Heart of Steel (A Novel of the Iron Seas)

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9780425243305: Heart of Steel (A Novel of the Iron Seas)

Named one of Publishers Weekly's "Best Books of 2010," The Iron Duke introduced the gritty, alluring adventure of the Iron Seas. Now, Meljean Brook returns to the world where nanotech fuses with Victorian sensibilities -- and steam.

As the mercenary captain of the Lady Corsair, Yasmeen has learned to keep her heart as cold as steel, her only loyalty bound to her ship and her crew. So when a man who once tried to seize her airship returns from the dead, Yasmeen will be damned if she gives him another opportunity to take control.

Treasure-hunter Archimedes Fox isn't interested in the Lady Corsair -- he wants her coldhearted captain and the valuable da Vinci sketch she stole from him. To reclaim it, Archimedes is determined to seduce the stubborn woman who once tossed him to a ravenous pack of zombies, but she's no easy conquest.

When da Vinci's sketch attracts a dangerous amount of attention, Yasmeen and Archimedes journey to Horde-occupied Morocco -- and straight into their enemy's hands. But as they fight to save themselves and a city on the brink of rebellion, the greatest peril Yasmeen faces is from the man who seeks to melt her icy heart...

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About the Author:

Award-winning author Meljean Brook has published eight novels in her Guardians paranormal romance series and Iron Seas steampunk romance series. She lives in Oregon.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Yasmeen hadn’t had any reason to fly her airship into the small Danish township of Fladstrand before, but her reputation had obviously preceded her. All along the Scandinavian coast, rum dives served as a town’s only line of defense against mercenaries and pirates—and as soon as the sky paled and Lady Corsairbecame visible on the eastern horizon, lights began appearing in the windows of the public houses alongside the docks. The taverns were opening early, hoping to make a few extra deniers before midday . . . and the good citizens of Fladstrand were probably praying that her crew wouldn’t venture beyond the docks and into the town itself.

Unfortunately for them, Lady Corsair’s crew wasn’t in Fladstrand to drink. Nor were they here to cause trouble, but Yasmeen wasn’t inclined to let the town know that. Let them tremble for a while. It did her reputation good.

Dawn had completely faded from the sky by the time Lady Corsair breached the mouth of the harbor. Standing behind the windbreak on the quarterdeck, Yasmeen aimed her spyglass at the skyrunners tethered over the docks. She recognized each airship—all of them served as passenger ferries between the Danish islands to the east and Sweden to the north. Several heavy-bottomed cargo ships floated in the middle of the icy harbor, their canvas sails furled and their wooden hulls rocking with each swell. Though she knew the skyrunners, Yasmeen couldn’t identify every ship in the water. Most of Fladstrand fished or farmed—two activities unrelated to the sort of business Yasmeen conducted. Whatever cargo the ships carried probably fermented or flopped, and she had no interest in either until they reached her mug or her plate.

When Lady Corsair’s long shadow passed over the flat, sandy shoreline and the first rows of houses overlooking the sea, Yasmeen ordered the engines cut. Their huffing and vibrations gave way to the flap of the airship’s unfurling sails and the cawing protests of seabirds. Below, the narrow cobblestone streets lay almost empty. A steamcart puttered along beside an ass-drawn wagon loaded with wooden barrels, but most of the good people of Fladstrand scrambled back to their homes as soon as they spotted Lady Corsair in the skies above them—hiding behind locked doors and shuttered windows, hoping that whatever business Yasmeen had wouldn’t involve them.

They were in luck. Today, Yasmeen only sought one woman: Zenobia Fox, author of several popular stories that Yasmeen had read to pieces, and sister to a charming antiquities salvager whose adventures Zenobia based her stories on . . . a man whom Yasmeen had recently killed.

Yasmeen had also killed their father and taken over his airship, renaming herLady Corsair. That had happened some time ago, however, and no one would consider Emmerich Gunther-Baptiste charming, including his daughter. Yasmeen had seen Zenobia Fox once before, though the girl had been called Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste then. As one of the mercenary crew aboard Gunther-Baptiste’s skyrunner, Yasmeen had watched an awkward girl with mousy-brown braids wave farewell to her father from the docks. Zenobia had been standing next to her pale and worn-looking mother.

Neither she nor her mother had appeared sorry to see him go.

Would Zenobia be sorry that her brother was dead? Yasmeen didn’t know, but it promised to be an entertaining encounter. She hadn’t looked forward to meeting someone this much since Archimedes Fox had first boarded Lady Corsair—and before she’d learned that he was really Wolfram Gunther-Baptiste. Hopefully, her acquaintance with his sister wouldn’t end the same way.

A familiar grunt came from Yasmeen’s left. Lady Corsair’s quartermaster stood at the port rail, consulting a hand-drawn map before casting a derisive look over the town.

Yasmeen tucked her scarf beneath her chin so the heavy wool wouldn’t muffle her voice. “Is there a problem, Monsieur Rousseau?”

Rousseau pushed his striped scarf away from his mouth, exposing a short black beard. With gloved hands, he gestured to the rows of houses, each one identical to the next in all but color. “Only that they are exactly the same, Captain. But it is not a problem. It is simply an irritant.”

Yasmeen nodded. She didn’t doubt Rousseau could find the house. Though hopeless with a sword or gun, her quartermaster could interpret the most rudimentary of maps as if they’d been drawn by skilled cartographers. That ability, combined with his expressive grunts and eyebrows that could wordlessly discipline or praise the aviators—and a booming voice for when nothing but words would do—made him the most valuable member of Yasmeen’s crew. A significant number of jobs that Yasmeen took in Europe required Lady Corsair to navigate through half-remembered terrain and landmarks. Historical maps of the continent were easy to come by, but matching their details to the overgrown ruins that existed now demanded another skill entirely—that of reading the story of the Horde’s centuries-long occupation.

Though not ruins, Fladstrand’s identical rows of houses told another tale, one that Yasmeen had seen repeated along the Scandinavian coastlines.

In one of her adventures, Zenobia Fox had written that the worth of any society could be judged by measuring the length of time it took for dissenters to go from the street to the noose. Zenobia might have based that statement on the history of her adopted Danish home; a few centuries ago, that time hadn’t been long at all. Soon after the Horde’s war machines had broken through the Hapsburg wall, they’d deliberately created a zombie infection that had outpaced their armies, and the steady trickle of refugees from eastern Europe had opened into a flood. Those who had the means bought passage aboard a ship to the New World, but those without money or connections migrated north, pushing farther and farther up the Jutland Peninsula until they crowded the northern tip. Some fled across the sea to Norway and Sweden, while others bargained for passage to the Danish islands. Those refugees who were left built rows of shacks, and waited for the Horde and the zombies to come.

Neither had. The Horde hadn’t pressed farther north than the Limfjord, a shallow sound that cut across the tip of Jutland, separating it from the rest of the peninsula and creating an island of the area. The same stretch of water stopped most of the zombies; walls built near the sound stopped the rest. Poverty and unrest had plagued the crowded refugees, and the noose had seen frequent use, but the region slowly recovered. Rows of shacks became rows of houses. Now quiet and stable, many of the settlements attracted families from England, recently freed from Horde occupation, and from the New World. Zenobia Fox and her brother had made up one of those families.

“We are coming over her home now, Captain.” Rousseau’s announcement emerged in frozen puffs. “How long do you intend to visit with her?”

How long would it take to say that Archimedes had discovered a valuable artifact before Yasmeen had killed him, and then pay the woman off? With luck, Zenobia Fox would send Yasmeen on her way in a fit of self-righteous fury—though it might be more entertaining if she tried to send Yasmeen off with a gun. In both scenarios, Yasmeen would hold on to all of the money, which suited her perfectly.

“Not long,” she predicted. “Lower the ladder.”

Rousseau relayed the order and within moments, the crew unrolled the rope ladder over Lady Corsair’s side. Yasmeen glanced down. Zenobia’s orange, three-level home sat between two identical houses painted a pale yellow. Unlike many of the houses in Fladstrand, the levels hadn’t been split into three separate flats. The slate roof was in good repair, the trim around the windows fresh. Lace curtains prevented Yasmeen from looking into the rooms. Wrought-iron flower boxes filled with frosted-over soil projected from beneath each window sill.

Large and well-tended, the house provided ample room for one woman. Yasmeen supposed that much space was the best someone could hope for when living in a town—but she couldn’t have tolerated being anchored to one place. Why would Zenobia Fox? She had based her adventures on her brother’s travels, but why not travel herself? Yasmeen couldn’t understand it. Perhaps money had been a factor—although by the look of her home, Zenobia didn’t lack funds.

No matter. After Yasmeen paid her off, Zenobia wouldn’t need to base her stories on Archimedes’ adventures. She could go as she pleased—or not—and it wouldn’t be any concern of Yasmeen’s.

As this was a social visit, she removed the guns usually tucked into her wide crimson belt. At the beginning of the month, she’d traded her short aviator’s jacket for a long winter overcoat. The two pistols concealed in her deep pockets provided enough protection, and were backed up by the daggers tucked into the tops of her boots, easily reachable at mid-thigh. She checked her hair, making certain that her blue kerchief covered the tips of her tufted ears. If necessary, she could use her braids to do the same, but the kerchief was more distinctive. There would be no doubt exactly who had dropped in on Zenobia Fox today.

The ladder swayed when Yasmeen hopped over the rail and let the first rung catch her weight. Normally she’d have slid down quickly and landed with an acrobatic flourish, but her woolen gloves didn’t slide over the rope well—and Yasmeen didn’t know how long she would be waiting on the doorstep. Cold, stiff fingers made drawing a knife or pulling a trigger difficult, and she wouldn’t risk them for the sake of a flip or two.

The neighbors might have appreciated it, though. All along the street, curtains twitched. When Yasmeen pounded the brass knocker on Zenobia’s front door, many became bold enough to show their faces at the windows—probably thanking the heavens that she hadn’t knocked at their doors.

No one peeked through the curtains at Zenobia’s house. The door opened, revealing a pretty blond woman in a pale blue dress. Though a rope ladder swung behind Yasmeen and a skyrunner hovered over the street, the woman didn’t glance up.

A dull-witted maid, Yasmeen guessed. Or a poor, dull-witted relation. Yasmeen knew very little about current fashion, but even she could see that although the dress was constructed of good materials and sewn well, the garment sagged in the bodice and the hem piled on the floor.

The woman must have recognized Yasmeen as a foreigner, however. A thick Germanic accent gutted her French, the common trader’s language. “May I help you?”

“I need to speak with Miss Zenobia Fox.” Yasmeen smoothed the Arabic from her own accent, hoping to avoid an absurd comedy of misunderstandings on the doorstep. “Is she at home?”

The woman’s eyebrows lifted in a regal arch. “I am she.”

This wasn’t a maid? How unexpected. Despite the large house and obvious money, Zenobia Fox opened her own door?

Yasmeen liked surprises; they made everything so much more interesting. She’d never have guessed that the tall, awkward girl with mousy-brown braids would have bloomed into this delicate blond thing.

She’d never have guessed that her first impression of the woman who penned clever and exciting tales would be “dull-witted.”

Archimedes certainly hadn’t been. Quick with a laugh or clever response, he’d perfectly fit Yasmeen’s image of Archimedes Fox, Adventurer. She could see nothing of Archimedes in this woman—not in the soft shape of her face or the blue of her eyes, and certainly not in her manner.

Blond eyebrows arched ever higher. “And you are . . . ?”

“I am Lady Corsair’s captain.” Kerchief over the hair, indecently snug trousers, a skyrunner that had once belonged to Zenobia’s father floating over her house—was this woman completely blind? “Your brother recently traveled on my airship.”

“Oh. How can I help you?”

How can I help you? Disbelieving, Yasmeen stared at the woman. Could an aviator’s daughter be this sheltered? What else could it mean when the captain of a vessel appeared on her doorstep? Every time that Yasmeen had knocked on a door belonging to one of her crew members’ families, the understanding had been immediate. Sometimes it had been accompanied by denial, grief, or anger—but they all knew what it meant when Yasmeen arrived.

Perhaps because Archimedes had been a passenger rather than her crew, Zenobia didn’t expect it. But the woman should have made the connection by now.

“I have unfortunate news regarding your brother, Miss Fox.”

The “unfortunate news” must have clued her in. Zenobia blinked, her hand flying to her chest. “Archimedes?”

At a time like this, she called him “Archimedes”—not Wolfram, the name she’d have known him by for most of her life? Either they’d completely adopted their new identities, or this was an act.

If it was an act, this encounter was already turning out better than Yasmeen had anticipated. “Perhaps we can speak inside, Miss Fox.”

With an uncertain smile, the other woman stepped back. “Yes, of course.”

Zenobia led the way into a parlor, her too-long skirts dragging on the wooden floor. A writing desk sat by the window, stacked with blank papers. No clickity transcriber’s ball was in sight, and no ink stained Zenobia’s fingers. Obviously she hadn’t been busy penning the next Archimedes Fox adventure.

A shelf over the fireplace held several baubles, some worn by age, others encrusted with dirt—a silver snuff box, a lady’s miniature portrait, a gold tooth. All items that Archimedes had collected during his salvaging runs in Europe, Yasmeen realized. All items that he’d picked from the ruins but hadn’t sold. Why keep these?

Her gaze returned to the lady in the miniature. Soft brown hair, warm eyes, a plain dress. The description seemed familiar, though Yasmeen knew she hadn’t seen this portrait before. No, it was a description from Archimedes Fox and the Specter of Notre Dame. In the story, he’d found a similar miniature clutched in a skeleton’s fingers, and the mystery surrounding the woman’s identity had led the adventurer to a treasure hidden beneath the ruined cathedral.

How odd that she’d never realized that fictional miniature had a real-life counterpart. That she’d never imagined him digging it out of the muck somewhere and bringing it to his sister. That he’d once held it, as she did now.

The stupid man. Yasmeen lied often, and so she didn’t care that he’d lied about his identity when he’d arranged for passage on her airship. It did matter that she’d allowed Emmerich Gunther-Baptiste’s son aboard her airship without knowing who he really was. A threat had sneaked onto Lady Corsair right beneath her nose.

She couldn’t forgive him for that. Too often, she led her crew into dangerous territory, and they would only be loyal to a strong captain. A captain they could trust. She’d invested years making certain that her crew could trust her, and rewarded their loyalty with piles of money. There wasn’t enough gold in the world to convince a crew to follow a fool, and Archimedes Fox had come close to turning her into one when he’d boarded her ship. She’d only bee...

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