The Kraken King (Part I)
The Kraken King and the Scribbling Spinster
A former smuggler and thief, Ariq—better known as the Kraken King—doesn’t know what to make of the clever, mysterious woman he rescues from an airship besieged by marauders. Unsure if she’s a spy or a pawn in someone else’s game, Ariq isn’t about to let her out of his sight until he finds out…
After escaping her fourth kidnapping attempt in a year, Zenobia Fox has learned to vigilantly guard her identity. While her brother Archimedes is notorious for his exploits, Zenobia has had no adventures to call her own—besides the stories she writes.
But when she jumps at the chance to escape to the wilds of Australia and acquire research for her next story, Zenobia quickly discovers that the voyage will be far more adventurous than any fiction she could put to paper…
The Kraken King (Part II)
The Kraken King and the Abominable Worm
As they continue their expedition across Australia, Ariq is determined to stay close to Zenobia and figure out what kind of game she’s playing—even as his admiration for the enigmatic woman starts to override his suspicion.
For Zenobia, revealing her identity to a man who once made his living outside of the law is out of the question—even though Ariq’s dashing looks and blunt manner are distractingly appealing.
But before anyone’s secrets or desires can be exposed, an unexpected attack threatens to destroy them all…
The Kraken King (Part III)
The Kraken King and the Fox’s Den
After a harrowing escape, Zenobia, Ariq, and their company take refuge in a gold rush town—but their temporary port is anything but safe. When Zenobia is almost abducted, Ariq comes to her rescue and asks for something in return: he wants to know her secrets.
Zenobia reveals that her aim is to collect information for her next story, but Ariq can’t believe that her motives are so simple. Suspecting that all of Zenobia’s “research” is actually an intelligence-gathering effort for the Horde rebellion, Ariq decides to employ a new tactic to get the truth.
Shocked and overwhelmed by Ariq’s sudden seduction, Zenobia isn’t sure his interest is sincere. But while her head is telling her to keep him at arm’s length, her heart is an entirely different matter…
(This review is only for books 1 -3. Be aware The Kraken King is an 8 part series!)
Fladstrand, Upper Peninsula, Denmark
My dear impulsive brother,
If this letter is in your hands instead of on my desk where I left it, you must have flown to Fladstrand without first collecting your correspondence in Port Fallow—where the note I sent to you would have saved you a trip. Don’t be alarmed by my absence. The guards you recommended to me have seen to my safety commendably. Since they have come into my employ, I have not been kidnapped even once.
I have had an unexpected visit from an old friend, instead—you will remember Helene Krause, though she is now Mrs. Basile Auger. She has invited me to accompany her to Australia, and I have accepted that invitation. It will be the perfect opportunity to research the location of the next Lady Lynx adventure.
Do not stop reading this letter, Archimedes! Your instinct will be to drop it and rush up to your skyrunner, where you and your captain will make hasty plans to follow me. I forbid you from undertaking such a stupid effort. Helene’s husband serves as an ambassador in the French diplomatic corps, and we will be traveling aboard a naval airship to his station in the Red City. No pirate would dare attack our escort, and we will not fly too near the smugglers’ havens. I have also assumed an alias to conceal my identity. Rest assured that I have taken proper precautions.
P.S. I warn you again, Archimedes, do not even think of pursuit! I don’t need you and Captain Corsair to chase after me, shooting everyone who crosses your path.
I shall write to you frequently—if you have any brains in your head, you will recognize my assumed name. Remember to collect your post, and you’ll see that I am getting on perfectly well. If ever I am forced to narrate the tale of my upcoming journey, the title will surely be The Scribbling Spinster and the Uneventful Voyage.
From Chapter One... (and a bit of Chapter Two)So far, the journey had been as eventful as Zenobia had predicted—and not nearly as eventful as she had hoped. After years of writing about her brother’s adventures, she’d been looking forward to a little adventure of her own. She’d wanted to fly over the zombie-infested lands of Europe and Africa, which she’d described in dozens of stories but had never seen for herself. She’d wanted to glimpse the terrors of the deep and the sky, which Archimedes had fought and escaped so many times.
It seemed he never stepped out the door without encountering some danger. Whereas Archimedes flung himself at every peril, however, Zenobia intended to observe it from a safe distance.
But the airship’s route had taken them along the west coast of Africa and around the southern tip of the continent before heading into the Western Ocean, and she’d only observed water, instead. Beautiful waters, dull waters, rough and calm, in every possible shade of blue and green and gray. She’d spent hours leaning over the rail, searching for a megalodon’s razor-sharp fin slicing through the ocean’s surface or a kraken’s massive armored body and endless tentacles. Her eyes had watered from staring into the bright sky, hoping for a glimpse of New Eden’s balloon city. But aside from a bit of excitement when a pod of sperm whales passed below the airship, there was little that she’d done on this trip that she couldn’t have done more comfortably at home.
And at home, she wouldn’t have had to share a cabin with her friend.
She’d accepted Helene’s invitation too quickly. She’d never imagined that she’d like the other woman much better when the Atlantic Ocean was between them, or that she would have preferred the letters they regularly exchanged to conversations in person.
How could she have expected it? As girls, they’d been as close as sisters. With similar brown hair and easily tanned skin, they’d even been mistaken for sisters from time to time, and Zenobia had used any excuse to visit Helene’s home. Now sharing quarters with her old friend was like being wrapped in wet wool. Though not a small cabin—with a sitting area, a bed for two, and space enough in the wardrobe to hang a week’s worth of dresses for each—when Zenobia sat at the writing desk and Helene settled down to read, the room felt very tiny, indeed.
“Oh, my. Listen to this, Geraldine!”
“One moment,” Zenobia responded without lifting her head. A villain had let loose a pair of zombies aboard her heroine’s airship; in the water below, monstrous sharks circled a lifeboat filled with her crew. Zenobia had just thought of a brilliant quip to accompany Lady Lynx’s leap into action, but she was still a sentence away.
“Geraldine, you must listen!” A rustle of cotton and the creak of wood said that Helene had risen from her chair. “We might jeopardize my husband’s position if we don’t take care!”
Blast it all. She couldn’t avoid the interruption now. Zenobia scribbled the quip in the corner of the page and looked up.
Helene stood beside her table, cradling a leather-bound volume in both hands. She’d braced the bottom of the heavy tome against her breasts, the pages open to the middle of the book.
Using her breasts as a shelf was the most practical thing Helene had done all day.
Zenobia opened her mouth to respond, then realized they weren’t alone. In the sitting area, her guard occupied the seat beside Helene’s abandoned one. Mara was stabbing a needle through a hem, and the lace cap over her black hair fluttered as she shook her head.
Zenobia hadn’t even noticed that Mara had entered the cabin—which was yet another reason she needed the mercenary around while she was writing. It wouldn’t do at all for a pirate to prance up behind her and snatch her from her chair.
On this voyage, however, Mara had been offering protection of another sort. She’d provided a buffer against Helene’s constant chatter, allowing Zenobia opportunity to work.
Though, to be fair, Helene didn’t know that Zenobia wrote more than letters. To Helene, she wasn’t Zenobia Fox, the author of popular serial adventures and the oft-kidnapped sister to one of the wealthiest men who’d ever flung himself into danger. She was only Geraldine Gunther-Baptiste, who’d lived in the house next door to Helene until fourteen years before, when Geraldine’s mother had died. Since then, Zenobia’s letters to her friend had concealed much and lied often.
Which meant that Zenobia hadn’t been a very good friend at all. She should try to be a better one. She owed that to Helene, who had been at Zenobia’s side through the worst of days—and a minor interruption did not count as the worst of anything.
Determinedly, she pushed aside her irritation. “What does your book say?”
“That we must bow upon meeting a Nipponese man and upon taking our leave.”
Why did that warrant such urgency? Women and men curtsied and bowed everywhere. Half the people in the Americas and what was left of Europe bobbed up and down with regularity.
Perplexed, Zenobia glanced at the title. Dancing Through the Red Wall: A Ladies’ Handbook of Nipponese Traditions and Customs.
Zenobia couldn’t conceive why such a handbook would only be for ladies, but she wasn’t surprised to see it in Helene’s possession. Her friend had taken her role as an ambassador’s wife to heart, applying herself to learning as much of the language and the history as she could during their journey.
Much of the information Helene had shared was fascinating, but Zenobia was skeptical of its accuracy. For centuries, almost from the date that the residents of the far-eastern islands had fled from the Mongol Horde and settled in northeastern Australia, Nippon’s borders had been closed to foreigners. Only recently had the empire begun to loosen those restrictions—probably not enough time for the author of the handbook to gain a comprehensive understanding of traditions and customs.
After all, Zenobia had lived in Fladstrand for ten years, and she still sometimes felt like the odd duck. She didn’t expect to feel any different in the Red City, handbook or not.
“What sort of bow?”
Turning the book around, Helene tapped her finger alongside a drawing of a man bending over at the waist so far that his forehead was almost level with his feet.
She was supposed to fold herself in half? “That’s not physically possible.”
“It’s important,” Helene stressed, though when she glanced down at the figure, a little crease formed between her brows, as if she were also wondering how to attain the position without toppling over. “Failing to bow is a slap against his honor—and a man who is dishonored will kill himself.”
“If someone doesn’t bow?” At Helene’s solemn nod, Zenobia stared at her in disbelief. This had to be utter nonsense. “Will he do it at that very moment?”
“Yes.” Helene pinched the first fifty or sixty pages of the book between her fingers. “All of this explains how critical it is not to insult a man’s honor.”
How unfortunate for any men who crossed paths with Zenobia, then. She sometimes gave offense when she didn’t mean to—though when she did give offense, she usually meant to. Upon reaching the Red City, however, she might inadvertently leave a trail of corpses in her wake.
“That custom favors women, I think,” Zenobia said. “If a husband strays or if he proves a disappointment, the wife only has to refrain from bowing and she is quickly free of him.”
Two spots of color appeared on Helene’s cheeks. “It is not well done to mock their customs. And I would never have imagined that you would make light of losing a husband.”
And it was fortunate that women weren’t so ready to kill themselves when offended, or Zenobia would be short one friend. But she bit her tongue. Helene desperately wanted to prove herself an asset to her husband, and she had more to lose when they arrived at the Red City than Zenobia did.
But Zenobia couldn’t imagine that Helene would be an asset if she made a habit of greeting men with her bottom in the air and her head between her feet.
She glanced at Mara. The other woman met her eyes and shook her head. So the book was nonsense. Several times, the mercenary had corrected Zenobia’s pronunciation of the Nipponese phrases Helene had taught her, but doing the same for her friend might have invited too many questions about how and where Mara had acquired her knowledge.
The woman whom Helene knew as Geraldine could have no reason to keep two mercenaries in her employ. So on this journey, Mara posed as Zenobia’s lady’s maid—a role that didn’t sit easily. Zenobia’s brown hair had never looked more terrible than it had under Mara’s care, and her needle had tortured the hem of Zenobia’s favorite dress beyond repair. More than once, Helene had quietly suggested that Mara was unsuited to the position.
More than once, Mara had quietly suggested stuffing a gag into Helene’s mouth until they reached the Red City.
But although Mara was the sort who took pleasure in gagging people—or shooting them, if they attempted to kidnap Zenobia—she had a heart full of love for two things: her husband and money. If offered a bonus, Mara would help Helene.
Zenobia raised her brows. Mara sighed before nodding.
“Helene,” Zenobia said gently. The other woman’s color was still high and her mouth pressed into a thin line. “Mara worked within the Nipponese enclave in the Ivory Market for many years. She might be able to point to anything in your book that might have been exaggerated or misunderstood.”
“In an enclave?”
With a sweep of her blue skirt, Helene turned to study Mara, and in that moment Zenobia disliked her friend very much. The examination wasn’t the sort one person gave another when taking their measure. Instead, Helene looked upon Mara as if she were an unusual insect.
Helene’s head tilted. “I thought you were Horde. Your eyes are slanted, so you are obviously from the Asian continent.”
“My family fled the Golden Empire—what you call the Horde—before I was born, ma’am. We settled in the enclave with people from all regions of the empire.” Mara smiled sweetly and jabbed her needle through pale green cotton—nowhere near the hem. “Just as people in other enclaves fled their nations. Yet many of us retained our customs and languages.”
“But the Ivory Market is in Africa,” Helene said, hefting the book. “This author lived in the Red City for more than a year. Much closer, you must agree, and the people he observed more genuinely Nipponese.”
“If you say, ma’am,” Mara responded easily, and Zenobia decided to double that month’s pay.
“And there is much the author was able to observe that a girl could not. He tells us how the women are kept hidden away, silenced and meek. Like maids, I suppose.” Helene sighed. “It’s unfortunate that all of those honorable women should live in such a way.”
The needle stabbed through another virgin stretch of cotton. “I suppose that to avoid offending men who are accustomed to meek women, you would also have to be very quiet. Ma’am.”
“Yes.” With a thoughtful frown, Helene stroked her fingers down the book’s spine. “Or perhaps my example will open their eyes to a more modern view of women and their roles.”
Oh, dear. Mara’s sweet smile had begun to look more like a tiger’s, and Zenobia had never wished so hard for a kidnapping. The four times she’d been taken for ransom had not been so horrible, in retrospect. She’d been fed and treated with care. The pirates had only wanted money, and they wouldn’t have received a single coin if she was harmed. The hostility brewing in this cabin seemed far more dangerous.
Then Helene set the book aside, as if signaling that she was finished with the topic for now, and Zenobia breathed again.
She glanced down at her page. The scribble in the corner had been a brilliant quip, she remembered. Lady Lynx had been going to draw her gun and say . . . what?
She couldn’t remember. And she couldn’t read the scribble.
Blast. She dipped her pen and scratched out the useless note. It had been a foolish thought, anyway. Lady Lynx wouldn’t quip. She would simply shoot, and coldly watch the villain fall dead.
Zenobia sometimes wished that she could be as ruthless.
“Are you well?” Helene softly touched her shoulder before sinking onto the nearby bed. “You look quite fierce.”
“I’m frustrating myself, trying to think of a suitable word to describe the waters in this part of the ocean,” Zenobia lied. “What color would you call it?”
“‘Blue,’” Helene offered. “You are penning another letter? It seems to me that there is only the horrid food and the rumbling of the engines to remark upon. And the seagulls. Never has there been such incessant cawing, or so much reason to wear a bonnet. It’s astonishing that you have so much to say.”
Zenobia hadn’t had much to say at all—and had only managed to complete two chapters in the weeks aboard the airship. Perhaps she’d have made more progress if she hadn’t been writing by hand, but the clacking of her typesetting machine gave Helene headaches.
“Are you writing to your brother again?”
Though she loved Archimedes, Zenobia couldn’t pretend such fondness that she would write him every day. “This is to Grandmother Inkslinger.”
Another lie, on top of an older one. Several years before, she’d described her living situation to Helene, and it had been simpler to claim she had been briefly married and widowed than to try convincing her friend that it was perfectly proper for a young woman to live alone. In Zenobia’s experience, admitting to spinsterhood only resulted in good-intentioned attempts to steer men in her direction. But a widow’s independence was rarely questioned.
The lie served her well during this trip, too. She hadn’t wanted to travel as Zenobia Fox and make herself a target for every pirate and fortune hunter. Yet her maiden name, Gunther-Baptiste, might have brought as much attention in this part of the world. Her brother had smuggled weapons for Horde rebels under that name, until he’d run afoul of a powerful general. Archimedes had changed his name then; Zenobia had done the same, fearing that any assassins would come for him through her.
Archimedes had recently paid his debt to the general, but Zenobia didn’t want to take the chance that someone who hadn’t heard the price on her brother’s head had been lifted might recognize her name. So she traveled as Geraldine Inkslinger, instead.
“It’s wonderful that you still correspond with your late husband’s family.” A wistful note softened Helen’s voice. “You must have gotten on very well with them.”
“Not at all. I continue writing to them so that they feel obligated to respond, even though they must hate that obligation.” Which was another lie. If Zenobia had possessed a dead husband and resentful relatives, however, she would have taken great pleasure in making it true. She glanced up with a smile, but it faded as she took in Helene’s pale face and compressed mouth. “Are you well?”
Swallowing hard, Helene managed a sickly nod. Her hand pressed to her stomach. “It is the swaying again.”
Perhaps. The motion of an airship did make some passengers nauseous.
So did pregnancy.
Helene had not yet confided whether she was, and her petite figure did not yet show evidence of it. But pregnancy would explain why she had arrived at Zenobia’s home so unexpectedly, without companions or a single word in advance, and why she’d wanted to immediately travel to Australia. She had been separated from her husband for the better part of a year. If Helene was with child, either Basile Auger had astonishing ejaculatory capabilities, impregnating her from halfway around the world, or she’d lain with another man.
Zenobia had never met Helene’s husband and she didn’t know his temperament. She didn’t know whether the worry and strain she often glimpsed on Helene’s face came from the guilt of betrayal or fear of his reaction. But many years before, Helene had offered her support when Zenobia’s mother had worn the same worried look—worry that had become terror when her father returned home. So Zenobia would help her friend now, until she was certain Helene had nothing to fear. If that meant staying with her until the baby was born, she would. And if it meant using every resource she possessed to help Helene escape, she would.
But hopefully it wouldn’t come to that. Not all men were like her father.
Zenobia glanced at the porthole. Bright sunshine streamed through the window and fell like a warm cape across her shoulders before spilling over Helene’s bed. “If you want to lie down, I can shutter the— Oh!”
A hard jolt tossed her forward against the writing desk. Her inkwell skidded across the surface and tipped. Zenobia wildly grabbed at it, black ink splattering over her fingers. Her pen clattered to the boards.
Then all was still.
On the bed, Helene stared at her, wide-eyed. “What was that?”
She had no idea. Zenobia looked to the seating area. Mara was already on her feet, the needle and hem dropped to the floor. Despite Mara’s black dress and lace cap, there was nothing of a lady’s maid about the mercenary now. A pistol was in her hand; Zenobia didn’t know where it had come from—under Mara’s skirts, beneath the chair, out of thin air. Anything seemed possible.
The mercenary tilted her head and flexed her jaw, activating the listening device grafted into her ear. But if Mara heard anything to indicate what had happened, she didn’t say.
Her flat gaze swept the cabin before landing on Zenobia. “I’ll return shortly.”
Zenobia nodded. Unspoken was the command that Mara and her husband Cooper had given to her every time a would-be abductor had broken into her home: Don’t leave this room unless you have absolutely no other choice.
Shouts and the pounding of boots filled the quiet as Mara slipped into the corridor, and were muffled again when she closed the door.
Zenobia stood, wincing at the sharp pain in her ribs where she’d struck the edge of the writing desk. Likely nothing cracked or broken, but she could expect a nasty bruise.
It wouldn’t be her first bruise, however. She couldn’t let it slow her down now. She sank to her knees, reaching past the trunks stored beneath the bed. Her fingers hooked around the leather straps of her glider and she dragged the folded contraption out.
As she returned to the desk, running footsteps sounded along the corridor. Four or five men by the sound of it. The copper pipes overhead began to ring as someone on the deck above struck a warning, signaling everyone in the airship. Zenobia didn’t know what that particular pattern of rings meant, but it didn’t matter. A warning could never be a good sign.
She shoved her pages into the glider’s waterproof satchel. Only two chapters, but she didn’t want to lose nearly a month’s work. What else would she need?
She hauled out her trunk from beneath the bed and tossed out the clothes and books. The combination lock to the false bottom was hidden beneath the handle. She peeled away the cover and twisted the number dial.
The bottom compartment popped open. She grabbed her identifying documents and the packet of letters from Archimedes that she’d been using as the basis of her story.
Helene watched her in confusion. “What are you doing? It’s likely only a problem with the engine.”
Which was still huffing away, the ever-present rumble in their ears and the vibration through the boards. If the boiler had blown, causing that jolt, the engineers would have already stopped the engine.
“It’s best to be prepared, don’t you think?” Zenobia needed the strength of both hands to lift out the bag of gold—enough coins to convince anyone that there would be a hefty ransom available if she and Helene were kept alive. “Where are your travel papers?”
Her friend’s face cleared. “In my trunk.”
While she retrieved them, Zenobia looked out the porthole. Only a cloudless sky above and turquoise water below. If they were under attack, it was not coming from this side of the ship.
She crossed the cabin and peeked out. They’d been quartered on the officers’ deck, toward the front of the airship. The door across the passageway was closed, blocking a view of the opposite porthole. The corridor was empty—except for the companionways. Aviators rushed up and down the ladders. Her heart racing, Zenobia withdrew into the cabin and shut the door.
A terrible rumble came from the rear of the airship, rattling the wardrobe against the bulkhead. An explosion? Standing absolutely still, Zenobia strained to listen. In the center of the cabin, Helene did the same, her face white and her eyes wide.
Then the floor fell out from under her feet.
Zenobia slammed into the deck. The impact knocked the breath from her chest, cutting short her terrified cry. Black spots swam in front of her eyes, but the airship seemed to have steadied. Zenobia hadn’t. She wobbled onto her knees as Helene retched her lunch onto the bed. Pregnancy or fear. It didn’t matter.
Desperately swallowing down her own panic, Zenobia buckled the glider straps over her chest and shoulders. Unfolded, the contraption could carry two. They’d be all right.
The door flew open, banging hard against the leg of a toppled chair. Hope leapt into Zenobia’s heart—but it wasn’t Mara and Cooper. After weeks of dinners in the captain’s cabin, the face and uniform were familiar. Lieutenant Blanchett. His usually good-natured expression had tightened into sharp lines. Blood dripped from a cut at his hairline.
He held out his hand. “Come. We must run to the lifeboats.”
“Not yet.” Zenobia caught Helene’s wrist when she took a step toward the door. Blanchett was a nice man. Likely a capable one. She wasn’t placing her life into his hands. “We are waiting for my maid and her husband.”
“Geraldine!” Shaking her head, Helene tried to tug Zenobia forward.
“Madame, I must insist—”
A gloved hand clapped over his shoulder. His lean face streaked with soot, Cooper said, “Help the others, Lieutenant. We’ll escort them.”
If Blanchett was surprised to see a maid and valet heavily armed with guns and blades, he didn’t show it. He only glanced into the cabin again. “Is this acceptable to you?”
Zenobia was already rushing forward. “Yes.”
He nodded to Cooper. “Take them through the aft cargo hold. The main deck has caught fire.”
Then she was racing down the corridor, her hand linked with Helene’s, Cooper ahead and Mara behind. The battleship had astonished her with its size when she’d first boarded—at least six times longer than the skyrunner her sister-in-law captained—but now the length of the deck seemed terrifyingly endless. Amidships, smoke boiled from the companionway and rolled across the ceiling. She held her breath passing through the acrid cloud, trying not to hear the screams from above.
Fire. That was almost always the end of an airship. A naval battleship’s balloons were hardier than most, but with a single leak in the envelope, an explosion became inevitable.
She shouted back to Mara as they ran. “Who’s attacking us?”
“Men on flyers!”
From another airship? Or from a boat?
Ahead, Cooper dropped into the companionway to the deck below. Zenobia climbed down the ladder as quickly as she could.
“Pirates?” she asked breathlessly.
Shaking his head, Cooper reached up to help Helene down the last few steps.
Mara joined them. “The flyers are of Nipponese design, but the pilots don’t wear a crest.”
So possibly smugglers, pirates, or mercenaries. But Zenobia couldn’t ask anything more. They rushed down the next ladder to the cargo deck.
Wooden doors barred their way into the hold. With his blunderbuss, Cooper blasted through the wood surrounding the locks before shattering the bolt housing with two kicks from his mechanical legs. Zenobia’s ears were still ringing as they entered the dim, humid bay, quickly making their way past stacks of crates and barrels. Muffled gunfire from outside sounded through the thick hull. No cannon fire. But that had to be the purpose of the smaller flyers: They were more difficult to shoot down than another airship would be. It would be like a bear swatting at bees—except the bees had stingers that could set the bear on fire.
They reached the loading doors built into ship’s hull. Mara urged Zenobia and Helene to the side before hauling down the lever. With a rattle of chains, the heavy steel doors slid apart.
Sunlight spilled in. Zenobia blinked, her eyes watering. Her shoulders ached, the gold in her pack a deadweight on the glider’s wide leather straps. A hot breeze caught her dress, the cotton saturated with sweat and clinging to her skin. Helene’s palm was slick against her own. Her friend’s breath pumped in short, sobbing gasps.
Outside, gunfire cracked over the rattling huff of the airship’s engines. Fewer shots rang out now. Were the marauders being driven off or had the aviators been forced to retreat from the burning deck? Zenobia couldn’t tell.
Gripping the edge of the door in one hand, Cooper leaned out and glanced up before pulling himself back into the hold. “The flyers are concentrating on the upper decks, but a few others are circling.”
A high-pitched engine whined closer, louder. Mara pushed Zenobia and Helene up against the door—out of sight and behind thick steel. A flyer buzzed past, then another.
Zenobia had expected they would look like the machines from New Eden, resembling dragonflies, but these had light, slender frames suspended beneath sleek, silvery envelopes. She’d never seen anything with a balloon move so quickly.
“There,” Mara said, pointing out over the water. Cooper looked through the loading doors and nodded.
Zenobia sidled closer to the opening, the hot wind from outside blowing into her face. Her gaze searched the sky before she spotted a dark shape floating on the horizon. A ship.
“You think that’s where the flyers came from?”
“No. That’s a Nipponese ironship—and that’s where we need to go.”
To an unknown ship? But she wouldn’t question it. She’d hired Mara and Cooper to keep her safe. If she couldn’t trust that they knew how to best go about it, they weren’t worth a single denier.
There was no time to discuss it, anyway. Her heart gave a heavy thump when she saw the smoke billowing from the airship’s bow. The flames hadn’t reached this part of the vessel yet, but it wouldn’t take long.
“What about the lifeboats?” Helene’s voice was high and thin.
Cooper spared her a glance. “There’s blood in the water and this is megalodon territory. Without quick rescue from that ironship, soon there won’t be any lifeboats.”
“They’re coming around again. Two flyers.” Mara’s warning preceded another high-pitched whine. “Back. Get back.”
Holding her breath, Zenobia pressed back against the steel doors, her fingers gripping Helene’s.
But they weren’t the only ones stepping away from the opening in the hull. Cooper dropped a kiss to Mara’s mouth and backed away from the doors, making his way down the narrow row between the stacked crates. Crouching at the edge, Mara lifted her hand, five fingers extended. She began to fold them down, one by one. Counting.
The whine grew louder. Mara’s hand clenched into a fist.
Her husband sprinted to the open doors and leapt from the airship.
The crack of Mara’s pistol cut Zenobia’s cry short. Then astonishment stopped her dead when Cooper slammed into the first flyer pilot.
They’d perfectly timed his jump. The machine rocked wildly, then a body tumbled from the pilot’s seat and Cooper gripped the steering lever, straightening its course. The second pilot had slumped over—shot by Mara, Zenobia realized. His balloon slowed to a stop, hovering beside the battleship’s hull.
She still hadn’t found her voice again when Cooper brought the balloon alongside the loading doors. Mara squeezed onto the seat behind him, the machine bobbing under her added weight. She glanced at Zenobia.
“We’ll return shortly with the second flyer.”
Zenobia nodded. The balloon’s engine wound higher and Cooper flew forward. Less than fifteen seconds later, Mara kicked the dead pilot from his seat and took his place.
“He’s your late husband’s valet!” Helene stood beside her, staring after the pair. “And she is only a maid!”
And Zenobia couldn’t think of a single lie to explain it. Fortunately, their approach saved her from a response.
Hovering just inside the loading bay, Mara pointed to Helene and called over the noise of her engine. “You’re lighter than Mrs. Inkslinger, so you will ride with my husband!”
While the taller Zenobia rode with Mara—keeping their combined weights as low as possible, because the machines were designed to carry one. The flyer tilted when Zenobia stepped onto the runner. She followed Mara’s example and pulled her skirt up over her knees before swinging her leg over the small bit of room left in the saddle. The engine’s vibration instantly made her entire bottom itch.
“If you have a handkerchief, wave it behind us,” Mara said over her shoulder. “We don’t want the aviators to shoot us in the back by mistake.”
She didn’t have one. But Helene did—and was already waving it through the air, though they hadn’t yet left the cargo hold.
“Stay close to them,” Zenobia suggested.
And then they were off, Zenobia’s stomach swooping as they fell into a shallow dive—keeping the airship’s bulk between them and the other flyers, she realized. Hiding until they gained more distance from the battleship.
She glanced back. Oh, dear God. The flames had completely engulfed the upper decks. Smoke billowed around the airship’s balloons in an angry cloud, almost obscuring their white envelopes. As if a giant hand had snapped off the tip of the ship, the bow had broken away from the hull and hung suspended over the water by the forward balloon’s tethering cables.
In the ocean below, aviators in lifeboats rowed from beneath the hovering battleship. Silvery, deflated balloons floated on the swells around them. Some of the flyers had been shot down, then. How many more were there?
Her gaze searched the air. At least four or five, their shapes barely visible through the smoke.
Then not-so-barely visible.
Zenobia’s grip tightened on Mara’s hips. “Flyers are coming this way!”
Though not in a straight line toward them. The three flyers at the head were bobbing and weaving—though the two behind held a steadier course.
As if they were giving chase, and the three ahead were fleeing.
Gunshots cracked. One of the retreating flyers’s balloon collapsed, the silvery envelope crumpling in on itself. Engine whining, the machine dropped into a spinning dive, the metal frame flashing beneath the bright sun. The marauder’s scream scraped terror down Zenobia’s spine, then he slammed into the water and the silence was even more horrifying.
But better him than her friends.
“There’s still four!” she cried out when Mara banked right, her gun in hand. Cooper did the same—intending to face the flyers down rather than risk a bullet in the back, Zenobia realized. “But the two behind shot out another’s balloon!”
“I saw,” Mara said. “Hold tight.”
Zenobia did, as tight as she could without restricting the other woman’s movements. Their flyer slowed and turned.
The others were closer now, not coming directly toward Zenobia’s flyer but on a path that would pass by about a hundred yards to their right. The two in front looked just like the other marauders, prepared for flight in goggles and helmets. She’d assumed their pursuers were aviators who’d managed to commandeer the flyers, just as Mara and Cooper had, but they didn’t wear naval uniforms. They weren’t near enough for her to make out their features, just dark hair and white shirts.
The two men in pursuit veered apart, as if flanking their prey. One of the flyers in front turned and shot wildly behind him—then his balloon collapsed, the report of a gunshot echoing through his cry of terror.
The last of the three hunted flyers banked toward them. Arm raised, the pilot leveled his gun in their direction.
Zenobia stiffened, her heart pounding wildly. “Mara?”
“He’s too far away for an accurate shot.” The mercenary’s voice was tense. “But so are we.”
Cooper didn’t seem to care about that. He’d opened fire with both pistols. Maybe hoping for a lucky hit. Behind him, Helene had pressed her face between his shoulders and was desperately waving her handkerchief over her head.
“Come on, you bastard,” Mara muttered. “Just a little closer . . . Ah.”
It was like a sigh of pleasure. The hammer of her pistol fell. A puff of smoke accompanied the loud crack. The marauder’s face exploded and his body toppled backward, his arms swinging up.
Another crack sounded. Not Mara’s or Cooper’s guns. Zenobia had half a second to wonder whether the marauder had managed to get off a shot before Mara’s bullet had killed him or if the squeezing the trigger had been a dying reflex, then the balloon over her head collapsed in a sickening rush of air.
“Zenobia!” Mara screamed. “We need to jump for Cooper’s—”
Then they were dropping, dropping, but Zenobia had done this before. She and her brother had leapt out of balloons so many times, because he’d needed the excitement, and she’d needed to imagine that it was her father’s airship they were escaping—and that she was free, finally free of his fists and his rules and his locked closets.
She wrapped her arms around Mara’s waist and jumped.
The deflated balloon flipped past them, spinning around and around, and Mara’s weight felt as if it would tear her arm out of its socket when she let go with one hand to yank the lever on the side of her pack.
The glider’s wings snapped open. The frame creaked as the canvas caught air, and Mara was almost ripped out of her grip, but Zenobia held on as the mercenary began to laugh wildly.
Zenobia couldn’t laugh. She could barely breathe. Wind tore at her eyes. Her arms shook with strain. She couldn’t control their direction, there was too much weight and none of it evenly balanced. They descended toward the ocean—but there was nowhere else to go, anyway. At least the landing would be softer than it would have been on the flyer.
Clear turquoise water rolled gently below. She didn’t see any shadows beneath the surface, no monsters of the deep, and she couldn’t believe that she’d ever wanted a glimpse of one.
A flyer engine whined behind them. She couldn’t look around, but wasn’t surprised that Cooper was following.
“Let me go now!” Mara called when they skimmed closer to the water. “It’ll be easier for you to land without me!”
True. And it was only a ten- or fifteen-foot drop.
Letting go was almost as painful as holding on. Her muscles screamed as she eased her arms open, and Mara splashed feet-first into the water.
Zenobia shifted her weight to slowly turn, gliding in a circle back to Mara’s position so that she wouldn’t land too far away from her guard. As it was, she’d probably have to swim until they figured out how to get four people aboard a flyer designed to carry only one.
Swim. Even though her arms were dead things, and she had a heavy bag of gold strapped to her back.
Oh, dear God. Frantically she tried to unbuckle the straps, but her hands were weak and the tension of her weight suspended from the glider prevented her from wriggling out. She pushed at the wing lever and dropped when the wings folded.
The water rushed up, slapping at her feet and her stomach then dragging her down, warmer than she expected, but no less salty and terrifying when it closed over her head. Her skirt tangled around her thrashing legs. A watery buzz filled her ears and the wavering shape of a flyer appeared overhead. Cooper. She just had to reach the surface. She pushed her thumbs under the leather straps at her shoulders, trying to force them off, but they were tight, even tighter now, as if she were still hanging from the glider.
Or being pulled upward. She broke the surface, coughing and grabbing for the flyer’s foot runner.
But that wasn’t Cooper’s boot. Instead of hard brown leather, it was soft and supple, and covered in a fine red dust.
She looked up. Black hair. Dark eyes over high, arching cheekbones. A firm mouth and an angular jaw clenched with effort. He was close, so close, leaning out of his seat and holding her up with his fingers wrapped around the glider’s straps. Then he lifted her out of the water with just one hand, even though she was a tall woman, her pack filled with heavy gold and her skirts soaking wet.
The ocean rained from her dress, splattering his loose trousers and a white tunic streaked with dirt the color of rust. He set her on the runner and slid forward a little, an unspoken invitation to fill the space behind him.
What to do? She looked for Mara. The mercenary was climbing onto another flyer, taking the seat behind the pilot—her rescuer’s companion. Cooper looked on and nodded at Zenobia when she sent him a questioning glance.
Very well, then. She glanced down at the seat. She couldn’t straddle it properly unless her skirts were up by her knees, but she wouldn’t be missish. She yanked them up and swung her leg over, her dress squelching as she sat.
A moment later they rose into the air—heading toward the ironship. Her body stiff, she gripped her rescuer’s sides. This shouldn’t be any different than sitting behind Mara.
But it was.
He was much taller than she. Even sitting, her eyes were only level with the back of his neck. His shoulders were broad, and his thick black hair was tied up in a short knot. With so little room, she had no choice but to press up against him, and he was hard with muscle everywhere they touched—against her breasts, cradled between her inner thighs, beneath her hands. His abdomen was ridged steel against her fingers.
And she was wet. Dripping everywhere, and she’d soaked him through. He had to be just as uncomfortable as she was.
More so. Blood stained his left sleeve. He’d been shot—yet he’d still pulled her from the drink.
With one hand, and a marvelously strong arm.
She’d never been so glad that Helene had taught her a few Nipponese phrases, including expressions of gratitude. “Arigatou gozaimasu,” she said against the back of his neck, and hoped that she hadn’t garbled the pronunciation.
His body tensed against hers and he responded with a terse nod.
Well. Now this was awkward.
She leaned back a tiny bit, trying to put a little space between her breasts and his back. Saturated, his tunic was all but transparent. The silk clung to the thick muscle hugging the groove of his spine, revealing a design tattooed across his shoulders, black against smooth brown skin. An animal, she thought, but with too many limbs and a cone-shaped head—
Oh, dear God. Her stomach clenched into a tight ball. Those weren’t limbs. They were tentacles.
He had a kraken inked across his back.
And she’d seen that tattoo before. Not on a man, but in a letter that her brother had sent in the days when he’d still been smuggling weapons. The tattoo had belonged to one of the most powerful men in the Horde rebellion. Archimedes hadn’t known the man’s real name, only the name the others had called him—a man who was just as ruthless as the creature tattooed across his back, a man who became just as fixated when something attracted his attention, a man who never loosened his grasp.
This was far more adventure than she’d hoped for. She’d only wanted to see a little danger from a distance.
Instead she’d fallen straight into the clutches of the Kraken King.
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 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.
You can find Meljean on her Website or on her Facebook page, she loves hearing from her fans.
You can buy a copy of The Kraken King from these bookstores
(April 15, 2014)