Authors: Meljean Brook
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction
Her fingers tightened on the umbrella stem. Her imagination didn’t help her now. She could only picture the worst. Sudden nerves made her words loud and shrill.
Annika had been forced to learn French when she’d joined
’s crew, and not just because Captain Vashon hailed from the Caribbean islands. French was the trader’s language—and this was a port city. Surely he understood a little.
Dismay slid through her when his mouth firmed. Slowly, he said,
His voice sharpened on
. Annika wracked her brain. Had she been blocking a cart or another vehicle? Was it something else? Not the identifying papers she had tucked away in her purse; she knew the word they used for that:
But they only asked for those when she was passing the inspection point on the sentinel’s north side. Why stop her while she was leaving?
Once, she’d been briefly detained in Manhattan City when a constable had asked where she’d acquired her clothing. Even though he’d spoken English—an odd version of it, to be certain, even odder than she’d heard spoken in London—it had still taken Annika several minutes to realize that he suspected her of
the clothing, because the expensive fabric lay beyond a stoker’s means. And despite her explanation that she’d purchased the silk on the cheap at the French markets and sewed the pieces herself, he hadn’t seemed to believe her until a nearby group of women had come to her aid.
Laughing at the constable, they’d assured him that Annika couldn’t have stolen the clothes, because no woman of quality would own anything so ridiculous as a white skirt over indigo trousers, pairing it with a lavender blue bodice.
No lady would ever be seen in a costume resembling a Liberé flag.
Today, Annika wore crimson and yellow. Perhaps the colors had marked her in some way—and she supposed that she
resemble a Lusitanian flag. But what of it? They weren’t at war with Castile.
There were no women to save her now. She scanned the faces of the people nearby, hoping to recognize someone whom she could call upon. Though several travelers had turned to watch the encounter, she didn’t see any of
’s crew members.
And what stranger would dare help? Not here, not in Castile.
Panic fluttered wildly in her chest. She faced the guard again. “Do you speak English?” As he had, she spoke slowly, trying to make herself understood. “Please tell me, what is the matter?”
With another sharp word and gesture, he shook his head. His hand shot out, seizing her wrist. He turned toward the guardhouse.
“No, please! Wait!” She dragged her heels, trying to slow him without openly resisting. Her heart pounded. Only with great effort did she stop herself from smashing her umbrella over his head and sprinting to the docks and
. Desperate, she tried again.
“Norse? Mælt kann norse?”
“He demands to see your letters of entry.”
A male voice came from behind her. She barely had a moment to feel her relief when the newcomer spoke again, but not in English—and not directed at her.
The guard looked around and stiffened, as if in alarm. He let Annika go, his hand dropping to the short club at his belt.
Whoever he was, the stranger apparently posed more of a threat
than Annika did. She opened the purse tucked within her skirts, stealing a glance back. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat, the man wore a faint smile—not exactly an expression of amusement, she thought, but as if he’d heard an old, worn-out joke. A gleaming monocle concealed his left eye. Focused on the guard, he lifted his hands as if to show the officer that he was unarmed.
Oh, but he
armed. Annika’s fingers froze around her folded papers, and she took another, longer look.
His right hand resembled every other person’s—large, perhaps, with broad palm and long fingers, but proportional to his height. His left hand and wrist were of the same size, yet they were human only in shape; the skeletal limb had been constructed of steel. The fluid movement as he spread his mechanical fingers was indistinguishable from the same movement in his right hand, and spoke to the intricacy of the design—the contraption wasn’t stiff, but responsive…and probably incredibly strong.
No, he didn’t carry any weapons. But from the guard’s perspective, the man’s hand
a weapon—and the man himself a danger to Castile.
Prosthetic limbs were common enough in the New World; if not used by soldiers injured at war, then laborers who’d suffered accidents in the factories and fields. Those replacement limbs were often stiff and clunky, however—a hook for a hand, a wooden leg strapped into a boot—and only if replacements were used at all.
But there was nothing clunky about this man’s elegant hand, which meant that it hadn’t just been contoured around his arm or strapped on, but
on so that the steel contraption had become a working part of his body. Only the Horde’s nanoagents could graft a mechanical apparatus to human flesh, making it as maneuverable as a natural arm. This man had to be infected with those tiny machines—the same machines that the Horde had used to forcibly graft tools onto their laborers. Most of those tools
hadn’t been designed to function or appear as human as this man’s did, but Annika knew that it wasn’t the hand itself that alarmed the guard. It was the nanoagent infection.
Although an infected person was stronger and could heal faster, the nanoagents had also allowed the Horde to control the populations in the occupied territories of England and North Africa, using radio signals from tall broadcasting towers. A few of the towers had been destroyed, freeing the people in England and Morocco—but many in the New World thought the revolutions were only a temporary setback in the Horde’s inevitable advance across the ocean. Others in the New World feared that the nanoagents would reanimate their corpses after death and transform them into hungry, savage monsters, like the zombies who roamed much of Europe and Africa, leaving it uninhabitable. Others were revolted by the idea of tiny machines crawling around inside their bodies like bugs.
Annika knew too many of the infected to share the same fears, but the port officer obviously did not—or he knew many infected people, and still feared that the nanoagents might spread.
Brandishing his club, the officer gestured toward the nearest inn. Annika didn’t need to understand his sharp commands to know that he was ordering the stranger to turn back, away from the gates.
The stranger didn’t retreat. He looked to Annika, and the turn of his head offered a better impression of the features between his hat brim and gray wool scarf. He possessed a clean-shaven jaw, perhaps in the native style—or simply because a beard would never grow in evenly. Pale scars raked the left side of his face, with several wide, ragged stripes running diagonally from forehead to cheek. Oh! And that was not a monocle at all, but some sort of optical contraption that had been embedded into his temple, which shielded his left eye with a dark, reflective lens.
Utterly marvelous. What could he see through that?
“A noble was poisoned last week.” He spoke clearly, the tones deep. She couldn’t place his accent but had no trouble understanding
him. “Rumor is that the assassin was a Liberé woman who carried Lusitanian papers.”
been marked—not just by the colors of her dress, but also by the darkness of her skin. Truly, if Annika were the assassin, she wouldn’t have announced it so boldly. With a sigh, she unfolded her documents and presented them to the guard.
“Norway,” she said, and because the officer seemed reluctant to look away from the stranger long enough to verify her origin, Annika helpfully pointed to the proper line. “Born in Bergen.”
His gaze darted to the papers. Apparently not the least bit concerned about an assassin now, he waved her on. For a moment, she stared at him in disbelief. He could have so easily disrupted—no,
—her life, as if she were nothing. Now he set her free in the same dispassionate manner. It did not engender grateful thoughts, yet she still managed a
It did not come out as genuinely as she intended, but he didn’t seem to note the bitter anger lacing her reply—and Annika was not a fool to wait around long enough for him to recognize it. She turned and set a brisk pace, her heart still hammering. The stranger waited, as if making certain that she wouldn’t be further disturbed, before falling into step beside her, his hands clasped behind his back.
Since coming to the New World, she’d often been told that her manners were coarse, but Annika thought that the application of genuine gratitude could never be found lacking.
“Thank you, sir. I can’t express how much I appreciate your interference.”
He nodded. She thought that would be the end of it, that now he would return to the two men waiting in front of a nearby inn, and who were obviously his companions. Dressed in the same style of wool overcoat that buckled asymmetrically across the chest, long trousers, and sturdy boots, the men watched them pass. The young one sporting a pointed red beard and curling mustache seemed to make a remark; the elder shook his head and laughed, his breath
puffing in the cold air. Beside them, porters loaded crates onto a lorry.
They all must have been standing there when the port officer had shouted for her to stop, she realized. Her rescuer had heard her desperation and come to her aid.
She glanced up at the stranger again. He walked to the left of her, his eye contraption only visible as a glint of metal beyond the bridge of his aquiline nose. His hair was as black as hers, though without a hint of curl. The straight ends touched his shoulders, the forward strands drawn away from his face and contained by four steel beads tucked behind his ears.
Did he intend to accompany her all the way to
? Surely that wasn’t necessary. “I’m out of danger now, if you wish to return to your people.”
“My people?” His brow rose, and he glanced toward the men. “Ah. They’ll manage without me.”
And she wouldn’t? She ought not to say that, however, not after he’d rendered such an incredible service to her.
She ought not say it, and so of course she did. “But
can’t manage without you?”
His sudden grin was nothing like his earlier smile, which had seemed a weary response to an old jest. This appeared to burst through him as if he knew laughter was the only reply he could give.
Annika had to smile in return, and then laugh when he asked, “I trust you were
hired to kill a Castilian noble?”
“Perhaps I was,” she said. “If I were a clever assassin, I’d carry fraudulent papers that claim I was born in Norway, not Lusitania.”
“Are they fraudulent, then?”
Not for the purpose of assassination, however, but for the purpose of mobility. This exchange had become unexpectedly fun, however, and so she played along. “Oh, of course.”
“And what is your true origin?”
A hidden village on Iceland’s western shore.
But even as a joke,
she could not risk exposing her people, and chose the farthest location away from them. “A smuggler’s haven in Australia.”
That seemed to disappoint him. His grin had already faded to a pleasant, amused expression, but now she detected a hint of frustration in the tightness of his mouth and the intensity of his gaze. He was truly looking for an answer, Annika realized. This was not simply polite conversation to pass the time; he wanted to know where she was from.
Or was that just her imagination? She had guarded the truth of her origin for four years. Perhaps the constant vigilance made her suspect everyone of trying to discern it.
When he didn’t respond to that lie, she covered her unease with a dramatic sigh. “In truth,” she said, “Australia would be far more exciting, but alas, Norway it was—and is where I am bound again.”
“You fly out immediately?”
Perhaps Annika imagined the sudden tension in his voice, but she couldn’t mistake the way his gaze moved over her face, as if searching for the answer—or hoping for a specific reply. “The airship departs later tonight,” she confirmed.
The stranger’s lips tightened before resolve seemed to firm his expression. He nodded. “En route to Bergen?”
was scheduled to fly to the Norwegian port within a month, but it would not be a direct flight.
“Yes,” she said, her unease deepening. Why did he ask so specifically? Perhaps he was only making small talk, but she wasn’t comfortable with the direction he’d taken. Best to change the subject.
And if this truly
conversation, it was time that she held up her part and made intrusive inquiries of her own. “Will you also be departing soon? Or do you make a habit of waiting near port gates and running to a stranger’s aid?”
“No. Typically, I run after erupting volcanoes.”
“To study them?” Annika guessed. She couldn’t think of any
other reason to do such a thing—and only if it paid well. “That is your profession?”
When he nodded, she studied
more closely. What sort of person made a living from such a thing? She had witnessed eruptions in Iceland before, and would have said that only a reckless fool would go chasing after one. This man didn’t appear foolish, however, and his manner seemed too contained to be reckless. Something else must be driving him to pursue such a dangerous occupation, something that he didn’t readily show.
Asking him to reveal that reason, however, would require Annika to venture beyond the boundaries of intrusive and into unforgivably rude. Even she couldn’t cross that line. She settled for, “I didn’t realize volcanoes were so fast that one had to run after them.”
His amusement returned. “In truth, I more often run
She arched her brows and glanced at his mechanical hand, still clasped behind his back. “Not always fast enough?”