The New York Times bestselling Raven’s Shadow Trilogy was a perfect read for “fans of broadscale epic fantasy along the lines of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels.”* Now, Anthony Ryan begins a new saga, The Draconis Memoria...
Throughout the vast lands controlled by the Ironship Trading Syndicate, nothing is more prized than the blood of drakes. Harvested from captive or hunted Reds, Greens, Blues and Blacks, it can be distilled into elixirs that bestow fearsome powers on the rare men and women known as the Blood-blessed.
But not many know the truth: that the lines of drakes are weakening. If they fail, war with the neighboring Corvantine Empire will follow swiftly. The Syndicate’s last hope resides in whispers of the existence of another breed of drake, far more powerful than the rest, and the few who have been chosen by fate to seek it.
Claydon Torcreek is a petty thief and an unregistered Blood-blessed who finds himself pressed into service by the Protectorate and sent to wild, uncharted lands in search of a creature he believes is little more than legend. Lizanne Lethridge is a formidable spy and assassin facing gravest danger on an espionage mission deep into the heart of enemy territory. And Corrick Hilemore is the second lieutenant of an Ironship cruiser whose pursuit of ruthless brigands leads him to a far greater threat at the edge of the world.
As lives and empires clash and intertwine, as the unknown and the known collide, all three must fight to turn the tide of a coming war, or drown in its wake.
About the Author
Anthony Ryan is the author of the Raven’s Shadow novels, including Blood Song, Tower Lord and Queen of Fire. The Waking Fire is the first novel in the Draconis Memoria series. He lives in London, where he is at work on his next book.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advanced uncorrected proof***
Report to: Board of Directors Ironship Trading Syndicate Home Office Feros Holdings
Report by: Lodima Bondersil—Acting Director, Carvenport Division, Arradsian Continental Holdings
Date: Settemer 29, 1578 (Day 166 of Company Year 135 by the Corporate Calendar)
Subject: Events surrounding the demise of Mr. Havelic Dunmorn, Director Carvenport Division, Arradsian Continental Holdings
Esteemed Sirs and Ladies,
By the time this report reaches your hands you will, no doubt, have received word via the Blue-trance of the demise of my immediate superior, Mr. Havelic Dunmorn, and an initial estimate of the associated deaths and considerable material destruction accompanying that tragic event. I have compiled this written account in the hope and expectation it will obviate any asinine and ill-informed rumours spread by competitors or Syndicate employees (see addendum for a list of recommended dismissals and contract terminations). It is my intention to provide a clear and unbiased account of events so as to better inform the deliberations of the Board and any subsequent directives they may see fit to issue.
The incident in question took place in and around the Harvesting and Dockside quarters of Carvenport on Settemer 26. The Board will recall Mr. Dunmorn’s Blue-trance communication on 12 Dimester which described the successful capture of a wild Black by the Chainmasters Independent Contractor Company, following a lengthy expedition to the south-western regions of the Arradsian Interior. I also refer the Board to the previous ten quarterly written reports from this Division concerning the increasing attrition rate amongst pen-bred stock, with Blacks proving the most short-lived of all breeds. I am sure the Board requires no reminder of the ever-decreasing potency of product harvested from inbred and youthful stock. Therefore, the capture of a live and healthy wild Black (the first such capture in more than a dozen years) was greeted with considerable excitement throughout the ranks of Syndicate employees, in that it offered the prospect of thickened blood lines and quality product for years to come. Unfortunately such expectations were soon revealed as premature.
The Black, a full-grown male of some sixteen feet in length, proved extremely difficult to handle, perennially unsettled and prone to dangerous lunges even when sedated and its jaws firmly muzzled. Several harvesters were injured in wrangling the beast and one maimed when it contrived to crush him against the walls of its pen after feigning somnolence for several hours. The cunning of the various breeds inhabiting these lands has oft been remarked upon by harvesters and naturalists alike, but I must confess to a considerable personal discomfort at the vicious calculation displayed by this particular animal, traits so far unseen in all my years on this continent.
In addition to its frequent violence the Black also refused to mate with any pen-bred female, reacting with either indifference or aggression whenever one was placed in its proximity. Added to this was the extreme reluctance on the part of the female Blacks to remain anywhere near their wild cousin, all becoming excessively agitated and vocal at the mere sight of him. So after four months, with no prospect of a successful mating and costs of feeding and caring for the specimen increasing, Mr. Dunmorn ordered the beast be harvested. I have attached minutes of my discussion with Mr. Dunmorn which are fulsome in their description of my opinion on the matter and require no repetition here.
Mr. Dunmorn determined to make a celebration of the harvesting, a sop to local morale which has suffered recently due to the dip in markets and consequent reduction in contract terms. It was decreed, therefore, that the harvesting would take place on the same day as the Blood-lot, not often regarded as a day of merriment elsewhere but in these far-removed lands has become something of an annual festival. The prospect of a child finding themselves elevated to a life of prosperity by mere chance holds considerable resonance for those who often find their own ambitions curbed by the reality of individual ability.
To add to the festivities, Mr. Dunmore intended to retain one fiftieth of the harvested product for distribution to the populace by means of a raffle. Given the current market price for undiluted Black, I am certain the Board will recognise the popularity of this contrivance, the principal reason why the area surrounding the harvesting vat was so crowded at the decisive moment.
I remain hopeful of the Board’s understanding in reporting my failure to establish the precise chain of events leading to the ultimate calamity, a task that remains unfulfilled despite my exhaustive efforts. Many first-hand witnesses are now sadly consigned to the grave and those remaining amongst the living are often unreasoned to the point of lunacy. Exposure to undiluted product can have unpredictable consequences. As for my own account, I was not present for either the Blood-lot or the harvesting, having opted to remain at the Academy to address a large glut of unresolved correspondence.
At approximately twenty minutes past the fourteenth hour I was drawn from my labours by the tumult of screams from beyond the window. On going to investigate I was struck by the sight of numerous townsfolk running through the streets with considerable, nay panicked alacrity, many a shocked, pale or weeping face amongst the throng. Spying one of my students amidst the mob I opened the window and called her name. A bright and resourceful child, as my girls invariably are, she managed to extricate herself from the rush by means of clambering up the academy railings, clinging on as she made her report: “It’s loose, Madame! The Black is loose in the town! Many are dead!”
I must confess to a shameful loss of decision at this point, for which I naturally crave the Board’s pardon. However, I trust you will recognise that this particular circumstance had never, at any point, occurred during the entirety of my three decades on this continent. After an inexcusable delay of several seconds I was finally of sufficient mind to formulate a question for my student. “How?”
At this point the girl’s countenance took on an uncharacteristic confusion and it was a full half-minute before she spoke again, her words halting and imprecise. “The Blood-lot . . . There was a woman . . . A woman with a child . . .”
“It is customary for parents and children to gather at the Blood-lot,” I told her, not without some impatience. “Clarify your report!”
“She . . .” My student’s face then took on an expression of equal parts wonder and horror. “She jumped.”
“Yes, Madame. With the child . . . She gathered up the child and . . . jumped.”
“Into the vat, Madame. Just as the harvester tapped the Black . . . She jumped into the vat.”
From the blank mystification on my student’s face, and the copious scorching and bloodstains besmirching her dress, I divined she would be unable to furnish further useful intelligence. Having ordered her to proceed to the dormitory and see to the security of the younger students, I recovered a full set of vials from my office safe and made haste towards the Harvesting quarter. I will not burden the Board with a full description of the destruction I witnessed during the journey, nor what I found on reaching the site of the Black’s harvesting, or pause to enumerate the number of corpses, but suffice to say I saw enough to confirm the veracity of my student’s account.
The vat itself was completely shattered, the solid oak planking blown to splinters and scattered in a wide radius, as was the beast’s blood. It lay in thick pools on the cobbled street, or spattered onto surrounding houses where all windows had been flung open to witness Mr. Dunmorn’s spectacle. Those spectators not killed outright by ingestion were stumbling about or flailing on the ground, either in madness or agony. Being resistant to the blood’s effects I was able to approach the remnants of the vat, observing the body of a woman half-submerged where the blood lay thickest. Her age and identity were unguessable as her skin had been blackened and charred from direct contact with the product, but from her slender proportions I judged her as young. The only sign of the Black was the shattered remnants of its chains. As for the child my student spoke of, I saw no trace at all.
A flurry of rifle-shots drew my attention towards the dockside, easily viewed from my present vantage point via the path of destruction carved through successive rows of housing. Amidst the sound of gun-fire a distinctive roaring could also be discerned. At this point I felt it opportune to imbibe a goodly portion of Green which facilitated a rapid approach to the docks whereupon I first spied the unleashed beast. It had smashed its way to the wharf, trailing blood from the tap in its neck with every step but, despite its loss, continued to wreak havoc with furious energy. I watched as it dashed the Harbour-Master’s house to pieces with successive swipes of its tail before turning its attention to the vessels moored alongside the quay. A number were in the process of drawing off, the crews working with feverish industry to seek the sanctuary of the open sea, but a half-dozen evidently lacked the hands or decisiveness to effect escape.
The Black leapt atop a sturdy coastal steamer, the IRV Equitable Share, submerging it by virtue of its weight alone, unmuzzled jaws snapping at the flailing crewmen in the water. Turning its attentions to a neighbouring freighter, a Briteshore Minerals vessel of some two hundred tons displacement, it set about wrecking the wheel-house and stacks, all the time gaping its mouth as it sought vainly to bring forth its fire. I must pause at this point to emphasise the wise foresight of the harvesters who first took charge of the beast in severing its naphtha-ducts. Had they not the consequences are frankly too appalling to contemplate.
At this point I saw the Black rear in shock as a rifle round struck its flank, voicing a great roar of fury before launching itself at the next vessel on the quay, the cauterised stumps of its wings twitching as it instinctively sought the air. I soon identified the source of the rifle-shot, spying a figure atop one of the taller, as yet undamaged, cranes crowding the wharf. Thanks to the effects of the recently imbibed Green I scaled the crane’s scaffold in a matter of seconds, finding a man perched on the armature and taking careful aim at the Black with a longrifle. He fired and I saw the Black rear again, before bounding onward, landing on the broad deck of the IRV Drakespite, a Blue-hunter recently returned from the southern seas. The crew had unwisely chosen to contest the beast’s assault, assailing it with various fire-arms, none of sufficient calibre to inflict more than a minor wound.
The rifleman swore in copious and uncouth terms as he reloaded his weapon, falling silent as I strode along the armature to his side. “Y’pardon, ma’am,” he said in the accent of the Old Colonials, his origins also plain in the dark hue of his complexion. Having scant time to deliver a lecture on propriety, I took note of his worn but hardy clothing before settling my gaze on his longrifle: a Vactor-Massin .6 single-shot breech-loader favoured by the more successful Contractor Companies.
“Personal weapons are required to be lodged with the Protectorate on entry to Carvenport, sir,” I said.
The marksman gave the barest grin in response before nodding at the still-rampaging beast. “Reckon I’ll earn myself a pardon when I put him down, ma’am. If only he’d cease his fury long enough for a skull shot.”
I watched as the Black’s tail swept the last remaining crew from the deck of the Drakespite whereupon it threw its head back to voice a victory roar, the blood continuing to flow from the steel spile in its neck. “A good sight more lively than it should be,” the Contractor opined, taking aim once more then biting down on a curse as the beast bounded on. “All that blood leaked away.”
“Your name, sir?” I enquired.
“Torcreek, ma’am. Braddon Torcreek, fifth-share hand to the Longrifles Independent.”
I took the vials of Red and Black from my supply and drank it all before taking another deep draught of Green. “I’ll hold him for you, Mr. Torcreek,” I said. “See if we can’t earn you that pardon.”
With that I leapt over the marksman and sprinted the length of the armature, launching myself at a tilted mast arising from the deck of a listing freighter, one of the older ships which continue to retain sails as insurance against engine failure. The distance was perhaps thirty feet or more, well within reach of a Blood-blessed sated by Green. I caught hold of the rigging and used the resultant centrifugal forces to propel me in pursuit of the Black, a basic manoeuvre I had been teaching my girls for the better part of two decades. Arcing towards the Black at considerable velocity I called upon my reserves of Red to assail it from the rear. Naturally its hide was scorched but largely undamaged by the resulting blast of heat, but like all its kind, it proved incapable of ignoring a challenge.
It had landed atop another freighter, the crew displaying considerably less aggression than that of the Drakespite in the rapidity with which they hurled themselves from her rails, my Red-lit fires no doubt adding impetus to their flight. The Black whirled amidst the flaming tangle of rigging and timber, mouth gaping to cough its fiery response then howling in frustration as the flames failed to gout. I landed hard on the deck barely twenty feet from him, the glut of Green preventing a disabling injury, and stared into his eyes in direct challenge, a thing no male could ever tolerate for long. It roared again and charged, claws tearing the deck into splinters and tail coiling for a strike, whereupon it froze into absolute immobility as I called on the Black I had ingested bare moments before.
That it was a fearsomely strong beast was self-evident, but before now I had not truly appreciated the power of this animal. It strained against my Black-born grip with all its might, draining my reserves of ingested product with such speed I must confess to a sudden sheen of sweat on my brow and a growing impatience for Mr. Torcreek to make good his boast. Strange then, that it is at this juncture that I must describe another sensation, a certain insight beyond the general alarm and urgency of the situation. For, as I maintained my vigil upon the beast’s eyes, I discerned something beyond its animal craving for flesh and triumph: a deep and consuming terror, and not of me. I realised in that instant the Black had not been seeking revenge for its capture and torment, nor for the insertion of a steel tap into its flesh. It had been trying to get away, seeking escape from something far worse than these small, two-legged pests. It was as my mind tracked over the course of the beast’s flight, from the shattered vat with its mysterious corpse through the close-packed streets to the docks, that Mr. Torcreek proved himself no braggart.
The rifle-bullet made a faint whine as it streaked overhead to smack precisely into the centre of the Black’s sloping forehead. It gave a single spasmodic jerk, its long body undulating from head to tail, then collapsed onto the part-destroyed deck with a choking gargle.
The Board will find a full list of casualties and tally of damage at Addendum II, together with a cost estimate for repairs. As stated above, the compilation of an exact and incontrovertible account proves impossible, however, certain facts can be established beyond any reasonable contradiction.
Firstly, a woman of unknown identity, accompanied by a small child of undetermined gender, did indeed climb onto the platform alongside Mr. Dunmorn as he was concluding a rather lengthy discourse on the merits of company loyalty. In all truth, Mr. Dunmorn was not widely regarded as the most compelling orator which may account for the inattention of much of the crowd at the critical moment. Despite this, I have collated statements from six individual witnesses, all of good character and reliable judgement, attesting that the unidentified woman stepped out of the line of parents and children awaiting the Blood-lot and made an unhurried passage onto the platform, unnoticed by either Mr. Dunmorn or the team of harvesters making ready to apply the spile to the Black’s neck. The woman is described as young but I have made no progress in obtaining a more detailed description. One of the male witnesses did testify to a certain conventional attractiveness in her form and bearing but viewed her at too great a distance to provide details of hair colour or complexion. Descriptions of the child are equally vague but its height would indicate an age of eight years, the correct age for presentation at the Blood-lot.
It seems that it was barely seconds subsequent to Mr. Dunmorn’s order to commence harvesting that the woman gathered up her child and leapt into the vat. It is at this point that most accounts, perhaps understandably, become somewhat confused. However, my correlation of various testimonials has unearthed some key points of agreement. It seems clear that the vat shattered from within, killing poor Mr. Dunmorn and the harvesters in the process. Also, the Black was not responsible for this particular piece of destruction, being secured by chains to the harvesting rig when it occurred. Following the destruction of the vat and the resultant dispersal of so much product, a general panic seized the crowd but three witnesses retained sufficient presence of mind to attest that the Black’s chains were nowhere in sight as the product rained down, after which it began its desperate flight from the scene.
My conclusion is alarming but inescapable; the Black was set free by the agency of a Blood-blessed, upon whose shoulders the deaths of Mr. Dunmore and so many others can now be placed. The list of suspects wishing harm to Syndicate interests on this continent is long, the Corvantine Empire being worthy of perhaps greatest attention. But I find it difficult to comprehend what advantage even they could gain from this incident. Also, what connection this hidden agent has with the unknown woman, or her purpose, remains singularly mysterious. As reported above, the woman’s body was recovered, albeit in an unrecognisable condition, but the child she bore into the vat was not found at her side. Several children did perish in this incident, mainly those gathered for the Blood-lot, but all have been claimed by grieving relatives. Who this child was, or where he or she may have gone, remains perhaps the most troublesome mystery to emerge from this entire episode.
I assure the Board that my efforts to resolve these questions are not exhausted and I will continue to expend all necessary energy to provide the requisite answers.
In lieu of the arrival of Mr. Dunmorn’s replacement, I remain,
Lodima Bondersil Acting Director—Carvenport Division Arradsian Continental Holdings
The Red Sands
What do we mean when we use the term “product,” that otherwise innocuous word that has become so burdened with significance over the course of the preceding century and the advent of the Corporate Age? Most readers, I’m sure, would reply with just one word, “Blood.” Or, if they were of a more verbose inclination, they might expand their definition thusly: “Drake Blood.” This is basically correct but has a tendency to mask the truly vast complexity of the subject addressed within the pages of this modest tome. For, as even the most superstitious Dalcian savage or illiterate Island brute can attest, there is no one type of product. I will spare you, dear reader, a fulsome technical description of each variant, and the increasing list of derivatives reaped from the carcasses of the Arradsian drake. Instead, I feel it would be more apposite, and perhaps amusing, to simply repeat a mantra taught to students at the Ironship Academy of Female Education, amongst whom I am proud to count myself:
Blue for the mind.
Green for the body.
Red for the fire.
Black for the push.
From A Lay-person’s Guide to Plasmology by Miss Amorea Findlestack.
Mr. Redsel found her at the prow just past sunset. It had become her habit to linger here most evenings when weather permitted, taking in the spectacle of the stars and the moons, enjoying the seaward breeze on her skin and the constant rhythmic splash of the Mutual Advantage’s twin paddles. Their cadence had slowed tonight, the captain reducing speed as they drew near to the Barrier Isles with all their hidden dangers. Come the morning the churning currents of the Strait would surround them and the paddles would turn at full speed, but for now a sedate pace and strict observance of charts and compass were needed.
She didn’t turn at Mr. Redsel’s approach, though his footfalls were audible above the paddles. Instead she kept her gaze upon the risen moons, Serphia and Morvia, thinking it a pity their larger sister was not visible tonight. She always enjoyed the sight of Nelphia’s myriad valleys and mountains, largely free of craters unlike her pocked and scarred siblings. Benefits of a recently active surface, according to her father. But still a dead world.
“Miss Lethridge,” Mr. Redsel said, coming to a halt behind her. She didn’t turn but knew he would be maintaining a gap of due propriety. Her cautious observance throughout the voyage had left her in little doubt that he was far too practised to risk any clumsiness at so crucial a juncture. “I find you lost in the whispers of night, it seems.”
Marsal, she mused inwardly. Opening with a quotation. Somewhat trite but obscure enough to convey the impression of a scholarly past.
“Mr. Redsel,” she replied, allowing a little warmth to colour her tone. “Am I to take it the cards did not favour you?”
The other passengers spent the evenings engaged in various amusements, chiefly consisting of cards and amateurish peckings at the aged piano in their plush but modestly dimensioned lounge. They were mostly content to leave her be, beyond an occasional insistence on petty conversation. Shareholder status had its advantages and none possessed sufficient standing, or gall, to impose their presence to any tedious degree. Mr. Redsel, however, had been more attentive than most, though before tonight he had yet to make the approach she knew was inevitable from the moment he came aboard in Feros.
“Mourning Jacks was never my game,” he replied. “Miss Montis took me for a full ten scrips before I had the good sense to excuse myself.”
She allowed the silence to linger before turning to face him, hoping reluctance might entice a more revealing approach. Mr. Redsel, however, displayed a creditable discipline in remaining silent, though his decision to reach into his jacket for a cigarillo case betrayed a slight impatience.
“Thank you,” she said as he proffered the open case, extracting one of the thin, leaf-wrapped delights. “Dalcian, no less,” she added, playing the cigarillo along her top lip to capture the aroma.
“I find everything else is a poor substitute,” he said, striking a match and leaning closer. Smoke billowed as she put the cigarillo to her lips and sucked the flame onto the leaf. An amateur might have taken the opportunity to let the proximity endure, perhaps even steal a kiss, but Mr. Redsel knew better.
“One should indulge one’s passions, where possible,” he said stepping back and lighting his own cigarillo before flicking the dying match away into the gloom beyond the rail. “Don’t you think?”
She shrugged and tightened her shawl about her shoulders. “I had a teacher once who was fond of equating indulgence with weakness. ‘Remember girls, the path to the Shareholder’s office lies not in play, but diligence.’” It was a truthful anecdote and she smiled at the memory, Madame Bondersil’s frequently stern face looming in her memory. It will be good to see you again, Madame, she thought, glancing out at the two moons shimmering on the blackening waves. Should I survive the night.
“It seems you were an observant pupil,” Mr. Redsel said. Her words gave tacit permission for his gaze to play over her bodice where the gleam of a Shareholder’s pin could be seen through the thin silk of the shawl. “A full Shareholder at such a young age. Few of us could ever hope to rise so high so quickly.”
“Diligence matched with plain luck is a potent brew,” she replied, taking another shallow draw on her cigarillo and tasting nothing more than finest Dalcian leaf. At least he’s no poisoner. “In any case, I would have thought you would shun such aspirations. You are an Independent are you not?”
“Indeed, at present a syndicate of one.” He gave a self-deprecating bow. “My previous contract being fulfilled, I thought it opportune to invest some profits in finally exploring the land from which all wealth flows and makes us its slaves.”
Another quote, Bidrosin this time, delivered with a sardonic lilt to convey his lack of sympathy with so notorious a Corvantine radical. “So, you’ve never seen Arradsia?” she asked.
“A singular omission I am about to correct. Whilst you, I discern, are more than familiar with the continent.”
“I was born in Feros but schooled in Carvenport, and had occasion to see some of the Interior before the Board called me to the Home Office.”
“Then you must be my guide.” He smiled, leaning on the rail. “For I’m told there will be an alignment in but a few short months, and Arradsia is said to offer the finest view.”
“You are an astronomer then, sir?” She put a slight note of doubtful mockery in her tone, moving to stand alongside him.
“Merely a seeker of spectacle,” he said, raising his gaze to the moons. “To see three moons in the sky, and the planets beyond, all arranged in perfect order for but the briefest instant. That will be a sight to cherish through the years.”
Where did they find you? she wondered, her gaze tracking over his profile. Rugged but not weathered, handsome but not effete, clever but not arrogant. I might almost think they bred you just for this.
“There’s an observatory in Carvenport,” she said. “Well equipped with all manner of optical instruments. I’m sure I can arrange an introduction.”
“You are very kind.” He paused, forming his brow into a faintly reluctant frown. “I am bound to ask, Miss Lethridge, for curiosity was ever my worst vice, you are truly the granddaughter of Darus Lethridge, are you not?”
Clever, she thought. Risking offence to gain intimacy by raising so sensitive a topic. Let us see how he responds to a little set-back. She sighed, forming a brief jet of smoke before the breeze carried it away. “And another admirer of the great man reveals himself,” she said, moving back from the rail and turning to go. “I never knew him, sir, he died before I was born. Therefore I can furnish no anecdotes and bid you good night.”
“It is not anecdotes I seek,” he said, voice carefully modulated to a tone of gentle solicitation, moving to stand in her way, though once again maintaining the correct distance. “And I apologise for any unintended insult. You see I find myself in need of an opinion on a recent purchase.”
She crossed her arms, cigarillo poised before her lips as she raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Purchase?”
“Yes. Some mechanical drawings the vendor assured me were set down by your grandfather’s own hand. However, I must confess to certain doubts.”
She found herself gratified by his puzzlement as she voiced a laugh, shaking her head. “A syndicate of one. This is your business, sir? The purchase of drawings?”
“Purchase and sale,” he said. “And not just drawings but all manner of genuine arts and antiquities. The salient word being ‘genuine.’”
“And you imagine I may be able to provenance these drawings for you, with my expert familial eye.”
“I thought perhaps you would know his line, his script . . .” He trailed off with a sheepish grimace. “A foolish notion, I see that now. Please forgive the intrusion and any offence I may have caused.” He inclined his head in respectful contrition and turned to leave. She let him cover a good dozen feet before delivering the expected question.
“What is it? What device?”
He paused in midstride, turning back with an impressively crafted frown of surprise. “Why, the only one that truly matters,” he said, gesturing at the slowly turning paddles and the twin stacks above the wheel-house from which spent steam rose into the night sky.
“The thermoplasmic engine,” she murmured, a genuine curiosity stirring in her breast. To what lengths have they gone to craft this trap? “The great knicky-knack itself,” she added in a louder tone. “Which version?”
“The very first,” he told her. “If genuine. I should be happy to show them to you tomorrow . . .”
“Oh no.” She strode to his side, looping her arm through his and impelling him towards the passenger quarters. “Curiosity is also my worst vice, and once stirred one not to be denied.”
Indulgence? she asked herself a few hours later as Mr. Redsel lay in apparently sated slumber at her side. Her eyes tracked over his torso, lingering on the hard muscle of his belly sheened in sweat from their recent exertions. She had found him as well practised in the carnal arts as everything else, another fulfilled expectation. I doubt Madame would have approved of this particular tactical choice.
The notion brought a faint grin to her lips as she slipped from the bed. She paused to retrieve her discarded bodice from the floor before going to the dresser where Mr. Redsel had arrayed the drawings for her perusal on entering the cabin. His rather involved and inventive description of their origins had been interrupted by her kiss. She had enjoyed his surprise, as she had enjoyed what came next. For a time she had kept a lover in Feros, a suitably discreet Ironship Protectorate officer with a wife far away across the ocean and a consequent disinterest in any protracted emotional entanglements. But Commander Pinefeld had been sent to a distant post some months ago, so perhaps there had been an element of indulgence to this episode, although it had served to dispel any small doubts she might harbour about his true purpose in seeking her out.
She had seen it as he approached his climax, face poised above hers, his objective made plain in the unblinking stare he fixed on her eyes. She had returned his gaze, legs and arms clutching him tighter as he thrust at an increasing tempo, making the appropriate noises at the appropriate moment, allowing him the temporary delusion of success in forging the required bond. She felt she owed him something. He had, after all, been very practised.
The light of the two moons streamed through the open port-hole, providing enough illumination for an adequate perusal of the drawings. There were three of them, the paper faded to a light brown and the edges a little frayed, but the precisely inked dimensions of the world’s greatest single invention remained clear. The words ‘Plasmic Locomotive Drive’ were inscribed at the top of the first drawing in a spidery, almost feverish script, conveying a sense of excitement at a recently captured idea. The date 36/04/112 was scrawled with a similarly energetic hand in the bottom-right corner. The imprecision of the text, however, was in stark contrast to the depiction of the device itself. Every tube, spigot and valve had been rendered in exquisite detail, the shadows hatched with an exactitude that could only derive from the hand of a highly skilled draughtsman.
She turned her gaze on the next drawing, finding it similarly accomplished, though the device now bore its modern title of ‘Thermoplasmic Locomotive Engine’ and featured several additions and refinements to the original design. This one was dated 12/05/112 and its neighbour, an equally impressive depiction of the machine’s final incarnation, bore the date 26/07/112. Two days before the patent was issued, she recalled, her gaze fixing in turn on the same point on each drawing, the top right corner where a small monogram had been etched in the same unmistakable hand: DL.
“So, what do you think?”
She turned from the dresser finding Mr. Redsel sitting upright and fully awake. A dim glow filled the cabin as he reached for the oil-lamp fixed into the wall above the bed. He wore the fond expression of a man embarking on an intimate adventure, the face of the newly enraptured. So perfect, she thought again, not without a note of regret.
“I’m afraid, sir,” she said, lifting her bodice and extracting the single vial of product hidden amidst its lacework, “we have other matters to discuss.”
She detected a soft metallic snick and his hand emerged from the bed-sheets clutching a small revolver. She recognised the make as he trained it on her forehead: a Tulsome .21 six-chamber, known commonly as the gambler’s salt-shaker for the multiple cylinder barrel’s resemblance to a condiment holder and its widespread adoption by the professional card-playing fraternity. Small of calibre but unfailingly reliable and deadly when employed with expert aim.
Her reaction to the appearance of the pistol amounted to a slightly raised eyebrow whilst her thumb simultaneously removed the glass stopper from the vial as she raised it to her lips. It was her emergency vial, a blend from one of the more secret corners of the Ironship laboratory. Effective blending of different product types was an art beyond most harvesters, facilitated only by the most patient and exacting manipulation of product at the molecular level and the careful application of various synthetic binding agents. Such precision required the most powerful microscopes, another invention for which the world owed a debt to her family.
“Don’t!” he warned, rising from the bed, both hands on the pistol now, the six barrels steady and a stern resolve to his voice and gaze. “I’ve no wish to . . .”
She drank the vial and he squeezed the trigger a split-second later, the revolver issuing the dry click of a hammer finding an empty chamber. He sprang from the bed after only the barest hesitation, reversing his grip on the revolver and drawing it back to aim a blow at her temple. The contents of the vial left a bitter and complex sting on her tongue before burning its way through her system in a familiar rush of sensation. Seventy percent Green, twenty percent Black and ten percent Red. She summoned the Green and her arm came up in a blur, hand catching his wrist an inch short of her temple, the grip tight but not enough to mark his flesh nor crush his bones. Any suspicious bruising might arouse questions later.
She summoned the Black as he drew his free arm back for a punch, a death-blow judging from the configuration of his knuckles. He shuddered as she unleashed the Black and froze him in place, jaw clenched as he made a vain effort to fight her grip, his tongue forming either curses or pleas behind clamped teeth. She pushed him back a few feet, still maintaining her grip, keeping him suspended above the bed. The Black was diminishing fast and she had only moments.
“Who is your contact in Carvenport?” she asked, loosening her grip just enough to free his mouth.
“You . . .” he choked, gulping breath,” . . . are making . . . a mistake.”
“On the contrary, sir,” she replied, going to the dresser and reaching for the small leather satchel concealed behind it. She undid the straps and revealed the row of four vials inside. “It was your mistake not to hide these with sufficient rigour. It took barely moments to discover them when I searched your cabin yesterday, and only a few moments more to find your salt-shaker.” She angled her head in critical examination, using the Black to turn his naked form about. No trace of the Sign. Not even on the soles of his feet.
“You’re not Cadre,” she said. “A hireling. The Corvantine Empire sent an unregistered Blood-blessed after me. The Emperor’s agents are not usually so injudicious. I must confess, sir, to a certain sense of personal insult. What is your usual prey, I wonder? Wealthy widows and empty-headed heiresses?”
“I was . . . not sent to . . . kill you.”
“Of that I have no doubt, Mr. Redsel. After our shared, and no doubt continued intimacy in Carvenport, you would have provided your employers with enough intelligence to justify your fee a dozen times over.”
His features betrayed a certain resignation then, and she felt a flicker of admiration for his evident resolve to beg no more. Instead he asked a question, “How . . . did I reveal . . . myself?”
“I liked you too much.” She forced the admiration down, tightening her grip once more. “Hireling or not, you and I share a profession and I have no great desire to see you suffer. So I will ask again and strongly advise you to answer: who is your contact in Carvenport?”
Much of his face was frozen now and only his lips could convey any emotion as they formed the reply around a snarl, “They were to . . . find me . . . I was given . . . no name.”
Despite the circumstances she couldn’t contain a snort of amusement. “How very apposite.” She could feel the Black ebbing now, the fiery burn intensifying as it dwindled in her blood-stream. “Oh, and if it matters,” she said, nodding at the drawings. “They’re fake. My grandfather only ever used the Mandinorian Calendar. Besides which his hands were crippled by arthritis for the latter half of his life, something he concealed due to pride and vanity.”
His lips morphed into something that might have been a smile, or another snarl, just as she stopped his heart with the last of the Black. He jerked in mid air before collapsing onto the bed, finely honed body limp and void of life.
The First Mate came to her at breakfast, formal and respectful as he conveyed the sad news of Mr. Redsel’s passing. “How terrible!” she exclaimed, putting aside her toast and reaching for a restorative sip of tea. “A seizure of the heart, you say?”
“According to the ship’s doctor, miss. Unusual in a man of his age but, apparently, not unprecedented.” A crew member had seen them conversing at the prow and the First Mate was obliged to ask a few questions. As expected he proved a less-than-rigorous investigator; once she professed her ignorance of Mr. Redsel’s unfortunate and untimely passing no Syndicate employee of any intelligence would press a Shareholder for additional information.
After the officer had taken his leave she continued to breakfast, though her appetite was soon soured by an outbreak of hysterics at a near by table as news of Mr. Redsel’s demise spread. Mrs. Jackmore, a buxom woman of perhaps forty years age, convulsed in abject misery as her white-faced husband, a Regional Manager of notably more advanced years, looked on in frozen silence. Mrs. Jackmore’s maid eventually hustled her from the dining room, her cries continuing unabated. The other passengers strove to conceal embarrassment or amusement as Mr. Jackmore completed his meal, chomping his way through bacon, eggs and no less than two rounds of toast with stoic determination.
Couldn’t resist some additional practice, eh? she asked the spectre of Mr. Redsel as she rose from the table, leaving her breakfast unfinished. I did wonder if I’d have cause to rue my action. Now I believe it can safely be filed under Necessary Regrets.
She went to her cabin to retrieve the drawings then made her way to the prow once more. The tempo of the paddles had tripled now they were in the Strait proper, the Blood-blessed in the engine room no doubt having drunk and expended at least two full vials of Red to power the engines to maximum speed. This was her third trip through the Strait and each time she had been discomforted by the sight of the waters, the general absence of waves seemed strange so far from land and the constant swirl and eddy of the currents held a sense of the uncanny. It seemed to her a visual echo of whatever great force of nature had torn so great a channel through the Barrier Isles some two centuries before.
She held up the drawings for a final inspection. It seemed a shame, they being so well crafted. But Mr. Redsel may have left traces in his efforts to build an identity and, forgeries or not, the rumour of the drawings’ mere existence would invariably attract best-avoided attention. She could have left them in his cabin but that would have raised further questions regarding their remarkably coincidental presence on the same vessel carrying the granddaughter of their apparent author. She lit a match and held it to the corner of each drawing, letting the flame consume two-thirds of their mass before gifting them to the sea.
I didn’t tell you the forger’s gravest error, did I Mr. Redsel? she asked, watching the blackened embers fall into the ship’s wake to be carried into the churning foam beneath the paddles. Although he could never have known it. You see it was my father who designed the great knicky-knack when he was barely fifteen years of age, only to see it stolen by my grandfather. My father is the author of this wondrous age, a man of singular genius and vision who can barely afford ink for his blueprints.
She allowed her thoughts to touch briefly on the last meeting with her father. It had been the day before she took ship in Feros and she found him in his workshop surrounded by various novelties, hands slick with grease and spectacles perched on his nose. It had ever been a source of wonder to her how his spectacles managed to stay on so precarious a perch; he moved with such restless energy it seemed impossible, and yet in all her years she had never once seen them come adrift. She was fond of the memory, regardless of the words that passed between them. You work for a pack of thieves, he had said, barely glancing up from his tinkering. They stole your birthright.
Really, Father? she had responded. I always thought Grandfather got there first.
Over the succeeding weeks she had become increasingly uncomfortable with the hurt she had seen cloud his face at that moment. It summoned another memory, the day of the Blood-lot when the harvester’s pipette left a small bead of product on her hand but, unlike the other children sniffling or bawling around her, produced no instant burn or blackened scab. She had never seen him sad before and wondered why he didn’t smile as she held up her hand, unmarked but for the patch of milk-white skin on her palm. Look Father, it didn’t hurt. Look, look!
Pushing the memory away she turned her attention to the sea once more. The Strait narrowed to the south and she could see the small green specks of the Barrier Isles cresting the horizon, meaning Carvenport now lay less than two days’ distant. Carvenport, she thought, a wry smile coming to her lips. Where I shall find Truelove.
Excerpted from "The Waking Fire"
Copyright © 2017 Anthony Ryan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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