Authors: Meljean Brook
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction
“All right, I will begin.” She leaned in, lowering her voice. “Did you see the young brown-haired man sitting at the chair beside the bookshelf?”
He didn’t look away from her. “Yes.”
“That is Mr. Otto, the navigator. While he sits, he listens to everyone talk—he listens to your friends now—but rarely speaks on his own. He pines for a woman instead, carving tiny flowers
into that whalebone busk. Since I have been aboard, he has carved over a dozen of them.”
“For one woman, or for many?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know if he has met one yet or merely waits for love to come along. But hopefully she will wear a corset, or that busk will be only good to pry open another crate of whisky. He’s rather fond of that, too. And if you ever have trouble sleeping, ask him whether a homolographic projection is superior to a sinusoidal projection, and you will nod off in minutes.”
“Map projections? Goltzius might engage him in that debate.”
One of his companions. “Is he the younger or the older?”
“I believe he fell in love with Miss Neves the moment she sat at the captain’s table.”
“I can’t blame him.” Though Annika doubted it was love. “I’ve seen her.”
“So have I.” He seemed about to say something more, then shook his head. “Goltzius also prefers coffee to tea.”
“Who does not?”
“Oh.” She sat back. “I must end our acquaintance now.”
This time, he didn’t just offer the one-sided smile. He grinned in full, and Annika’s delight warmed her from head to toe. “Will you absolve me of my sin if I tell you that I never drink it? On an expedition, the weight of every item is carefully considered, and I was overruled by a two-to-one vote. So our sleds will carry coffee.”
“Then your abominable taste is forgiven.”
“You said that as well as a queen.” He glanced at her neck. “Goltzius’s cousin could wear that ruff without question. His is one of the great Dutch families that settled early in Johannesland.”
“They are the Great Dukes of Erie, now. I don’t know what they were before.” He paused, watching her face. “What is it?”
She shook her head. How could she tell him that his friend was a relation to the man that Hanna and the Englishwomen had killed to secure their freedom? A prince’s son—and the reason they’d fled to Iceland.
That had happened more than a century ago. The women of Hannasvik no longer had reason to fear the repercussions of that murder…but they had other reasons to stay hidden now.
So Annika had reasons to keep that secret. In response to his concern, she shook her head.
“Nothing. Something that I ate disagrees with me.” Judging by his stifled laugh, that wasn’t the sort of admission one made. Ah, well. He already knew that she often flung propriety around by the nose. “Please, go on. Why is such a lofty person traveling with you now? What kind of expedition are you on?”
“We plan to make a survey of Iceland. Goltzius is our botanist.”
“Yes.” The glow of the lamp reflected in the dark, flat lens of his eyepiece, creating the illusion of depth—and making his gaze seem all the more penetrating. “That upsets you?”
“No,” she lied. “It is just dangerous, yes? The wild dogs. And…and…” Oh, what else? What else would he
? “And the boiling mudpots!”
“I intend to study the mudpots, and we’re prepared for the dogs. Have you been to the island?”
has been: the ports at Smoke Cove and Höfn, and a village on the southern rim. But I have heard of people tumbling into the mud and unable to pull themselves out while they are cooked alive—and of others torn apart by the damned stinking dogs. What purpose does your survey serve?”
“Primarily, to measure the current volcanic activity and to
determine the effects of the fissure eruptions on the soil and plant growth. We’re only there to record our observations.”
“Then you’ll leave?”
“We will,” he said, but her relief was short-lived. “The society that funded us always has another goal in mind beyond scientific pursuit, however—and it isn’t difficult to imagine what they hope to find now. The Dutch had claims on the island before it was transformed into the northern defense against a Horde naval fleet. They probably hope to settle there again.”
Annika pressed a hand to her roiling stomach. Her supper was genuinely disagreeing with her now. “Unless your survey shows that the island can’t support a population?”
It could. Perhaps the land wasn’t as rich as in Johannesland, but with effort, a living could be scraped out of the soil and drawn from the ocean.
How horrible that a relative of the murdered prince would determine the fate of Hannasvik—and that killing him to prevent it would do no good. The society would likely just send another expedition. Even more horrible, he was a
. Superstition and fear had long protected Annika’s people, but those stories would not stand up to rigorous observation.
She would have to warn her village. If the women knew these three men were coming, perhaps they would have time to hide. Or perhaps
could be done to persuade the men that Iceland still wasn’t habitable.
Perhaps if her people were very lucky, there would soon be another terrible eruption.
“Now our survey makes you smile?” Kentewess asked, watching her face.
Annika shook her head. “I just had a ridiculous thought. Too ridiculous to share. You were telling me about your companion?”
“I don’t have much more to say. I haven’t known him long.”
“You’re very bad at this.”
At gossiping about Goltzius, that was. He’d shared much more important information about the expedition, however, so Annika didn’t mind at all.
“I am,” he agreed easily. “It is your turn again—and the crew in this room outnumbers our group. You should tell me about two of them for every one of mine.”
“All right.” She looked to the game table. “The older man with the gray hair and the jacket that won’t buckle over his stomach is Monsieur Collin, the purser. He likes to read French poetry aloud, and is convinced that Josephine Ayres is a man, because no woman could have such subtlety of mind and rhyme.”
“Do you argue with him?”
“Oh, no. His opinion is too obviously stupid, and I become too frustrated. Your aunt often engages him, though, and she is better equipped to use other poets as evidence. But I think he
to believe it, and nothing would persuade him otherwise, even if Ayres appeared in front of him.”
“He sounds similar to many scientists I know.”
“Truly?” Annika laughed when he nodded.
“When we decide to bore each other with stories about ourselves, I’ll tell you of the time an astronomer once challenged me to a duel.”
“A duel? Why?”
Smiling, he shook his head.
“Oh, you are cruel. All right, then.” She glanced at Collin again. “He cheats when he plays patolli—but only if he knows you well, and only in ways that will get him caught. For example, he’ll hide a piece in his trousers and when he stands up, it will fall onto the floor. Half the fun of playing with him is trying to guess when he will take the piece and where he’ll hide it. Once, I found it on my lap. I didn’t feel a thing when he put it there.”
His brows rose. “And this is the ship’s purser?”
“Yes. Despite his opinions of poetry, however, I don’t think he’s foolish enough to do the same with Captain Vashon’s money.”
“Not when he’d hang for it.”
“And not when so many would be eager to see it.” On her first visit beyond a city’s port gates, she’d seen men hanged for much, much less—with the spectators just as willing to watch. But that memory made her stomach churn, so she pushed it away and carried on. “The woman talking to your aunt is the steward, and married to Collin. She couldn’t form one of Ayres rhymes, I’m sorry to say.”
“So he has reason to believe that women can’t.”
Her withering stare was met with his deep laugh, attracting the notice of the navigator, the first mate, and Kentewess’s companions. Oh, she didn’t want to share him with the others yet. She leaned in closer, turning her body as far toward him as the chair would allow, and was pleased when he did the same. Only someone more socially inept than Annika would interrupt them now—and as no one in the room fit that description, they would be left alone.
“Madame Collin’s voice is also more beautiful than any other I’ve ever heard. When we are all pushed into the chapel on Sunday morning, I only pretend to sing so that I can listen to her.” Also because she didn’t know any of the hymns, but that was beside the point. If she’d known them, she would have still listened to the woman. “She likes sunrises better than sunsets—she is always on deck shortly after dawn, even in the rain, but I’ve never seen her on deck to watch the sun go down. She likes to drop rosewater onto her hair. She always smells lovely, which is well appreciated on a ship.”
“Is it? I should splash a bit over myself.”
Annika drew a long breath. If he had an odor, she couldn’t detect it. With some of the crew, across the room wouldn’t be far enough. “You smell all right, at least from this distance.”
He didn’t smile as she expected. His posture stiffened slightly,
his gloved fingers curling against his palms. After an endless moment, he finally answered. “From this distance, you do, too.”
She couldn’t smile, either. Her chest tightened, her breath feeling heavy and quick all at once. Suddenly aware of the inches separating them, she wanted to lean closer—close enough that she
scent his hair, his skin. Would he smell like soap, smoke, sweat? Something completely unexpected?
Even she couldn’t breach propriety so blatantly, though. With effort, she forced herself to stop imagining her face against his bare skin.
Perhaps it would be easier if he stopped looking at her mouth. Her heart pounded, and she waited,
for him to look up. How could she move her lips when he watched her like that? Oh, but she had to try.
“So that is Madame Collin,” she said in a rush. Annika hoped that she had given him enough; she could barely remember what she’d said about the woman. “And now your man. Dooley, I think your aunt called him? Have you known him for very long?”
His gaze finally lifted to hers again, but she still felt a bit breathless, as if she were on the edge of a laugh. Nothing about this was funny, though—except her attraction to him. Why here, why now, and why a man who might expose her village? It was ridiculous.
Perhaps it was the gods who were laughing at her instead.
“I’ve known him for many years now,” he said. “Dooley is the digger in our group, which sounds exactly like what it is: he digs up bones, looks through rubbish piles, pieces the dead and the buried back together, and attempts to tell their story with them. We’ll try to locate some of the earliest settlements marked on the old maps, and visit the allied outposts as well.”
They wouldn’t find much there. Once, an alliance between the French, Dutch, Irish, and Portuguese had established a naval stronghold in Iceland, guarded by enormous sentinels and icebreaking,
engine-powered ironships. The alliance served as a first line of defense against any Horde attempts to cross the Atlantic. But that had been before the invention of airships, before the discovery that no Arctic sea passage connected the great oceans—and before the number of giant, armored sharks in the northern waters made traveling by ironship too dangerous. The alliance had already begun to disintegrate before the fissure eruptions; the outposts were completely abandoned not long after, and much of the machinery left behind.
Until Hanna and the Englishwomen had discovered it. Each sheet of metal and bolt had been salvaged, each engine and boiler had been used to construct their village’s defenses—a village that they’d built as far from the outposts as possible.
“Those outposts are all in the southeast,” Annika said. “Is that where you’ll start?”
“At Vik, on the southern rim. Then north and east.”
Taking them away from Hannasvik—giving her village more time to prepare. “You’ll travel along the coast?”
“Across the glaciers, first.”
She stared at him. Was he mad? Did he want to
Her expression must have amused him. With a laugh, he said, “There are volcanoes beneath them.”
the glaciers?” She hadn’t known that. Obviously there were volcanoes in the region. But
the ice? “And you intend to study them?”
His eyebrows rose. “To answer that means we must talk about me instead of Dooley.”
“Blast it.” But she didn’t truly mind. The more they spoke about him—or anything else—the more she wanted their conversation to extend beyond the minutes they had left. “I’m enjoying your company.
much. If I’m not on duty, I intend to monopolize your time until you leave the ship.”
That seemed to stun him. His gaze searched her face, as if he suspected a joke. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “I’d like that, too.”
“Good. Now, tell me more about Dooley. At the port gates, when we passed by him, he was laughing at you. Why?”
“Because I don’t often run to a woman’s rescue.”
“Why did you?”
need to be rescued? Why were you at the gates?”
“I’m looking for my sister, Källa. I use the personal advertisements in the newssheets to search for her. I was in Navarra paying for another season and checking for replies.”
He paused, as if surprised that she’d shared that information. There was no reason not to, however. Everyone on board knew it.
“Why did she leave?”
“Because I lit a fire when I shouldn’t have.” And nearly exposed their village. But that memory shamed her too much; she didn’t want to share any more of it. “Dooley?”
His mouth compressed with disappointment before he said, “He’s fond of dogs, but on our first expedition to the Yellow Rock Mountains, a bear killed his wolfhound. He hasn’t owned one since. Not a live one, at least.”