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Krakentown, Western Australia
My dear brother,
I’m sorry to send a dashed-off note, but when I have told you all that has happened you will understand my haste.
Helene and I have not yet reached the Red City. Our naval escort came under attack by marauders and our airship was destroyed. Don’t be alarmed; we are both well. We were rescued from the water and taken to a nearby settlement named Krakentown.
It’s a well-named town. The first thing we saw was a kraken—fortunately, the creature was dead on the beach rather than attacking our boat. It is a small town, and rough, but we’ve been treated well by the residents. One could never say that our lodgings were fit for a king—but they suit Helene and me perfectly.
The good Lieutenant Blanchett suspects—though he has not yet convinced me—that we will have to wait a full month here before word of our predicament reaches Helene’s husband in the Red City. My intention is to find another route that will allow us to leave before the week is out. If I don’t—or if, before that time, the French hear of the attack and come—I’ll let you know that my plans have changed.
I must have this letter in the lieutenant’s hands by morning, so please forgive the rushed adieu. Don’t respond to me here—we should shortly be traveling to the Red City. Direct any correspondence there, instead, and give my love and assurances of my safety to everyone at home.
With warmest affection,
The French lieutenants didn’t recognize the two dead men Meeng had brought up from the cliffs to the town’s icehouse.
After the attack on their airship, Commander Saito’s men had dragged the bodies of three marauders from the sea around the burning wreckage. They lay alongside the other two now. The officers didn’t recognize those men, either.
Ariq sent the lieutenants on. Surrounded by stacks of pale kraken meat, his breath billowing in the chill, he crouched beside the five bodies for another half hour, grimly searching for identifying marks. One had a mechanical foot, crudely built and grafted to his ankle; he’d have limped. Two could have been Nipponese or from the eastern end of the Golden Empire. The remaining three were either westerners or from the Cossack territories within the empire. They each wore rough tunics and trousers, but their helmets were of good quality and a design similar to the aviators who guarded the Great Khagan’s royal palace in Shangdu. The balloon flyers they’d used were Nipponese.
Nothing here told Ariq where they’d come from. But whoever had recruited them had access to a Nipponese supplier. The Red Wall had only recently been opened and foreign trade with Nippon was still strictly monitored. Whether the flyers were smuggled or purchased, he should be able to trace how they had ended up in the marauders’ hands.
Not much to pursue. But long years fighting in the rebellion against the Great Khagan had taught him to follow trails, and not finding one didn’t mean an enemy hadn’t been through the region. Sometimes it meant the trail had been erased. Nothing about these men pointed him in any one direction. Maybe that only indicated that their recruiter had a wide range of resources available to him. But it might be a deliberate attempt to conceal the recruiter’s identity.
Whatever the truth, Ariq wouldn’t find the answers here. If these marauders had been recruited to a cause, they would be more difficult to trace. But if they’d been hired, someone would have employed them before.
So Ariq would soon be visiting the smugglers’ dens with photographs of these men in hand.
He tossed a canvas sheet over the bodies and stood. Only one person in town possessed a ferrotype camera, but the old pirate queen would be asleep by now. These could wait until morning.
Wooden steps led to the heavy door. Built from a kraken shell and buried underground, the icehouse opened directly into the northern heart of the town. Outside, the heat and humidity closed around him. The moon struggled to peek through the mounting clouds.
Ariq started toward the bridge that would take him to the south side of town. A somber group of French aviators walked west along the street—to the tavern by the docks, most likely. At this time of night, there were few other places to go, and nowhere else to lift a glass to the men who’d fallen that day.
Did they have money? The French airship had come under sudden attack. The airmen wouldn’t have had time to collect their possessions before escaping to the lifeboats. Some might have had a few coins stashed in pockets. Not all of them, though—but it wouldn’t be the first time people had come to his town with nothing and needed help until they could support themselves. He’d have to speak to the lieutenants again in the morning. He wouldn’t allow the townspeople to be stretched thin trying to quarter a few dozen aviators. Ariq would cover their expenses, as long as the town saw something in return.
There was always work to be done. A beached kraken brought more work. The tentacles still needed to be skinned. The meat in the icehouse needed to be preserved. And if that labor didn’t suit any of them, farms and gardens could always use extra hands for a month.
A month. Then they’d be gone. As would the women who’d traveled with them.
It didn’t matter. Whether she left a month from now or tomorrow, Zenobia was already out of Ariq’s reach. She’d made that clear.
But her decision not to visit his bed was the only thing that was clear. Because she’d lied to him. She’d said nothing had changed. It had changed, though. He’d watched it happen. Zenobia had left to speak with her guard and when she’d returned, her expression had been a shield and a sword, concealing her thoughts and keeping Ariq at bay.
He didn’t know what Mara Cooper had told her. He’d thought the mercenary had discovered who Ariq was and that his reputation had frightened her. But Zenobia had said she wasn’t afraid of him.
Ariq had believed that, even if he couldn’t trust anything else she said.
Whatever the reason, she’d made her decision, and little remained of the hope and anticipation that had burned in his chest almost from the moment he’d plucked her out of the sea.
A loss wasn’t always a defeat, but Ariq couldn’t fight for her heart—no matter how much he wanted to. No matter how much he wanted her.
Battles had to be chosen, and Ariq didn’t have time to engage in this one. He needed to find whoever had ordered the attacks on the airships. If they continued, the Nipponese empress wouldn’t attempt to locate one band of marauders in settlements along the western coast; she’d simply destroy them all.
So Ariq would try the smugglers’ dens. He didn’t like leaving his town. He didn’t like leaving Zenobia. She probably wasn’t the marauders’ target—they’d destroyed many airships, not just hers—but she did have secrets, a pack full of documents and gold, and two mercenaries as guards. She must be expecting trouble. And as long as she was in his town, Zenobia was under his protection.
But neither the town nor Zenobia was undefended. And staying here, hoping that the marauders would drop into his lap, could be more dangerous for them all.
Rain began to fall in heavy drops as he crossed the bridge. A thick and oppressive quiet accompanied the pattering rain. The houses stood farther apart on the southern end of town, the gardens more extensive. Low walls and gates marked the boundary of each. Farther along the road, a lantern stood beside his own gate—always lit at night, so the townspeople could easily find his home if they needed him.
Someone waited for him now.
She stood in the shadows, but he knew immediately. Zenobia. Her brown hair in a messy pile, her body tall and slender, her spine straight—straighter now that she’d spotted him.
So she’d come after all.
Fire sparked through his blood. Why had she changed her mind again? But he didn’t care why. Even when she’d looked at him with heat in her eyes, he hadn’t expected her to visit that very night. That she had come was a gift he wouldn’t question. Soon he’d have that messy hair spread across his pillow. He’d have her prim mouth open and panting under his. He’d have her long legs wrapped around his back, her hands clinging to his shoulders. He’d feel her against his skin again.
But she wasn’t alone. Two more figures waited in the shadows behind her. Zenobia’s guards.
The rush of heat cooled. Ariq knew to choose his battles.
Sometimes they chose him.
The vestiges of hope still lurking in his chest died when he saw her expression. No interest, no smile. Her face could have been carved from marble.
She didn’t move as he drew near. Her pale hands were empty except for a letter she held tight against her stomach—protecting it from the rain. But she didn’t need to carry weapons; the mercenaries behind her did.
Her chin lifted when he reached his gate. “Governor. Might we speak?”
After being targeted by her stony stare, he’d half expected a bullet. He wasn’t sure that talking with her was any safer. The last words she’d spoken to him had been a knife to his gut—and he still didn’t know why she’d decided against having him.
Color darkened her cheeks. “Only to speak.”
Of course. He opened his gate. “Come out of the rain.”
If she’d come for any other reason, he’d have taken her to his personal quarters. Instead he pushed past the door to the reception hall and led her around the screen into the main room. At the rear of the hall, the doors to the courtyard stood open. Light from Taka’s building spilled across the small pond in front of his walk. A possum’s eyes gleamed from the branches of a eucalyptus.
The mercenaries didn’t follow them in. Ariq touched a spark lighter to a lamp. In the rising glow, he watched Zenobia slowly take in the sparse room. Water dripped from her hair and cheeks, but she didn’t stop to wipe it way. He suspected that if she’d had her notebook, she’d have been scribbling a description of the long rectangular building, the wooden beams overhead, the low table and seats. She wouldn’t see much of him revealed here. Though other families’ reception halls were warm and welcoming, his wasn’t. Strictly utilitarian, the room had exactly what it needed and no more.
Ariq clasped his hands behind his back. He wanted to dry her hair and face. But he wouldn’t touch her or come any nearer than he was.
As he watched her, a low thrum started beneath his feet, rumbling faintly through the boards. Despite the lamp burning in Taka’s quarters, his brother wasn’t home. He must have gone to the underground chamber beyond the south wall of their property when the rain had started.
Zenobia moved to the courtyard door and looked out. “What is that? It feels like an airship engine.”
“It’s the water pumps.”
“Won’t the vibrations attract another kraken to the beach?”
“No large ones. A season usually passes before another adult moves into the territory.” And he didn’t want to talk about the pumps. He’d told her they collected water for the town to store through the dry season. That was only partially true, and he didn’t want her to begin questioning the missing part. “Why did you come, if not for my bed?”
Her body tensed before she turned. “My friend and I must continue on to the Red City.”
“Not in a month,” she said. Her expression still resembled marble when she faced him, but carved by an anxious sculptor, pinching her brow and lips. “Within the week. We cannot wait for word to reach Helene’s husband and for him to arrange for a ship to retrieve us. Are there truly no airships that will come?”
Why couldn’t she wait? Was she in danger? She must be desperate to risk traveling without her French escort.
But the last time he had asked her reasons, she’d said she didn’t owe him an explanation. Ariq wouldn’t expect a different answer now.