Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 14

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A slow, steady beat began in her chest.

Dear Miss Todd,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have received a most impressive commission for you, regarding the original clockwork you showed me the other day. I would be delighted to discuss this with you in person, at your convenience.

Yours,

Arthur Mandeville.

Clapping a hand to her chest, she slowly rose. The transforming clockwork! Someone wanted a copy of it!

“Mrs. Wade!” she called, hurrying out of the room to her companion’s bedchambers. “Mrs. Wade!”

Within a half hour, she’d hustled her companion into the steam carriage and set out for Mandeville’s Clockwork Emporium.

The streets were full and progress was slow. Lena twitched aside the curtains, glancing at the crowds and the omnibus ahead. Passing under Bishopsgate, one of the massive gates that guarded the city proper, she toyed impatiently with her reticule. “Whatever is the crush?”

Mrs. Wade leaned out the window and conferred with the driver. When she sat back down, she was breathless. “A protest. In Langbourn and Lime Street. Those mechanists are at it again.”

Lena peered out curiously. She’d heard all about the mechanists—those who bartered years of service to the Echelon in exchange for bio-mech limbs or clockwork organs. Quartered in their steamy enclaves in the city, they were treated as little better than animals. One couldn’t trust a man who was half metal. Indeed, many in the Echelon argued that by taking on the metal limbs, they were making themselves less human and therefore did not have the rights of a whole man.

“They should herd them back to their enclaves and lock them in,” Mrs. Wade sniffed.

“I don’t see what the difference is. Just because someone has a metal arm, it doesn’t make him any less a man,” Lena replied. Two of Blade’s men, Tin Man and Rip, had mech limbs. By rights, both of them should have been imprisoned in the enclaves, but no one dared mention it to Blade.

“You can’t trust them,” Mrs. Wade replied.

“Why not? The metal does not affect the mind. They are still the same as they were before they received the enhancements.”

“It’s unnatural, is what it is.”

There was no point arguing with someone who had no rational rebuttals. Lena bit her tongue and tried to catch a closer look at the rally.

“Hopefully they’ll send the metaljackets in and clear them out,” Mrs. Wade added. “Get this traffic moving again.”

It wasn’t very far to the emporium. She’d walked ten times this distance when she lived in the rookery. “Why don’t we walk?”

The suggestion was met with a look of great horror. “With all those mechs running around?”

“We’ll take one of the footmen. The carriage can meet us there once this congested traffic starts moving again.” Lena reached for the door.

“Wait! Your parasol!” Mrs. Wade huffed after her, bringing her hat, parasol, and the basket of crochet she always carried as Lena hopped down from the carriage. Her eyes darted as if expecting a mech to leap out and attack at any moment.

The crowd thinned the closer they got to Mandeville’s. Most people were poor, waving placards and fists, as though the Echelon would even notice. Still, Lena could understand the need to do something.

Several streets over, the sound was rather more intense. Lena steered them in the other direction, even though it took them streets out of their way. She had no intentions of getting caught in the mob.

A burly man with a metal plate curving across his skull staggered into her, reeking of spirits. His hand was mech too, fitted roughly to the flesh of his wrist. From the scarred edges of skin, the work had been done in a hurry, and poorly too. He caught sight of her red skirts and looked up, his gaze raking over the pearls at her throat and the feathers in her bonnet. They were the only adornments she wore and in most circumstances she wouldn’t have felt uneasy walking the streets like this.

“’Ere now,” he sneered, grabbing her wrist. “A little blue blood whore, all alone.”

“I would let me go if I were you,” she suggested in her firmest tone. “And I wouldn’t assume that I was alone.”

Mrs. Wade leveled her parasol at him as though it were a weapon. “Unhand her, you mech brute!”

Lena shot her a glare and shook her head. Precisely the wrong tone and words for the situation. She held up a placating hand. “We have no interest in your—”

“Brute?” he snarled. “A mech brute like me? What, you think you’re better ’an us?”

Around them, people were starting to take an interest.

“Let her go or you’ll feel the wrath of the Duke of Caine!” Mrs. Wade snapped back, as though that name would hold any weight here.

Lena hastened to diffuse the situation. “We don’t think we’re any better, or different or—”

“’Ere now, lads!” he roared. “This bit o’ fluff’s turnin’ her nose up at us!”

Mutters and grumbling sprang up. Lena looked around desperately. “No, I don’t! I never said that.”

“You in the city, you turn your noses up at us. Well, just you wait. Your time’s comin’.” He leered at her. “We got ways of dealin’ with your sort now.”

“Unhand her!” the footman insisted, taking the man by the arm. “Miss Lena, are you all right?”

Whistles suddenly screamed through the air and as one the crowd turned with a gasp.

“It’s the Trojan cavalry!” someone yelled.

Frightened cries tore through the crowd and they erupted into a panicked mob, streaming for the safety of the square ahead. Lena was swept up in the edges of it, her wrist torn from the man’s grasp.

Someone grabbed her around the waist, lifting her off her feet. “Beg pardon, miss,” Henry, the footman, said. A strapping lad of nearly six feet, even he had to fight to keep his feet against the horde as he pushed through to the side of the crowd.

Mrs. Wade leaned in a doorway, fanning herself with her hand. “Oh, Lena! Oh, thank goodness!” She dragged her into the safety of the alcove and Henry used his body to shield them from the crowd.

“What’s happening?” Lena peered under his outstretched arm.

“The Echelon must have released the cavalry, ma’am,” Henry replied, his face pale. “Please don’t move. They’ll cut down anything in their wake.”

“But not everybody is causing trouble,” she protested.

“It doesn’t matter.”

A beat began to ring on the cobbles. Like the sound of a hundred horses marching in perfect unison. A chill ran down her spine. The Trojan cavalry were used to clear most mobs and riots—since the firebombing Spitfires could cause too much damage. There was little that could stand up against the heavily armored metal horses, and she’d heard rumors that they simply rode a man down. Nothing was destroyed that way. Only the man.

Lena looked toward the far end of the street. “What are we going to do?”

“Stay here,” Henry said grimly.

The narrow doorway was barely wide enough to fit the three of them. Most of Henry was sticking out into the street. Even now the terrified crowd bumped and knocked him as they streamed past.

“We can’t stay here. It’s too dangerous.” Mr. Mandeville’s wasn’t far away. They could make it if they hurried. And she knew these streets like the back of her hand.

Mrs. Wade coughed, her face as white as a sheet. Lena’s heart sank. Her elderly companion would never make it so far in such a hurry. From the sound of her gasps, she was verging on a hysterical fit.

Unless…

Ducking under Henry’s arm, Lena looked up at the gutter overhang. “Henry, when they send the cavalry out, do they send any of the Spitfires or metaljackets?”

“No need for it. There isn’t much left once the cavalry rides through.”

Most of the crowd had vanished. At the end of the street, sunlight reflected off the burnished armor of a row of metal horses.

“Come, Mrs. Wade,” she said gently, taking her companion by the arm. “We have to hurry.”

Mrs. Wade shook her head. “No, no, I can’t! They’ll ride us down.”

“Henry, do you think it at all possible to lift her?”

He gave the question some thought, a dubious expression on his face. “I can’t say as how far I could carry her.”

“Not far at all.” She looked up. “We’re going across the rooftops.”

“Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Because he’d never lived in the rookery, where Blade and Will—and most of his men—used the rooftops as their own highway.

Coaxing Mrs. Wade out, she helped Henry lift her. “You’re going to have to grab for the gutter!”

“I c-can’t!”

“You can and you will,” Lena snapped. “I’ve had enough of these hysterics. If you don’t hurry up, then Henry and I shan’t have time to follow and then you will have to explain to my guardian how you managed to get me trampled!”

That caused a great scurry of activity. Mrs. Wade kicked and puffed, scrabbling for the roof. Henry struggled to lift her above his shoulders, his eyes squeezed tight whilst the voluminous folds of Mrs. Wade’s skirts revealed a great deal of her unmentionables to the world.

Steel shod hooves echoed off the cobbles. Lena glanced nervously up the street.

“You next, miss,” Henry said.

Lena stepped up onto his bent knee and then shoulder, catching hold of the gutter. She had to hurry. Mrs. Wade had cost them a great deal of time. Biting her lip, Lena hauled herself up onto the roof, then turned and lay down, peering at Henry.

“Hurry!”

The cavalry was almost upon them. The horses were eight feet high at the withers, with broad, heavily-plated chests and enormous, soup-bowl hooves. Designed like a destrier, steam puffed and snorted from their nostrils. The sight was enough to curdle her stomach.

“Henry!” She extended her arm. His wide blue eyes looked up at her.

“I’ll only pull you down,” he said, shaking his head.

Lena snatched the parasol off Mrs. Wade and dropped it into his hands. “Hook it into the gutter and use it to help ease your weight! Mrs. Wade!” She looked behind her to where her companion sprawled on the tiles. “Hold my ankles and whatever you do, don’t let him pull me off!”

A pair of meaty hands wrapped around her ankles, with the considerable weight of Mrs. Wade to anchor her.

The metal cavalry broke from a trot into a canter and then stretched out into a gallop. A man ran ahead of them and went down beneath the crushing steel hooves. In their midst rode the handlers, each steering a herd of ten with their small, spiked little boxes and the radio signal that controlled them.

“Henry!” Lena screamed, reaching out to clasp his arm as he struggled valiantly to haul himself up.

Behind her, Mrs. Wade cried out and slid a few inches down the roof. Lena shot forward on her stomach, her face and shoulders dangling over the gutters. She wrenched at Henry’s arm, but he’d lost the tentative grip he had on the gutter and was dangling by her parasol.

“Don’t you dare let me go!” Lena yelled.

Henry tucked his feet up desperately, trying not to get hit as the first line of the metal horses thundered by. Choking dust rose from the street. The inch of sleeve she held slipped even farther through her fingers until—

“No!”

Behind her, Mrs. Wade cried out and let go. Lena’s eyes shot open and she fell forward, her skirts sliding over the tiles. She caught a glimpse of Henry’s wide, horrified eyes as she fell toward the street and then—

Something grabbed her by the skirts.

With a wrench she landed flat on her back on the tiles next to Mrs. Wade, blinking up at Will. His broad shoulders were outlined against the inclement clouds, the muscles in his bare arms bunched as his fists curled. “Ought have known you’d be in bloody trouble.”

“Henry!” she gasped, pointing to the edge of the roof.

Will knelt, the leather of his trousers straining over his heavily muscled thighs. He reached down and caught the parasol then straightened as if it were barely any effort at all.

Henry rose in the air, kicking feebly at the end of the parasol. Will snatched his hand and yanked him onto the roof where he collapsed in violent shudders.

“Oh, Lord,” he whispered. “Oh, Miss Lena! I thought you were going! You should never have risked yourself.”

“Well, I wasn’t about to leave you to fall.” Kneeling beside him, she checked him over for injuries. Her own hands were starting to shake. So close. Too close, actually.

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