A TALE OF THE IRON SEAS
Elizabeth has spent the past five years running from her father; her father’s huntsman, Caius, has spent the past five years pursuing her. But when he finally catches up to her on an airship flying above Europe’s zombie-infested cities, Elizabeth discovers that Caius isn’t the only danger she has to fear—and now that he’s found her, Caius doesn’t intend to let her go…
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Her father’s hunters had found her.
Elizabeth recognized them as soon as she rounded the corner toward home—a man and a woman flanking the front door of her boarding house. Heart thumping in her chest, she resisted the impulse to dart behind a passing steamcoach. A quick movement would draw the hunters’ attention.
Dear God. They were so close. In another twenty steps, she would have crossed the busy street and fallen straight into their hands.
Without a change in pace, Elizabeth tucked her chin deeper into her woolen scarf, burying the bottom of her face. Acrid smoke billowed behind the steamcoach as it rattled past, the dingy cloud obscuring her view of the hunters—and preventing them from seeing her slip into a tinkerer’s shop. Inside, she pretended to browse the clockwork novelties displayed in the window, stealing glances at the hunters as she wound up a jumping frog.
Matthias and Amelia. Almost five years had passed since Elizabeth had seen either of them, but both looked the same as they had when delivering wild beasts to her father’s sanctuary. Wide-brimmed hats shadowed their eyes. Ankle-length brown coats buckled over their chests and concealed the weapons harnesses they always wore.
Nothing about the hunters looked overtly threatening, but passersby seemed to sense the danger. A pair of gentlemen cast their gazes to the ground, as if hoping to avoid notice. A young boy and girl who had been laughing up at the sparsely falling snow and trying to catch the tiny flakes on their tongues suddenly had their hands gripped by their governess and were hurried past the boarding house. In this part of Brighton, where moneyed travelers browsed the shops for expensive trinkets and enjoyed the cleanest air that England had to offer, Matthias and Amelia were wolves among hens. But Elizabeth had seen a hunter receive the same wary glances from residents of the lawless smuggling towns she’d hidden in after escaping her father’s estate. No matter where she ran to, people seemed to recognize what the hunters were.
Predatory, unrelenting…merciless. After they sighted their prey, they’d stop at nothing to bring it in.
Elizabeth edged a little farther away from the window, the instinct to flee yanking at her every nerve. Matthias and Amelia had been standing long enough that a dusting of snow had accumulated on their hat brims and shoulders. Had they searched the boarding house yet, or were they waiting for someone who was already inside?
Was Caius Trachter with them?
A familiar ache started in her chest. Caius. After she’d fled from home, he’d pursued her halfway around the world and back again—and two years before, he’d finally caught her in the Ivory Market, on the western coast of Africa. Elizabeth had made the mistake of bolting the moment she’d seen him, trying to lose him in the chaotic marketplace, but it wouldn’t have mattered if she’d run or calmly continued walking. Caius had already spotted her. He’d taken her down with an opium dart as if she were an animal, and she’d woken tied to a bed in an airship bound for the Americas.
Caius had attended to her every need during the voyage…also as if she were an animal. Her father’s hunters didn’t kill their prey; they cared for the captured beasts until delivering them into her father’s keeping. So Caius had fed Elizabeth, guarded her door—from inside the cabin, with his back to her—while she’d bathed, and walked with her on the promenade deck for exercise. For a week, he’d rarely left her side, sharing her every meal and sleeping on the floor beside her bed. In those few moments when he’d left her alone, she’d been tied again.
But animals didn’t talk to their captors, and Elizabeth had barely allowed hers a moment’s peace. She’d begged for Caius to free her. She’d threatened him. She’d promised to give him anything if he released her.
When she’d realized that she couldn’t give Caius what he wanted most—his own freedom—she’d appealed to his compassion instead. She’d told him of the fate awaiting her at home and the horror that had forced her to flee on the night of her twentieth birthday.
For a short time, she’d believed that her pleas had affected him. She’d believed that Caius no longer saw her as prey—or as the pampered girl he’d met when he’d been forced into her father’s service to pay off his family’s debts.
Two years older than Elizabeth, he’d been a sullen, dark-haired fifteen-year-old boy with a gleaming shackle of indenture around his left wrist and resentment burning in his eyes every time he’d looked at her. Apprenticed to a hunter, then a huntsman in his own right, Caius had spent most of his time away from her father’s sanctuary, returning only when he’d brought new animals in. The years had passed, and she’d watched him grow from a sullen youth into a hardened young man. By the time Elizabeth was sixteen, his resentment had cooled into quiet hostility—and with every encounter, his obvious dislike only made her determined to change his opinion. She’d wanted him to smile at her, to talk with her.
And with every encounter, she’d been increasingly bewildered and hurt by his icy, insulting responses. She’d done nothing to deserve them. Yet his hostility only seemed to grow.
But he’d warmed to her on the airship. At least, she’d believed that he had.
Though Caius had been all but silent during the first part of the voyage, in the days before they’d reached Johannesland he’d told her stories of his hunts for lions and rhinoceros and zebra—animals that she’d seen when he’d brought them in, but she’d never heard how he’d caught them or of the dangers he’d encountered transporting them out of zombie-infested lands. He’d joked about how a machete could be a man’s closest friend when facing one of the ravenous creatures. He’d mentioned fighting mercenaries and rival hunters who’d attempted to steal the valuable animals for collectors or naturalists in competition with her father. He’d spoken of the people he’d met while pursuing her around the world, the letters he’d received from his mother and sister since leaving home, and of the life he’d planned to have before his father had died and left his family destitute. He’d told her of how he’d once hoped to attend a university, obtain a comfortable position as a solicitor, and marry the girl he’d loved at fifteen—a pretty blonde named Katarina.
But after they’d reached the shores of Johannesland and boarded the locomotive that would carry them over the last leg of their journey, Caius told her that if he brought her back home, Elizabeth’s father had promised to release him from his service. All debts paid in full, and the thirty-year period of indenture would end the moment Caius walked through the door with Elizabeth in hand.
Aboard that locomotive, Elizabeth had realized two things. One, Caius hadn’t warmed to her. He’d been explaining why he would never release her. Given an option between his freedom and hers, Caius had chosen his own.
Two, she couldn’t blame him for it. After all, she’d been asking him to choose her freedom over his—and she understood all too well how the need to take charge of one’s own life could drive a person to make selfish and desperate choices. And so as the locomotive’s steam engine had chugged its way around a steep mountainside, she’d made her own desperate choice.
In a maddened effort, she’d broken away from Caius and jumped from the railcar.
Only sheer luck and a tree had saved her. The last she’d seen of him, Elizabeth had been clinging to the top of a tall white pine that stood on the side of a deep ravine while Caius had searched the rocky banks of the river below, calling her name until he’d shouted himself hoarse. His voice had finally failed him, but still he looked for her along the stones and the rapids. A full day had passed before he’d searched far enough down the river for Elizabeth to alight from her tree—exhausted and bruised but free.
She’d hoped that Caius would believe she was dead. Without a body, however, her father must not have been satisfied and sent his hunters after her again. And this time, he apparently hadn’t trusted Caius to complete the job alone.
Matthias and Amelia still waited outside the boarding house door. Caius was possibly in her room at that very moment, searching through her belongings.
There wasn’t much to search through. She never purchased more than a few changes of clothing suitable for blending in with the local population. Too many times, she’d had to abandon everything but what she carried—and so Elizabeth carried everything that she needed with her in a satchel and in pockets sewn under her clothes. When she’d escaped the sanctuary five years before, she’d taken a small fortune in gold and jewels. Some she kept with her; she’d hidden the rest of her money away in various cities.
Elizabeth didn’t worry about what Caius might find in her room. She never left anything that might reveal where she spent her days or where her next destination would be if she was forced to run again.
And she was always prepared to run again.
At this time of day, she could easily leave Brighton by one of four routes: a boat at the pier, traveling by post steamcoach or boarding a locomotive to another town, or purchasing a fare on a passenger airship. If those failed, there were several other, more difficult routes by foot or horseback or steamcart, or by hiring a personal balloon. It wouldn’t matter where she went; for now, she just needed to put distance between herself and the hunters.
But first, she had to wait until the hunters left. Every muscle tense, she watched through the window, winding up another toy. After a few minutes, a man emerged from the boarding house, and her heart stopped.
Not Caius. Her father.
Tiny gears ground beneath her clenching fingers. She released the windup’s key. Her hands shook as she replaced the little bird in the window, its wire feet skittering over the shelf. The music box chirped a cheery tune and the copper wings flapped, and Elizabeth was struck by the sudden terror that the noise would give her away.
Trying to control her panic, she glanced across the street again. Her father didn’t look in her direction; he was speaking to the hunters. More gray peppered his dark hair. From this distance, she couldn’t see whether her absence or time had lined his face, but she knew his eyes would be as sharp and bright as the mind behind them. A brilliant man, her father. But never a cold one. When he loved, his heart burned unceasingly.
She should have known he’d never accept death as the end. Her father never had.
While she watched, he gestured north along the street. Relief slipped through Elizabeth, releasing some of the tension holding her in its grip. He must have spoken with the boardinghouse matron. Elizabeth never left anything for someone to find—except for lies. She’d told the matron she intended to spend the day on Modiste Row. In truth, Elizabeth had walked to visit the menagerie at the Retreat, as she did almost every day. Now she would run south as soon as her father went north.
The three started in that direction. Movement near Amelia’s feet drew Elizabeth’s gaze. A pair of lean gray dogs were rising from the walk at her heels.
The hairs along Elizabeth’s spine prickled with cold sweat. Hounds. Her father wasn’t tracking her by scent yet—he would want to discover her himself, and follow her as far as his information took him—but as soon as he discovered that she hadn’t been to the dressmakers’ shops, he’d use the dogs. No doubt he had a handkerchief or some scrap of fabric from her room to provide a scent. When he did, Amelia’s hounds would lead them straight to her.
And now Elizabeth’s only option was an airship. One that was leaving within the next half hour. Any later than that would be too late.
She waited until they were out of sight and fled.