View our feature on Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke.First in an all-new series where seductive danger and steampunk adventure abound in the gritty world of the Iron Seas.
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Meljean was raised in the middle of the woods, and hid under her blankets at night with fairy tales, comic books, and romances. She left the forest and went on a misguided tour through the world of accounting, banking, and a (very) brief teaching career before focusing on her first loves, reading and writing--and she realized that monsters, superheroes, and happily-ever-afters are easily found between the covers, as well as under them, so she set out to make her own. Meljean lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and daughter.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Mina hadn’t predicted that sugar would wreck the marchioness of Hartington’s ball; she’d thought the dancing would. Their hostess’s good humor had weathered them through the discovery that fewer than forty of her guests knew the steps, however, and they’d survived the first awkward quadrilles. But as the room grew warmer, the laughter louder, and the gossiping more vigorous, the refreshment table set the First Annual Victory Ball on a course for disaster.
Which meant Mina was enjoying the event far more than she’d expected to.
Not that it wasn’t as grand as everyone had said it would be. Despite the slowly increasing tension, the great ballroom had not begun to rip at the silk-papered seams; the restoration of Devonshire House had cost Hartington, and it showed. Candle-studded chandeliers displayed everyone to their best advantage. Discreet gas lamps highlighted the enormous paintings gracing the room but had not yet smudged the walls. Musicians played at the opposite end of the ballroom, and the violins did sound sweeter than the mechanical instruments Mina was accustomed to—and much sweeter than the hacking coughs from forty of the guests, all of them bounders.
Two hundred years ago, when most of Europe was fleeing from the Horde’s war machines, some of the English had gone with them. But an ocean passage over the Atlantic hadn’t come cheaply, and although the families who’d abandoned England for the New World hadn’t all been aristocrats, they’d all been moneyed. After the Iron Duke had freed England from Horde control, many of them had returned to London, flaunting their titles and their gold. Now, nine years after Britain’s victory over the Horde, the aristocratic bounders had decided to hold a ball celebrating the country’s newfound freedom, though they had shed no blood to gain it. They’d charitably included all of the peers who had little to their names but their titles.
At first glance, Mina could detect little distinction between the guests. The bounders spoke with flatter accents, and their women’s dresses exposed less skin, but everyone’s togs were at the height of New World fashion. Mina suspected, however, that forty of the guests could not begin to guess how dear those new togs were to the rest of the company.
And they probably could not anticipate how stubborn the rest of the company could be, despite their thirst and hunger.
At the side of the room, Mina sat with her friend and waited for the entertainment to begin. Considering her condition, Felicity might be the one to provide it. Pale blue satin covered Felicity’s hugely rounded belly, which seemed to Mina to require an enormous amount of food, not just the drink Felicity had assured her husband was all she’d needed.
With such a belly, Mina could not see how Felicity wasn’t constantly ravenous, consuming everything in her path. If no sugarless cakes were available, she might start with the bounders.
“If it has taken Richmond this long, he hasn’t found anything.” Beneath intricately curled blond hair that had made Mina burst into laughter when she had first seen it that evening—and who, thanks to her mother’s insistence, wore a similar style in her own black hair—Felicity’s gaze searched the crowd for her husband. With a sigh, she turned to regard her friend. “Oh, Mina. You are too amused. I doubt anyone will break into fisticuffs.”
“You think it’s an insult to supply sweet and strong lemonade? To stack cakes like towers?” Felicity rubbed her belly and looked longingly toward the towers. Mina supposed they were to have been demolished by now, symbolic of England’s victory over the Horde, but they still stood tall. “Surely, they did not realize how strongly we felt about it.”
“Or they realized, but thought we must be shown like children that we can eat imported sugar without being enslaved.”
A little more than two centuries ago, the Horde had hidden their nanoagents in the tea and sugar like invisible bugs, and traded it on the cheap. The Horde had no navy, and even though Europe had fled before the Horde, Britain was protected by water and a strong fleet of ships. And so for years, they’d traded tea and sugar, and Britain had thought itself safe.
Until the Horde had activated the bugs.
Now, no one born in England trusted sugar unless it came from beets grown in British soil and refined in a British factory—and no one had enough money to pay for the luxury, anyway. The Horde hadn’t needed sugar from them, and had left few beet farmers and fewer refineries. Sugar was as precious as gold was to the French, and Horde technology was to the smugglers in the Indian Ocean.
“You judge them too harshly, Mina. This ball itself is goodwill. And it must have been a great expense.” Felicity’s voice softened at the end, and she looked around almost despairingly, as if it pained her to think of how much had been spent.
“Hartington can obviously afford it. Look how many candles.” Mina lifted her chin, gesturing at the chandelier.
“Even your mother uses candles.”
That wasn’t the same. Gas cost nothing; candles, especially wax tapers of good quality, rivaled sugar as a luxury. Her mother used candles during her League meetings, but only so the dim light would conceal the worst of the wear. Repeated scouring of the walls removed the smoke that penetrated every home in London, but had worn the paper down to the plaster. Rugs had been walked threadbare at the center. The sofa hadn’t been replaced since the Horde had invaded England. But at Devonshire House, there was no need for candles to forgive what brighter gas lamps revealed.
“My mother will also make certain that each of her guests is comfortable.” Physically, comfortable, at any rate. She supposed her mother could not help the discomforting effect that both she and Mina had on visitors. “Goodwill should not stab at scars, Felicity. Goodwill would have been desserts made with beet sugar or honey.”
“Perhaps,” Felicity said, obviously unwilling to think so little of the bounders, but acknowledging that they could have been done better. “You look to find the worst in everyone, Mina.”
“I would not be very good at my job if I didn’t.” The worst in everyone was what led them to murder.
“You like to look for the worst in bounders. But they cannot be blamed for their ancestors abandoning us, just as we cannot be blamed for buying the Horde’s sugar and teas. It seems to me, the fault can be laid on both sides of the ocean...and laid to rest.”
No, the bounders hadn’t abandoned England—and if that were the only grievance Mina had against them, she could have laid her resentment to rest. But neither could she explain her resentment; Felicity thought too well of them, and she was too fascinated by the New World.
The bounders were part of that fascination—and they were part of the New World, no matter that they referred to themselves as Englishmen, and were called Brits by everyone except those born on the British isle.
Damn them all, they probably didn’t even realize there was a difference between English and British.
No matter what the bounders thought they were, they weren’t like Mina’s family or Felicity’s—or like those who’d been altered and enslaved for labor. Bounders hadn’t been born under Horde rule. And Mina resented that when they’d returned, they’d carried with them the assumption that they better knew how to live than the buggers did. This ball, for all that it celebrated victory over the Horde, was a reflection of what bounders thought society should be: They’d had their Season in Manhattan City and thought the tradition should continue here. It did not seem to matter that most of the peers born here couldn’t dream of holding their own ball. And although the ball provided a pleasant diversion, buggers had more important things to occupy their minds and their time—such as whether they could afford their next meal.
The bounders had no such worries. They’d returned, their heads filled only with grand ideas and good intentions, and they meant to force them onto the rest of Britain.
But their intentions did not mean they’d returned for the benefit of their former countrymen. Not at all. A good situation within Manhattan City was impossible to find, they’d run out of room on the long Prince George Island, and the Dutch would not relinquish any territory in the mainland. So the aristocrats returned to claim their estates and their Parliament seats, the merchants to buy what the aristocrats didn’t own, and all of them to look down their noses at the poor buggers who’d been raised beneath the thumb of the Horde.
Or to be horrified by them. Mina’s gaze sought her mother. Even in a crowd, she was easy to locate—a small woman with white-blond hair, wearing crimson satin. Spectacles with smoked lenses dominated her narrow face. Wide brass bracelets shaped like kraken circled her gloved arms. Currently, she was demonstrating the clockwork release mechanism to three other ladies—all bounders. Her mother twisted the kraken’s bulbous head, releasing the tentacles wrapped around her wrist. The ladies clapped, obviously delighted, and though Mina couldn’t hear what they said, she guessed they were asking her mother where she’d purchased the unique bracelets. Such clockwork devices were prized as both novelties and jewelry—and expensive. Mina doubted her mother told them the bracelets were of her own design and had been made in her mother’s freezing attic workshop.
In any case, the novelty of the bracelets didn’t divert the ladies from their real interest. Even as they spoke, they cast surreptitious glances at her mother’s eyes. One leaned forward, as if to gain a better angle to see the bracelet—and gained a better angle to see behind her mother’s spectacles. Her mouth fell open before she recovered.
Rarely did anyone hide their surprise when they glimpsed the shiny orbs concealed by the lenses. Some stared openly, as if the prosthetic eyes were blind, rather than as keen as a telescope and a microscope combined. This particular lady was no different. She continued to look, her expression a mixture of fascination and revulsion. She’d probably expected modification on a coal miner. Not the countess of Rockingham.
But if mirrored eyes still horrified her, chances were she’d never actually seen a miner. Or perhaps she’d heard the story behind her mother’s eyes. If so, the lady’s gaze would soon be seeking Mina.
Felicity must have caught the direction of her attention. “What is her goal tonight?” she asked “A husband for you, or new recruits for her Ladies Reformation League?”
Mina’s friend underestimated her mother’s efficiency. “Both.”
As efficient as her mother was, however, finding new recruits for her League had greater possibility for success. A suitable husband was about as likely as King Edward writing his own name legibly. Mina was approaching thirty years of age—nine of them free from the Horde’s control—without once attracting the attention of a worthy man. Only bounders searching for a taste of the exotic and forbidden, or Englishmen seeking revenge for the horrors of the Mongol occupation—and Mina resembled the people they wanted to exact their vengeance on.
A loud, hacking cough from beside Mina turned her head. A bounder, red in the face, lowered his handkerchief from his mouth. His gaze touched Mina, then darted away.
She turned back to Felicity with arched brows, inviting comment.
Felicity watched the man walk away. “I suppose it does not matter, anyway. They will all soon hie off to the countryside or back to the New World.”
Yes. Without the bugs, the insides of their lungs would become as black as a chimney.
They’d been made too confident by their success in America. They’d built a new life out of a wild land, taming it to suit their needs. Now, they thought they could return and reshape London—but London reshaped them, instead. The only way to stay alive in the city was to become a bugger, infecting themselves with the tiny machines that their ancestors had run from two hundred years before.
From directly beside Mina came the quiet sound of a throat clearing. She turned. A ginger-haired maid in a black uniform bobbed a curtsy. Though Mina had noted that the servants from the New World usually lowered their gazes, this girl couldn’t seem to help herself. The maid studied Mina’s face, fascinated and wary. Perhaps she’d never seen a Mongol before—or, as in Mina’s case, a mongrel. Only a few of the Horde were left in England, and even fewer lived in the New World. The Horde trade routes didn’t cross the Atlantic.
Mina raised her brows.
The maid blushed and bowed her head. “A gentleman asks to see you, my lady.”
“Oh, she is not a lady,” Felicity said airily. “She is a detective inspector.”
The mock gravity weighing down the last word seemed to confound the maid. She colored and fidgeted. Perhaps she worried that ‘inspector’ was a bugger’s insult?
Mina said, “What gentleman?”
“A Constable Newberry, my lady. He’s brought with him a message to you.”
Mina frowned and stood, but was brought around by Felicity’s exasperated, “Mina, you didn’t.”
She could determine motives of opium-addled criminals, but what she couldn’t do was follow every jump of Felicity’s mind. “I didn’t what?”
“Send a gram to your assistant so that you could escape.”
Oh, she should have. It would be a simple thing; all of the bounders’ restored houses had wiregram lines installed.
“You mistrustful cow! Of course I didn’t.” She lowered her voice and added, “I will at the next ball, however, now that you’ve given me the idea.” As Felicity smothered a laugh into her hand again, Mina continued, “Will you inform my father and mother that I’ve gone?”
“Gone? It is only a message.”
Newberry wouldn’t have come in person if it was only a message. “No.”
“Oh.” Realization swept over her friend’s expression, brushing away her amusement. “Do not keep the poor bastard waiting, then.”
The maid’s eyes widened before she turned to lead Mina out of the ballroom. She could imagine what the girl thought, but Newberry was not the poor bastard.
Whoever had been murdered was.
They’d put Newberry in a study in the east wing—probably so the guests weren’t made nervous by his size or his constable’s coat. Though he must have been alone in the room several minutes, he stood in the middle of the study, his bowler hat in his large-knuckled hands. Mina had to admire his fortitude. Small automata lined the study’s bookshelves. If given more than a few seconds to wait, she could not have stopped herself from winding them and seeing how they performed. She recognized a few of her mother’s more mundane creations—a dog that would wag his tail and flip; a singing mechanical nightingale—and felt more charitable toward her host. They might not have provided dessert, but they unknowingly had put food on her table.
Newberry’s eyes widened briefly when he saw her attire. She’d never worn a skirt in his presence, let alone a yellow satin gown that exposed her collarbones and the few inches of skin between her cap sleeves and her long white gloves. His gaze flicked back up so fast she might have missed his surprise if she hadn’t taken that moment to look him over.
Her coat, weapons, and armor draped over his left forearm. She could have no doubt they were leaving now, and he’d come in such a hurry he hadn’t taken time to shave. Evening stubble flanked the red mustache that drooped over the corners of his mouth and swept up the sides of h...
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