Excerpt – Ferromancer

Chapter 1

Briar stood on the tiller deck of her boat, watching the banks of the canal slip past. They were making good time, even with a fully loaded boat, and barring any trouble getting through the last of the locks, they should be home in a few hours.

Lifting a hand to shield her eyes against the glare of the August sun, she squinted at the canal lock in the distance. Lock fifty was the first of the triple locks at Union Mills. The three closely spaced locks would lower them to the level of the Scioto River bottomland for the easy haul to Portsmouth, the southern terminus of the Ohio & Erie Canal.

Unlike the rest of her crew, Briar wasn’t all that thrilled about the homecoming. Normally, she could expect a few quiet days relaxing on her docked boat, but that wouldn’t be the case this time.

She rubbed a hand across her waistcoat pocket, feeling the folded telegram she had tucked inside. It had been waiting for her at the canal office in Waverly, and she had known before she opened it that it was from her cousin Andrew. Briar might be captain of the boat, but Andrew owned it. He was also her legal guardian and made a point of reminding her often—even if she was twenty-two. But Andrew was a problem for later.

She glanced back at Elijah her steersman. He leaned against the tiller, adjusting for the pull of the mules that walked the towpath two hundred feet ahead of them. On the levels between locks, steering could be a bit dull, but it was necessary. Without someone at the tiller, the boat would follow the mules that pulled it and collide with the bank.

“How’s it look?” She waved a hand at the lock ahead of them. Eli’s eyesight was better than hers. “Are the gates open?”

Like her, he lifted a hand to shield his eyes and studied the lock in the distance. “Looks like we get to double up,” he answered. A boat must have recently exited the lock on their side, which meant the lock could accommodate two boats without draining or refilling. It also meant they wouldn’t have to wait.

“Good news.” She stepped up onto the deck formed by the roof of the aft cabin. “We’re doubling up,” she called to Jimmy, her bowsman.

He waved a hand and started across the catwalk that stretched along the center of the boat, connecting the roofs of three cabins and enabling the crew to traverse the boat quickly, especially when the two open cargo holds between the cabins were full.

A few minutes later, they were nearly to the lock. Briar eyed the passing shore and judging their speed adequate, shouted, “Headway!”

Zach, one of her drivers, unhooked the towline from the deadeye, the bolt atop the bow cabin, while his brother Benji moved the mule team to the side of the towpath.

Now it was up to Eli. The boat was only six inches narrower than the fifteen-foot-wide lock. Smashing the wooden vessel into the stone walls would be good for neither.

Briar folded her hands behind her back, not overly concerned. Her crew was good.

Their speed was more than enough to carry them forward into the lock. Eli steered the boat into the narrow confines with only the lightest of brushes of the rub rail against the lock wall.

Jimmy leapt from the boat and deftly looped the bow line around the snubbing post. The boat came to a smooth stop just inches from the miter gates on the other end of the lock. Perfect.

Briar returned to the tiller deck and took a seat on the rail beside Eli. “Does life get any better than this?” She grinned up at him.

“Perhaps, but as this is the only life I’ve known, I can’t say.”

Briar nodded in agreement. Having been raised on the canal, she was no judge for any other way of life. But that was fine with her. This was the life she wanted.

Jimmy and Zach left the boat to operate the paddle gear, which would open the wooden panel in the lower part of the gate and allow the water to drain from the lock chamber. The townsfolk who traveled the canals on passenger packets often complained about the delay the locks caused. Didn’t they understand that the locks were what held the water in the canal? Without the locks capping each elevation level, the water would drain to the lowest level, leaving this artificial ditch empty and useless.

Eli cleared his throat drawing her attention back to him. “Sometimes, I do wonder what life might be like if the deck beneath my feet wasn’t always moving.”

“Dull.”

“You’ve never considered—”

“Never. I’ll be a boatman until I can no longer walk the deck.”

Eli chuckled before growing serious once more. “Things change as you get older.”

“Not for me.” She squinted against the bright sunlight, gazing at the town in the distance. No, she wanted no part of that.

Locking down through the last of the triple locks, they started across a wide stretch of bottomland carved by both the Scioto and Ohio Rivers here where the two met. With their destination in sight, Jimmy broke into song—much to the rest of the crew’s dismay.

Zach winced and moved away. Mute, Zach couldn’t voice a complaint, so he beat a hasty retreat to the stable cabin in the center of the boat. Tending the spare mule team would certainly be a welcome respite.

“Someone really oughta tell Jimmy he can’t sing,” Eli muttered.

“I think he’s been told,” Briar answered, flinching as Jimmy missed a high note. “He just gets happy and forgets.”

Eli shook his head, but like her, he was smiling. Lifting his eyes to the horizon, he pointed ahead of them. “Boat coming up.”

Briar followed his gesture and saw that he was right. Another canal boat was moving toward them, heading in the opposite direction.

“They’re running light,” Eli added.

Benji was already looking back at her from the towpath, and she waved him on. Their loaded boat had the right of way. With only one towpath along the length of the canal, there were well-established rules of right of way. Loaded boats had right of way over empty boats, and if both boats were equal in terms of cargo, then the boat heading upstream was in the right.

“They’re not pulling over,” Eli said a moment later.

Briar was already observing the same thing. “Certainly they can see that we’re loaded.” They were hauling timber, the wood stacked several inches above the rooflines of the cabins.

“Lower your towline,” a voice shouted from the other boat. “We have the right of it.”

Briar exchanged a frown with Eli, then cupped her hands around her mouth. “We’re fully loaded,” she shouted back. “Let us pass.”

“We’re headed upstream,” came the answer.

“Looks like things are about to get interesting.” Briar exchanged a smile with Eli. “See what you’d miss if you became a townie?” She waved to Benji to stop the mules.

Eli chuckled and steered the boat toward the towpath, allowing it to gently bump the soft earthen bank to slow them to a gradual stop.

She watched the other boat do the same, though their steersman wasn’t as adept and bumped the shore with considerably more force. An older man moved to the bow of the boat.

“No wonder,” Briar grumbled, recognizing the man. “It’s Dale Darby.”

Eli grunted in understanding.

Briar crossed the catwalk to the bow of her boat and stopped beside Jimmy. With only a few feet now separating the two boats, she could easily converse with the other captain.

“What are you about?” she demanded, now close enough to be heard. “You can see we’re running full.”

“We’re headed upstream.” He glared at her, the wrinkles on his weathered face deepening. “Every one knows the upstream boat has right of way.”

“Loaded boats take precedence. Are you getting senile, Captain?”

His face turned red, and he turned to the lanky man beside him. “Put the mouthy wench in her place.”

“Here we go,” Jimmy said, laughing as he left her. He thumped on the roof of the stable as he passed, calling for Zach. Eli had already leapt to shore.

Briar chewed the inside of her cheek in a futile effort to maintain a disapproving frown as the decks of both boats cleared. In a matter of seconds, the canal towpath became the scene of a fistfight to rival any the Guard Lock Tavern could boast. The mule team from each boat watched with indifference, waiting for the question of right of way to be settled.

Briar had no doubt who the victor would be, especially when Eli sent the other boat’s champion flying into the canal with a single punch. Eli was an accomplished brawler. It didn’t hurt that he was over six and half feet tall and built like an ox.

A smile escaped her lips with the accompanying splash, and she noticed Captain Darby staring at her with a disapproving scowl from the deck of his boat. He had to be over sixty—which was probably why he avoided the fisticuffs with her considerably younger crew.

Darby’s daughter-in-law stood behind him, wringing her hands in her apron. She wouldn’t be joining the fray. Without a woman in the fight, Briar was relegated to watching as well. A shame.

The contest on the bank was already tapering off. No surprise. Every member of her crew could hold his own, though Eli’s large stature tended to deter prolonged engagements. Frequently, he prevented fights altogether.

“Lower your towline, Captain,” she called to Darby. “We have the right of way.”

A gesture, and Darby’s driver, his nose bleeding and lip already swelling, urged their mules into motion, back the way they had come. With the boat moving, Darby’s steersman was able to maneuver the boat to the heel path on the other side of the canal. His bowsman hurried to unhook their towline and let it sink to the bottom of the canal so Briar’s boat could pass over it.

Her own crew returned to their duties, and soon, they were underway. Briar joined Eli on the tiller deck as their boat drew even with Darby’s.

“Ain’t fittin’,” Darby declared, making no effort to keep his voice low.

“What’s that, Captain?” Briar called to him.

His disapproving stare remained on her, and his gaze swept over her trousers. “Back in my day, the sideshows stuck to the show boats.”

“Back in your day, you were sweeping out the stables,” she told him, knowing her age bothered him far more than her gender. He hadn’t become captain of his own boat until he was almost forty. She had been captain since she was twenty.

“Upstart wench.”

“Watch your mouth, old man,” Eli called to him.

“That’ll do.” She laid a hand on his thick forearm. “I’ll kick his ass myself, if I’m so inclined.” She turned away from Darby. “Hop to it, boys. Home awaits.”

A small cheer went up, and they picked up speed, leaving a grumbling Darby behind.

“You should have let Eli pound him,” Jimmy said, stopping beside her.

“And how would that look? Me, letting Eli beat up that old fool.”

Jimmy grinned, the split in his lip gaping open. “I could of done it.”

“That wouldn’t be much better. Now go tend that lip. If I bring you home looking like that, Mildred is going to pound me.”

Jimmy grinned again at the mention of his new wife. They had set up housekeeping this past winter, and he could hardly sit still the closer they got to home.

Briar grinned up at Eli. “No, nothing beats this life.”

He chuckled at her exuberance. “It’s certainly not dull.”

The sun was well past its zenith when they tied up at the dock in Portsmouth, but there were still plenty of men available to unload the boat and transfer the timber to her cousin’s warehouse. At least she wouldn’t have to listen to him complain about that.

“Captain?” Eli met her beside the gangplank, a rucksack of dirty laundry over one shoulder. He spent his nights at home with his sister and her family. “You’re going home?”

“Unfortunately.” She pulled the telegram from her pocket and waved it.

“Did Andrew say why he wanted you home?”

“He’s got some kind of business situation to discuss. Why he feels the need to host a dinner party for such a matter is beyond me.”

“No offense, Captain, but your cousin likes to put on airs.”

“Don’t I know it.” She tugged her waistcoat straight.

“Shall I walk you to his door?” Eli offered.

“I can manage. Besides, it’s a little early. I thought I’d walk by the train yard and see these new locomotives everyone has been going on about.”

“What are you up to Miss Briar?” Eli often dropped the captain when the crew wasn’t around—or when he was attempting to temper some impulse of hers.

“I just want to see what’s so great about them.”

“Vandalizing a single locomotive is not going to stop the railroad from poaching our business.”

“I’m not vandalizing anything. Where would you get such an idea?”

“Hmm.” Eli pursed his lips. “There was that time old man Sweeney’s boat sprung six different leaks—”

“His steersman bottomed out on a sandbar outside of Rushtown.”

“Or when the Anderson Mill tried to cheat us, and their water wheel came loose from the side of the building.”

“A pin worked itself loose, though it sounded to me like they got what they deserved.”

Eli was trying not to smile. “How about the hornet’s nest in Noah Cooper’s outhouse? Or the rat that found its way into Eunice Walker’s stew pot?”

“I have no control over nature.”

“Uh-huh,” Eli said. “I’m fairly certain that Herbert Johnson’s fall into that empty lock wasn’t an accident.”

“Of course it wasn’t. You punched him—after he tried to kiss me.”

“Oh. Right.” Eli shrugged his wide shoulders. “You were still involved.”

She rolled her eyes. It would probably surprise him if he knew that was the closest she’d ever come to being kissed. Or maybe it wouldn’t surprise him. Eli knew her well.

“I’m not going to vandalize a locomotive,” she told him. “As you said, that would be pointless. Besides, I don’t know enough about them to damage one properly.”

Eli sighed.

“Now please, go see your sister,” Briar said. “She’ll need to get started on those clothes if she’s to have them by tomorrow.”

“Very well. I guess me and the boys can get you out of jail before we depart.”

“Since when do I get caught?”

He gave her a knowing look.

“By someone other than you.”

He grunted. “Good point.”

She waved him on, and he finally walked away, smiling.

Eli. He was her oldest and best friend. He’d been keeping her out of scrapes since she was a kid. It was a role he fell back into very easily, but she was an adult now. She didn’t need a guardian.

Briar stuffed her hand into her pocket to make certain her penknife was still there. Eli was right; it would be futile to vandalize a single locomotive. That didn’t mean she had to pass up the opportunity.

The train yards were a busy place, and by the look of things, still expanding. A new warehouse was under construction, and a large stack of cross ties and rails suggested more track was soon to be laid.

Sighing, Briar stuffed her hands deeper into her pockets and gripped the knife for comfort. For years, she’d heard grumblings from her fellow boatmen that the railroad was eating away more and more of their business.

At first, she had shrugged it off. She never had trouble finding work. There seemed to be plenty to go around. But in recent years, the railroad had been expanding at an alarming pace, and she was beginning to notice that some of the more lucrative jobs were drying up. Transporting cargo by train was faster and often cheaper, but that wasn’t anything new. What was new was the Martel locomotive. Supposedly, it didn’t run on steam.

Briar had only a rudimentary understanding of how a steam engine worked. She couldn’t even fathom how something could operate without one. Well, that wasn’t true. There was a way, but she wasn’t about to attribute the railroad’s success to magic.

Not certain if she’d even recognize this new engine if she saw it, she wove her way through the train yard, eyeing the locomotives she found. Evening was approaching, and the activity seemed to be winding down.

Only one train looked ready to go. The boxcars were closed up, and the iron behemoth at the front of the line belched black smoke into the sky. Soot coated most of the locomotive and streaked several of the closest boxcars. Even the nearby warehouses had a light coating of the stuff. Why would anyone choose this over the clean travel along the canal?

Maybe that wasn’t completely accurate. The canal itself might not be pristine, but her boat was spotless. She and her crew scrubbed it down each day.

Leaving the locomotive and its busy workmen behind, Briar made her way across the last section of tracks. The sun was dipping toward the horizon. She’d need to hurry so she wouldn’t be late, but the lure of a set of tracks that entered a small warehouse drew her attention. Large doors on rollers stood open, and she could see the gleam of what might be a locomotive inside.

The building looked approachable—there were no guards or signs to order her away—so she walked inside. Evening light shone through the open doors, illuminating the front of what was indeed a locomotive. But this one was different. The streamlined exterior looked nothing like the awkward box-shaped monstrosities she had seen outside. There was something strangely attractive about this engine’s smooth lines and sleek appearance. She didn’t need to note the lack of a smokestack, or read the word Martel along the engine’s flank to know she had found what she sought.

She gripped the knife, but couldn’t bring herself to remove it from her pocket. It was clear to her creative heart that this engine was more than just function. It was art.

“Fool,” she told herself. It was a railroad locomotive. This was the enemy.

The sound of voices drew her attention before she could force herself to deface the locomotive in some way. A trio of men was walking toward her building. By their overalls, they appeared to work here.

“…supposed to be locked,” a man was saying to his companions.

“I didn’t leave it open,” another said.

“What’s the big secret?” the third man asked.

“You haven’t seen Martel’s new engine?” The first man glanced back over his shoulder. A quick look around, and he led the other two toward the building.

Briar stepped back behind some crates, not wanting to be caught snooping in a building that was supposed to be locked.

The three men entered the building, the two newcomers voicing their surprise and awe.

“It actually works?” one man asked.

“I hear it runs on that new electricity all the papers have been going on about. It’s supposed to work better than steam.”

“But it’s so delicate and…pretty.”

The other men laughed at the description, though Briar found it accurate.

Taking advantage of their distraction, she crept back the way she had come, staying behind the crates. When she ran out of boxes, she crouched behind the last and peered out. The men had moved a little deeper into the building.

She took a deep breath, then sprinted the last ten feet to the open door.

Expecting a shout at any moment, she rounded the door, and keeping close to the wall, slipped around the corner. The building was at the end of the line and apparently meant to be an enclosed space to work on, or perhaps store trains. The back of the structure was bordered by a narrow road with the city streets just beyond.

Crossing the road, Briar ducked into the nearest alley. No shout had come. Stopping, she bent over to grip her knees and regain her composure.

The sound of voices carried to her down the narrow alley. She was no longer concerned about being caught where she shouldn’t be, but this wasn’t the best part of town. It would be better to cut back across the train yard.

“You don’t have the power to kill me,” one voice said, making no attempt to speak softly.

Briar was turning away, but hesitated. The speaker didn’t sound all that concerned if his life was indeed threatened.

“He’s coming for you, you know?” the same man said, his tone smug. “I’ve already told him you’re here. Killing me won’t change th—”

Whatever he was about to say cut out in a gurgle.

Briar froze where she stood.

Suddenly, a bright silver-white flash of light lit up the alley that intersected hers.

What the hell? It was far too bright to be the strike of a match or the unshuttering of a lantern. For that matter, it wasn’t dark enough for the light to show up that well.

She bounced on the balls of her feet for a couple of heartbeats. Eli liked to remind her that curiosity killed the cat. She liked to point out that a cat had nine lives. Hopefully, she wasn’t about to risk one, but she had to see what had made that light.

Walking on her toes, she approached the corner where the two alleys met. Her heart beat quicker, but it wasn’t in fear. This was like stepping up to the edge of a great height and looking over. Or going toe to toe with a foe twice her size. Eli would have a fit, but the truth was, she lived for moments like this.

Muscles tense, she crouched a little and peeked around the corner.

Whatever had made the light was gone now. A man in a long black cloak had his back to her, squatting beside something on the ground. He shifted a little, and she saw that the something was another man.

The cloaked man leaned back, lifting an object in his hands. Was he robbing the fallen man? The item he had taken glinted silver in the evening light.

He rose to his feet, his back still to Briar’s position. She couldn’t see what he did, but she suspected he might be tucking away what he had stolen. A golden nimbus suddenly shone before him. Was he lighting a pipe?

In the golden glow, Briar had a better view of the man on the ground. His coat and shirt had been pulled open, but where there should be a chest was a gaping hole—as if his heart had been cut out.

 

Chapter 2

Briar jerked back around the corner, pressing her back to the wall and a hand to her mouth. She’d once seen a man killed in a tavern fight, but this was different. What kind of man cut open another after he had killed him? She didn’t want to stick around to find out.

Turning, she ran back the way she had come, careful to keep her step light and soundless. She skirted the train yard, running behind a series of warehouses until she reached the houses beyond.

Slowing to a jog, she rounded a corner and collided with someone. Hands seized her shoulders to keep her upright. Imagining that the cloaked man had found her, Briar prepared a scream, then looked up into Eli’s frowning face.

“Miss Briar?”

She gripped his arm and after a quick glance over her shoulder, pulled him along with her. “I just saw a man murdered.”

“What?” Eli looked back the way she had come. “Were you seen?”

“I don’t think so, but I didn’t stick around to find out.”

“What happened?” Eli asked as they walked, his long stride keeping up with her rapid pace.

“I found the Martel locomotive, but I didn’t get a chance to get a look up close because some railroad workers showed up.”

“You mean, you didn’t get a chance to vandalize it.”

“Honestly, I don’t know if I could. You should have seen it. I swear it was more art than locomotive.”

Eli looked over, his brow raised in amusement. He had never understood her artsy leanings, but he humored her. His expression quickly sobered. “And the murder?”

“I took an alley to avoid being seen and came upon two men, just after the deed was done. I got a good look at the body. It had been cut open.”

“It was a knife fight?” Eli asked. “A deep gut shot would lay open a man.”

“I didn’t witness the killing blow.”

“Let me guess. You heard the commotion and snuck closer for a better look.”

She decided not to tell him about the light. “I thought it was just an argument.”

Eli fell silent, and when she glanced up, she could see the hardening of his jaw. He wasn’t happy with her.

“I don’t need a lecture,” she said, hoping to cut him off before he got started. “What are you doing here, anyway?” She tried to turn the focus on him. “You came looking for me, didn’t you?”

“You’re a magnet for trouble, Miss Briar.”

“Admit it. Your life would be boring without me.”

“True.” A smile broke through his stony expression, but he quickly sobered. “Shouldn’t we report this murder?”

Briar frowned. “I didn’t actually witness it. I heard voices, and saw a body and a man in a cloak. That wouldn’t be much help.” It certainly wouldn’t be worth the trouble Andrew would give her for drawing such unsavory attention to the family.

“The murderer is still at large,” Eli pointed out.

“Those men knew each other. It was an argument gone wrong. I doubt the cloaked guy is out seeking another victim.”

“Unless he saw you.”

Briar sighed. “He didn’t. Stop worrying about it.” She might as well be talking to Big Red, the most stubborn mule on her boat; telling Eli not to worry was wasted breath. He excelled at seeing mountains where there were only molehills.

They walked in silence, moving away from the banks of the Ohio River, climbing the town’s rolling hills. The streets were now cobblestone, and the houses larger. They turned down Andrew’s street, and Briar could see the oil lamps glowing to either side of his front door, as well as every window in the house.

A carriage had stopped before the house, and Briar watched a well-dressed man and woman exit the carriage and start up the walk toward the house. This was going to be a miserable evening.

“I guess I’d better use the back door,” Briar muttered. Andrew would have a fit if she showed up in her everyday clothes, even though this pair of pants bore no holes.

“I reckon so,” Eli agreed and started down the alley between Andrew’s house and the one next door.

The stable yard behind the house was a busy place. Briar stepped up on the back stoop, eyeing the commotion. What she wouldn’t give for a quiet evening on her boat. A smooth glass of whiskey and her fiddle would have been all the company she needed.

“I’ll wait for you here,” Eli said, taking a seat on the stone steps.

“This has the look of a long wait.”

“You were almost murdered this evening.”

“I was not. No one even saw me.”

“Are you certain?”

She wasn’t, but she didn’t want to admit it. “Fine. Suit yourself.” She pushed open the door and stepped into the back hall. Eli’s sigh followed her inside, making her want to sigh in exasperation. She was already over her brush with death, why wasn’t he?

Shaking her head, she toed off her boots and went in search of Molly. Unfortunately, the toe of one sock had a hole large enough to show one big toe, but there was nothing to be done for that now.

She found Molly in the kitchen, deep in conversation with her housekeeper. But the conversation came to an abrupt end the moment Molly saw her.

“Bridget! Where have you been?” Molly grasped her arm and immediately steered her into the hall. “Mr. Rose has been beside himself with worry.”

Briar’s annoyance at Molly’s use of her given name was momentarily overridden by her amusement at the woman’s insistence on calling her husband by his sire name. But then, Molly had a very different upbringing from Briar’s. The vexation on her face made their differences clear.

“You haven’t bathed or—”

“I bathed this morning,” Briar said.

“There’s a smear of mud on your cheek.”

“It’ll wipe off.” Briar rubbed her cheek.

“This is a disaster,” Molly moaned the words, her smooth forehead wrinkling with dismay. “Dinner will be served in half an hour and you’re not dressed.” Judging by Molly’s elegant gown and how elaborately her light brown hair was styled, Briar knew this would be more than just a matter of changing clothes.

Molly pulled her to the back stairs. “Come on. Time slips past while you argue.”

“I can change in minutes.”

“This is a very important evening for Mr. Rose,” Molly said over her shoulder as she guided Briar up the stairs. “His prospective business partner arrived last night, and will join us shortly.”

“What exactly is this new business?”

Molly opened the door to Briar’s room. “If you had gotten here sooner, Mr. Rose could have explained it to you. I have no head for such things.” She walked to the closet and dug through the sparse collection of dresses hanging inside. Briar tried to spend as little time as possible here. Unfortunately, the canal froze in the winter, forcing her to spend several long months beneath Andrew’s roof.

“You must have some idea,” Briar said, following her.

“It’s a manufacturing job, I understand.” Molly selected a gown and turned to face her. “This one, I think.” She laid the emerald green gown on the bed. “It goes well with your eyes.”

Briar ignored that, her attention on the travel trunk pushed against the far wall. She stepped closer, eyeing the odd silver lock hanging from the hasp. “What’s this?” She prayed it wasn’t more dresses.

“Oh dear. I forgot to have that sent downstairs. Mr. Martel got in late last night, and Mr. Rose had him installed in this room. He’s supposed to take a room downtown tonight.”

“Mr. Martel?” Briar asked. No, it couldn’t be. “Mr. Martel, the railroad engineer?”

“Yes.” Molly’s face brightened. “You know him?”

“He’s the designer of the new smokeless locomotives.”

“Locomotives, that’s right.” Molly smiled. “That’s what Mr. Rose wants to build.”

Briar stared at her cousin’s wife. Didn’t she understand that the railroads could put the canal industry out of business? Especially with these new engines?

“Well, come on.” Molly waved a hand at her. “Disrobe.”

“I can dress myself.”

“Last time I left you to dress for dinner, you climbed out the window.”

“Molly.”

She crossed her arms. “I’m not leaving until you change. Mr. Rose gave me explicit instructions.”

Briar was half tempted to tell her what Andrew could do with his instructions, but stopped herself. Molly was all about proper etiquette and being a good wife. She truly got upset when she failed to live up to those expectations. Molly drove Briar a bit crazy, but the truth was, she genuinely liked the woman. Molly was a good person. How she ended up with Andrew was the part Briar would never understand.

“Please don’t make me disappoint him.” Molly’s brow wrinkled.

“Fine.” Briar tried to ignore Molly’s grateful smile as she crossed to the bed, unbuttoning her waistcoat. It would have been so much easier if Andrew had married an ass like himself.

“Will that do, miss?” the maid asked, giving Briar a nervous glance in the mirror. After seeing Briar into her gown, Molly had left her with the maid, instructing them both to hurry.

“Yes, yes, that’s fine.” Briar waved away her concern before she could start back in with her brushes and ribbons. Briar’s red hair was now piled atop her head in some intricate fashion with long tendrils left to curl around her face. Briar would be surprised if she lasted the entire dinner before she was pulling it down.

“Will you be needing anything else?” the maid asked, still looking a bit nervous. She must have also fallen prey to Andrew’s instructions to make Briar presentable. Poor girl.

“You may go,” Briar told her. “I’ll be right down.”

The girl dropped her an awkward curtsy and hurried from the room, probably to report to Molly that she had finished.

Wasting no time, Briar closed the door behind her. She wanted to nose around inside the travel trunk, but the lock looked daunting. Selecting a couple of hairpins from the vanity table she had just left, she squatted beside the trunk and eyed the lock. This wasn’t going to be easy.

It took a few minutes to bend the hairpins, but she soon formed one into a serviceable pick and the other into a makeshift tension wrench. She slid one hand beneath the lock, surprised by its weight and odd warmth. She had been expecting a heavy iron lock, but this seemed to be made of something different.

Sliding the pick into the narrow hole in the lock’s face, she felt for the tumblers, just to get an idea of what she was up against. Jimmy had taught her to pick locks last fall when an early freeze had stranded them for almost a week just south of Columbus. She hadn’t questioned him on how he had acquired such a skill, and he hadn’t asked her why she wanted to learn it.

Now, that skill was going to come in handy. Maybe.

The pin tapped against something in the bowels of the lock. The lock Jimmy had taught her on hadn’t felt like this. She pushed a little harder. Were the inner workings laid out differently? What if—

The pick slipped free without warning and bit into the heel of her hand.

“Damn it,” she whispered. Blood welled from the minor wound, and she brought it to her mouth, hoping to lick it away before it got on her dress. Molly would have a fit.

She took her hand from her mouth a moment later and was relieved to find the bleeding nearly stopped. A smear of blood marred the pick, and she started to wipe it on her dress, but stopped herself. Life was so much easier on her boat.

She returned her makeshift pick to the lock for another inspection before she inserted the tension wrench. The pick had barely slipped within the hole when the lock suddenly…dissolved.

Briar released the lock with a gasp.

“What the hell,” she whispered, watching the lock morph before her eyes. Four legs emerged from the sphere, followed by a head on a long, slender neck. An equally slim tail appeared, and of all the crazy things, a set of silver wings. The body grew more streamlined, formed from overlapping metal plates that fit together with astonishing intricacy.

Briar pulled away so quickly, she landed on her backside.

The creature hanging from the hasp raised its head, regarding her with curiosity. It blinked a set of gunmetal-blue eyes that looked like gems. No, not a creature. A dragon. A little metal dragon. The workmanship would have been a marvel, but the fact that it was moving spoke of something more.

“Dear Lord,” Briar whispered. “An automaton.” Such creations were the work of a metal mage. A ferromancer. And it was whispered that these mechanical wonders got their animation from a trapped soul.

But how had it come to be here? All the ferromancers and their automatons had been destroyed twenty years ago. Europe’s systematic destruction of not only the metal mages, but also their technology, at the hands of the Scourge—an equally suspect organization, had been the stuff of horror stories since she was a child.

The metal dragon dropped to the floor and took a step toward her, its tiny nails clicking against the hardwood.

Briar tensed, not sure what to expect. It was only slightly bigger than her hand, and it moved with such caution that it seemed more fearful of her than she was of it.

It took another step, then leaned toward her, seeming to sniff at her knee.

Slowly, she held out her hand, offering the creature her palm, much the way she would greet a new dog.

The little dragon pulled back, regarding her hand with suspicion before it leaned forward once more, as if sniffing her hand. Its cool nose bumped against her fingers, and she smiled.

“Aren’t you cute?” She carefully lifted a finger and rubbed it beneath the chin.

A soft whirring noise came from the creature, the sound not unlike a purr.

“You like that?” she asked.

It rubbed the side of its head against her finger, then climbed over her knee and into her lap. It sought out her other hand and nudged her until she petted it once more.

Briar laughed. “You must have been made from a gentle soul.”

The little dragon made another whirring noise, then abruptly leapt to her shoulder.

Briar gasped at the suddenness of the move, but the creature slid around behind her neck to her other shoulder where it dropped to its belly. Its scales were surprisingly warm against the side of her throat.

“Don’t mess my hair,” she admonished, “or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

The creature gave her a whirr of agreement, and she wondered how much it understood. If it had truly been made from a human soul, it might understand her very well. Goosebumps rose on her arms at the notion. To distract herself, she returned to her knees and opened the trunk.

“Let’s see what your master has in here,” she said to the dragon.

It didn’t seem to have a problem with that, so she pushed back the lid.

The trunk did contain clothing—well-made men’s apparel from what she could see—but that wasn’t all. There were also several books and half a dozen large scrolls of paper. Curious, Briar lifted out the scroll on top and began to unroll it. She soon found herself staring at a mechanical drawing of some sort. The schematic had been drawn by someone who wielded a pen with great skill. There were no marked out lines or retraces. The ink was unsmudged, and each line flowed without waver. The composer had known exactly what he was doing.

Various components and dimensions were labeled in the same elegant hand, but Briar couldn’t make sense of most of it. She unrolled the scroll a little more to read the caption. Life Circuit. What exactly did that mean?

The little dragon shifted against her neck, perhaps sensing her unease.

Briar’s attention dropped back to the drawing. It was a box-like structure, labeled with nothing more sinister than input and output, and a tangle of lines in the center. The lines were broken up with odd symbols she didn’t recognize. A few more moments’ study offered no more insight, so she rolled the scroll and reached for another.

She didn’t need to read the title of this drawing to understand what it was. The intricately drawn schematic was clearly a railroad locomotive. The title, written in the same elegant hand as the other drawing, declared it The Martel Automatic Locomotive.

“Automatic?” Briar whispered. As in, it did things on its own? Like an automaton?

She studied the schematic closer. Like the other, this drawing was densely labeled with dimensions and terminology she didn’t recognize. She saw no mention of anything to do with electric power—as the railroad worker had suggested—but unless it was spelled out, she doubted she would recognize it.

She was about to roll up the scroll when she found something truly disturbing. Near the conductor’s compartment was a smallish box labeled Soul Chamber.

“My Lord.” Briar stared at the schematic. Mr. Martel was a ferromancer.

<<<>>>

Ferromancer will initially release in the multi-author bundle, Dominion Rising, on August 8, 2017.

Available at: Apple | Barnes & Noble | Kobo | Amazon