Read an Excerpt
Altun Mining Camp, Nyungar Territory
My dear brother,
In the past two days, I have received four offers of marriage. Either I have bloomed into a ravishing beauty on this route from Krakentown to the smugglers’ dens, or the men in Altun are desperate enough to ask for the hand of any female passing through.
I suspect it is the latter. I’m told that gold was discovered in the region a dozen years ago and the population of this town swelled to over ten thousand souls. Only a few prospectors remain now, unless their ghosts are residing in the abandoned buildings, and the men outnumber the women twenty to one.
The town’s blacksmith was the first to ask me—not because he was the most eager, but because his shop was the first we visited after my hired man Cooper was injured by a boilerworm. I might have been hasty refusing his proposal. The blacksmith has proved quite competent while treating Cooper, and he possesses a great many tools in his workshop. If he learned how susceptible I am to men who bathe more than once every year, he would have leapt into a tub that very moment, and my heart would be in certain danger. But he hasn’t washed, so I will continue on to the Red City and live with the regret of knowing that happiness was within my reach, but the soap was unfortunately not.
Still a wretched and lonely widow,
Zenobia sighed as she folded the letter. She’d already warned Archimedes to stay away from Krakentown, so there was no need to send another message in code, but guarding her identity had forced her into the habit of caution. Therefore her letter said almost nothing, except that she was alive and traveling to the Red City via the smugglers’ dens.
There was much more she would have liked to tell her brother. But within a few months, she would be able to tell him in person. When he learned of the attack on the airship, nothing would stop Archimedes and his wife from coming. But at least they would fly to the Red City instead of Krakentown, where he might be recognized as the smuggler Wolfram Gunther-Baptiste.
One day, she might write a story inspired by that part of his career. She would call it The Idiot Smuggler Who Destroyed the Horde Rebellion’s War Machines and Changed His Name to Avoid the Rebel Assassins.
Zenobia would take pity on the idiot’s sister and leave her out of the tale.
She doused the candle. Above the desk, shutters listed on rusted pegs, letting in triangles of early-morning light. Helene lay sleeping on their makeshift pallet. They’d had their pick of abandoned houses when they’d arrived in Altun, though few were larger than shacks and even fewer had furnishings. The blacksmith had pointed them toward a recently vacated home—which, happily, wasn’t a shack, but more like the residence she and Helene had shared in Krakentown.
Quietly, she left Helene sleeping and made her way down the stairs to the courtyard. Unlike Krakentown, which kept the boilerworms away by driving steel posts into the ground around the perimeter, the buildings in Altun stood on stilts. If a boilerworm attacked, nothing could protect the structures. But the distance between the houses and the ground helped keep the cooking fires and furnaces from attracting the monsters.
The garden in the courtyard had grown wild. Zenobia rather liked the unkempt look of it. She liked the decorations on the building walls, the wood carved in shapes of lions and trees and flowers, then painted red and gold. The paint was peeling now and the rooms were empty except for dust, but there were stories here. The shacks in town were to be expected—just temporary quarters for hopeful prospectors. But someone had tried to make a permanent home in this place. Yet still they’d left. Why?
Someone might know the story. Zenobia would like to hear it. But if she never learned it, she would make up her own.
A happy family. A jealous villain. A flick of a spark lighter, and they’d all been eaten by boilerworms.
She should probably continue writing Lady Lynx’s adventures instead of trying her hand at family dramas.
The door to the Coopers’ quarters was one of the few with the intricate latticework screen still intact. Zenobia tapped on the wood and it folded open to reveal Mara, her dark eyes rimmed in red. Her glossy cheeks told Zenobia that the mercenary had been crying. The hitch in her breath said the crying wasn’t quite over.
Behind her, Cooper sat propped against a cushion. Bandages wrapped his mutilated legs. His lean face was a mask—but not from pain. Between the healing nanoagents in his blood and the opium, he wouldn’t be in much discomfort. But something was wrong. His jaw was hard and his back stiff, and temper burned behind Mara’s tears. The room seemed thick with tension, as if words hung in the air waiting to be spoken—or shouted.
Had they been fighting? Oh, Zenobia didn’t want to know. She just wanted to go somewhere else, anywhere the air was easier to breathe.
“I’m so sorry. I’ll come back.”
“It’s fine.” With a voice as stiff as her husband’s spine, Mara stopped her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes!” And that response was far too chirpy. “I wanted to let you know that I was going out to mail this letter.”
“You want me with you?”
“No. I just . . . didn’t want you to worry if you noticed I was gone.” Not that there were many places in town to go—or be taken to. Zenobia glanced at Cooper and hesitated. The bandages covering the stumps of his legs were new. “Did the blacksmith already visit? What did he say?”
“That any prosthetics he creates here will be crude compared to what Cooper used to have, but there are blacksmiths in the smugglers’ dens who can do the work. So we can travel if you’re ready to continue on.”
Zenobia was, but didn’t know if that was true of everyone. “I’ll ask the governor when I see him next.” It was ridiculous how much she looked forward to whenever that might be. “And your ear?”
Mara’s gaze shuttered. “It’s better. I’m not hearing at full range yet. But I will be with a few more days’ healing.”
“Of course.” At full range or not, Zenobia was just glad that Mara hadn’t suffered permanent damage when the bomb had detonated—and even if her hearing device didn’t work, her aim would still be true.
She turned to go, but Mara stopped her again. “Cooper and I won’t be at our full capabilities when we reach the smugglers’ dens. You should think of hiring someone else for the duration.”
And there it was. Zenobia’s throat closed. She’d expected this, hadn’t she? From the moment of the airship attack. She’d hired them to guard a writer. They’d expected to live in a quiet town in Denmark and to prevent a few kidnappings while they settled down and started a family. Instead they’d been dragged along on a trip to the wilds of Australia, and suffered attacks from marauders and a boilerworm. Cooper had almost been killed.
Now Mara told her to hire someone else. Only temporarily, but likely a way to ease their separation from her in a few months when their contract came up for renewal. God knew where Zenobia would find any guards that she liked as well—or that she could trust.
But perhaps liking them and trusting them was the problem. They were her guards, yet they’d become her friends, and she could hardly bear seeing her friends hurt like this.
She should begin hiring people she wanted to see dead. That would be far more practical.
“I will consider it,” Zenobia said, then left as fast as she could. She couldn’t outrun the ache in her chest.
Outside, quiet greeted her. Their residence lay a short distance from the center of the once-prosperous mining camp. Now ponies grazed between tumbledown shacks, lifting their heads to watch her pass, their tails flicking away flies. Weeds grew on abandoned wagons and steamcarts. She’d joked of ghosts in her letter, but away from the main street it truly seemed that little else was left in this town—and what remained didn’t look as if it would last much longer.
A weathered box on stilts, the sundry shop stood across from the blacksmith’s. To her surprise, Meeng sat on the rickety stairs. The Wajarri man looked half-asleep, eyes closed against the sun. Though he couldn’t see her, Zenobia lifted her hand in greeting, because everything within her was lifting a little bit. Meeng’s presence meant the governor had returned. After the boilerworm attack he’d brought an injured Cooper to Altun, then left the next morning with his men to search for the marauders’ camp in the nearby hills. Zenobia had believed they were still out looking, but they must have returned during the night.
Nearing the sundry shop, she finally said “Good morning.” She and Meeng didn’t share any languages in common, but passing him without a greeting seemed unpardonably rude.
He peeked one eyelid open and peered up at her face before closing his eye again.
Well. Maybe disturbing him was unpardonably rude, too.
Heavy steps sounded from inside the shop. The governor appeared a moment later. Pulse suddenly thumping, Zenobia stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Her body never seemed to behave itself near him, and she feared her feet might trip along with her heart.
So silly. But it didn’t matter. This was only for a few more days.
“Good morning, Governor!” Though perhaps it wasn’t a good one for him. His posture was as straight as ever and his stride long and firm, but when he came down the stairs each movement seemed slow and deliberate, as if he was weighed down by a burden and being careful not to tip it. And no wonder. The safety of his town depended on his discovering the marauders. “Were you able to find the camp?”
That was all he said before looking away from her to speak with Meeng. No smile, no “Good morning,” no telling her what he’d found.
The tightness in her chest returned. This was the first time he hadn’t given her his immediate attention, as if he pushed everything aside to focus on her. The first time he didn’t seem glad to see her.
It didn’t matter. A few more days, and he’d never see her again.
She brushed past him and climbed the stairs to the shop entrance. Bags of dry goods leaned against the walls and tins sat on half-empty shelves. Brightly colored woven blankets hung above bolts of drab cloth. Rows of bins held neatly sorted tick-tocks and tools, all labeled in a language Zenobia couldn’t read. Bottles lined the shelf over the register—medicine or liquor, she wasn’t sure. Probably liquor. Medicine usually came in smaller quantities than drink did.
Though the surfaces were clean, everything smelled of dust. An old man with wisps of black hair covering his pate stood behind the counter, polishing the scale.
“I was told that you have a post service,” Zenobia said, hoping that the ten thousand souls who’d passed through this town had brought the western trader’s language with them.
Apparently they had. He put away his rag and shuffled along the counter. “I do,” he said—heavily accented, but in French. “Though I cannot promise it will go before the year end.”
“There’s no rush.” If she didn’t arrive in the Red City and Archimedes had to go searching for her in the smugglers’ dens, then the worst had already happened. The letter would just tell him where to look for her bones. She scanned the shelves. “Do you sell pen nibs?”
“In that second bin.”
“A denier each.”
Absurd. “I will pay a denier for five.”
And even that was generous.
The shopkeeper shook his head. “You won’t find nibs anywhere else in town.”
“Perhaps not. But I am not in dire need of one today, and by tomorrow I’ll be in the smugglers’ dens. I daresay that it will be easier for me to find nibs there than it will be for you to find more customers here.”
Through narrowed eyes, the old man stared her down. Zenobia didn’t relent.
“Three for a denier,” he finally said.
Good enough. She searched through the bin he’d indicated, aware of him watching her as she picked out three nibs. She returned to the counter.
Her gold coin clinked dully when he dropped it on the scale. Zenobia didn’t look away from his hands when he added the counterweight. Thumbs had a way of straying onto the pan when women made purchases alone.
He removed the weight and gave her a considering glance. “Do you have a man? My eldest son is up the river. He’s got a strong back. Still has all his hair and teeth.”
“I don’t have a man,” she said. “And I’m not in the market for one.”
“Are you in the market for two, then? I’ve got another son, and you seem woman enough to take on both.”
“Just the pen nibs, please.”
She waited as the shopkeeper weighed the change and wrapped her purchase, trying not to hear the governor’s voice outside. When she left the store, would his manner be as abrupt? They’d last spoken shortly after the boilerworm attack, and all had been well then. She’d thanked him for saving Cooper and he’d teased her about the size of his worm. She couldn’t account for the difference.
But she couldn’t demand the reason for it. Her manner had once changed toward him, too, and she’d never told him why.
That wasn’t the same, though. He’d called her ugly and wanted to know her secrets. She’d done nothing between the last time they’d spoken and now.