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THE SILVER SKULL

Chapter One

“SHALL WE MARRY, THEN?” In the back of his mind, Lord Ian Stanton, Earl of Rathsburn knew a better lead-in was expected, but he wasn’t one for coy games. Far too much effort for too little gain. Time was wasting.

He rolled his shoulders and tipped his head from side to side, trying to shake the tension that spending hours in the presence of empty-headed debutants brought on. He’d had enough. Despite approaching the task with a ruthless efficiency, it had taken him two winter balls, three ice festivals and eight afternoon fireside teas to suss out an acceptable woman. Why did courtship need to be so tortuous?

Sustaining an artifice of charm for such extended periods of time required an exhausting marathon of frozen smiles and inane chatter all borne under a crushing weight of pointlessness. Love was not for him. He was done. This woman would do. There were twenty-eight other things he could have accomplished today. Yes, he’d counted.

Well, there was a point, he supposed. Money. The eventual production of an heir. He glanced at her. Try as he might, couldn’t raise any enthusiasm for the attempt at the moment. For now, his immediate goal was to return to his laboratory, and to do that, he needed a wife who could infuse the family coffers.

The woman at his side fulfilled these most basic requirements and had willingly joined him on today’s excursion.

For a hefty sum, one could take a young lady aloft for ten minutes in a private hot air balloon tethered to Grosvenor Bridge. He’d been assured that this particular diversion was the current coveted activity for a proposal. A certain path to garnering a swift answer in the affirmative. All advice that threatened to end in miserable failure.

“Excuse me?” Lady Katherine replied with an air of distraction.

High above the Thames, the various ribbons and flaps of the hot air balloon snapped and cracked in the wind that whipped about them. Perhaps she couldn’t hear over the noise. He turned to face his future bride and raised his voice, enunciating each word. “Do. You. Want. To. Marry?” He paused at the confounded look on her face and clarified, “Me.”

Lady Katherine was beautiful. At least by society’s standards. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Slender. That was a slight disappointment. He’d always hoped for a well-endowed wife, but a well-endowed dowry would provide more lasting satisfaction. She—‌until this outing—‌had seemed content to snare a titled earl to form a superficial yet advantageous union for them both.

A tangled lock of hair blew across her face and stuck to the damp of her lips. Lips he supposed she’d expect him to kiss when—‌if—‌she agreed to his proposal. Lips that now pressed tightly together.

She turned her face away.

If it was sweet words and declarations of his undying love she wanted, he was bound to disappoint. Already he regretted attempting a romantic balloon ride. Clearly it hadn’t worked.

He suppressed a sigh. Perhaps he’d been too blunt? It was evident he’d made a mistake. Marrying was a mistake, an irritating obligation he had no choice but to shoulder. With his father dead a full year, he’d run out of excuses. He’d tried to mourn—‌he had—‌but theirs had been a bitter relationship.

Dismissive of Ian’s medical expertise, his father had welcomed a series of snake oil salesmen into their home, subjecting his sister to one ineffective—‌and often painful—‌treatment after another in desperate and misguided hopes of a cure. When the family coffers held nothing but cobwebs and dust, it had not distressed him in the least. At last, Father could no longer hire any more charlatans, and Ian could focus on devising a legitimate cure.

Tapping the edge of the balloon’s basket with a finger, he watched the dark shadow of a pteryform glide above the Thames while waiting for Lady Katherine’s response. It was rare to see one ousted from its nest before nightfall. His gaze fell lower to the choppy, gray river water rushing beneath Grosvenor Bridge and, while he attempted patience, he counted the tentacled arms that gripped the central pier. Six. Another rubbery appendage lifted from the murky water. Seven. If he could see kraken from here, London river traffic had a serious problem brewing.

He pinched the bridge of his nose. With the cure for his sister within reach, he ought to be in his laboratory. Even if all he could do was observe while a visiting engineer from the Rankine Institute constructed the apparatus necessary to begin human trials.

But a memorandum from the Duke of Avesbury had landed upon his desk two months ago, instructing him that he was to use this lull to find a bride. The Queen, Ian was informed, viewed his earldom as his primary responsibility, not his research, and she was displeased with both his crumbling estate and his failure to produce an heir upon which to bestow his title. Her Majesty did not look fondly upon the other—‌distant—‌branch of his family. Employees of Lister Laboratories ignored the Queen and her minion, the Duke of Avesbury, only if they wished to lose their hard won position. That couldn’t be allowed to happen.

Which brought him to, “Lady Katherine?” His patience was at an end. If she refused him, he wished to move with all due haste to the next woman on his list. He glanced at his pocket watch. Lady Adeline had hinted he would be welcome at today’s calling hours.

“Marriage.” She cleared her throat. “Yes, of course.”

Was that an acceptance? Ignoring a faint sense of disappointment in her lack of enthusiasm—‌but to be fair, a passionless marriage was what he’d wanted—‌Ian reached for her, intending to perform the requisite embrace, but she stopped him with a palm to his chest and a quick shake of her head.

“Unfortunately, we must discuss this later,” she said. “I foresee a slight problem.”

“A problem?” Ian had been under the distinct impression that most young ladies—‌and their fathers—‌were desperate to snag the first titled gentleman who proposed.

“Yes. Flying directly at us.” She pointed over his shoulder.

Ian spun about. Emerging from the low clouds that hung over the dirigible-studded London skyline was a man. His arms were strapped to an articulated wooden gliding apparatus covered in silver cloth, providing an impressive wing span with which to catch the upwelling air currents. His feet were hooked into a tail rudder, steering him on a course toward their balloon.

Extreme gliding sports in an urban environment drew those who sought the rush of adrenaline. Not only from placing their unequivocal trust in custom-built gliding equipment, but also from deliberately placing themselves in peril by dodging zeppelin balloons, tall buildings, bridge spans…‌ normally nocturnal pteryformes. Or, for the truly insane, skimming above the kraken-infested Thames to land on the very edge of the river’s bank.

“He’ll realize his error momentarily,” Ian predicted. That or they were about to witness tomorrow’s newspaper headline. “But perhaps it’s best we descend.” He tugged on the balloon’s tether, letting the man below know they wished to be reeled in.

The basket jerked downward—‌and the gliding man twitched his right wing, adjusting his trajectory accordingly.

It appeared they did have a problem.

Lady Katherine flapped a hand in distress, and Ian caught it, patting it to offer comfort as the passing pteryform dove, changing course to investigate this strange, winged human that dared make a bid to share its sky. At the last moment, the gliding man banked sharply to the left, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with the flying creature.

“So close,” she said, tugging her hand free. Her intense gaze followed the pteryform as its leathery wings carried its dark form off into the sulfurous haze that hung over London, and Ian was struck with the somewhat unsettling thought that his future wife had hoped the pteryform might knock the gliding man from the sky.

A grim thought, but perhaps she had reason, for the man banked again, stretching his arms backward and accelerated, dart-like, in their direction. Ian swore. Had the gliding man merely wished to chat, he could have sought an audience with him at any number of more traditional locations. Though Ian had been out of the field for nearly a year, someone must hold a deep-seated grudge against him. Why else approach when he was in such a vulnerable position?

Ian narrowed his eyes. The man’s features were obscured by a leather flying cap and wide goggles. His body, however, was large and hulking. None of the resultant outcomes he could calculate ended well. He glanced down. At this rate, there was no hope they’d reach the relative safety of the bridge in time.

The pteryform reappeared, circling about, intent upon a closer look.

“It’s no use,” Lady Katherine said, throwing her hand up in the air, then slicing it sideways. “Better to take evasive measures while the pteryform distracts him.”

“Agreed.” Ian bent over and slid a dagger from his boot. “A hot air balloon ascends faster than a glider.”

“I’ll fire the burner.”

He leaned out over the basket and sliced through the tether. But the balloon didn’t rise, and he didn’t hear the roar of flames. Ian turned to find Lady Katherine flipping the switch.

“It’s useless! The flame has gone out!” she yelled as the pteryform swooped down toward their balloon, angling sharply in an attempt to grab the gliding man with its talons. It missed. There was the sound of cloth tearing, and Ian swore. A sharp claw on the tip of the creature’s wing had caught the thin cloth and slashed a gaping hole in the balloon.

The rapid ascent he’d planned was now a rapid descent.

“Hang on!” he yelled, catching hold of the wicker edge moments before the gliding man slammed into the side of their basket, throwing them sideways.

Lady Katherine let out a piercing shriek as the basket tipped on its side, tumbling her perilously close to the edge. Instinct had him reaching for the most voluminous part of her. Her bustle made an ominous ripping sound, but the undergarment must have been tightly secured, for it held. Yet the cost of keeping her from pitching into the river below came at a price. His dagger was now in the hands—‌or tentacles—‌of the kraken.

And today he carried no extra weapons.

Ian dragged Lady Katherine to his side as the basket continued to lurch and careen wildly in the wind. The balloon sank toward the river with undue speed, as if three men had landed on the basket, not one.

A hand gloved in articulated iron—‌sporting curved grappling hooks that protruded from each finger—‌appeared on the edge of the basket. Then another. With a mighty yank, the gliding man vaulted into their basket with such heft that one foot punched through the thick wooden flooring.

Lady Katherine cowered behind him.

“What do you want?” Ian demanded.

With the ease of movement that spoke of long practice, the gliding man unclasped a series of leather bands across his chest and shrugged the articulated wings from his shoulders, sending them plunging downward into the choppy waves of the Thames. He yanked off his goggles and fixed Ian with a piercing stare. One pale blue eye bulged as if something shoved it from the socket. A large, square jaw was covered with strange, knobby lumps that strained outward against the skin, threatening to break free.

Ian stared back with the certain knowledge that his greatest fear had come to pass.

In a low growl, the monster spoke. Whether he challenged him to a duel—‌or demanded a cure, Ian couldn’t say. He hadn’t spent much time studying German.

Nicht sprechen Deutsch,” Ian said. Or, rather, mangled.

The man snorted in derision. “You stupid English.” He reached out. Metal hooks ripped through Ian’s waistcoat and shirt, slicing through the skin of his chest as they curved into a tight grip. He dragged him close. “Hören sie mir zu. Listen.”

Ian ignored the pain. “I’m listening. You’d best speak quickly. We’re about to land in the Thames.”

The monster didn’t seem worried. “Your sister is at Burg Kerzen. You will come to Germany.”

“My sister? In Germany?” No. He’d received a letter from her just last week. She was in warm, sunny Italy, safely tucked away in a nunnery, free from the rigors of daily life, safe from anything that might exacerbate her condition.

The monster nodded. “Yes. You come. Alone. To fix those like me. To make more who will not get sick. Or she will die.”

“Who—‌”

“Brace.” The monster said, and thrust him away to grip the side of the basket with his hooks.

Ian gathered Lady Katherine close. They were lucky. Rather than open water, the banks of the Thames rushed up at them. They hit ground with a hard, bone-jarring crash, and the basket toppled onto its side, dumping him and Lady Katherine unceremoniously onto tidal mud strewn with rocks, rubbish and decaying kraken corpses.

As the balloon overhead deflated around them, Ian jumped to his feet and dragged Lady Katherine from the wreckage. Carrying her a safe distance from the water, he deposited her near a gawking crowd of onlookers and ran back.

There, still in the balloon’s basket, lay the German monster, unconscious. Ian hooked his hands under the man’s arms and pulled. And managed to move him not a single inch. He pulled harder. Nothing. It was as if the man was made from metal.

Which, in a way, Ian feared he was.

“Lord Rathsburn, please step aside,” a familiar voice spoke. “We’ll take care of this.”

Glancing up, he found a number of official-looking men behind him. Queen’s agents. The man who spoke was none other than Mr. Black, former mentor and colleague. Spy. Black rarely appeared publically in broad daylight, preferring to hug the shadows, hovering just out of reach.

Ian moved out of the way. A solitary man stood no chance of shifting the German. In the end it took six men to lift and carry the unconscious man onto a sleek, dark boat that waited at the river’s edge. Braced on its bow and ostensibly targeting kraken, stood a man holding a sniper rifle. His presence also served to discourage curiosity.

“Your convenient proximity raises more questions than it answers,” Ian said, tugging a handkerchief from his pocket and pressing it to the—‌thankfully shallow—‌gash upon his chest. The blood had already slowed, and the pain was tolerable. “Why have so many men watching me?”

“I don’t suppose you’ll believe it was purely for the spectacle of watching you tie yourself to a woman?” A corner of Black’s mouth twitched. “Quite unusual, your courtship techniques, Rathsburn. The large German man landing upon your hot air balloon and the attacking pteryform were quite riveting.”

“Glad to be of entertainment value,” Ian snarled. “And, no, I don’t believe you.”

“Perhaps you should ask the duke directly,” Black suggested. His gaze flicked to Ian’s chest. “After you see to your ruined shirt.”

“He’ll not answer the questions I wish to ask,” he growled.

“Take up a TTX pistol once more and he might.”

Ian swore. “He let Warrick walk away. This is his fault.”

Black gave him a dark glance. “You walked away as well.” Ian opened his mouth to object, but the agent looked past him and lifted his chin. “I believe your lady is getting away.”

Ian turned.

Lady Katherine, her dress ruined and her hat askew, climbed into a crank hack. She spared him little more than a disgusted glance before the vehicle jerked away.

“It would appear the wedding is off,” Ian muttered. If it had ever been on. Given a decent marriage required a certain amount of loyalty, it seemed he’d dodged a bullet. But before he could even exhale in relief, dread wrapped cold fingers about his throat.

Caught in a tangle of conflicting thoughts and emotions, he looked back toward the Thames where the boat, its men and its cargo moved swiftly away, leaving him behind in what seemed to be his natural state: alone.

Even in a crowd.

 

Chapter Two

LADY OLIVIA RAVENSDALE’S stomach churned as Lord Rancide waggled his bushy eyebrows. She glanced again at the half-closed parlor door and shifted subtly onto the edge of her own seat. Recent trends had hemlines rising, but the long skirts Mother forever insisted upon had their advantages as well. Such as surreptitiously readying one’s feet for a mad dash across the parlor.

She’d changed her mind. Any old man would not do. Particularly this one. He was still young enough to last another decade. Perhaps more. There must be an alternative. “I really don’t think that’s a proper activity for a young lady, Lord Rancide.” Under no circumstances would she…‌ No. Not even for England.

The paunchy, red-nosed marquis leaned forward on the settee, leering at what he already assumed to be his property. His eyes came to rest on her bosom and the edges of his lips curved upward in a self-congratulatory, self-satisfied smile.

Her day dress covered her from wrist to throat, but it was exceptionally well tailored. With exactly this effect in mind. A valuable tool to employ as an element of distraction. If her recently increased proportions now strained the seams, well, she blamed cream cakes. And Emily.

Two months ago, news of her sister’s elopement, detailed in that horrible gossip rag and picked over by all of ton society, had caused Lord Carlton Snyder to terminate their betrothal. Ever since, Mother’s search for a new fiancé who wouldn’t care if his bride was the brunt of society’s current gossip had subjected her to increasingly intolerable individuals.

Olivia was, after all, a well-dowered daughter of the Duke of Avesbury. Certain gentlemen would overlook just about anything. She could have three eyes, a lantern jaw and a mechanical arm—‌and still such men would offer for her.

“Oh, come now. Can’t we do away with all the missish protestations?” Lord Rancide patted his knee. “Come. Have a seat now. I’ll give you a taste of the pleasures to come once we’ve married.”

“I think not. I expect my mother to join us at any moment.”

A blatant lie. In an attempt to cement a betrothal, Mother had taken to abandoning Olivia to her most recent male suitors, pretending to be overcome by agues, angina and aether fluxes.

Setting her empty tea cup upon the tea tray, Olivia shifted her weight onto one leg. Her ankle wobbled. Cogs and punches! Why had she worn shoes with heels? Still, Lord Rancide was portly. She intended to be out the door before he could rise.

Just in case, she glanced down at RT—‌the roving table that held the afternoon tea—‌preparing her defense. To the untrained eye, the silver teapot would seem her best bet. It wasn’t. From beneath the lacy tablecloth, a tiny metallic nose and wire whiskers peeked. Watson, her pet zoetomatic hedgehog was.

She snapped her fingers twice. Watson’s nose extended into a long, thin rod. A faint hum indicated that the Markoid battery had engaged. Maybe it wouldn’t be necessary.

Olivia sprang to her feet and darted toward the door. “Let me see what is keeping my mother.”

But Lord Rancide was quicker than he looked. Damp fingers wrapped about her wrist, yanking her backward. Thrown off balance, Olivia wobbled on her heels and landed with a thump in his lap. His arm snaked about her waist, pressing her against his burgeoning girth. “Just like that, sweeting.” Sloppy, wet lips squelched against her neck.

“Let me go!” Olivia twisted her face away from the foul odor of rotting teeth. “This is unseemly. I have not agreed to marry you.” She pried at his arm, but he was stronger than looks alone would suggest.

RT whirled about, his brass bell clamoring in distress. The tea tray slipped from his surface with a clang and a clatter, spilling sugar, milk and Earl Grey all over the carpet. Watson backed up in alarm, dragging the snowy-white tablecloth with him into the mess.

Lord Rancide pulled away ever so slightly. “Stop this nonsense. We both know I’m the best—‌and last—‌chance you have at marrying a title.”

He’d brought it upon himself. “Watson,” she snapped. “Engage.”

On tiny, two-toed feet, the mechanical hedgehog rushed forward, ramming his galvanized steel nose into Lord Rancide’s ankle.

There was a loud zap. Lord Rancide bolted upright, and Olivia took the opportunity to slam the flat of her palm upward into his nose. There was a satisfying crunch.

He howled, lifting both hands to cup his now bloody nose.

The door slammed open as Steam Mary burst into the room, steam billowing from beneath her skirts, whipping the coarse black cloth about her metal appendages. Behind her, a number of household steambots gathered in the doorway, all of them hissing and ringing and clanging their displeasure.

“Stand aside,” Olivia instructed them. “Lord Rancide was just leaving.”

Slowly, and with a reluctant creak of wheels, her loyal staff formed a narrow pathway to the front door.

Pressing a handkerchief to his nose, Lord Rancide stood. He yanked his waistcoat downward, smoothing the yellow satin over his rotund belly as he turned a dark eye on her. “You are unfit as a wife,” he pronounced, then stormed from her house.

~~~

“I must speak with Father,” Olivia informed the steam butler, Burton, who rolled down the hallway behind her.

“I’m afraid he is not available at the moment.” Burton’s jaw creaked. He was an older model and forever in need of more oil.

The only household steambots that spoke—‌and their vocabulary was limited—‌were butlers. Theirs was a particularly ancient model, but Father refused to replace him. Olivia had done what she could, on the sly of course, but there were only so many commands his aging cipher cartridge was capable of reading.

Understanding Burton’s need to fulfill his programming commands, she paused before Father’s study rather than storming in. “Open the door, Burton.”

“Impossible, my lady. His Grace left orders he was not to be disturbed.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Did he?” Olivia tried the handle. The door refused to open. Locked? The great and mighty duke hid from his daughter? There was only one conclusion to draw. Father had known about Lord Rancide. Tacit agreement was still a form of assent. “Never mind,” she said. “I’ll open it myself.”

Puffs of steam vented from Burton’s ears. His fingers clenched and unclenched, his programming cards stuck in a feedback loop, one set of instructions demanding he always follow Lady Olivia’s commands, the other insisting he never override those of his master, the duke.

Olivia reached into the bodice of her gown, slid two lock picks free from her corset, and bent to the keyhole. A second later the lock snicked free, and she strode into Father’s office.

He took one look at her and sighed, sinking backward into his chair behind the massive oak slab that was his desk. “What was wrong with this one?”

“What wasn’t?”

“What are we going to do with you, Olivia?” He lifted a palm upward. “Lord Rancide was the last old, titled target who was willing…‌”

“Yes, it’s clear Mother scraped the ooze from the bottom of the barrel.” Was basic decency too much to ask?

“My sources informed me Lord Rancide was impotent,” the duchess herself said as she swept into the room.

“They were wrong.”

Father choked.

Mother waved away her complaint. “Nevertheless, this is unacceptable behavior, turning down suitor after suitor. There are no more suspect gentlemen above the age of sixty. We will have to look abroad.”

Father cringed. “Olivia, enough with this determination to marry someone old enough to be my father.”

“It is a critical consideration given our daughter’s aspirations,” Mother said. “If there are offspring, it will indefinitely delay her entry into fieldwork.”

“Listen,” Father said. “There’s a delegation of Icelanders arriving in a month’s time. Some are nobility. Let me see if—‌”

“Iceland.” Mother raised her eyebrows at Olivia. “Foreign experience would be valuable.”

“Not Iceland.” Olivia lifted her chin. Then, considering her present standing, adopted a more conciliatory tone. “Please, don’t banish me to that icebox. All I want—‌”

“What now?” Mother huffed.

“No,” Father rose and slapped a palm on the desk. “Enough. No more restrictions.”

Swallowing a lump in her throat, one that felt the size of an entire cream cake, Olivia blurted, “Please, will you ask the Queen to waive the widow requirement?”

Father stiffened. Raking his hands into his hair, he pushed his palms together as if trying to keep his skull from shattering. “God, Olivia. You ask for the moon!”

“There’s precedent.” She looked pointedly at both of them.

“I entered the service by marrying your father.” Mother’s eyes were wide with horror. “Not by traipsing off into the countryside an unprotected innocent.”

Father cringed.

“Absolutely not,” Mother snapped. “The Queen will deny such a request.”

“Why?” Olivia objected. “I’ve devoted myself to the Queen’s service. I am the only societal liaison to hold a degree in programming from the Rankine Institute. I’ve completed every single task assigned to me.”

“Except marriage,” Mother pointed out.

“Not my fault.”

“Your engagement to Lord Snyder was unreasonably protracted,” Mother countered. “If you’d managed to lead him to the alter within a reasonable time frame, you would even now be making reports to the Queen.”

She and Mother glared at each other.

“No,” Father said. “I refuse to consider such an option. You will marry a designated target, or you will leave the Queen’s service.”

“But—‌”

“No.” Father turned toward Mother. “Are any foreign targets acceptable?”

Mother tapped her lips. “Mmm.”

Olivia fought the urge to slump. Nothing ever went according to her plans, no matter how much effort she expended. She’d played the role of brainless fool, agreeing with Carlton’s every opinion, his every demand, and still it had not been enough. The freedoms afforded a married woman remained beyond her grasp. Perhaps it was time to give up.

Bed. That’s where she wanted to be. Curtains pulled, under the covers, buried by soft, muffling feathers. Steambots would circle, bringing her endless cups of chocolate and cream cakes. Then, when all her gowns stopped fitting, she’d have an excuse to stay in bed all day. To see no one. To go nowhere.

“Italy,” Father suggested. “Visit Aunt Judith.”

“Aunt Judith!” Olivia’s voice held a note of alarm. They would banish her? “But she’s in Venice! It’s far too dangerous.”

Aunt Judith was a cryptobiologist studying the giant kraken that had devastated the city. There were reports that buildings fell almost daily as their sharp claws gouged away the pilings.

“Judith is in Rome for the winter.” Father waved a hand dismissively. “Fulfilling academic teaching duties. Mother will accompany you.”

Mother closed her eyes, reading down the list she held in her mind, men chosen for the secrets they might keep. “Baron Volscini,” she announced. “Age eighty-three. Two previous wives. No issue. Likely sterile.”

“Perfect.” Father’s voice sounded choked. “I have but one request. A bit of assistance on an unfolding situation. One small favor on behalf of Queen and country.”

Olivia moaned. A catch? With Father there was always a catch, a price to be paid. Already his eyes had begun to sparkle with mischief.

“No,” Mother said. “I object.”

“She wishes to work in the field. Why not?”

“Because he is not suitable as a target,” Mother answered.

“Agreed, but why not let her conduct a little surveillance en route?” Father lifted a shoulder. “She’s trained all these years for it. Why not let her test her mettle?”

Mother’s lips pressed together.

“I agree,” Olivia said. Unsuitable meant young. Or smart. Maybe both. Perhaps Mother even thought him handsome enough to distract her from her mission. It didn’t matter. Anything that Mother objected to held immediate appeal.

Chapter Three

“WHERE IS THE GERMAN man who was brought in?” Ian demanded, glancing over the shoulder of the head nurse of Lister’s secure hospital ward, searching the hallway. “I need to question him. Immediately.”

She stared back at him over wire-rimmed glasses. “If you refer to patient SV140, the man involved in the balloon crash, he’s no longer here.”

Irritation festered. If Black thought he could keep him out of this…‌ “Please clarify.”

“SV140 was moved to the autopsy suite approximately thirty minutes ago.”

Ian’s eyebrows rose. Dead inside of an hour? He’d seen the rise and fall of the German’s chest as the agents heaved him onto their shoulders. Of course, the tumors were massive and many, but if he’d survived this long…‌ “Thank you, Nurse Quinn.”

With a nod, he spun on his heel and headed for the ascension chamber. But when he reached it, as he lifted his hand to dial the code, he realized access would be denied. The combination was changed every month. He’d been gone two.

“Four. Six. Seven. Two,” a familiar deep voice informed him.

He entered the sequence of numbers and the doors slid open. “I owe you for this, Thornton.” A few minutes with the man’s body was all Ian needed. Irrefutable evidence before he tore off to Germany.

“Black will be here shortly,” Lord Thornton warned, following him into the chamber. Though they’d never worked together, the man was both a neurobiologist and a Queen’s agent.

“I don’t need your protection.”

Thornton snorted. “I didn’t offer it. I’m merely satisfying my own curiosity.”

Ian tipped his head back, studying the grating that formed the ceiling of the ascension chamber as it lowered them deep into the ground. In truth, he was glad of the company. If anyone would understand his situation—‌betrayal, misuse of one’s own inventions—‌Thornton would. Three months past, Thornton had been embroiled in a hunt for a foreign operative who had stolen his laboratory biotechnology.

The difference was that Ian knew who had stolen his research. Proving it, however, had been impossible. His detailed laboratory notebooks along with vials of mutated cells had disappeared with Warrick, and searching for the traitor had led to some dark corners and allegations from which there was no recovery. Accusing Lord Avesbury of complicity had been unwise. It had ended Ian’s work in the field and nearly ended his career in research.

He had done his best to put the past behind him. Until today, when what he’d most feared had come to pass. His own work had hunted him down and presented an ultimatum.

Now his sister’s life was on the line. Ian closed his eyes. Blood began to boil in his veins. All he’d ever wanted to do with his research was to find her a cure—‌and he was so close, so very close. Trust Warrick to throw a wrench into the gears. Again.

Warrick’s betrayal had done more than damage Ian’s reputation, it had ripped apart his family and shredded his sister Elizabeth’s heart in the process. To think he’d almost called the man ‘brother’. If only he could wrap his fingers about Warrick’s throat and squeeze.

“When Warrick absconded with your work, the original cells showed promise in vitro, did they not?” Thornton asked, forcing Ian to set aside his anger and focus on the immediate situation.

“Yes,” he answered, his voice tight. Inside their glass Petri dishes the first generation of mutated cells had shown every promise, but when transplanted into live hosts, into rats…‌ He shook his head. “But the in vivo tests revealed that the immune system offered no resistance at all. The cells took over the bones. Osteosarcomas formed at unnatural rates.” They’d aborted the trials, euthanizing the unfortunate research subjects.

“I understand Warrick believed the immune system of human subjects would react differently.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Those in medical research should know better than to make such an assumption.”

“He was utterly convinced,” Ian confirmed. “Given the body in the morgue, he managed to persuade at least one German to risk his life to prove it.” Pressing his lips into a tight line, he said nothing about the message, nothing about Elizabeth. She was all the family he had left. Nothing and no one would stop him.

“You followed protocol,” Thornton stated. “Warrick is to blame for this. Not you.”

Ian grunted.

“We need you back.” Thornton’s gaze was intense.

Ian shifted on his feet. Once he’d been a proud member of the Queen’s agents, a member of the inner circle. He missed the camaraderie. “In the laboratory? Or the field?”

“Both. Either.” A pained look crossed Thornton’s face. “Any progress on the hunt for a bride? I only ask because I promised my wife.”

“Don’t.” Ian grimaced. Of late every man and woman in love felt compelled to offer him their advice and assistance. “Just don’t.”

Thornton did anyway. “Should you have difficulty finding a bride amongst the debutants, my wife has offered to make introductions.”

A strangled noise emerged from his throat. Though Lady Thornton was both beautiful and brilliant, she was one of a kind. Thinking about what sort of woman she might drag up from inside the bowels of Lister Laboratories scared him. There were precious few females, and those he’d spied tended to scurry away under a direct gaze.

“Thank you, no. I’ll muddle along on my own for a bit yet. Too soon to settle.”

But he’d done exactly that, hadn’t he? Proposing to a lady he barely knew. And that had gone so wonderfully. Nothing like a proposal that landed a man in the morgue.

The doors slid open, disgorging them into said facility where Mr. Hutton bent over a disfigured corpse stretched out upon a steel gurney. It rankled. His own technician allowed to remain behind in the laboratory while Ian himself—‌however temporarily—‌was banished.

The technician snapped to attention, his eyes wide with disbelief. “Lord Rathsburn!” He hastily dragged a white sheet over the disfigured face of the German.

Ian’s eyes narrowed. “Is that SV140?”

Mr. Hutton gulped, then gave a stiff nod.

He took off his coat and rolled up his shirt sleeves and donned one of the many canvas aprons that hung from the wall pegs. “Let’s begin.”

“But…‌ no…‌ I mean,” Mr. Hutton stuttered. “Mr. Black instructed me to allow no one to examine this corpse.”

“Not even me?” Ian asked, reaching upward to flick on the overhead argon lamp. Brilliant white light shone down upon the body.

“Black is toying with you, Rathsburn,” Thornton concluded. “Giving you rope to hang yourself. Are you certain you do not wish to pursue official channels?”

“I am.” With his sister in danger, every minute counted, and he would not allow politics to stand in the way of Elizabeth’s safety. A coil of dread in his gut twisted every time thoughts of her situation rose to mind.

Ian pulled back the sheet. The German was huge. Well over six feet tall, he had the muscular build of a gladiator, one accustomed to regularly defeating lions. Blond and pale, he would have been the very model of Aryan perfection but for the ulcerating tumors that bulged beneath the skin of his jaw.

His own jaw clenched.

Warrick thought nothing of testing his hypotheses directly upon human subjects; he possessed not a shred of ethics. Before him lay the results of letting the man walk free, of allowing him to leave Britain’s shores. Warrick should be rotting in a dank, dark prison at this very moment if not hung or shot for treason.

He pressed against one of the many lumps that protruded from the man’s jaw. All three nodules were rock hard.

He palpated the man’s upper arm. The man’s deltoids, biceps and triceps were so thick that Ian had to dig his fingers into the musculature to feel for the tumors he was certain grew from the cortical surface of the humerus. There. He could feel them now. A number of them in varying sizes.

He pushed his fingers into the man’s tree-trunk-sized thighs. Again he felt a number of tumors deep inside the tissue. A quick glance at the fingers and toes visually confirmed that several of those joints were also affected.

“As expected, a superficial examination shows an exceedingly proliferative osteoblastoma in an advanced state.” A particularly horrible bone cancer. And in this case, a cancer made even worse by experimental manipulation of osteoprogenitor cells.

There was only one way to be certain.

He held out a hand. “Scalpel.”

When nothing landed in it, he glanced up.

Mr. Hutton looked pained. “We should obtain clearance from Mr. Black first.”

Ian made a sound of disgust and grabbed the scalpel himself. He sliced deftly through the pliant skin of the man’s arm, above one particularly large malignancy that bulged outward between two muscles. He peeled back the skin and shoved his fingers inside the tissue, stretching and pulling and cutting to expose the surface of the bone.

Reaching up, Ian drew the argon lamp closer. The tumor was some two inches in diameter and protruded a good inch above what was left of normal humerus. The knotted lump of bone glistened a faint silver beneath the dark red periosteum, the connective tissue that supplied the bone with blood.

“I want to take a sample for confirmation. Pass the vibration knife.” Ian hoped the tool was strong enough.

Mr. Hutton didn’t move.

“If you’re not up to the task, step back.” Thornton crossed the room to lift the device from the shelf. “No. Leave. I’ll assist.”

Mr. Hutton swallowed and backed away, exiting the room with haste the moment the ascension chamber arrived.

Ian lifted two pairs of safety goggles from a drawer and handed one across the body. “I should warn you, Thornton, if the antimony has been densely deposited, we might not be able to excise this tumor.”

“Metal bones?”

“Metalloid.”

He inserted a tissue spreader into the incision he’d made in the German’s upper arm. Crank by crank the fissure widened until the tumor was fully exposed.

Thornton cocked an eyebrow, but asked no further questions.

Ian powered up the vibration knife. A loud mechanical buzz filled the air, making further conversation impossible. He pressed the knife against the relatively normal bone adjacent to the tumor. The knife passed though the white bone, then stalled. Ian pushed harder, but there was no give. The vibrational knife protested with an ominous groan.

He pulled the knife back, shifting to change the angle of the blade against the tumor, pushing with as much strength as he possessed. The knife sank into the bone, but only the slightest fraction. Any lingering doubts vanished.

This man was dead because of him, because of the research he’d initiated. His stomach clenched. How many more men faced the same fate?

Without warning, the knife surged forward. A shard of the tumor broke free and flew into the air, skittering across the tiled floor. Ian set down the knife. With tweezers, he plucked the bone sample from the ground and carried it to the sink, rinsing its surface before sliding the sample into the chamber of the aetheroscope. He flipped a switch, waiting a moment for the gas to fill the chamber before peering through the lens at the tumor’s magnified and illuminated surface.

“Mottled gray. Near complete replacement of normal bone minerals.” Ian stepped back.

Thornton yanked off his goggles and peered through the eyepiece. “Impressive. You’ll have Chemistry confirm its composition?”

That would be procedure, but…‌ “To what end?” Ian had all the answers he needed. All the answers he could discover on British soil. Fix this? Unlikely. But he would have to try.

The door to the ascension chamber clanged open. Black stepped out.

Thornton drew out his pocket watch. “You’re losing your touch. I expected you some fifteen minutes ago.”

“Ready to take up your pistol again, Lord Rathsburn?” Black asked without a trace of humor on his face. He held out Ian’s old weapon, one that fired cartridges of tetrodotoxin, TTX, a toxin gleaned from the muscles of pufferfish. One round to stun a man, two to drop him and a third to kill.

Ian’s fingers twitched, but he kept his arm at his side. “No. Not unless the duke finally agrees to discuss shadow boards.” He brushed past Black, jamming a finger into the call button of the ascension chamber.

“Perhaps you have heard, Thornton,” Black said, the tone of his voice odd, “that the triumvirate negotiations with Germany and Russia concerning the Ottoman Uprisings are not proceeding well. That the Queen’s agents are—‌at the moment—‌forbidden to cross the border into said country.”

Ian froze.

Thornton’s voice had a ring of the theatrical as he addressed his next words to Black. “You mean to say we are forbidden from investigating the origins of SV140?”

“So we are,” Black said. “Such an action would end a career.”

A familiar hollow feeling expanded in his chest. Despite their insistence that he could rejoin the Queen’s agents with a simple apology to the duke, they felt no qualms using his civilian status to their advantage. “Are you telling me,” Ian asked, irritated that they spoke around rather than to him, “that not a single thing is to be done?”

Silence was a loud answer.

Message received. Any actions he took to save his sister and stop Warrick would be unsanctioned and unsupported. He was on his own. But when had that ever stopped him?

Untethered, he was anything but adrift.

Time to go. He had a flight to catch.

Chapter Four

OLIVIA COULDN’T STOP SMILING. She’d finally won herself a mission‌—‌even if she didn’t know what it was yet. Not even the inescapable fact that Mother would be accompanying her as a chaperone was able to suppress the glee with which she threw herself into packing.

Time was short. The dirigible launched tomorrow at noon.

Chaos reigned. Her bed was strewn with gowns of all colors and fabrics. With combinations and corsets. Petticoats and stockings. Gloves and lace shawls. Scattered across the floor was an array of shoes. Her dressing table held a tangle of hairpins and ribbons, a profusion of perfumes and powders.

Steam Clara—‌her personal lady’s maid—‌whirled about, folding and wrapping and packing while Mother sat by the fire, reading aloud facts about Baron Volscini—‌in Italian—‌from a thick folder. No time like the present, Mother had announced, to begin adjusting to the language of her future husband.

“We must be mindful that word of our family scandal may have reached Italian ears,” Mother said, setting the folder aside at last. “You must be on your best behavior. Ever deferential. No arguing or contradicting a gentleman. You must not discuss Babbage cards. Do not mention your degree from the Rankine Institute. No young lady is supposed to know a thing about programming. Baron Volscini is looking for a wife, not a difference engine. A pretty face will draw him close, but an empty head will keep him there.”

“Yes, Mother. I know, Mother. I’ve been doing this for years, Mother.”

As if she could even claim her engineering degree. Olivia had earned it via a correspondence program. Under the name of Oliver Bird. No women need apply to the Rankine Institute. She wished she could trumpet her accomplishments to the haute ton, watch their faces contort in shock and horror, but in the field of espionage appearances were everything, and her particular role required a certain amount of wool between the ears.

Mother’s perpetual frown deepened. “This is not a game, Olivia.”

She sighed. “I’m well aware, Mother.”

In the midst of wrapping a purple, feathered bonnet, Steam Clara’s jointed limbs froze, making odd grinding sounds as she struggled to move. Steam of frustration seeped upward from beneath her collar.

Olivia grabbed a screwdriver from her dressing table and rushed to the steambot’s side, unbuttoning her uniform to expose the metal door in her chest. Opening it, she scanned the array of wires and gears before her. There. Nothing but a sticky valve. Easily fixed. The cipher cartridge, however, was cracked and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, there was no time to sneak away to visit the scrapyard before their flight departed. She would have to wait until they reached Rome.

“Must you bring that old heap with us?” Mother snapped. “It’s bad enough that your father insists upon retaining Burton. Let me purchase you a new steam lady’s maid. Please.”

“No thank you, Mother. I’ve made numerable and invaluable changes to her programming,” she lied, using an eye dropper to drip oil into the valve. Certainly she’d modified Steam Clara more times than she could count. But invaluable? No. Steam Clara’s presence merely comforted her; she was a mute friend to whom Olivia could speak freely. “I’ll spare you the details.”

A knock sounded on her door.

“Just a moment.”

Olivia set Steam Clara to rights, then opened the door to find Burton, their steam butler, holding a silver salver. A letter rested upon it. With unladylike haste, she ripped it open and read the contents. All five words.

Nineteen hundred. Clockwork Corridor. Caravan.

There was no signature, but she recognized Mr. Black’s spidery handwriting. She grinned widely. How exciting! Father’s top agent was to impart the details of her covert mission in a dark alley. Was it awful that she now wished for a dense, London pea-souper to complete the scene?

She glanced at the clock as she reached for a cloak. “I need to go.”

Mother’s back stiffened “Mr. Black?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll get my wrap.” She began to rise.

“No, Mother,” Olivia pleaded. She had to go alone. “Please? It’s just Clockwork Corridor. You can’t possibly think I need a chaperone in Mr. Black’s presence.”

Mother pursed her lips, always ready to ruin all the fun.

“It may take me some time,” Olivia spoke quickly. “There are a number of items I need to acquire from Nicu Sindel, and we can’t afford any friction between our families. Think of Emily.”

Mention of the gypsy made Mother’s lips curl with distaste. Not only did she thoroughly disapprove of Olivia’s mechanical inclinations, she blamed Nicu’s grandson for stealing away Emily, her youngest daughter. “Directly there and back,” she ordered.

Some two hours later, Olivia’s reticule bulged with a number of ‘necessary’ items. Unfortunately, though she’d rummaged in piles of antiquated ‘junk’, an additional cipher cartridge—‌model B257—‌could not be found. She had, however, managed to procure a backup power source for her pet zoetomatic hedgehog. Zapping Lord Rancide had all but drained his battery.

Nicu handed Watson back to her, shaking his head with a faint smile. “Clever,” the old gypsy said.

Olivia beamed. It was strong praise from her mentor.

“Yet I dislike the darkness your mind must conjure that such a thing seems necessary. Remember where danger led your sisters and take every precaution. It is not safe to work with Mr. Black.”

“How—‌?”

Nicu lifted his chin, and Olivia turned to find the man himself standing in the door of the caravan.

Mr. Black was dressed in a well-tailored, but plain, dark suit. Everything about him seemed dark. Dark hair, dark eyes, swarthy skin. Not quite a gentleman. In a crowd, he would fade into the background, but here, amidst his people, his presence commanded attention.

He muttered something.

Nicu snapped back a reply.

Though her Romani was a touch rusty, she caught the meaning. “Stop, you two.” She turned to face Nicu. “No one is making me do anything. I want this assignment.”

Nicu sighed, then his strong hands squeezed hers. “Be careful.”

“Aren’t I always?” she grumbled. Of late, such caution felt like a decided failing on her part. Weeks of hiding inside the family town home had her chafing for a touch of adventure.

She caught Mr. Black’s midnight gaze. This assignment would finally allow her to prove her mettle. She would make certain of it. “Shall we go, Mr. Black?”

With a silent nod, Mr. Black held out his arm and escorted her down the stairs into the gas lit streets of Clockwork Corridor—‌toward her waiting carriage.

Olivia huffed in disappointment. She’d hoped to prowl the cobblestones committing pertinent facts to memory while sliding in and out of shadows. A carriage was just so…‌ trite. Dragging her feet, she began, “Do you think we could—‌”

A man turned a corner and began walking in their direction.

With a hiss, Mr. Black yanked her into his arms, pulling her against his chest as he spun her around and pressed her back to the brick wall of a nearby building, folding them into a dark shadow. His hands slid up the sides of her face to press her forehead against his. She wrapped her arms about his waist. This was more what she’d had in mind.

“Don’t move.”

Her breath caught at the excitement. Her heart pounded. No, not at being embraced by this man. Mr. Black was a mentor of sorts. Ever since he’d been the one to oust her from her hiding spot in Father’s study.

At first Olivia had been resentful. She’d enjoyed listening to Father and his men discuss secrets she barely understood. Yet instead of banishing her from the room, Mr. Black had suggested that the daughter of a duke, one with such devious talents and tendencies, might have use. So had begun her work with the Queen’s agents. Only Father and Mother knew of her involvement. Her sisters and brother thought her a cotton-headed debutant bent on marrying a title and never thought to look closer. Nor had the rest of ton society.

“Who is he?” Olivia asked.

“Hush,” Mr. Black ordered. “Embrace your role and observe.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the man approach. A brown paper-wrapped package was tucked under his arm, and he carried a metal case. Was it her imagination, or did a kind of fog escape its seam?

After several endless minutes, when the man was long past, Mr. Black released her.

“Was that—‌”

“Yes. The gentleman at the center of your assignment.” Mr. Black all but shoved her upward and into her carriage. He climbed in behind her, took the seat opposite and yanked the curtains closed. “Ian Stanton, Lord Rathsburn. I don’t believe he recognized me. Or saw your face.”

She’d met the earl—‌once—‌at her sister’s wedding. One of the many mad scientists from Lister University who’d attended. Though she’d spent the better part of the last two months reprogramming the kitchen staff, eavesdropping was in her nature, and she’d managed to keep abreast of society rumors. Lord Rathsburn had featured in many.

Olivia sighed, resigned. “And he’s looking for a wife. What happened to Baron Volscini?”

“Lord Rathsburn is not your target.” Mr. Black stared at her intensely. “Lady Avesbury expressly forbids it.”

Forbid. She twisted her lips. Mother and her orders. Not that Olivia wanted a husband, particularly one so young and healthy. Rumor informed her that gentlemen wanted their wives at home and under their thumb. Tolerating that would be a trial, one she was only willing to endure for a brief period of time. She wished to be free to pursue her own interests, and the most expedient path toward that aim was widowhood. The sooner, the better.

“Use your…‌ womanly charms if you must,” Mr. Black instructed, “but only as a distraction to accomplish the mission. You are not to engage.”

A shivery thrill ran down her back. At last she would be trusted to accomplish something important. She was to play a role, however small, in protecting Britannia’s shores. A smug smile tugged at her lips. Whatever the task, she’d show Father that she was capable of independent fieldwork.

“Tell me,” she said.

Mr. Black reached inside his coat pocket and withdrew a small, black case.

Olivia pressed a hand to her chest. “Oh, sir, I couldn’t possibly,” she teased.

Rolling his eyes, he tossed the case onto her lap where it landed in a puff of silk. “You are not for me, nor I for you.”

“And why not?” She looked up at him from beneath her lashes. “I think we’d make a most effective team.” It would save her from waiting any number of years to embrace widowhood. She could do worse than Mr. Black. Over time, they might even develop a kind of mutual affection beyond friendship.

“To begin with, the duchess would have me castrated.”

Olivia gasped in mock horror. “Such words.”

“You’ve heard worse.” He waved at the box. “Open it.”

She did. A glass vial filled with a clear viscous fluid lay beside four flat metallic discs the size of a half-pence on a bed of blue velvet. She lifted one and flipped a small switch on its edge. A tiny light flickered on, glowing a steady green. She glanced up, eyebrows raised.

“Acousticotransmitters. Listening devices. Powered by the energy emitted by degrading internal crystals. They have a three-mile radius and enough power to run for up to two weeks apiece. Lord Rathsburn will be traveling on the same airship as you and the duchess, en route to Rome. Your task is to enter his cabin and hide the acousticotransmitters inside his luggage.”

“And the vial?”

“An adhesive. Designed to glue the acousticotransmitter in place and restore the lining of his valise.”

“What then?” In her mind, Olivia was dressed entirely in black, her golden hair tucked beneath a watchman’s cap as she slipped unseen down a dark hallway.

“Return to your rooms.”

“That’s all?” She frowned. “Aren’t you going to tell me what Lord Rathsburn is suspected of?”

“Irrelevant.” The tone of his voice told her there’d be no argument.

She snapped the case closed. “So I’m to conceal the devices and walk away.”

“Most spy work is not exciting.”

“No. Apparently it can also be insulting.” Olivia slumped back on the seat. “I thought I was to be trusted with an important task.”

“It is.” Mr. Black leaned forward and tapped the case. “It may not be the thrill you seek, but following Lord Rathsburn, listening to his conversations when he meets with foreigners, is critical. Lives depend upon what we will hear once he reaches his destination.” He moved past her, pausing with a hand on the door handle. “Don’t muck it up.”

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