Authors: Meljean Brook
Tags: #Romance, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction
“So it was your brains that saved you after the earthquake on Tzapotépetl? I’d say it was my hand that pulled you out of that crevice.”
“It was me with the sense to reach for your hand, wasn’t it?”
David conceded with a grin. The man could talk his way around almost anything. Bolstered by his victory, Dooley lifted his hat back into place and winked at Goltzius when the young botanist joined them.
“As Kentewess was so quick to abandon us while the steamcoach was loaded, I say we ride up top to share a bottle and leave him to watch the unloading.”
Goltzius’s only response was an open, good-natured smile—a diplomatic response, to David’s mind. As the newest member of their team, joining David and Dooley after only a week’s acquaintance, Goltzius hadn’t yet known them long enough to participate in the back-and-forth of a friendly ragging, let alone take sides. David thought that camaraderie would come, eventually. Goltzius had been a good fit so far, bright and determined, and weathering without complaint the delays in securing supplies and the cramped accommodations aboard the airship from Johannesland to Castile.
If such trivialities had frustrated the botanist, no doubt this expedition would have been hell for him—for
of them. David had once spent six months in the company of a linguist who’d
whined over every insect bite. By the end of it, he could have cheerfully strangled the man—and he’d have strangled him with his right hand, just to prolong the pleasure of it.
He hoped Goltzius wouldn’t arouse the same murderous compulsions. As it was, his addition to the team had already aroused a few, though Goltzius wasn’t to blame for them. Politics were.
When David and Dooley had proposed this nine-month survey to the Scientific Society of New Leiden, they’d picked botanist Mary Longcreek to accompany them. Experienced, dedicated, and familiar with plant growth recovery following volcanic eruptions, she’d been the ideal choice for their team. The previous week, she had still been preparing for their departure when the Society directors had abruptly assigned her to an upcoming two-year expedition to determine potential sites for rubber tree plantations in the Pacific islands. They’d replaced her with Regnier Goltzius, a recent Academy of Sciences graduate.
The directors gave a sound reason for the change: Longcreek’s experience made her a better choice for the long and potentially perilous journey. David wasn’t fooled, however. She wasn’t the only experienced botanist available to the Society—but unlike Goltzius, she wasn’t the youngest son of a cousin to the Grand Duchess of Erie, one of the Society’s most generous patrons. Immediately placing Goltzius on an expedition no doubt pleased Her Highness…and the directors didn’t risk her anger by sending him to his death. Exploration societies were no strangers to fatalities among their ranks, but danger was less likely found in Iceland.
Resigned to the change, Longcreek had turned months of research and notes over to the young man. To his credit, Goltzius had seemed to recognize the machinations behind his placement, and had appeared both frustrated and embarrassed during their first meeting. He hadn’t apologized, however, which had furthered David’s good impression—as had Goltzius’s keen interest in their survey of the abandoned island.
But at this moment, Goltzius’s interest was directed upward. “Was all well with the young woman?”
“Yes.” Until David had chased her off—but he glanced up, too, hoping to see her again. A
click sounded in his ear. The vision in his left eye blurred and sharpened as specialized lenses rotated into place beneath the tempered glass shield—the nanoagents aiding him in his search. Whenever he didn’t see an object that he was looking for, the mechanical bugs helped him find it. Now, their assistance didn’t make any difference. The thermal lens slipped into place, showing him bright orange heat concentrated around
’s boilers and the yellow eddies of steam rising from the vents. No people were visible; though warm, they didn’t emit enough heat to register through the hull, and even his nanoagents couldn’t help him see through solid wood.
“You be careful with those, now!”
With alarm, Dooley abandoned them to look after his own interests—the clockwork dogs that would pull their supply sleds. David turned to watch, his default optic slipping back into place, matching the vision of his left eye to his right. At the steamcoach, Dooley fluttered about until the stevedores carefully set the dogs’ crate on the cargo lift platform.
Goltzius frowned. “Are they so fragile?”
“No.” David’s equipment for measuring ground tremors and their surveyors’ tools were more likely to be damaged than those dogs—and a good thing, too. Iceland was green for a good portion of the year but earned its name in winter; those dogs were invaluable in the snow and over the glaciers they planned to survey. When spring came, they only had to roll the sled’s runners into wheels, and the dogs would still be useful. “They wouldn’t be any good to us if they couldn’t survive a fall or two. But listen to Dooley, and he’d have you believe they had brains instead of gears, and that they’d cry over pebbles in their paws or shiver in the snow.”
“I hear that, Kentewess!” Shaking his head, Dooley rejoined
them. “And agree with every word. You tell me now, young man: What difficulty would it have been for the blacksmiths to put a fur coat over their bare metal bones?”
“How could they, when most of the fur left in New Leiden already went into your hat?” As the older man snorted, David looked to Goltzius. “The first snowstorm, he’ll toss us out of the tent to make room for those dogs.”
“You striplings will be better off outside than those pitiful mongrels would. They don’t have any heat to share, whereas all you’ve got to do is shuck your clothing and snuggle up together.”
Goltzius’s mild alarm over that statement changed into determined humor. He sized up David with a glance. “I
come looking for adventure.”
David grinned. With a response like that, there was no doubt the young man would fit right in during these next few months.
The huff and rattle of another steamcoach drowned out Dooley’s reply. A man of average size emerged, tipping his felt hat forward against the drizzle and buckling a brown shearling topcoat. In the crook of his arm he carried a polished walking stick with a silver wolf’s head. Chips of amber glittered in the eyes.
Dooley turned away, his lips pursing. In an aside to David, he said, “Now there’s a fancy one.”
God forbid that a man ever possess money, unless he also supported the Society with it. But David had to suppress the ribbing that Dooley deserved—the gentleman approached them with an easy stride, his stick apparently just for show.
Dooley’s mouth flattened, his immediate dislike firmly set.
Until, with an amiable smile, the man said, “I believe it’s three Society men that I’m seeing, yes?”
His accent immediately marked him. Dooley gave a wide grin, extending his hand. “It is. And a fellow countryman to me, I hear.”
“Sure I am.” His smile widened, and he eagerly pumped Dooley’s
hand, his as dark as the other was pale. “Komlan, of Monaghan and the town itself. And you’re a western man?”
“I am. Patrick Dooley, of Ballyduff. Standing here with me are my colleagues David Kentewess and Regnier Goltzius—though neither one had the same fortune to be birthed on God’s own favorite land.”
“Upon such a happy meeting, even that sorry failing of character can be forgiven.” As Dooley laughed, Komlan glanced over at the supply crates loaded on the lift. “Are you to Iceland, then, or on to Norway?”
“Iceland and the town of Vik, to begin.”
“On the southern rim? I know it. We’ve men working west of there, laying rail from Smoke Cove to Höfn. Eventually, it will run through Vik, as well.”
“Rail for a locomotive?” Goltzius frowned when Komlan nodded. “To what purpose?”
David wondered the same. A century before, in the years following an eight-month fissure eruption, the Mist Terrors decimated livestock and crops. Ash fell in thick layers over the land, and toxic volcanic gases poisoned half the island’s inhabitants. The remaining population had been forced to flee or face starvation. Except for a few ports and fishing villages, Iceland had been abandoned for a hundred years. A locomotive around the southern rim of the island wouldn’t serve any purpose that an airship or a boat couldn’t provide more quickly or more cheaply.
“For the purpose of providing work, lad,” Komlan said.
A shout from the airship stopped Goltzius’s response. They all glanced up, then over at the cargo lift, where a stevedore waited. “The coach is empty, sirs. Is there anything more to be loaded before we send her up?”
“Just us. We’ll ride up next,” David said. “Mr. Komlan?”
“No ‘mister,’ son. The name alone was good enough for my
forefathers, and it’s good enough for me,” he said. “Go on and send that lift up. My cargo is already in the hold—and likely already being fed.”
“You’re taking livestock, then?”
“Men.” He smiled as David and Dooley exchanged a glance. He raised his voice over the clanging of the chain when the lift began to ascend, and clarified, “Labor of the paid sort.”
“You’re hiring here?” Color crept up Dooley’s neck. “Back home, there’s many an Irishman hurting for an honest day’s work.”
“And not a one of them will work for as little.”
“Hurting enough, they would for almost nothing.”
There wasn’t a kingdom or a country that couldn’t be said of, David knew. But Castile was different in one important respect. “Are they as unlikely to complain about it?”
“Never has that been said of an Irishman,” Komlan agreed with a grin, then shook his head. “I’m only a working man, same as those in the cargo hold. I’ve no say over a business that’s not mine to own, or how they earn their profits; I go where I’m told to go and hire men who’ll give their labor in exchange for the price the boss has offered. It’s not much, but in return they’ll also receive meals, clothing, and a warm place to rest their heads—all of which is in scarcer supply here than about anywhere else.”
“It’s truth, that is,” Dooley admitted with a sigh.
“An unfortunate one.” Komlan echoed his sigh before asking, “Have you been long from home?”
“That I have. Too long.”
Not as long as Dooley might go on about it, as David had discovered on their first expedition together. Goltzius had already been given a taste of the same on their journey here. He glanced at the botanist, who watched the two men with an expression reflecting troubled thoughts. His frown smoothed when he noted David’s attention, replaced by a wry smile.
Moving in closer, Goltzius said, “Shall we wager on who outlasts the other?”
David would put his money on Dooley. But he shook his head. “There’s no point to it.
won’t last long enough to find out who won.”
In truth, he didn’t care to last even a minute more. David left them to their reminiscing, suddenly impatient for the cargo lift’s return. There was only one person whose origin interested him—and she was already aboard the airship.
Aside from the enormous white balloon hovering overhead
, the main deck of
’s wooden cruiser looked much like the sailing ships that David had been on. Tethered to the docks, it swayed much like a ship did, too. The bobbing forced him to stop and adjust to the motion before he could take a step without staggering. The ride would smooth out as soon as the engines fired and the airship was under way. Until then, he had to be mindful of his shifting weight.
He didn’t see the woman on deck, but wasn’t surprised. A storm was headed in, the wind icy and the deck boards slippery with rain; she’d be warm in her cabin by now. Within the hour, however, she’d probably sit at the captain’s table for dinner, along with any other passengers. He could wait until then.
Captain Vashon herself welcomed them aboard, a tall and impressive woman with iron threading through the black hair at her temples. Hailing from a family of French aeronauts made famous by their military exploits and made wealthy by their merchant activities, she had a reputation to uphold. She did it well, David thought. He’d heard nobles who’d have been hard pressed to match the cultured tones of her speech, had seen heads of state with less immaculate uniforms.
She eyed David’s face and hand without comment, which he expected. Few people remarked on his prosthetics, no matter how long they stared. When her attitude toward him didn’t change afterward, that was just as rare—and he liked her for it.
Her welcome was followed by a query whether they had any other needs or concerns to address before their departure. Though David burned to ask her about the woman, he didn’t dare. Men didn’t ask after unrelated female passengers. If the captain suspected any untoward interest, he’d likely spend the entire journey separated from her.
When they all responded in the negative, Vashon’s gaze fell on him again, and she anticipated the question he
have voiced. “There is a lady aboard who looks forward to seeing you, Mr. Kentewess.”
A woman with whom he would easily spend more than three minutes in conversation—his aunt by marriage, and the only family he had left. Lucia Kentewess had been serving as ship’s physician aboard
for ten years now. “Thank you, Captain.”
Her dignified nod could have rivaled a queen’s. “It is my pleasure. Monsieur Dubois will show you to her quarters. Dubois?”
A young man with a scraggle of a mustache appeared at his side. “This way, please, monsieur.”
David took his leave and followed Dubois to the companionway that led to the lower decks. The wide stairs were easy to maneuver, far easier than a ladder. Dubois all but skipped down them, as if he never gave such considerations a thought. At his age, David couldn’t have even descended to the second deck without assistance.
Sick bay lay all the way at the front of the ship on the third deck; Lucia’s quarters were in the adjoining cabin. Dubois rapped at the door and announced his own name, then opened it with a flourish when she called for him to enter.