Authors: Kristen Callihan
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Romance, #Science Fiction, #Steampunk, #Historical, #Victorian, #Urban, #General
For my husband, Juan. Your unwavering faith gave me wings. Without you, none of this would be
For Rachel. You know what you did. A better friend I could not have
And for Maya and Alex. Always
If you are lucky, you’ll find yourself supported by the best, the sort whose talent only makes you look better. I consider myself very lucky.
First and foremost, to the two people who helped make my dream a reality: my agent, Kristin Nelson, for being part cheerleader, part wolverine, and all heart; and my editor, Alex Logan, whose elegant editing skills and generosity made my first foray into publishing a pleasure. Every day, I thank my lucky stars that I have you both in my corner.
Thanks to editorial assistant Lauren Plude for your support and infectious enthusiasm. To cover designer Christine Foltzer for a kick-ass cover. To copy editor Lynne Cannon Menges. And to Amy Pierpont and all the talented people who make up the Forever/Grand Central Publishing team.
My eternal gratitude to the best friends and writing partners a girl could hope for: Claire Greer, Jennifer Hendren, Susan J. Montgomery, and Rachel Walsh, who held my hand, encouraged and cajoled me day after day, from concept to completed work. You’ve all helped me more than I can say. My love always.
Many thanks to beta readers Deniz Bevan, Rhianonn Morgan, Kait Nolan, Precie Schroyer, and Carol Spradling.
Huge thanks to Diana Gabaldon, who inspired me to write and is more of a mentor than she’ll ever know. To Jo Bourne for answering many newbie questions, and for being one of the best conveyers of craft I’ve ever met. To the wonderful writers who hang at the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum; you will not find a more welcoming and supportive writing community.
To the home team: my sisters Karina and Liz for listening to endless writer-related babble and all-around sister support. My friends Christine Child, Eileen Cruz Coleman, Kerry Sheridan, and Amy Smith for much of the same. To Jim and Christine Mollenauer for watching my babies countless times so I could write. And to the three who make up my heart: Juan, Maya, and Alex, for understanding when I was holed up in the office, for being my inspiration, for making it all worth it.
Lastly, thank you, Hilde and Herb, my mother and father, who taught me to love books, gave me the gift of storytelling, gave me life.
It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat
London, November 1878
he knowledge that Archer would soon end the life of another cut at his soul with every step he took. The miscreant in question was a liar and a thief at best. That the whole of the man’s meager fortune now rested at the bottom of the Atlantic did little to rouse Archer’s sympathy. On the contrary, it only ignited his fury. A red haze clouded Archer’s vision when he thought about what had been lost. Salvation had almost been his. Now it was gone because Hector Ellis’s pirates had raided Archer’s ship, stealing that which might cure him and hiding it away in their bloody doomed clipper ship.
Mud-thick fog hung low on the ground, refusing to drift off despite the crisp night breeze. It never truly went away, ever present in London, like death, taxes, and monarchy. The ends of Archer’s cloak snapped about his legs, whipping up eddies of the foul yellow vapor as his mouth filled with the acrid taste of coal, filth, and decay that was the flavor of London.
Archer rounded a corner, moving away from the street lamps and into shadow. The sharp staccato of his footfall echoed over the deserted cobbled streets. Far off on the Thames, a mournful foghorn wailed its warning. But here all was quiet. The constant clatter of coaches and the occasional shout of the night watch calling the hours had faded away. Darkness swallowed his form, as it always did, both a comfort and a reminder of what he’d become.
The neighborhood around him was old but fine. Like all places that housed those whom fortune touched, the streets were empty and desolate, everyone having long ago tucked into their well-tufted beds.
Ellis’s house was near. Archer had walked the streets of London long enough to move without hesitation through its perverse network of twisted alleys and endless avenues. Anticipation, cold and metallic, slid over his tongue. To end a life, see the incandescent light of a soul slip from its house—he wanted that moment,
it. The horror of such craving shook his core and his step faltered.
Never do harm
. It was every doctor’s creed, his creed. That was before he’d forfeited his own life. Archer took a cleansing breath and focused on the rage.
A garden lay ahead, large and walled in, its pleasures solely for the benefit of those who had the key. The seven-foot wall loomed up before him. It might as well be only four feet. He vaulted himself lightly up and over, landing on the soft grass below with nary a sound.
He rose, intent on his mission, when the sound of steel slicing against steel stopped him. Odd. Sword fighting had long fallen out of fashion. London fops now settled matters with law and courts. He rather missed the days of his youth when grievances had started with the slap of a glove and ended in first blood. He gazed over the dark garden and found the swordsmen as they moved under the weak haloed light of the gas lamps cornering the central court.
“Come on!” taunted the fair-haired one. “Is that your best effort?”
They were boys. Archer slipped into the deep shadows by the wall and watched, his unnatural eyes seeing as well as if he’d been ringside. The blond could not be more than eighteen. Not quite a man, his limbs held the lankiness of youth, but he was tall enough and the timbre of his voice had dropped. He was clearly the leader as he paced the other boy round the slate-lined court in the garden’s center.
“Keep your arm up,” he coached, coming at the younger boy again.
The younger boy was nearly as tall as his compatriot, but altogether delicate in form. His legs, peeking out from an ill-fitted frock coat, were mere sticks. A ridiculous bowery hat was crammed down upon his head, so low that Archer saw only a flash of white jaw as the pair sparred about
Archer leaned against the wall. He hadn’t seen such eloquent sparring in a lifetime. The elder boy was good. Very good. He had been trained by a master. But the little one, he would be better. He was at the disadvantage being lighter and shorter, but when the blond attempted a
while the youth was tied up in a bind, the little one sprang back with such quickness that Archer craned forward in anticipation, enjoying himself more than he had in decades. They broke measure and came back again.
“You’ll have to do better than that, Martin.” The youth laughed, his steel flashing like moonbeams in the purple night.
Martin’s eyes shown with both pride and determination. “Don’t get cocksure on me, Pan.”
Martin thrust once then cut. The youth, Pan, crossed to the right. To Archer’s delight, the boy leapt upon the thin wrought-iron railing that surrounded the court and, in a little display of daring, slid along the rail a distance before landing just behind Martin. He gave a swift poke to the elder boy’s backside before dancing away.
the god Pan,” he sang out, his youthful voice high as a girl’s. “And if you don’t watch yourself, I’ll stick my flute right up your blooming arse, ah—”
The silly boy toppled backward over the boxwood hedge he’d overlooked in his gloating. Archer grinned wide.
Martin’s laugh bounded over the garden. The boy doubled up with it, dropping his small-sword to hold his middle. Young Pan struggled to rise, holding his absurd hat in place while grousing about English hedges under his breath.
Martin took pity and helped the boy to his feet. “Call it quits, then?” He offered his hand once more in peace.
The youth grumbled a bit then took the proffered hand. “I suppose I must. Take the sword, will you? Father almost found it the other day.”
“And we mustn’t have that, hum?” Martin tweaked the boy’s nose.
The two parted ways, each going toward opposite garden doors.
“ ’Night, Martin.”
“ ’Night, Pan!”
Smiling, the blond boy watched his little friend leave the garden and then left.
Archer moved through the shadows, heading toward the door where Pan had gone through. Prickles of unease danced over his skin. Fighter or no, the boy was too fragile to walk alone and unarmed in the dead of night. A rare bit of entertainment certainly earned the boy a safe passage home.
He stalked him easily, staying to the shadows, keeping well behind. The boy moved through the night without fear, a jaunty near swagger in his step as he turned from the sidewalk into an alleyway.
Thus his squeak of alarm was all the louder when two grimy older boys slipped out of the shadows and blocked his path.
“An’ who’s this?” The fellow was a big brute, short and wide. The type, Archer thought grimly, for he was in no mood to throttle children, who always wanted a fight.
“Hello,” said Pan, stepping back one pace. “Don’t mind me. Just out for a stroll.”
The taller one of the two laughed, showing a large gap between his teeth. “ ‘Out for a stroll,’ ” he parroted. “Who you think you are? Prince Bertie?”
Pan was quick to rally. “Eh? Can’ a man use the Queen’s English now an’ then?” he chided, slipping into street tongue as smooth as plum pudding. “Especially when it helps wit me fannin’?”
Young Pan eased around them, slyly moving toward the back of a large town house. There lied safety, Archer realized. It was the boy’s home. It was Ellis’s home, he realized with a little shock. Who was this boy?
“Them marks always appreciate a kind word,” the boy went on.
Archer had to appreciate the boy’s flair with the common tongue; he hardly understood a word. But the lad was putting it on too thickly. The young roughs knew it, too.
“You think we’re flat?” one of them snapped.
The youth backed up as the older boys closed round. “Here now, no need to kick up a shine…”
“Need a slate, do ya?” The taller of the two roughs cuffed the boy lightly on the head. The boy’s hat flew off, and Archer’s heart stopped short. A silken mass of fire tumbled free, falling like molten gold down to the boy’s waist. Archer fought for breath. Not a boy, a girl. And not thirteen, but closer to eighteen. A young woman.