‘Here There Be Monsters’
Meljean Brook launches a bold new steampunk series as a desperate woman strikes a provocative — and terrifying — bargain to gain overseas passage.
Two years ago, blacksmith Ivy, desperate to flee London, purchased her overseas passage by agreeing to spend the voyage in the bed of the pirate captain, Mad Machen. Saved at the last minute by his rival, Ivy scraped out a new life in Fool’s Cove…until Mad Machen finds her, forces her to accept a job that will create a monster, and reminds her that she still owes him the price of a journey…
“Crazy, wild and fun… a phenomenal anthology.”
–Bookaholics Romance Club
READ AN EXCERPT
By the time Ivy found Ratcatcher Row, yellow fog smothered the docklands. She inched along the unfamiliar street, holding her right hand out to her side and using the buildings facing the narrow wooden walk as a guide. Though only an arm’s length away, the thick mist dissolved Ivy’s gloved fingers into ghostly outlines. On her left, the clicking, segmented shadow of a spider-rickshaw scurried by on the cobblestones, and the hydraulic hiss of the driver’s thrusting feet seemed to whisper a single refrain.
Hurry, hurry, hurry.
Oh, she wanted to. Her heart pounded as if she’d sprinted through these streets instead of picking her way through the fog, stopping at each building to search for an identifying sign.
But at least she was moving. As long as she could move, she couldn’t be taken.
Seven years ago, after two centuries under brutal Horde rule, the pirate captain Rhys Trahaearn had destroyed the tower that the Horde used to control the nanoagents infecting every person in London. For seven years, Ivy had been free to move as she wished, to feel as she wished—until earlier that night. Only hours ago, she’d been frozen in her bed with her eyes closed, unable to move, listening to strangers search from room to room through her boarding house. From blacksmiths to beggars, no one in that cheap tenement owned anything of value. But when someone had come through her door, stripped away her blankets and prodded at her thighs and breasts as if evaluating her thin body, when the strangers had left and she’d seen the empty beds in rooms that had been earlier filled, Ivy had realized each sleeping person had been valuable—as workers, as slaves…which were the only uses the Horde ever had for them.
And if the Horde was returning to London with their controlling towers and paralyzing devices, nothing would stop Ivy from leaving.
A steamcoach waited in front of the next building, rattling and puttering, its gas lanterns penetrating the fog in faint glowing spheres. By the feeble light, Ivy found the establishment’s sign, and almost moved on before her mind registered the painting on the wood: a compass.
The Star Rose Inn. She’d been looking for a flower. And she’d come so close to missing it, but she was here. Finally here.
Her heart slamming in her ribs, Ivy rose up on her toes to peer through the small glass window. No lights burned within. She’d have to wake up the innkeeper—who’d likely turn Ivy away after taking a look at her—or she could break the lock. A lock hadn’t stopped her when she’d been a child, raised in the Horde’s crèche, it hadn’t stopped her after they’d taken her arms, and it wouldn’t stop her now that the Blacksmith had given her new ones. But even if she broke through the lock, she wouldn’t know which room Mad Machen slept in.
Raising her fist, she hammered on the door. A minute later, a stout man wearing a nightcap and with gray tufts of hair growing behind his ears swung open the small, hinged window. He lifted a gas lamp to the opening. Ivy squinted against the sudden, bright light.
She knew what she looked like. Soot from the day’s work still streaked her face; fog and sweat dampened her red hair. The buckles at the waist of her long coat didn’t hide the threadbare nightgown underneath, and the trousers tucked into her boots had been old when she’d bought them. The satchel clutched to her chest was nothing but a shirt tied together, and held everything she owned. Her desperation must have hung around her as thick as the mist; she wasn’t surprised when the innkeeper immediately lowered the lamp, swinging the window closed.
“We’re full up tonight. You’ll find rooms on the cheap at the Cock and Bull.”
“Wait!” She curled her fingers around the window frame, preventing its closure. “Please. I’m here to see Captain Machen. I’ve come from the Blacksmith’s.”
She’d never used her connection to her mentor like this before. But two names in London would open almost any door: the Blacksmith’s, and the Iron Duke’s.
The innkeeper paused. “The Blacksmith?”
Ivy pulled aside her nightgown collar, exposing the guild’s mark: a chain wrapped around her neck and a hammer poised to strike. When the innkeeper began to shake his head and close the window again, Ivy quickly stripped off her glove, exposing pale gray fingers and silvery nails.
“The mark is supposed to be around my wrist,” she told him. “But my skin won’t take a tattoo.”
He stared at Ivy’s hand before looking into her face again—perhaps searching for a hint of how she had managed to afford mechanical flesh. Finally, the innkeeper stepped back, opening the door.
“I’ll tell the captain you’re here.”
Ivy waited to expel her sigh of relief until after he’d moved out of earshot, disappearing down a long hallway. Cool and dark, with well-scrubbed walls and floors, the inn’s foyer appeared cleaner than any room she’d ever lived, worked, or eaten in. She was accustomed to pubs like the Hammer & Chain: dank and crowded, stinking of soot and sweat, and where fights broke out more often than not. But she returned every night, because the Blacksmith’s workers could buy a hot meal on the cheap, and went home to a windowless room that smelled of smoke and mildew, and whose north and south walls she could touch with both hands outstretched. This inn smelled of lemon wax and a warm, yeasty fragrance—a scent that reminded her of walking past the bakery in the crisp early morning, while heading to the smithy in the Narrows.
This was a good place. It gave her hope. Her grip on the satchel slowly eased as her nervousness and fear began to subside.
She’d heard of Mad Machen before he’d come to the smithy. Everyone in Britain had. Born to a merchant family in Manhattan City, the youngest of four sons, he’d been a surgeon in the British Navy when Rhys Trahaearn had attacked his naval fleet. Mad Machen had been among those forced to join Trahaearn’s crew—then he willingly remained aboard. He’d been with the pirate captain when Trahaearn had destroyed the Horde’s tower.
Unlike Trahaearn, who’d been given a duke’s title—and the king’s pardon bestowed upon all of his crew—Mad Machen hadn’t reformed. After taking command of his own ship, Vesuvius, he continued pirating from the North Sea to the Caribbean.
But despite all of the stories of murder, insanity, and pillaging, the Mad Machen that Ivy had met at the Blacksmith’s hadn’t been a cruel man. Big and intimidating, with a thick coarse scar around his neck and overgrown dark hair, he’d been a gruff man—but not cruel. Every morning for the past week, he’d accompanied his friend Obadiah Barker to the smithy, and sat with him through the excruciating process of exchanging a hydraulic prosthetic leg for a limb made from mechanical flesh. Mad Machen had borne Barker’s curses and screams without anger; he’d offered a hand for Barker to squeeze—and more than once, to bite. And every evening, he’d carried his delirious friend to the waiting steamcoach.
Ivy had assisted the Blacksmith in the surgery, and attended the two men during the long stretches between sessions, waiting for the flesh to grow. She’d listened to Mad Machen and Barker talk of ships they’d taken and ports they’d visited—his friend speaking a hundred words to every one of his—and when Barker’s dread and fear of the next session became overwhelming, Ivy had told him of her own surgery, painting herself as a ridiculous shivering washrag until Barker had begun to laugh. Mad Machen’s gaze had met hers then, and she’d seen his gratitude and appreciation.
She hoped he still felt them now. Her heart began pounding again as the innkeeper returned. He led her down the hallway, opening the door of a dimly lit parlor.
Mad Machen hadn’t been in bed, as she’d expected. He sat in a low chair, a snifter in hand and his long legs stretched out in front of him, knee-high boots crossed at the ankles. He’d unbuckled his jacket. His pale shirt opened at the neck, exposing deeply tanned skin and the puckered white scar at his throat.
He froze with the snifter halfway to his mouth when she entered the room. His gaze swept over her, taking her in, pausing on the makeshift satchel in her hand. Slowly, his gaze rose to her face. Dark eyes locked on hers, he stood.
“Ivy,” he said, in a voice deeper and rougher than she remembered. She realized he’d never spoken her name before.
And she expected him to grant her a favor?
Her nervousness came crashing back. Fingers twisting in the satchel, she glanced around the room. Mad Machen wasn’t alone. On an armchair to her right, a woman with an angular face watched her with narrowed, cat-green eyes. A sapphire kerchief wrapped back from her forehead and tied at her nape, the blue tails tangled in the long black curls and tiny braids. Her short aviator’s jacket buckled to her throat, and her hand hovered near the dagger hilt sheathed at the top of her brown, thigh-high boots.
To Ivy’s left, Barker lay on a green sofa, bushy black hair falling back from his forehead. He hadn’t bothered with a glass, but was drinking a deep burgundy liquid straight from the bottle. His boots and stockings were off, and he held his feet together as if examining them, pale gray against brown. He rolled his head to the side and looked at her when Mad Machen said her name.
“Ivy!” A smile broadened his mouth as he rocked up to sitting—and sat, swaying. With some effort, he focused on her again. “You’ve come all the way to the Isle of Dogs in this soup?”
“Yes.” Her pulse racing, she looked at Mad Machen. His gaze hadn’t strayed from her face. “At the Blacksmith’s, you said that you’d planned to weigh anchor tomorrow morning. I wondered… I hoped that you would allow me passage on your ship.”
His brows lowered, and the small movement seemed to darken every feature. “To where?”
“Anywhere.” She didn’t know. She didn’t care. Just away. “The first city you put in to port.”
He didn’t immediately answer, and she became aware of Barker, no longer smiling. A grim expression had settled on his open face. In the opposite seat, the woman stared at Mad Machen, the gold hoops in her ears swinging with the tiny shake of her head.
Mad Machen either didn’t notice them or disregarded them. He strode across the room, stopping only an arm’s length away. Ivy had to lift her chin to meet his eyes.
“Vesuvius has no comfortable quarters. She isn’t a passenger ship.”
“I know. But I can’t afford passage on a—” She broke off when his face darkened further. Hurriedly, she assured him, “I’ll work. I can repair engines, prosthetics…or windups, if you have any automata. I can build anything you need.”
“I already have a blacksmith on-board.”
Panic began to take hold. She looked past Mad Machen to the woman, then Barker. “Do you know of any ship that needs one? A ship that departs soon? I won’t ask for a wage—only for board. Please.”
Closing his eyes, Barker shook his head. The woman didn’t respond, only stared back at Ivy, her gaze cold and assessing.
In the quiet, Ivy’s heart thundered in her ears. Smithing was her only trade. She owned nothing of value but her skill.
Nothing but her body.
Sickness roiled in her stomach, tasted sour on her tongue. She’d avoided this route for so long, but perhaps it always came to this. Feeling dull and worn, she lifted her gaze to Mad Machen’s.
“I’m a virgin,” she said.
His broad chest rose on a sharp breath. A flush swept under his skin, his jaw tightening. Though his companions had been quiet, now they were still and silent—as if waiting.
His response was a low growl. “Vesuvius isn’t a slaver ship, either.”
“I don’t want to be sold. I want to be free when I get off your ship.” She tried to gather dignity and courage. “I’m offering it as payment. Some men…prize it.”
His face continued to darken as she spoke, until the only lightness lay in the whites of his eyes, the tight line around his mouth, the rough scar at his throat. He looked…utterly mad.
By the starry sky—she’d made a horrible mistake.
Suddenly terrified, Ivy backed up a step, before whipping around and reaching for the door. “I’ll find another—”
His hand slammed against the door, holding it closed. “You won’t find another. You’ll sleep in my bed. Not just once. For as long as you’re on the ship.”
Barker’s bottle clattered to the floor, as if he’d lurched to his feet and it had dropped from his lap. “Eben, you can’t—”
Barker fell silent.
Trembling, Ivy stared at Mad Machen’s fingers, braced against the polished wood. More scars whitened his knuckles. How many people had he hit to accumulate those? Had any of them been women? Clenching her teeth against the scream working up into her throat, she swallowed it down. Sweet blue heaven.
She’d traded one monster for another.