense. Ariq knew it didn’t. He was still grateful to her.
So he didn’t look down—only ahead, his eyes slitted against the wind. In the distance, a sailor on the deck of the ironship waved a yellow flag. They’d spotted him and were inviting him in.
Behind him, the woman shifted her weight. Looking at her companions or at the burning airship.
Zenobia. The mercenary had shouted her name when their balloon had collapsed.
What sort of woman hired mercenaries to provide additional protection while traveling aboard a military vessel?
Highly skilled mercenaries—and Zenobia their primary concern. They protected the other woman, but every maneuver the mercenaries made had given Zenobia another layer of defense. Even now, the man had positioned his flyer so that he could watch over her, though it exposed the other woman’s back to Taka, who was bringing up the rear. And the female mercenary riding with Taka could cover them both.
So Zenobia was the priority. Or the pack she carried was.
He’d never seen a contraption like it. Brilliantly designed. An emergency glider and waterproof satchel in one. Ariq thought she carried gold in it; not even the water saturating her clothes could account for her weight. But money was easy to come by—and coins didn’t need to be kept in a waterproofed pack.
Perhaps whatever this woman possessed was important enough that the French had offered to escort her. Or perhaps the aviators had no idea who and what they’d carried on their airship.
Ariq didn’t care about what she carried. He only wondered about the woman herself.
She faced forward again. Her small breasts pressed into his back. Her hands tightened at his sides.
They were only breasts. They were only hands.
But she was bare. She was pale. And she was under Ariq’s protection for now.
Her skirt fluttered and snapped in the wind. Almost dry already. Careful not to touch her skin, he tugged her hem down over her knee and anchored the material between their legs.
She sucked in a breath, her breasts hitching against his back.
“You’ll burn,” he said in French.
A silence followed. Then she tucked the opposite side of her skirt over her left knee and said, “Fortunately your giant shoulders and head block the sun, or I would have to pull my dress up over my face, instead.”
Humor. More seductive than bare skin. With a short laugh, Ariq nodded his—apparently—gigantic head. Now he wished that Fujimaru wasn’t approaching so quickly and that the flyers weren’t as swift. In fifteen minutes, they would be aboard the ironship. Not long enough.
“I must thank you again,” she continued. “And apologize for assuming you were Nipponese.”
It was a sensible assumption. They were on a Nipponese flyer, heading toward a Nipponese ironship. So why think differently now?
“How do you know I’m not?”
A brief hesitation preceded her answer. “Your speech. My maid was raised in a Horde enclave in the Ivory Market. You sound much like her.”
A plausible explanation, yet also a lie. The Golden Empire stretched across three continents. There was little possibility that Ariq’s accent was so similar to a woman’s from the Ivory Market. But although Ariq wanted to know what had revealed his origin, she obviously wanted to conceal that knowledge.
And he wanted her renewed stiffness to ease. “English, French, and Lusitanian men look the same to me. I never know where they’re from until they speak.”
Some of her rigidity faded. Curiosity filled her voice. “Can you tell where I’m from?”
“Johannesland.” He wasn’t familiar enough with the individual principalities to be more specific. “Your speech is similar to others I’ve met from that part of the Americas.”
She stiffened again, very slightly, and Ariq wondered who he’d met that she also knew. But she didn’t say.
“Do you know who attacked us? Or why?”
“No,” he said. “But I will.”
“It shouldn’t be difficult. Any group of men stupid enough to attack a French naval airship in broad daylight surely don’t have brains enough to cover their tracks.”
Sheer stupidity, he agreed. Four of the flyers had been shot down before Ariq and Taka arrived. Two more had been taken by mercenaries dressed in servants’ clothing. The rest had been dispatched with a few guns. A small contingent of warriors could effectively attack a target with proper preparation—Ariq had led several against the Golden Horde’s war machines. It only required a solid plan and careful execution. He saw nothing of planning or execution here. Every pilot had been killed and all of their flyers destroyed or captured.
Stupid. And unlike the marauders. “They’ve covered their tracks for months,” he said. “Yours isn’t the first airship they’ve destroyed.”
“Oh.” The reply seemed uncertain—as if she wondered whether to apologize for suggesting that he should have easily found them before now. He preferred the question she asked, instead. “What did they take from the others?”
“Nothing? I don’t understand. Were the ships all French, then, and the marauders at odds with them?”
“Westerners? Naval ships?”
He shook his head. “Smugglers, merchants, miners, and travelers.”
“Passenger ships?” Sharp astonishment softened to confusion. “What did they have in common?”
“They were all airships.”
“And men on flyers destroyed them?”
“That doesn’t make any sense. What purpose could the destruction serve? Crippling an enemy, perhaps. But it doesn’t sound as if there is one enemy.” Her voice had dropped, as if she were speaking to herself rather than to Ariq now—until she asked another question. “What could the motivation be?”
Ariq grinned into the wind. He hadn’t expected an interrogation. But although her questions were the same that others had asked over the months, he liked that they came so quickly.
And though his gratitude made little sense, now his attraction did. It was not just his boiling blood; she was not just hands and legs and breasts. She also possessed humor and an agile mind. Those both made the sensation of her body against his more enjoyable—and he no longer forced himself to ignore how she felt. He allowed himself to wonder whether she was bare between her legs.
Then she said, “Perhaps it’s a diversion to make everyone turn their attention here, while their true target lies elsewhere,” and Ariq realized what a careless fool he’d been.
Her first questions had taken an expected route—straightforward. Most people thought in the same way, in a direct line between cause and effect. When they learned of an attack, they assumed the motivation was money or enmity. A simple explanation. Even when their motivations were hidden, their schemes took direct steps: If a man wanted to make a woman jealous, he paid attention to another woman. Most people never stepped sideways. But the woman behind him did. Easily, too, as if it had been no effort for her to imagine an indirect cause for the attacks.
Not just an indirect cause, but a logical one.
A woman who plotted. She might not pose a threat to Ariq or his town. But he would take more care until he was certain she didn’t.
“Nobody’s eyes would turn in this direction,” he said.
There were smugglers’ dens festering to the south and a few mining towns to the north, all built with the approval of local aboriginal tribes. Fujimaru had been searching for the marauders, but only because the ironship’s commander was a friend of Ariq’s. No one else gave a damn about the settlements here.
Except for the rebellion. They’d funded their war against the Golden Empire by smuggling technology and selling it to the west. Destroying the smugglers’ dens would strike a great blow to the rebels.
But the Khagan’s armies would never attack so indirectly—or use flyers of Nipponese design. And they would have no reason to attack a French ship.
“Your attention turned this way,” she said.
“My people have been among those killed.”
She nodded. “So if these attacks won’t draw defensive forces away from another location, the diversion might be in the number of airships attacked. The marauders could conceal their true target by destroying many.”
“You’ve thought of that already.”
Yes. But until this woman, no one else he’d spoken with had. “Each airship could have been targeted for any number of reasons. So far, not one seems more important than any other.”
“And our airship?”
“You would know better.” Ariq couldn’t trust her not to lie again, but he wanted to hear her answer.
“To my knowledge, no one and nothing of significance was aboard. My friend is the wife of an ambassador, but he is already in the Red City.” She paused, and he hoped she would speak of herself, but she only continued, “I think the target must have already been destroyed.”
“Because you said they hadn’t been so stupid before this. And sending a dozen flyers against a French battleship would be an efficient way to get rid of any pilots who might expose whoever was pulling the strings.”
Ariq shook his head. She’d taken another sideways leap, but although it was logical, even brutally clever, it exposed her inexperience. Such diabolical schemes suited villains in costume plays, not real men.
“No?” she asked. “Why?”
“Because no one who commands other men would toss them away so easily. There are better ways to persuade them to silence. And if they must be killed, there are more efficient ways to do it.”
A shiver raced through her body. Had he frightened her?
If he had, he hoped it wouldn’t stop her questions. They’d been coming more rapidly as their flyer neared the ironship, as if she wanted to fit them all in before they landed.
Ariq had more questions, too. He wouldn’t have time for them.
Quietly, she asked, “How would you do it?”
“I wouldn’t kill my own men.” But he’d kill others by whatever means necessary.
“Would you sacrifice your men?”
Inexperienced. But still clever. She would reach the same conclusion that Ariq was heading toward.
“I would,” he said.
Her breath shuddered against his neck. “If they sacrificed so many men, it must have been very important to destroy this airship.”
Gaze fixed on Fujimaru’s iron deck, Ariq nodded.
“Why, though? What could they possibly gain?”
Ariq didn’t know. But he could imagine one possibility: a clever woman with secrets and documents. If she’d been the target, they’d come for her again.
Ariq intended to stand in the way.
Directly ahead, the ironship pumped smoke into the sky from three tall stacks. Uniformed sailors waited on the deck. Ariq slowed his approach, and the flyer’s drone whined above the deep thrum of the ironship’s engines.
Ariq pulled back on the levers, angling the flaps to begin their descent. The bullet wound in his arm burned. He gritted his teeth—then forgot about his arm when Zenobia’s hands slid from his sides to wrap more securely around his waist.
This flight hadn’t been long enough. He wanted more of her touch—he wanted more of her.
Ariq hoped she could be persuaded to have him.
And he’d made himself remember her expression when she’d jumped from her flyer, but he hadn’t really looked at her. The sailors rushed forward to fasten the tether lines to the flyer’s nose and to hold the runners steady. Ariq leapt down to the deck and reached for her hand before any other man could assist her.
She bent her head as she dismounted from the seat, carefully watching her step on the narrow runner. Her hair had come undone in the water. The wind had dried and twisted the strands into thick curls down her back. An unremarkable brown, in an unruly tangle around an unremarkable face. Her features were long and angular, her bottom lip pressed between her teeth. He wanted to see her laugh. She would often, Ariq thought—and he suspected that her smiles would be sharp.
Her fingers folded over his. Her grip tightened as she hopped to the deck. She stood taller than he’d realized. The top of her head reached his chin.
Then she glanced up, her eyes like jade stones lit by an inner flame, and Ariq sensed that another battle was coming. There was nothing unremarkable behind those green eyes—and this woman might have the power to lay waste to him.
But if she did, he didn’t want to fight it.
She quickly steadied under the weight of her pack, but he kept hold of her fingers. Her gaze briefly met his again, then she looked up as the other flyers began to descend, using her free hand to shield her eyes against the sun. Pink tinged her cheeks.
“My head must not be as big as you thought,” he said. “You should have ridden with your skirt up.”
She laughed and her gaze flew back to his. The pink deepened. Not a sunburn. A blush.
Good. Ariq wanted to lay waste to her, too. Fire in her blood was a promising start.
But not one he could pursue any further now. Commander Saito spoke behind him.
“Good afternoon, Governor Jagungar.” The formality of his greeting didn’t conceal his amusement.
Reluctantly, Ariq released Zenobia’s hand. She glanced at the commander, then up at Ariq again. A slight frown formed between her brows. Her halting ‘thank you’ earlier had probably been all of the Nipponese that she knew. Now she must be uncertain whom Saito had been talking to.
“I’ll speak with him. See that your friends are well,” he told her.
Saito waited at the ship’s side, looking to the west. A dense column of smoke rose from the burning airship. “Did any others survive?”
“In the lifeboats.” Ariq watched the sailors tether Taka’s flyer. “I’ll quarter the passengers and aviators in my town until the French can come for them.”
“Of course you will,” Saito said, stroking his short beard. Ariq suspected that the commander had grown it to give his features a more mature appearance—and to conceal his ready smile. The man was never serious for long. “My insignificant boat cannot hold a small complement of aviators.”
Ariq grinned. A full city could be housed on this ship. Ten years ago, it had housed a city’s worth of soldiers and patrolled the waters to the north that marked the boundary between the territories claimed by the Nipponese and the Golden Empire. But in the past decade, the Khagan had begun to withdraw his forces, recalling them to the mainland. Now the ironship sailed with minimal crew and no objective other than to remain prepared for another war with the Golden Empire.
The recent attacks had given them all more to do. Ariq glanced back at Zenobia. “The woman who arrived with me might have been the marauders’ target.”
“And my ship’s poor defenses cannot protect one woman.”
“They wouldn’t come for her here.”
“Most would not dare attack your town, either.” But Saito nodded, his shrewd gaze falling on Zenobia. “And most wouldn’t have fired on a French battleship.”
“If they’re after her, they’ll risk my town.”
“Are they after her?”
“We’ll find out if they come.” And if they didn’t, Ariq would have the additional time with her that he’d wanted.
If he could get to her. The female mercenary had quickly alighted from the seat behind Taka and moved to Zenobia’s side. The male mercenary jumped from his flyer—and landed with a resounding thunk on the iron deck.
Mechanical legs. Perhaps more of his body had been altered, as well.
Saito studied the man for a long moment before looking to Zenobia again. “Who is she?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“And the other woman . . . is her sister?”
“An ambassador’s wife.” Who was looking in Saito’s direction while Zenobia spoke to her. “He’s in the Red City.”
“The one who arrived with you—is her husband there, as well?”
Husband? Dread thickened in Ariq’s gut. He hadn’t even considered that she might be married. “I don’t know.”
“I believe we will soon.” Saito assumed his polite expression as the woman left Zenobia’s side and approached them with a determined stride and a warm smile. Before she reached them, he added softly, “I see that you found your brother.”
And now Taka stood stiffly by his flyer, his gaze forward, focused on nothing. The sailors nearest to him carefully avoided looking in his direction. Worse than looking through him as if he didn’t exist—yet better than the stares from the sailors who stood farther away.
Ariq wanted to bloody his fists on each one of them. But there was nothing he could do that wouldn’t deepen his brother’s shame and discomfort. He could only try to bear his anger half as well as Taka bore his pain.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he waited as the woman stopped and bowed. His eyes met Zenobia’s over her friend’s upraised bottom. Lips tight, she stared grimly back at him as if daring him to say a word of scorn.
He wouldn’t have. He admired her friend’s courage. It was never easy to leave one’s home for a city of strangers.
The woman’s cheeks were flushed when she straightened again. Slowly, she said, “We are very grateful to you and your men.”
“We are pleased by your safety. It gives us great pleasure to assist you.” Saito bowed politely in return. “My name is Saito Jiro. It is my honor to command this ship. Beside me is Governor Jagungar.”
She glanced at Ariq. “Thank you very much, Governor. My companion, Madame Inkslinger, is especially grateful to you as well.”
Madame. A married woman.
Ariq’s fists clenched behind his back. But there was nothing to be done. And his fear from earlier that day had been realized.
He had been too late.
* * *
Zenobia couldn’t bear watching Helene speak to the two men. Her skin itched with the need to protect her friend. Desperately, she looked to Mara.
“She’s doing well,” the mercenary told her. “They are speaking to her very simply, but she’s not embarrassing herself. She uses French terms when she doesn’t know the proper word, and they both seem to understand her.”
Relief and shame touched Zenobia at the same time. She hadn’t given Helene enough credit. “What are they saying now?”
“The commander is reassuring her that we are going to rescue the men in the lifeboats. Your man, the governor—he is offering us a place to stay in his town.”
Her man? “He doesn’t look very pleased about it, does he?”
His jaw tight, his body stiff. No sign of the humor or interest that she’d witnessed in him earlier. His expression seemed to have hardened into stone.
“No, he doesn’t. But I believe his brother might be the cause, instead—the young man that I rode with. No, don’t look. Enough people are already staring.”
Though burning with curiosity, Zenobia didn’t glance back at the younger man. “So he is a governor?”
“What is his name?”
“I . . . don’t know for certain.” Mara sounded amused.
Zenobia glanced at the mercenary. “Why?”
“I began listening shortly before Mrs. Auger began to speak with them. Nothing of importance—they only wondered who you both were. But it was familiar speech. I suspect they are friends.”
“So why would that mean he doesn’t have a name?”
“He does. But it might not be his true name, and more of a joke between them. The commander called him ‘jagungar.’ It means ‘one hundred arms’ in Mongolian, but more informally refers to a squid.” Mara’s brows arched. “Perhaps he saw how the governor wouldn’t let go of your hand.”
One hundred arms. Zenobia’s heart thumped.
Mara’s smile faded. “What is it?”
“Oh. Well.” She might end up sounding like a fool, but hiding information from her guards was even more foolish. “I think he’s the Kraken King.”
The mercenary froze. After a long second, her gaze locked on the governor. “Why?”
“A tattoo on his back. It’s the same as one that my brother drew in a letter.” Which was not strong evidence, Zenobia knew. “But then I thought I must be wrong. Many men must have similar tattoos. And when we spoke, he was very . . . very . . .”
Appealing. In so many ways.
Blast her. “Civil. He laughed once—and answered all of my questions.” So many questions. Oh, and she did feel like a fool. “It’s silly, isn’t it? Of all the people in this part of the world, what are the chances that we should happen across one of the most powerful men in the Horde rebellion?”
“In this sparsely populated part of Australia, where smugglers and rebels often conduct their business? The odds are better than you think.”
Oh, dear. “Should we worry?”
“We should be careful,” Mara said. “But he has no reason to suspect your identity. And though he might be a dangerous man, I’ve never heard that he’s a cruel one.”
That was a relief to hear. “I’ll be cautious. Though I can’t imagine that any other danger we encounter on this journey will compare to today’s.”
“It was enough excitement for you?”
More than enough. “A full adventure’s worth. I believe Lady Lynx might soon encounter a band of marauders on flyers.”
But of course, Lady Lynx would be the one to kill them all—then later discover that sending the pilots to attack her had been the villain’s plan to cover up a more dastardly plot. It would be a lovely twist, no matter what the governor had said of real men finding better ways to silence their subordinates.
“And encounter a new love interest?” Mara suggested.
For Lady Lynx? Why would Zenobia do that? It would only complicate—
Oh. Mara’s not-so-subtle glance toward the governor finally sank in.
“No,” Zenobia said softly. “I wouldn’t do that.”
She might take every other event from today and transform it into a new story, but not those few minutes on the flyer. A few minutes when a man had looked at her with interest, though he didn’t know who she was and had nothing to gain by speaking to her. Zenobia didn’t have any expectation of it ever happening again.
So she didn’t intend to share that experience or transform it into a story for someone else, but instead hold it very closely for her own.
Ahead of her, Helene bowed again. Taking her leave of the men—or just one of them. The governor nodded to the ship’s commander and started toward Zenobia.
No. Not toward her. His flat gaze slid past Zenobia and he called out to someone behind her.
“He and his brother are taking the flyers back to their town,” Mara said quickly.
Zenobia looked back. The young man was reaching for the tether hooked to his balloon. “Are we leaving with them?”
“No. You will remain aboard the ironship until it reaches port.”
Her heart thumped. Mara hadn’t answered her; the governor had. He’d come to a halt beside her, his expression still hard.
His brother had somehow caused this upset? Her earlier glance at the young man hadn’t given her an indication of why anyone had stared. Red dirt stained his tunic and trousers—yet the governor’s had been stained, too, with blood and dirt. And Zenobia herself appeared a complete ruin.
Perhaps she would find out later. “If you’ll agree to it, I’d like to send my valet with you on the third flyer. He can prepare for our arrival.”
Not that there was anything to prepare. Everything but the clothes they wore and the pack on her back had been destroyed on the airship. But Cooper and Mara always liked to scout ahead, if possible.
“Your valet?” With a slight frown, the governor glanced at Cooper. “You may.”
He nodded in response and looked at her again before continuing on. For a moment his interest seemed to return, his dark eyes lingering on her face a little too long. Then a long step carried him past her.
Blast it all. She wanted a few more seconds to hold on to.
“Sir!” Her breath caught when he looked back, because he was doing it again—his gaze searching hers as if he wanted a few more seconds, too. “What town is it? Where are we going?”
“Home,” he said softly. “But many people call it Krakentown.”
Krakentown. Zenobia had heard of the place before. Her brother’s letter describing his journey to the town was in her pack, and she read it over again as the Nipponese ironship steamed toward the Australian coast.
His wife, Yasmeen, had flown a passenger aboard Lady Nergüi to Krakentown almost a year previous. Only an overnight stay, Archimedes and Yasmeen hadn’t gotten any farther past the docks than to the nearest tavern, and Archimedes must not have known that the Kraken King governed the town or he’d have included that in his letter. Instead he’d only described the town itself, built up around a river at the mouth of a shark-filled bay. Despite expecting a shantytown or a lawless rum dive like the smugglers’ havens to the south, he’d found an orderly, quiet settlement. Zenobia suspected that he would have called the town boring if it hadn’t lived up to its name so well.
Kraken shells dotted the town. The giant armored bodies had been hollowed out, then used for storage and, as in the case of the tavern where they’d passed the evening, as the exterior structures for businesses and homes.
He’d sketched the view from inside the tavern. Then an overhead view of the town from the airship, the enormous kraken shells looming over their neighboring houses.
When she’d first received the letter, Zenobia had been delighted by the thought of such a place, and a little suspicious that Archimedes was having her on. But by the time the ironship neared the town and met the ferry that would take them across the shallower waters to the dock, Zenobia was ready to toss the letter over the side. She appreciated every single word her brother had ever written to her. But just once, she would have liked to see something that he hadn’t seen first.
* * *
She didn’t expect to have her wish answered so quickly.
The beached kraken was the most horrid, fascinating thing she’d ever laid eyes on. She’d studied drawings. Read descriptions. She’d written about them in so many adventures. Yet nothing compared to standing beside one of the monsters—even a dead one.
Hardly able to think of anything else while she’d been escorted through the town to her lodgings, Zenobia had returned to the beach and the kraken as quickly as possible. Looking at it now, she scribbled impressions into her notebook, but didn’t think she’d ever need to refer to them again. She couldn’t possibly forget this.
Covered by plated iron, the massive body lay in the sand. The bulging mass of its head tapered to a thick cone that flattened at the very tip, forming a shovel-like protrusion wide enough for twenty men to stand upon. Barnacles crusted the armor. A spear still protruded from its giant eye, the radius larger than her two arms held open wide. The fluid dripping from the eye cavity stank of ammonia.
Her own eyes stinging from the smell, Zenobia covered her nose and moved past the head, where the tentacles formed a mountain of tangled coils, as if the creature had writhed out its last seconds in agony on the sand. The nearest arm was thicker than she was tall.
And this was a small kraken.
Huge chunks had been cut from several arms, cavities of flesh big enough to walk into—the townspeople had harvested some of the meat before it spoiled. Dark gray skin stretched over the upper sides of the tentacles. The smooth gleam gave the appearance of wetness, but she discovered the sun had already dried this one when she skimmed her fingertips over the taut flesh. The underside of the tentacle was a paler gray, the suckers rimmed with pink, and the folded skin around the dimples was still moist.
Though revolted, Zenobia couldn’t help herself. She prodded at the lip of the pink sucker, feeling for the teeth. When flexed, the suckers had razor sharp edges, like the mouth of a lamprey. It was too easy to imagine these tentacles coiling around a man while the suckers tore away his flesh, shoving his ravaged body toward its mouth, where the kraken’s beak would crush bones and finish ripping him apart.
Zenobia jerked her hand away from the sucker, heart pounding. Dear God. Helene’s shout had nearly scared the life from her.
She glanced back. Her friend stood near the town’s open gate, her hand over her mouth and half turned away from the sight of the kraken—trying not to be sick again, Zenobia realized. Aside from its gaping eye, the kraken hadn’t begun to truly smell, though it couldn’t be long before rot set in. The heat and humidity were oppressive. If not for her dunking in the ocean, Zenobia feared that she would have begun to smell by now, too.
Helene obviously wouldn’t be coming any closer to speak with her. Zenobia trudged through the soft white sand, her notebook clutched in her hand. Farther along the beach, a boy chased through a flock of gulls gathering to pick at the butchered end of a tentacle.
Always collecting information, Mara chatted with the young townswoman watching the boy—and Cooper stood in the shade provided by the kraken’s enormous body, watching over them all.
Lieutenant Blanchett waited with Helene, offering a handkerchief and a steadying arm. The officer had reached the lifeboats after leaving Zenobia and Helene in their cabin; Zenobia had been relieved to see him among the others when the ironship had rescued the aviators. Not everyone had made it, including the airship’s captain.
“Oh, Geraldine,” Helene told her. “I was coming to tell you that I’d found a seamstress’s shop, and she has ready-made items that she’s willing to alter for us. But the lieutenant has just told me the most dreadful news.”
Zenobia looked to the lieutenant, whose grave expression had not lightened since the first aviator’s body had been pulled from the water. This day had been horrible enough. What could be worse?
“It will be a month before we reach the Red City!”
Not so very terrible, then. Just odd. “We flew all the way from Denmark in a few weeks,” Zenobia said. “A small continent cannot be crossed in less time?”
“If we had transportation,” Blanchett said. “But no airships are available. They’ve all been destroyed by the same marauders who fired on us. Commander Saito has orders to remain in these waters for the next few months, so he can’t carry us to the Red City. If I write a letter, he’s offered to post it when they rendezvous with another ironship to the south. But it’s likely that several weeks will pass before the message reaches the embassy and they can arrange for a ship to retrieve us.”
“It won’t take so long,” Helene said. “My husband is waiting for me. He’ll begin searching for us soon.”
“But he couldn’t know to look for us here. Our airship might have gone down anywhere in the Western Ocean.” Blanchett shook his head. “I am sorry, madame. I know this is a disappointment.”
Judging by Helene’s pinched, worried face, far worse than a disappointment. Zenobia asked, “And what of traveling by land?”
“It shouldn’t be attempted. We have no supplies, few weapons, and little more than the clothes on our backs. I’ve also been advised that traveling through aboriginal territories without permission or a guide would strain the relationships between these settlers and the tribes—and I can’t know what they would make of a regiment of marines marching through their lands. Far better to stay where we are welcomed and won’t cause any unrest.”
A sensible answer, yet a distressing one. Helene’s eyes filled with tears and she turned her face away.
Zenobia took her hand. “I’m sure there will be another way, Helene.”
With determination firming her lips, Helene nodded.
Zenobia gave her fingers another reassuring squeeze. They would find a way. Though in truth, she wouldn’t have minded staying in Krakentown. A full month to sketch and take notes, and to talk with the people. Several of the townspeople she’d already met had spoken French, the trader’s language, so she would get along perfectly well. The town itself seemed pleasant, and even though most of the people had apparently been smugglers or pirates at one time, it was nothing like a smugglers’ den.
Though no one had said as much, it was possible that the town was so orderly because the Kraken King governed it with an iron fist. But even if that were true, Zenobia had known many sorts of fists. Some only looked to hurt, some only defended. Others gripped tight and held on.
She’d have liked to see which it was. But she owed her friend, so they would not be staying long.
Even if one reason to stay longer was walking through the town gates toward them. Though both Lieutenant Blanchett and Helene outranked her in importance, the governor’s dark gaze fixed on Zenobia and held steady, as if there was no one else worth his notice.
She suppressed the urge to smooth a hand over her tangled hair and to blot the sweat from her brow.
This was so absurd. Knowing who he was, she simply couldn’t account for her reaction to him. He’d rescued her, but so had Mara and Cooper—several times over—and her stomach didn’t flutter and tighten with nerves when she looked at them.
If anything, that awareness should have served as a deterrent. The last person for whom she’d felt a stirring of attraction had been her brother’s business partner and friend. She’d known Bilson for years; she’d thought he would be the perfect companion. A charming man with engaging manners, he’d always provided entertaining company.
He’d also been behind Zenobia’s first kidnapping—an attempt to blackmail her brother and his wife.
And so what if the governor had shown interest? Surely she wasn’t so desperate for attention. If she had been, her heart would have fallen prey to one of the many men who’d arrived in Fladstrand after her identity as Archimedes Fox’s sister had been revealed. Some of them had been quite adept at pretending their attention had nothing to do with her brother’s fortune or her own writing fame. Many had been as handsome as the governor, too, with strong stubborn jaws and wide shoulders. Others had possessed dark brooding eyes beneath brows that hovered like thunderclouds.
And none of those men had reputations as dangerous as the Kraken King’s. She should have been frightened. It was a failing of practicality on her part that, instead of fearing him, she was only a little wary.
So it was absurd. But she would continue to enjoy his attention for now—and the way her heart beat a little faster when he was near.
Quite a bit faster. And she couldn’t seem to focus on anyone else, either. When he joined them, standing almost directly to her right, she was aware that the governor nodded in response to Blanchett’s greeting, yet she didn’t have a clue what the lieutenant had actually said.
But she knew the governor’s gaze had never left hers.
He didn’t begin with niceties. “You’ve found your residence?”
“Yes, thank you. Cooper showed us. It’s lovely.” Not a single house as she was accustomed to, but a collection of structures with graceful, tiered roofs, all sharing a private garden. “I hope your arm is feeling better?”
The bullet wound no longer bled, at least—or it had been bandaged. He’d changed into a clean tunic, and no red stained the white sleeve.
“It feels as if I was shot,” he said.
“I supposed hauling me out of the water didn’t help it.”
“No.” His gaze swept her length. “You were much heavier than you look.”
Helene gasped softly, her eyes widening, but Zenobia had to laugh. While smuggling Horde technology and weapons, he must have concealed many valuables inside other items. He could probably guess with fair accuracy how much gold made up the difference between her apparent weight and the weight that he’d lifted.
“It was the seawater saturating my clothes,” she said.
“Of course.” His brief smile made her want to laugh all over again before he looked to the lieutenant. “You’ve found the accommodations for your men, as well?”
Blanchett inclined his head. “We are in your debt.”
“So you are.”
With a nod, the governor continued on toward the beach. Zenobia stared after him. His bluntness was rather refreshing. Most men she knew would have insisted that no obligation existed, until they needed to call that debt in.
But it meant that she had an obligation to the Kraken King, too. It just hadn’t been so openly acknowledged.
He looked back. “Walk with me, Lady Inkslinger.”
“Oh, but I—” Would love to. Even if it was absurd. She glanced at Helene, who regarded her with mild incredulity. Zenobia didn’t take time to wonder if her friend was amazed by the governor’s interest, or that Zenobia returned it. “Why don’t you go on ahead for a fitting at the dressmaker’s? Take Mara with you now, and I’ll be along shortly. We’ll all need new clothes if we are to travel soon.”
Reminding Helene of her need to reach the Red City did the trick. Determination replaced the disbelief. She probably wouldn’t think of Zenobia and the governor again until she was at the dressmaker’s being stuck with pins.
The governor waited for her in the sand—and he had called her Lady Inkslinger, in the same way that her sister-in-law used the term to describe airships: a woman of dignity and nobility. That wouldn’t do.
She caught up to him. “I fear you have mistaken my importance, sir. I’m only a companion, and—”
Well. She couldn’t say anything to that. He continued toward the kraken, his hands clasped behind his back. Zenobia tucked her notebook at her waist and walked beside him.
She looked up at the creature’s enormous mass. “What will you do with it? Surely you don’t let it rot so close to town?”
“No. We skin the tentacles and take as much meat as the town and the local tribes will use. Then we tow the arms out to sea.”
“Only the arms?”
“The shell is too heavy.” He tapped the kraken’s armored hull with the toe of his boot. The iron answered with a dull thud. “At least while it’s full. We build a fire around the base and cook everything inside down to charcoal.”
Turning the shell into a too-hot oven. “How long does that take?”
“A few weeks.”
So she would not be here to witness the entire process. “I’m told that the kraken are drawn here by the pumping machinery underground. That they walk right up into the town on their tentacles.”
“Yes. We try to kill them before they destroy too many buildings.”
“With a harpoon spear through the eye?”
“By any means necessary. But the spear or a cannon is usually the only means possible.”
She glanced toward the leaking eye. “Is that your spear?”
The governor smiled faintly. “No. We have whalers in town who are more familiar with harpoons. If they had failed, I would be waiting with the cannon.”
They apparently hadn’t failed. “What is the pumping machinery for?”
He took a long look at her face before answering. “The pumps collect water during the rainy season to store through the summer.”
“But you have a river.”
“And a week ago, it was dry.”
Zenobia could hardly imagine it. If there was one thing Fladstrand never lacked, it was rain. But a town that relied on a store of water might be vulnerable to a villain’s mad plans.
She penciled a reminder into her notebook, and saw a question she’d written while examining the corpse. The governor might have an answer.
When she glanced up, his attention had narrowed on her notes. “What is that?”
“I write many letters to friends,” she said, which was true enough—even if, as a reason for keeping her notebook, it was a lie. But Zenobia had told this one so many times, it almost felt like truth. “This reminds me of sights that I’ve seen, so that I don’t always struggle for topics. Why don’t the kraken attack the ironship?”
His gaze met hers again. “It’s too big.”
“That only explains why they can’t capsize it,” she said. “But the engines must draw the kraken—and the megalodons, too. That’s why no ships in the west use engines anymore. Only sails. And everyone knows that kraken fixate on their prey. That ironship should be covered with tentacles. Yet there are none.”
“You will write that to your friends?”
He gave her another long look. “They drag nets full of jellyfish beneath the ship,” he finally said. “The venom stuns any kraken or sharks that come too close.”
Jellyfish. Incredible. She jotted the answer. The governor remained silent as he walked beside her. Did he think her rude? She hoped not. If she could accept his blunt manner, then he could wait for her to write a few notes when inspiration struck.
She tucked her notebook away again as they rounded the kraken’s cone. A stream of black ink darkened the sand.
Zenobia sighed. She needed ink. And more pens. She’d had the sense to bring Archimedes’ letters and her work—those would have been irreplaceable—but there was still so much that needed to be replaced.
“I don’t suppose that ink is usable?”
“No. But we’ll extract what’s left in the sacs.” He stopped to look down at her. “Would you like some?”
“Yes.” And she would write an adventure using the ink from a kraken. Simply wonderful. “Thank you.”
“You’re easily pleased. But so am I.” His gaze dropped to her smile before lifting to meet her eyes again. “I’ve been thinking of your valet.”
“Cooper?” Startled, Zenobia looked to the mercenary. He’d followed them around to this side of the kraken, keeping her in his sight. “Why?”
“Because he’s not with your husband.”
“Your friend called you Madame Inkslinger. You are married?”
“Oh, yes.” Sometimes she forgot. “But Cooper is not just a valet. He fulfills many roles.”
“Except the role he was hired for. Your husband isn’t with you.”
“Is he a fool?”
“No. He’s dead.” Zenobia expected some response to that announcement—sympathy, surprise—but she hadn’t anticipated the governor’s smile. “That pleases you?”
“Are you still in mourning?”
“Then it pleases me. I feared I was too late.”
“For what?” she had to ask. Her heart thudded when he stepped closer.
His voice lowered. “On the flyer, I liked the feel of you against me. Now I’d like to feel you beneath me.”
Her lungs became a vacuum. She stared up at him, her mind just as empty. Had he truly said that? With no apology or hesitation in his expression—and no humor now, either. He watched her struggle for an answer, his intense gaze focused on her face.
“You’re very bold, sir,” she finally managed.
Only a few minutes ago, she’d found his bluntness refreshing. Now she wasn’t certain whether to be flattered by his interest, or to be insulted that he thought she could be so quickly had.
But her sense was returning, and she realized there might be more to his request that hadn’t been said. “Is this a condition of our staying in this town?”
A frown darkened his face. “No. I ask because I would enjoy it.”
Of course he would. He was a man. It was common knowledge that they always did.
She pursed her lips. “But would I enjoy it?”
He gave a short laugh that spread into a grin. “If you’ll have me, I’ll make your pleasure my only goal.”
“Then I’ll consider it,” she told him, even as she told herself, I won’t.
Oh, but despite that quick resolution, she already was considering it. This could be an adventure of another sort. She was an independent woman. Everyone believed her to be a widow. Her reputation wouldn’t suffer. And like the kraken, lovemaking was something that she’d read about but had no real experience with of her own. What harm would it do to know firsthand?
So perhaps she could be tempted. Her body already was, with these flutterings and tightenings. Her attraction to him made little sense, but rejecting his offer didn’t make much sense, either. An opportunity like this with a man who intrigued her physically and intellectually might not come again. She just had to be careful.
“I’ll convince you,” he said softly, though she’d already done the job herself. But when she glanced up, he’d turned away from her to look behind them. “You should step back. We’re going to start cutting the tentacles.”
A dozen men were coming across the sand, shirtless and on bare feet, carrying two twenty-foot-long serrated blades between them.
She looked at the governor in surprise. “You saw through the tentacles?”
“Yes,” he said, then called out, “Taka!”
His brother glanced over. She couldn’t understand anything of what the governor told him—but when he pointed to the top of the twisted heap of arms, she realized he was telling the other men which tentacle to start with.
She waited until he’d finished. “I assumed you’d use a cutting machine.”
He looked down at her again. “We used to. But when the tentacles tear free of the body, anything they land on is crushed beneath them.”
“And one crushed the machine?” Zenobia guessed.
He stripped off his tunic as he answered, then bent to remove his boots.
Oh, my. On the flyer, her fingers hadn’t deceived her. Tight muscles defined his broad chest and shoulders, his every movement a beautiful display of strength beneath smooth skin that glistened with perspiration. His abdomen rippled as he stood again.
Zenobia gestured faintly behind her. “I think I will stay and watch.”
“Stand clear of the tentacles.”
“And find shade. You aren’t accustomed to this sun.”
Or this heat. “I’ll send Cooper to find a parasol.”
He didn’t respond. After a long second, Zenobia looked up from his impressive torso. She expected a grin, but instead of laughing at her, his dark gaze roamed over her expression, as if slowly measuring the arch of her brows and the curve of her lips.
“My home is near yours.” His gaze settled on her mouth. “Come tonight.”
Yes, she wanted to tell him. But she needed to be careful.
“I’ll consider it,” she said again.
* * *
At the bathhouse, Ariq soaped and rinsed away the squid, but skipped the soak. Any other night, ribald calls wondering at his hurry would have filled the bathing chamber, followed by sly observations about how well Lady Inkslinger held a pencil—most of them gleeful that it was finally Ariq’s turn to suffer through a courtship. His attention toward Zenobia hadn’t gone unnoticed. But after hours of sawing through a kraken’s tentacles, exhaustion had quieted the men sitting in the heated bath, and Ariq escaped with few suggestions tossed his way.
Fastening his embroidered tunic, he emerged from the steam-filled chambers into an evening almost as humid. Clouds gathered in the northern sky. More rain coming. Not an airship in sight. Now that the marauders were dead, the airships would come again, too.
Unless it hadn’t been the end of them. Ariq didn’t think that it was.
Not with two men waiting by the cliffs. When Ariq had hailed them, they’d responded with a barrage of bullets. They hadn’t spoken a word before Ariq and Taka’s answering shots had killed them, but their presence told Ariq enough.
They hadn’t participated in the attack on the airship. If destroying the airship had been their only goal, they’d have all gone. So those two men were supposed to report back. That meant there was someone to report back to. Someone giving orders.
That person could hire more men—or recruit them—and it could all begin again. Ariq and Taka had helped cut off the arms today. They hadn’t gotten the head.
And that head had decided to sacrifice a dozen men to bring down a French airship.
Maybe to target Zenobia and the documents she carried. Maybe another reason. But whatever the marauders’ goal, too many people had already died for it.
Ariq would find the head. Then he’d stick the bloodied skull on a pike and parade it through his town.
Quietly parade it. He paused as he caught sight of Yesui Besud. A former soldier with strong fingers and an archer’s eye, she came out of the women’s side of the bathhouse, her young son in tow. Yesui’s husband had captained one of the first airships destroyed. She might like a head on a pike. But Ariq couldn’t forget the boy. Destroying an enemy should never be more important than the people he fought for—and by the time he’d been her son’s age, Ariq had seen more heads than any boy should ever have to. He wouldn’t display one for her son to see.
“Good evening, Ariq Noyan.” Yesui still used his title, though he hadn’t commanded a unit of soldiers since they’d left the rebellion. She glanced at his embroidered tunic with a faint smile. “On your way to the soup house?”
Where he would have eaten anyway. But everyone knew that Lady Inkslinger would be there tonight, too. “I am.”
“I’ll walk with you.” Yesui fell into step beside Ariq. At a word from her, the boy ran ahead. “I spent ten minutes scrubbing the ink from his feet and hands.”
Ariq hadn’t spent so much time. Ink still stained his hand and arm. But he had two bottles to give Zenobia, and four barrels that would sell for a substantial sum in the Hindustani markets.
“So he learned to avoid the black sand,” Ariq said. “What did you learn?”
“Almost nothing,” she said. “She calls herself Mara Cooper. Her family fled Champa two generations ago.”
A region on the mainland’s southeastern peninsula. Her accent would be nothing like Ariq’s. “And her husband?”
“Is from England.”
The small labor colony at the far western border of the Golden Empire. Over a decade before, the native population had risen up against the empire’s occupation—an event made significant only because the Great Khagan had withdrawn his forces from the colony rather than crush the revolution. That withdrawal had been among the first visible cracks in the Khagan’s power—cracks created by the pressure of the rebellion closer to home, and from the efforts of soldiers like Yesui.
“Mara claims they are both servants, but she’s no more a lady’s maid than I am,” Yesui continued. “She asked questions.”
So had Zenobia. “About?”
Yesui wouldn’t have answered them. No one in this town would say anything of their neighbors to strangers. She would have affected a shy smile and insisted that she didn’t like to gossip.
Neighbor to neighbor, they chatted like wagtails. By the end of the night, everyone would know that Ariq had worn his best tunic.
“She is always making notes.”