Heart of Iron (London Steampunk #2)

Chapter 9

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“Come in,” Barrons said, gesturing to the door. “I’ll send for some blud-wein. Will, do you want anything? Ale? Wine?”

Will gave him a long look. No chance in hell he’d be eating or drinking anything as come from this house. “Prefer to keep me wits about me.”

“Ah, the stoic bodyguard.”

“Somebody’s gotta watch Blade’s back.”

Both Barrons and Blade exchanged a look. Blade strode toward the door. “They won’t knife me ’ere. Ain’t the done thing. It’d be in an alley one night, when I’d least expect it. This is just games. Come on, Will. Let’s see what the Council wants.”

When Blade’d least expect it…like in the drawing room of a manor whilst a party was in full swing. Will stalked behind the pair of them, prepared to leap forward at a second’s notice. They’d taken his weapons at the door, but that was no matter. His body was a weapon.

Firelight spilled through the room, the shadows flickering. Will glanced up, his eyes drawn by the carved panels that lined the walls and the ornate ceilings. He’d never seen so much gilt in all his life.

And silk curtains. What a bloody joke. Half the people of London could barely pay the Echelon’s exorbitant taxes and yet here sat one of their lords, in a house that could probably feed Whitechapel for a year. Or five.

He wasn’t here to gawk at the furnishings. Will lowered his gaze, even as Blade turned on his heel, staring up. “Gor, will you look at that,” Blade said. “Ain’t the ceilin’ a sight to see? All them cherubs and clouds.”

“Thank you,” a cool voice said. “The manor’s been in my family for eight generations.”

Will’s gaze narrowed on the speaker. Lord Harker, he presumed. Standing by the fire, with his hands clasped behind him.

The others sat in a half circle around him. He knew who the woman must be. There was only one female blue blood in England, the Lady Aramina, Duchess of Casavian. Met her once, didn’t much trust the look in her eyes. Yet when the Council had held Blade’s life in its hands, she’d been the final vote, her choice sealing his fate. For whatever reason—whim or politics—she’d chosen to let him live.

One of the other men was tall, with a hawkish nose and neatly trimmed beard. Touches of gray flecked his hair, signs of a distinguished air, rather than age and feebleness. Manderlay, the Duke of Goethe. Another who had cast his vote in Blade’s favor.

Which left the last little lordling, who sat back in his Louis XIII chair, examining the play of light in his blud-wein. Rings glittered on his fingers and his collar had been left rakishly open. A half-empty bottle rested beside his booted feet. Will didn’t recognize him, but the griffin signet on his finger said that this was Auvry Cavill, the young Duke of Malloryn. The least likely threat, Will thought, turning his gaze back to Goethe. He knew who the most dangerous man in the room was.

All of them had voted in Blade’s favor. Will smelled politics in the air, stale as a moth-eaten coat. The prince consort must want something badly.

“How is your wife?” the Duke of Goethe asked.

“Curious. Stubborn. Same as ever.” A genuine smile softened Blade’s face.

“And how goes her experiments?” the duchess asked.

The only way she could have known of them was if she were having the warren watched. Will’s eyes narrowed. None of the three had shown any sign of surprise. Which meant the Council likely knew everything that went in and out of the warren.

Something Will’d have to see to when they got out of here.

“She likes to tinker,” Blade replied with a shrug. He played this game far better than Will ever could. “Thinks she’ll cure me one day.”

“Do you think she will?” The duchess sipped at her blud-wein. The firelight turned her coppery hair into a flaming corona around her head, but despite the brandy brown eyes and hint of color in her cheeks, her manner was as cool as winter. A little clockwork spider crawled across her shoulder, tethered by a fine steel chain to a pin at her breast. The glass dome of its body showed the exquisite brass cogs of its clockwork interior. He’d seen the type before. Flip them over and the belly was a watch.

“Keeps ’er amused and outta me ’air.” Blade’s smile held a knife-edge. “Everybody knows there ain’t no cure for the cravin’.”

“Yes, but her father was Sir Artemus Todd. Wasn’t he the genius who discovered all those weapons for Vickers, before you killed the duke? I hear Todd was close to discovering a cure even then. Perhaps your wife knew something of his work?”

Blade could be quite reasonable at times. But not when Honoria was concerned. He bared his teeth—some people might have called it a smile—but Will knew it was just the expression he wore before he cut someone’s throat. “Maybe she does. Like poisons that actually work on a blue blood, or a gun with bullets as explode on impact. But nothin’ of cures, princess.”

To her credit, the lady never even flinched. Instead, she picked up the clockwork spider, letting it crawl over and under her fingers. “I see your knighthood has taken none of the savagery from you.”

“Did you expect it ought?”

“Fifty years ago you were dangerous, Blade. Times change. Our resources have changed. If we wanted to get rid of you, we’d simply send the Spitfires in and burn the rookery to the ground.” The duchess poured more blud-wein into her glass and stirred it like tea. As if she weren’t speaking of war. “Right now, you’re…an inconvenience. Out of sight and out of mind. Like someone’s embarrassing, black sheep cousin who keeps showing up to balls.”

“If you’re tryin’ to grease me up for this favor you want o’ me, you ain’t doin’ much of a bang-up job, princess.”

The duchess stopped stirring, tapped the spoon against her goblet three times, then set it aside. Her almond-shaped eyes lifted, thick dark lashes fluttering against her smooth, pale cheeks. “Who said the favor we wished was from you?”

All eyes turned toward Will.

Leo grimaced. “I thought to warn you—”

The hair on the back of Will’s neck rose. He crossed his arms over his chest and glared back. “No.”

“You haven’t heard what it is yet,” the young Duke of Malloryn murmured.

“I don’t like you no more ’n Blade does. And I don’t trust you as far as I could throw you.” He eyed the handsome young peacock and bared his teeth. “A struttin’ tom like you? Why, I figure I could throw you a fair way too.”

Malloryn raised lazy eyes toward him. A quick flick of his wrist and a knife appeared, balancing on point on his finger. “You’d have to get close enough.”

“Auvry, that’s enough,” Barrons murmured. Their eyes met and Barrons straightened, his posture screaming out the silent challenge in the air between them.

Malloryn shrugged—and the knife disappeared. “You’re no fun anymore, Barrons.”

“Let’s at least remain civilized long enough to give some credence to our claim of being gentlemen.” Barrons eased gracefully into a chair by the fire, hooking his ankle up on his knee. Despite the appearance of relaxing, his lazy-lidded eyes examined the room.

“And you’re the ones as want somewhat,” Blade replied, sinking into one of the other chairs. He tested it, impressed with the padding. “Never treat with a man as ’olds a blade to your throat. That’s what I always says.”

Will stayed on guard. A sound in the hallway alerted him. Three separate footfalls, all moving with purpose toward the room.

The door opened and a pair of the elite Coldrush Guards entered first. As part of the prince consort’s retinue and custodians of the Ivory Tower, they were taken from their families when it became clear they’d been infected, put into the strict tower camps, and trained to kill. Will sized the pair of them up. One of them returned his stare with a wary surveillance. Not fear. But marking him as a potential adversary.

The man who followed them towered over the guards. With thick brown hair and glassy, almost-colorless eyes, he strode into the room as if he owned it. His long red coat swirled around his hips, and a gleaming metal breastplate protected his chest.

Will had always thought the prince consort was an older man. He was surprised to find that he was perhaps younger than Blade. Ascending to the Regency nearly thirty years ago, he’d steered the young human princess through the treacherous waters of the Echelon after her father had been overthrown. To consolidate his power, he’d then married her when she came of age, ten years ago.

The fact that he’d been the one who’d overthrown the human king wasn’t something that was generally mentioned in polite company.

“Your Highness.” The men stood and bowed.

The prince consort strode to the fire, holding out his hands to warm them. He looked up, his icy blue eyes examining Will. “So this is the Beast of Whitechapel?”

A growl sounded low in Will’s throat. Both the Coldrush Guards straightened, hands resting on their pistols.

The prince consort’s lips crooked up, just slightly, and Will forced himself to relax. Bloody games. Testing him to see what manner of man—or monster—he was.

The prince consort examined the room. “Have they told you why you’re here?”

“You want somewhat from me,” Will replied. No wonder they’d wanted him and Blade to come here. A meeting could have been set up anywhere in the city for them if it had involved only the Council. But the prince consort was another matter.

“I have a proposition. An…opportunity for yourself.”

“How very kind of you,” Will drawled. “Lookin’ out for me interests like that.”

Another oily smile. “Well, yes, also an opportunity for us. But I’ll state it plainly. I don’t intend to use you without your knowledge. And you will be ably compensated.”

Like he’d ever given a damn about money.

The duchess spoke up. “There’s talk that the French are in discussions with the Illuminist fanatics from New Catalan. It’s an uneasy concept, to say the least.”

Verwulfen were a blue blood’s natural enemy, the only creature dangerous enough to kill a blue blood and do it easily. But in the eyes of the Illumination, any supernatural creature was an abomination that needed to be eliminated. The tales of New Catalan’s Inquisition was enough to make even the bravest shudder.

“And how am I to help?” Will asked.

“We’re not the only country with an interest in the proceedings across the Channel,” Barrons replied. “If the Illumination gains a foothold in France, they’ll have access to the northern waters, plus all France’s airships. We’re considering an alliance with the Scandinavians to prevent that. We have ships—the dreadnoughts—and the Scandinavians have their dragon-ships and air fleet.”

Bloody hell. A husky bark of laughter erupted from his throat. “You think the Scandinavian clans would ally with you? The Butchers of Culloden? Let’s not forget what’s been done since. All them verwulfen trapped in cages and bought and sold like fuckin’ slaves.”

Blade caught his arm as he took a half step forward. A caution. Will shook it off, trying to focus through the red-hot flare of rage. The beat of it thundered in his blood, echoing dully in his ears.

“Culloden was a long time ago,” the prince consort replied coolly. His guards had stepped forward as if fearing an attack, but he settled into a chair and flicked a piece of lint from his sleeve.

“It weren’t that long ago to some of us.”

“Culloden was a mistake.” The words came from behind, from Barrons. All heads turned in his direction and he shrugged, as if admitting a truth they were too embarrassed to claim. “You cannot slaughter an entire race without consequences. Wiping out the Scottish verwulfen clans was only ever going to incite anger. But it was done by our forefathers and there is nothing we can do about it, Will.”

“And the Manchester Pits? Where they throw us in with wild dogs and bears to bait? Or pit us against each other for blood sport?”

“They are private enterprises,” the prince consort replied, his fingers slowly drumming on the armrest. “Most of them owned by humans, actually.”

Which meant he didn’t give a damn. Will knew what it was like to be trapped behind bars, or cut open for the pleasure of a crowd. And yet there was nothing to be done… Verwulfen were outlawed in Britain and capturing them and using them as slaves was not only legal, but encouraged.

Staring at the prince consort with his pale bloodless face, Will could barely control the surge of anger that boiled in his gut. “What do the Scandinavian clans think o’ your policies?”

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