Excerpt – Heart of Iron

Chapter 1

Briar eyed the transom of her boat, unable to shake the unease that plagued her each time she viewed the disguise they’d been using for several days. The vibrant red roses and intertwining vines along with the curling letters that spelled out Briar Rose were no longer visible. In its place, sterile block letters formed the name Beaumont on the simple white background.

“It still looks good,” she told Jimmy and Eli. They stood on the towpath, a short distance behind the boat. They would be entering Cleveland soon. With its busy docks and greater population, the boat would be under a lot more scrutiny.

“You don’t sound so certain,” Eli said.

“I’m just concerned that, perhaps, we should have painted the boat,” Briar admitted.

The new name had been drawn on bleached canvas and neatly stretched across the stern of the boat.

“I don’t think you need to worry about discovery,” Jimmy said. “A man would about have to touch it before he noticed that it was covered in canvas.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Briar relented.

Eli glanced toward the bow of the boat where Zach and Benji were hitching the mules. “Do you fear the name is cursed?” he whispered.

“No. The fire was just an accident.” The real Beaumont had been destroyed by fire over five years ago. Zach and Benji’s parents and siblings had died in the blaze.

“But I do hate to remind Zach and Benji of the tragedy.”

“It was Zach’s idea,” Jimmy reminded her. “We’re fortunate their family boat is still listed on the logbooks.”

“True.” Every boat on the Ohio and Erie Canal was listed in the logbook at each toll office along the waterway. They couldn’t have chosen a random name to hide the Briar Rose’s identity.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if her cousin Andrew hadn’t issued a reward for the capture of her boat. Then too, they wouldn’t be in this mess if she hadn’t stolen the boat in the first place. But the past was past; she couldn’t change it. She just had to deal with the aftermath of her rash actions—and it wasn’t just the boat that concerned her.

“Let’s go aboard and get ready to cast off. We’ll be in Cleveland in an hour.” Then she could start righting the wrong she’d done to Grayson.

“How long do you reckon we’ll be docked there?” Jimmy asked as they walked toward the gangplank. His tone was casual, but she knew he had to be anxious about completing this errand so he could return home to his new wife.

“I can’t say,” she admitted. “I don’t know how much learning I have to do, but I promise I’ll do my best to pick it up quickly.”

“You reckon learning magic will be easy?” Jimmy asked.

“I have no idea.” She caught Eli’s frown in profile, but he didn’t comment as he walked along beside them. She knew that he didn’t want her learning to be Grayson’s keeper. He’d be happy if they dumped Grayson on the dock in Cleveland then headed home. But Eli remained silent on the topic—as he had for the past two days. He’d said nothing since she’d admitted that she might be developing feelings for Grayson.

They crossed the gangplank and found the man in question seated at the folding table where they’d recently taken breakfast. Perseus and Kali sat with him.

Briar still wasn’t certain what to make of the Scourge couple. They had agreed to continue with them to Cleveland even though the ferromancer they had been hunting was no more. She suspected they stuck around to make certain Grayson was properly leashed before they went on their way.

“We’re about ready to go,” she told the threesome, stopping beside the table. She couldn’t help but notice that they had fallen silent when she stepped aboard.

“So we’re ready to sail under a false banner into the city?” Kali asked, a smirk in place of her typical frown.

“We don’t have sails, but yes, we’re ready.”

Grayson rose to his feet. “Guess I’d better finish my packing.”

“We’ve still got a good hour, maybe longer,” she said.

He shrugged. “I’d rather be prepared.” Without further comment, he walked to the open door of the aft cabin and disappeared inside. Like Eli, Grayson had been rather subdued these past few days, and he grew quieter the closer they came to their destination. She had tried to get him to share his concerns about reuniting with Esme, but he just brushed her off with vague comments about how it’d been a while since he’d seen her last.

“I think someone is getting cold feet,” Kali said, eyeing the doorway Grayson had stepped through before she turned her dark gaze on Briar. “If you weren’t in command of his construct, I’d suspect he was about to climb out the window.”

“This is what he wanted.” Well, he’d wanted to be taken to Esme. He hadn’t been as keen on Briar learning to be his keeper. He knew she was only doing this to find a way to help him. He’d even shown her that he harbored some hope that she could help, but that didn’t seem to eliminate his fear that she would fail.

She glanced at the open door and considered going to talk with him, but there was nothing to say that she hadn’t said before.

“I’m going to get the boat underway,” she told Perseus and Kali. She started to turn away, but hesitated when she met Perseus’s gaze. “Should I be concerned?” she whispered.

“About?”

“Meeting Esme. I’ve never met a fully trained ferra.” She figured Kali had told him about Briar being untrained. “Will she help me?”

“I can’t say, but Grayson says she’s a scientist. I would think your unique talents would pique her interest.”

“He suggested as much.” She wanted to ask more. After all, Perseus had lived with the ferra for—she didn’t know how long. He must know the ins and outs of their organization well. But she didn’t want to reveal how little she truly knew.

“Guess I’m not going to find out standing here.” Briar turned away and headed for the upper deck. Time to finally see if Esme held the answers she hoped she did.

The Briar Rose gently bumped the dock as her crew poled her into place behind the other boats along Cleveland’s Canal Street. Briar stood on the tiller deck beside Eli, eyeing the busy docks. “I know I’ve been here before, but I really don’t remember it. Do you?”

“Aye,” he answered, studying the city beyond the docks. “Spent a couple of years running coal on my cousin’s boat before Abigail married and moved back to Portsmouth.”

Eli had been raised by his sister, Abigail, after losing his parents at a young age, but Briar had assumed he’d always worked the canal in the Scioto River Valley.

“I never knew you boated up here,” she admitted.

“It was just a couple of years when I was little more than a boy.”

“Huh.” It was always strange to learn something new about an old friend. It made her wonder if a person ever truly knew another person—outside family, that is. Of course, she’d known her cousin Andrew since she was three, and his actions still shocked her.

The hatch to the aft cabin opened and Grayson climbed out. Now, here was a man she should know nothing about after only a two-week acquaintance, and yet when his slate-blue eyes met hers, she felt as if she could see into his very soul. It had to be the magic. Taking his construct had created some kind of bond between them. Sometimes, she wondered if that might be the source of her attraction.

“Looks like the dandy is back,” Eli muttered.

Briar watched Grayson straighten his coat as he left the ladder. He had done more than pack his trunk while spending the last hour in her cabin. He was dressed much as he had been when he first arrived on her boat. Like then, he wore a well-tailored coat and trousers over a crisp white shirt under a silk waistcoat. His gold watch chain glinted in the sun, competing with the gloss on his polished boots.

“I thought you were packing,” she said to him. “But it looks like you were primping.”

Amusement lit his eyes before he bowed. “You have found me out, my lady,” he said in that proper-sounding British accent of his.

“Over an hour of primping is a mighty long time,” Eli commented, his tone neutral.

“I did spend some time packing,” Grayson answered, his tone just as neutral. The pair had been stepping carefully around each other ever since they’d come to blows a couple of days ago. To look at them, no one would guess that Eli had been the loser. At over six and a half feet tall and a skilled brawler, Eli should have had no trouble defeating Grayson—unless a person knew that Grayson was a ferromancer. Technically, he wasn’t even human.

“Are you going to take your trunk with you now?” Briar asked Grayson.

“I’ll send for it later.”

“If Esme refuses to teach me?”

“That’s one reason, yes.”

She decided not to ask what the other reasons might be. “We’re going now?”

“No time like the present.”

“Afraid you’ll lose your nerve if you wait longer?” Eli asked.

A slight smile creased Grayson’s face, though he gave no other acknowledgment that he had heard. “Shall we?” he asked her.

“Are you taking someone with you, Captain?” Eli asked.

“I hadn’t planned on it.” She hurried on when she could see that he intended to argue. “I’m immune to her magic, whereas the rest of you aren’t. I’m not risking anyone. Besides, she’s just one woman.”

“Who is about your size,” Grayson added, “and to my knowledge, has never engaged in fisticuffs.”

“There you go.” Briar waved a hand at Grayson to emphasize his comment. “If all else fails, I’ll punch her.”

“Miss Briar,” Eli complained.

“Relax. I’m not really going to punch her.” Briar winked. “It’ll be fine. Now stop your fussing and get the boat secured. Send Zach to pay the toll—just in case there’s trouble.”

Since Grayson had healed Zach’s damaged voice box, Zach had acquired a new ability. He could make people believe what he said. It had proved handy since they had been eluding the law.

She gave Eli a reassuring smile—though he looked anything but—and led Grayson away.

Briar eyed the storefront, noting both the tasteful window displays and the foot traffic going in and out of the shop.

“She runs an apothecary?” Briar asked, reading the artfully lettered sign over the door.

“More like owns it, rather than runs it,” Grayson answered, watching the shop from where they’d stopped across the street. “Esme would never leave her lab long enough to personally oversee the business, but she needed a way to make an income, and this is suited to her talents.”

“Huh.” Briar watched the shop a moment longer. When Grayson added nothing else, she glanced up at him. “Shall we do this?”

He took a deep breath. “Yes.” He stepped forward, but Briar caught his arm. He glanced down, his dark brows lifting in question.

She hesitated, not certain what she wanted to say.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Can she take you from me?”

She half expected a smile at her phrasing, but he just lifted his eyes to the shop as he considered her question. He had called Esme his friend, but Briar had begun to wonder about the true nature of their relationship. After all, Esme was ferra.

“A soul singer is the most powerful among the ferra,” he answered, “but Esme is no minor talent. She was abbess of her coven.”

“Abbess?”

“They tended to adopt the outward appearance of an abbey to hide their true nature. Perhaps a carryover from the Middle Ages.”

“Huh.” Briar hadn’t realized that his race had been around so long. “So, Esme was top dog.”

The description appeared to amuse him. “That’s one way to look at it.”

The door to the shop opened, and a pair of well-dressed women walked out, followed by a man in a coat and top hat. 

His attire reminded her of Grayson’s. It suddenly occurred to her that Esme most likely shared his sense of style and etiquette.

“Should I have dressed differently?” Briar asked. She still wore her canal attire, though the trousers and waistcoat were clean and bore no holes.

“You keep telling me to be who I want to be,” he reminded her.

“Yes, but sometimes, you have to play by someone else’s rules.”

“Mm, well, if Esme can’t look beyond your attire to see your worth, then the failing is hers.” He offered Briar an arm.

She gripped his sleeve, warmed by the comment.

“Though had you brought this up while still aboard your boat,” he continued, “I would have insisted you wear that off-the-shoulder green gown that still haunts my dreams.”

“Mr. Martel.” She laughed, hoping he didn’t notice the blush. “The silly things you say.”

He smiled, but it faded once he faced Esme’s apothecary. “Come. We have tarried long enough. Let us see what new adventure fate has in store for us.”

“I can’t say as I put much stock in fate.” She stepped off the curb with him. “I make my own destiny.”

“Indeed, you do.”

They reached the other side of the street, and he held the door for her, allowing her to enter the shop ahead of him.

Amused by his gallant manners, Briar was still smiling when she stopped inside the door and looked around. The shop had the appearance of a typical apothecary, with its counter and loaded shelves of mixtures and tonics on the wall behind it.

A doorway led into a side room where it seemed most of the clientele had gathered. Briar could see an assortment of comfortable-looking furniture where several well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sat sipping from teacups.

“A tea room?” Briar asked.

“Judging by the slate,” Grayson nodded at the freestanding blackboard just outside the room, “the shop appears to specialize in herbal blends and warm tonics, beneficial to one’s health.”

“Keeping with the theme,” Briar concluded. “Well done.”

“Despite her faults, Esme is a smart woman. Running a successful business would be a simple matter after overseeing a ferra stronghold.”

“Hmm.” The man at the counter ahead of them was paying for his purchases. “And what are her faults?”

“I’ll leave those for you to judge,” Grayson answered. “I wouldn’t want to bias you.”

Briar wanted to question him further, but the man ahead of them had finished his transaction. Grayson stepped forward, greeting the girl behind the counter.

“How can I help you, sir?” she asked. “Are you looking for something in particular?”

“Actually, I’m looking for someone,” he answered. “Esme Jernigan. I believe she is the owner of this establishment.”

“She is, sir, but she is away at this time.”

“A shame. She’ll be sorry she missed me. May I leave my name and where she can reach me?”

“If you like.” She picked up her pen. “What’s the name?”

“Grayson Drake,” he gave his ferromancer name.

The girl looked up, her brows lifting.

“Can I assume by your reaction that you’ve heard of me?”

“Esme said you may one day return, but that was… several years ago.”

“A business venture kept me detained.”

The bell on the door rang as a pair of women walked in.

“Busy place,” Grayson said, his tone conversational.

“Yes,” the girl agreed. “I’ll be with you ladies in a moment,” she called to the newcomers before turning back to Grayson. “If you’ll follow me.”

She led them through a curtained doorway just past the counter. A narrow hall stretched toward the back of the building, and they followed the girl to the open door at the end. The room appeared to have been the kitchen, but now served as an apothecary’s workshop. Dried herbs hung from a rack on one side of the room, and several large mortar and pestles occupied the counter. An assortment of bottles and jars—some full and some empty—took up the rest of the counter space.

“Oh.” The girl glanced around the room. “It seems she’s gone out.”

Her comment confused Briar until she realized that the girl had been lying earlier when she claimed that Esme wasn’t in. Perhaps Esme was the sort who asked to not be disturbed while in her workshop.

“She spends a lot of time at the market or the meadows outside town, gathering herbs and other ingredients for the shop,” the girl explained. “I don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“Could I try calling on her at her home?” Grayson asked.

“She was very adamant about wishing to see you. Let me write down the address for you.”

Grayson thumped the brass knocker a couple of times, then stepped back beside Briar and straightened his coat. It had been a short walk from the shop to the townhouse address they’d been given. A mostly silent walk. Briar suspected he was as nervous about this meeting as she was.

The door opened, and they both stood straighter.

“Can I help you?” the young woman on the doorstep asked. Esme would no doubt know Grayson on sight, so this must be the maid.

“I’ve come to call on Esme Jernigan,” Grayson answered. “Is she at home?”

“She is not,” the woman answered. “Would you like to leave a card?”

“I’m afraid I left the hotel without bringing any with me,” he answered with an easy smile. “Could I leave my name? She is expecting me.”

“If you like.” The maid sounded dubious. Perhaps Esme hadn’t mentioned that she was expecting someone.

“The name is Grayson Drake.”

The maid straightened, her reaction very similar to the shop girl’s. “She did mention you, sir. I expect her back within the hour.”

“Do you mind if we wait?” Grayson asked.

“If you like. I’m sure she’ll be disappointed if she misses you. I’ll show you to the parlor.” She held the door wide, gesturing for them to enter.

Briar stepped into the foyer after Grayson, eyeing the expensive wallpaper, gilded mirror, and marble-top table with its crystal bowl for calling cards. A stairway led to the upper floor, and a hallway to the right ran toward the back of the house. The maid guided them into a room on the left which turned out to be a well-appointed parlor. It seemed that Esme’s apothecary business did well.

Grayson took a seat on a silk-upholstered chair, and Briar followed his lead. He declined the maid’s offer of tea and dismissed her, his manner confident and relaxed, though the moment she was gone, he rose to his feet. Was he nervous?

“So, we wait?” Briar asked.

He crossed to the door and looked out. “No.” He glanced back over his shoulder, a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “We surprise her in her lab. Come on.”

Briar got to her feet and hurried after him as he returned to the foyer. After a quick glance around, he walked down the hallway to the right of the stairs and stopped before a narrow door. It looked like a closet. Before she could ask, he laid his hand on the doorknob and a faint click followed.

“Grayson? What are you—”

He pulled open the door, revealing a cramped stairway that led down into the basement. A single sconce illuminated the narrow passage, its flickering flame evidence that someone had used this stairway recently.

“Step through, and I’ll lock the door behind us,” Grayson said.

She wasn’t so certain they should be doing this, but she did as he asked, stopping a few steps down while he locked the door. Taking a deep breath, she caught a faint whiff of something that smelled a lot like vinegar.

“How did you know this was here?” she whispered.

“I sensed soul iron.” He squeezed past her, then led the way down the stone steps.

They emerged into a large room lit by oil lamps. Briar had no trouble seeing the various counters arranged out around the space. Some lined the walls and some divided the room into sections. Cabinets and shelves filled the remainder of the space, but Briar only noticed them in passing. Her attention was drawn to what lined those counters and shelves.

There were jars in all shapes and sizes. All filled with liquid and… something else.

Briar took a few hesitant steps toward the nearest jar, staring at its contents in shocked horror. Yes, that was indeed a human hand. A man’s hand.

She reassessed her initial impression when she noticed the silver wires poking out of the severed wrist. Maybe not human, after all. Was this the soul iron Grayson had sensed? She glanced at the next jar. Were those intestines?

“Grayson?” she called to him in a soft voice. “Have you seen what’s in these jars?”

He stepped up beside her. “I told you that Esme is a scientist.”

“You did, but—” She pointed at a smaller jar that held a single eyeball.

“Esme is fascinated by the physiology of the human body, especially in regard to our race. To understand it better, she studies the dead. Just like a lot of medical schools do.”

“I guess.” Briar rubbed the back of her neck, eyeing Esme’s collection. She had a lot of jars. “So where is she?”

Grayson didn’t get to answer as the thump of a closing door and the rattle of keys echoed out of the stairwell. The click of heels on the stone steps carried to them. “Grayson Drake,” a female voice, accented like Grayson’s own carried to them. “You’d better not be the fully cast ferromancer I sense in my lab.”

“Esme?” Briar whispered.

“Here we go,” Grayson murmured.

 

Chapter 2

Briar glanced up, trying to judge if he was worried. A faint smile showed on his face, but also a look of resignation. She wasn’t certain how to interpret that.

A well-dressed woman swept into the room, her very presence commanding their attention. Briar studied her, trying to decide what made her seem so much larger than life. Several inches shorter than Briar, she had pale blonde hair and eyes very similar in hue to Grayson’s. Briar had expected the confident, regal bearing, but she hadn’t expected Esme to be beautiful.

She came to a stop before Grayson, her angry gaze sweeping over him. “Explain.” She held a slender silver stick about six inches long. A ferra stylus. No doubt, she knew how to use it.

“Solon threw me into a vat of molten iron.”

“And this was your solution?”

“It wasn’t a moment for deep thought and contemplation.”

Her fair eyes narrowed. “Don’t be flippant.” She scolded him as one would a wayward teen, though Briar would guess her barely in her thirties, if that.

“I’m sorry, Esme. It was never my intent for this to happen.”

“Where have you been?” she demanded. “You were supposed to stay in touch.”

“I found a backer for my locomotives. I’d designed a prototype and—ah, Esme, you should have seen it.” Grayson’s enthusiasm was beginning to shine through. “I could go fetch it.”

“You are fully cast, Drake. Your days of galloping around the world are over. We had an agreement.”

“About that… There’s been a complication.” Grayson glanced at Briar, and Esme followed his gaze.

Briar stilled as Esme’s pretty eyes narrowed.

“Why does this girl carry your construct?” Esme asked, her tone cool.

“Because he belongs to her.”

“He? What?” Esme lifted her stylus.

“Esme, don’t.” Grayson stepped in front of Briar. “It isn’t what you think.”

“She has taken your construct. What exactly am I supposed to think?”

“It was an accident,” Briar said, stepping out from behind Grayson. She wasn’t about to let Esme think she was cowering behind him.

“An accident?” Esme asked, skepticism dripping from her words.

“Yes, an accident,” Briar answered. “Me taking his construct, his casting, all of it. That’s why—”

“Drake, she’s American,” Esme cut in.

“Yes,” he answered, elaborating no further.

“Why is that significant?” Briar asked him, letting her annoyance color her words. “She lives in America. She’s bound to bump into a few of us.”

The corner of Grayson’s mouth twitched, though he didn’t actually smile. “There are no ferra communities in the United States.”

“Construct, come here.” Esme held out a hand.

Briar thought she was commanding that she give Lock to her, then to her shock, Lock emerged from her pocket and flew to Esme’s outstretched hand.

Briar looked up at Grayson. “He obeys her?”

“She helped create him,” Grayson answered, his words soft.

Briar stilled. “Are you saying she’s the one who…”

“Gave me my scar, yes.”

Briar was moving without thought. Esme glanced up, her expression more annoyed than concerned, so she did nothing to avoid the uppercut Briar threw at the her. The punch took her square on the chin, snapping her head back.

Esme stumbled away from her and smacked into the wall beside the stairway. Lock leapt into the air and flew to Grayson’s shoulder.

Filled with rage, Briar sprang forward, her fists doubled for another punch. This psychotic bitch not only collected body parts in jars, she had cut the heart from an eight-year-old boy.

“Briar!” Grayson shouted an instant before a beam of red light shot from the end of Esme’s stylus.

Unable to avoid it, Briar took the hit square in the chest. Cold enveloped her heart, then radiated outward. The sensation was uncomfortable, but it seemed otherwise harmless. When the cold reached her fingertips, it faded away.

“Briar?” Grayson’s hand settled on her back as if he expected to catch her.

Briar stepped forward. “Is that the best you got?” she asked Esme.

Esme’s brows lifted. She hadn’t expected Briar to walk away from that.

Lock rubbed his cheek against Grayson’s, cooing softly. Briar caught a swell of emotion, laced with confusion. As with all Lock’s communications, she wasn’t certain how she understood, but Lock viewed Esme as something like his mother.

The notion cooled Briar’s anger, a little. She didn’t want to upset Lock.

“Drake, explain,” Esme said, her tone curt.

“She’s a soul singer,” he answered, his voice soft, though it grew in volume as he continued. “A very unusual soul singer.”

Esme lowered her arm. “A soul singer? I’ve met Lucrezia Bandoni, this isn’t she.”

“No. Briar was born in this country, and though recent events have put her ancestry in question, she’s clearly of our bloodline.”

“Clearly.” Esme tapped her chin with her stylus as she eyed Briar. The blow must have caught her lower lip because it was split, but as Briar watched, the cut began to glow with a golden light and sealed before her eyes.

Briar blinked in surprise. Apparently, the ferra could do more than channel beams of red light through soul iron.

“How can she be ferra?” Esme asked. “She’s an uncouth—”

“Esme, please,” Grayson interrupted. “Don’t make me have to separate you two. And Briar,” he turned to her.

“What kind of a name is Briar?” Esme asked before he could continue.

“A nickname,” he answered before Briar could. “Have you forgotten your purpose?” he directed the last to Briar.

She crossed her arms. “Why didn’t you tell me she was the one?”

He shrugged. “It’s the past. That hardly matters.”

“Hardly matters? How could—”

“Perhaps this isn’t going to work.”

She eyed him. “You held back that information on purpose. You knew how I would react.”

“I—”

“Don’t lie.”

He sighed. “It wasn’t that calculated.”

She frowned. That wasn’t exactly a denial.

“What’s going on?” Esme cut in.

Briar held Grayson’s gaze for a moment longer, then faced her. “Until two weeks ago, I didn’t even know the ferra existed. Now everyone tells me I am one.”

“How is that possible?” Esme questioned. “To be ferra, both your parents must be of that race. How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

“I was still abbess at that time. The birth of a ferra is not that common. Word of a missing daughter would have spread to all the strongholds.”

Briar spread her hands, then let them fall. “I have no answers. All I know is that I can do things that only a ferra can do—or so I’m told. You witnessed my immunity to soul fire.” Briar decided not to mention that Esme had basically just tried to kill her.

Esme turned to Grayson. “You’re certain she’s a soul singer?”

“Absolutely, but an atypical one. She channels her power through her violin.”

“A violin?” Esme asked. “I’ve never heard of such a manifestation.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I hadn’t witnessed it.”

Esme glanced between them, tapping her chin again with her stylus. “Why do I get the impression that you want something from me?”

“I want you to train me,” Briar forced herself to say.

“To do what?”

“Use my magic.”

“I don’t play the violin.”

Briar forced down the anger, though her words still came out between clenched teeth. “Teach me to be ferra.” She took a breath. “Teach me how to save him.”

Esme glanced at Grayson before turning back to her. “If I knew how, why would I bother with this?” She lifted her arms to indicate the lab around them.

“Because you’re a twisted—” Briar stopped. Shit. How could she possibly work with this woman?

“You know nothing.” Esme’s tone was as cool as any ferromancer’s.

“You’re right,” Briar agreed. “That’s why we’re here.”

“That’s why?” Esme directed the question at Grayson.

“That’s why I’m here,” Briar clarified. “He’s not as optimistic.”

“Of course not. He knows that we’ve spent millennia searching for a solution, but we have yet to find one.”

Millennia? “Yet you keep looking.”

Esme regarded her in silence.

Briar held her gaze. “Now, I want to try.”

“You think you’ll succeed where hundreds, perhaps thousands have failed?”

“I’ll certainly fail if I don’t have the knowledge. Won’t you teach me?”

Esme huffed, her gaze shifting to Grayson. “Do you really expect me to teach this uneducated, backwoods—”

“Don’t be rude,” he cut her off. “And what’s the harm in trying?” He didn’t sound that enthusiastic.

“It’s a waste of time that could be better spent on my research. The clock is ticking, Drake. You know that.”

“Yes.”

Esme frowned. “How quickly are you devolving?”

“Quick enough.” His simple statement made Briar’s stomach clench. She hated the idea that he continued to devolve, even when he did nothing to cause it.

“Let me see,” Esme commanded. “Disrobe.”

Briar blinked.

“Esme,” Grayson complained.

“I can feel the devolvement, but I can’t see the specifics.”

“I’m not one of your specimens.”

“Of course not. You’re still breathing.” She waved a hand at him, encouraging him to comply.

Briar was stunned. Did she really expect him to strip off his clothes? Here, in front of both of them?

“It’s just his back,” Briar spoke up, trying to satisfy Esme’s curiosity without humiliating Grayson. “The only visible metal is the dorsal spines and the wings.”

“Like his construct?” Esme asked, enthusiasm coloring her tone—not unlike Grayson’s excitement when he was designing some mechanical wonder. “This I’ve got to see.”

Grayson sighed. “Now?”

“Of course. Each stage needs to be documented. You know how sparse the records are on the drake manifestation. This must be recorded for future generations.”

Briar frowned. Was that Esme’s backhanded way of saying that she expected Briar to fail? She didn’t get to call her on it as Grayson surprised her by shrugging off his coat. He draped it over a nearby stool; then his tie, waistcoat, and shirt followed.

Bare chested, he stood before them, the scar down the center of his chest a glaring red accusation against his pale skin—not that Esme seemed to notice. She circled around behind him.

“Ingenious,” she muttered.

Grayson looked up, his eyes meeting Briar’s, though no expression showed on his face.

Briar crossed her arms, but held her tongue.

“How much is natural and how much is your doing?” Esme reached out and ran her hand along his back, though Briar couldn’t see exactly what she did.

“The underlying structure is natural. I designed a way to keep it hidden.”

Briar lifted her brows. She hadn’t realized that.

“Esme!” Grayson abruptly gripped the waistband of his trousers. Esme had pulled them away from his back and was trying to see beneath them.

Briar’s mouth dropped open at the woman’s forwardness.

“How far down do the dorsal spines run?” Esme asked. “Do they reach as far as the lumbar?”

Grayson pulled away, then turned to face her. “They don’t extend past the thoracic vertebra.”

His back was to Briar now, revealing the silver ovals that ran down his spine, as well as the overlapping plates that covered his shoulder blades.

“Demonstrate for me.” Esme stepped around him to join Briar. 

“I don’t like pulling my other side so close to the surface,” Grayson complained. “But I know you won’t let it go until I show you.”

“Naturally. No mystery would ever be solved without proper investigation.” Esme’s tone turned lecturing. “And you don’t have another side, merely an altered perspective. I speculate that it is a chemical change within the brain that—”

She fell silent as the plates resting against Grayson’s back lifted and his wings began to unfold. At the same time, the oval disks overlaying the point of each vertebra dilated open, and the sharp dorsal spines emerged.

“Holy hell,” Esme muttered.

Briar glanced over. She got the impression that Esme was not a person to be surprised often.

Within seconds, Grayson’s silver wings were fully open. Like Lock’s delicate wings, they were much like a bat’s rather than a bird’s. A membrane of impossibly thin, yet surprisingly strong and supple soul iron stretched across a frame of the same metal.

“Can you fly?” Esme asked. She reached out and ran a hand over one wing.

“Yes,” Grayson answered.

“He flies very well,” Briar added.

“How did you learn?” Esme asked, still examining his wing. “Trial and error?”

“My construct taught me,” he answered, his tone cool and indifferent.

Lock, who had moved to a nearby counter when Grayson disrobed, whirred in agreement.

Esme paused in her examination. “When you first merged with your construct?”

“No, the second time.”

“You’ve merged with your construct more than once?” She sounded scandalized. “You must not do that. You will devolve that much faster.”

“It wasn’t by choice, but necessity.”

“Well, don’t do it again.” She returned to her examination. Rolling up on her toes, she followed the upper arch of his right wing back to where it attached to his shoulder. She probed the skin around it, feeling the underlying structure.

“Astonishing,” Esme said. “It seems the legends are true.”

“What legends?” Briar asked.

“The drake variation is the only one that truly alters the human template.”

Briar didn’t follow that, but hesitated to ask after Esme’s earlier “uneducated” comment.

“No other ferromancer type significantly changes the basic human structure he began with,” Grayson explained.

Briar didn’t know if he’d realized she couldn’t follow Esme’s scientific jargon or if she’d shared her confusion with him. An unfortunate by-product of her taking his construct was that he occasionally picked up on her thoughts.

“Remember Farran?” Grayson prompted.

“He didn’t seem all that human,” Briar said.

“But the structure was there,” he explained, his words cool and matter of fact. “Four limbs, five digits on the hands and feet, an upright bipedal movement.”

“You’re different?”

Esme had stopped her examination and moved over to a nearby counter and pulled open a drawer. Not seeming to pay any attention to their discussion.

Grayson tucked his wings against his back and faced her.

Briar pulled in a breath as his eyes met hers. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to the way his eyes changed when he let the ferromancer out. His blue-gray irises obscured the whites in his eyes, like an animal’s.

“You showed me that you saw the truth,” he said.

An image materialized in her mind. The image she had sent him. The image from her dream when she came face-to-face with a fully devolved Grayson. He’d had the wings, spines, claws, and even a tail. A humanoid metal dragon.

“Oh.” She could come up with nothing better.

Esme returned, stepping around behind Grayson once more. “Hold still.”

“What are—” Grayson’s question ended in something close to a snarl.

“There.” Esme sounded pleased.

Grayson turned to face her, his wings opening a little and rattling the jars on the nearest counter as he brushed them.

“Careful,” she admonished, though she kept her attention on the vial she held, the slender—was that a scalpel?—clinking against the glass wall as she tapped it inside. Briar glimpsed a bright red smear before she turned away.

“I needed a sample,” Esme explained, walking to the counter.

“You could have asked,” Grayson said.

Briar stepped closer, examining his back that was now turned toward her. A trickle of blood ran from the base of his right wing.

“You cut him?” Briar asked, incredulous.

“She took a chunk of flesh,” Grayson said.

“Merely a sliver of epidermis.” Esme didn’t look up from what she was doing. “How else am I to evaluate the level of ferrosis within the soft tissue?”

Briar had no clue what that meant, but even if she understood, she’d still want to punch her.

“Lock, be the fiddle,” Briar said.

Grayson glanced over his shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t have my bow, but this is minor.”

Lock instantly morphed into the silver fiddle, and she lifted him from the counter. Even if she did have her bow, it wouldn’t do much good. She had shredded the horsehair while taking down Farran and needed to have it rehaired. Maybe she could find a repair shop here in Cleveland. Someone who could repair her fiddle as well.

She didn’t tuck the silver fiddle beneath her chin, but held it against her shoulder. She could play any string instrument, but the fiddle had been the one that felt the most natural. Uncle Charlie had favored the banjo, and according to him, her father had preferred the guitar. She figured that her musical aptitude had come from the Rose side of her family, but if she was ferra, that hadn’t been the case. David Rose couldn’t have been her father.

Her fingers slid along the fingerboard while she plucked the strings with her right hand. Unlike the rest of the fiddle, the strings had a golden hue, reminiscent of the highlights on Lock’s scales.

The short, staccato notes formed a peppy little tune of energy and healing. The more often she did this, the less of a warm-up period she seemed to need—even when plucking instead of bowing. She reached out to Grayson, sending him that burst of energetic health.

He pulled in a breath that was almost a gasp, and she turned her gaze from her fingers to his back. The minor wound at the base of his wing glowed with a faint golden light. It lasted only an instant before the flesh knitted over the injury and vanished completely, leaving a smear of blood to mark its presence. But she didn’t stop there.

She continued her peppy ditty, encouraging him to return to his cheerful, and most importantly, human self. No sooner did the notion leave her strings than the dorsal spines retracted and his wings began to fold in their impossibly complicated manner.

A moment later, he turned to face her, a twinkle in his human eyes and the hint of a grin on his face. He rolled his shoulders, perhaps to settle his folded wings in place, and Briar watched the play of muscle beneath his skin. It wasn’t until his grin became a full-blown smile that she realized she had inadvertently shared her admiration of his torso. She quickly wrapped up her song and lowered the fiddle.

A burst of static caused her to release the instrument. Lock morphed in mid-fall, taking his original form, and flew to her shoulder. He puffed out his chest and emitted a proud whirr.

She laughed and rubbed him beneath the chin. “Yes, you did well.”

“You both did,” Grayson added, still looking far too amused. “You can play other string instruments?”

She huffed. “Are you making an assumption or did I share that?”

“You tend to be very forthcoming when you play.” His look was knowing.

Her cheeks heated, and she looked around for some distraction. That was when she noticed Esme staring at her.

“What is it?” Briar asked.

Esme set aside her vial and walked over to join them. She made a slow circuit of Grayson, eyeing his healed back before stepping around in front of him. Wordlessly, she reached out, laying a hand against his upper chest before trailing her fingers down to his stomach.

He pulled in a breath, the well-defined muscles of his stomach tightening beneath her touch.

It took everything Briar had not to seize her wrist and jerk her hand away.

“Astonishing,” Esme said. “She really does channel power through music.”

“Did you think I made that up?” Grayson stepped back.

Esme didn’t acknowledge the question. She had already turned to study Briar. “Is it a mutation? I have never heard of such a manifestation, and I studied every documented source I could get my hands on.”

“I remember.” Grayson picked up his shirt.

“Wait,” Briar cut in. “Don’t put that on.”

The corner of his mouth quirked. “Haven’t had your fill?”

The heat that hadn’t fully left her cheeks returned. “There’s blood on your back, remember?” His shirt was white after all. “Turn around.”

Still smiling, he did as told.

“Do you have something to clean this?” Briar asked Esme, gesturing at Grayson’s back.

Esme blinked, seeming to pull her attention away from Grayson and whatever mental puzzle she was picking at. That’s what Briar hoped had distracted her, anyway.

“There are some hand towels by the wash basin.” She nodded toward the far wall, and Briar saw the porcelain pitcher and basin, along with a stack of clean towels on the shelf above it.

She walked over to fetch a towel, wetting it with water from the pitcher.

“You say she’s a soul singer,” Esme continued to Grayson, “yet I’ve never read that one can heal another’s flesh wounds.”

“We suspect she’s channeling my power.”

Briar didn’t join the conversation, turning her attention to cleaning the rivulet of blood from Grayson’s back.

“Dragon’s fire?” Esme asked Grayson. “You can meld flesh?”

“I can.”

“You must show me.” She turned back to her workbench.

“Esme—” He didn’t get to finish as she picked up her scalpel and in the same motion, cut her own forearm. Bright red blood immediately welled along her pale skin, rolling toward her wrist as she held out her arm to him.

“Dear God,” Briar muttered. The woman was nuts.

“Was that really necessary?” Grayson moved closer, then laid a hand over the wound. Neither spoke, and after a moment, he took his hand away.

Briar couldn’t see the injury through the blood, but it seemed to have healed. She offered Esme the damp cloth. “Need this?”

Esme wordlessly took the cloth and ran it over her forearm. A few wipes cleared away the blood, leaving the unblemished skin visible beneath.

“I don’t see any sparkle,” Briar said.

“Like you,” Grayson agreed.

“Huh.” Briar could think of nothing more intellectual to say.

“What are you talking about?” Esme asked.

“When I heal a human, it leaves a visible sheen to the skin. It didn’t when I healed Briar, and apparently not with you either.”

Esme turned back to the room. “So much to do,” she muttered, then hurried to her workbench.

Briar glanced up at Grayson and found him watching Esme with a faintly bemused expression. Considering their past, Briar would have expected him to hate her, yet that didn’t seem to be the case at all.

“So,” Briar said when neither of them spoke, “will you teach me?”

“Can you even read?” Esme asked.

“I can.” Briar struggled to keep her temper in check. “But I don’t see what that has to do with learning ferra magic.”

“You have a lot of catching up to do. I would wager that you know nothing of anatomy or biochemistry.” Esme added a few drops of liquid to her vial.

“I don’t,” Briar admitted. “But I don’t see why I need to. All I want is to understand this magic better and find a way to keep Grayson from devolving.” Her voice dropped to nearly a whisper at the end.

Esme glanced over, a frown shadowing her blue-gray eyes. “What do you think the ferra have been doing since the beginning? It is only through studying the biology of the ferro that we will find the answer.”

“Seems to me you’re barking up the wrong tree if no one has found it yet.”

Esme’s frown deepened, and Briar hurried on.

“I don’t have any preconceived notions. My view is unclouded by all this science and history. I’m operating one hundred percent on intuition, and I’ve made progress.”

“Progress?” Esme smirked. “You healed a scratch.”

“Can you do that?” Briar challenged. “But more than that, I can bring him back when he goes cold. I’m on to something here, I know it. But I’m working blind. I need a guide.”

Esme’s expression turned considering, though she still looked annoyed.

“This is what you’re looking for, right? A way to save the males of your race—which will ultimately save the race as a whole.”

“My race? If you are ferra, then you are as much a part of this as he and I are.” She gestured to include Grayson, who was quietly pulling on his shirt, leaving the argument to Briar.

“I’m still coming to terms with that,” Briar admitted. “Until two weeks ago, I thought I was human.”

Esme abruptly huffed. “This is unprecedented.” She turned to Grayson. “You test me at every turn, Drake.”

“Sorry about that.” He didn’t seem overly concerned as he finished with the buttons on his shirt and picked up his waistcoat.

Esme tapped a finger on the counter for a moment. “Very well. I will try this experiment.”

Briar composed herself, not letting her triumph show. Though the prospect of working with Esme wasn’t all that appealing.

“Where are you staying?” Esme asked.

“My boat, the Briar Rose.” Briar hesitated. “Well, it’s called the Beaumont now.”

“Boat?” Esme’s brows lifted. “A schooner or—”

“A canal boat.”

Esme’s eyebrows creeped even higher. “You own a canal boat?”

“I’m captain,” Briar said with pride.

“That explains a lot.”

“Be nice, Esme. She will punch you again.” Grayson picked up this tie and walked to the mirror mounted on the wall by the wash basin. “As for accommodations, I intend to take a room at a downtown hotel. I grow weary of sleeping on the deck.”

Esme gave him an annoyed glance before turning back to Briar. “You will come stay with me.”

“That’s not—” Briar began.

“He is a fully cast ferromancer.” Esme cut her off. “No, he is a fully cast drake. He cannot be left unattended in a hotel or anywhere. Since your boat lacks adequate accommodations, he will stay here and you will join him—unless you wish to turn his construct over to me.”

Ah hell no. “Here?” Briar wanted to refuse, to point out that she had a boat to run, but this was what she wanted. She had known it would not be a simple hour’s lesson to learn ferra magic.

She glanced over at Grayson, who was returning to the stool to retrieve his coat. “What do you think?”

“This is what you wanted,” he said, echoing her thoughts. No help there.

Seeing no recourse, she turned back to Esme. “Very well, we accept your offer.”

“More of a necessity than an offer. I do hope you haven’t any lice or other vermin.”

“Grayson’s right about not giving me a reason to punch you again.”

“And you’ll no doubt be a delight at the dinner table,” Esme continued, ignoring her comment.

“Absolutely.” Briar refused to let her intimidate her. “With the right sort of meal, I can belch the alphabet.”

A snort of amusement escaped Grayson.

“You would find that entertaining, Drake?” Esme asked.

“Indeed. I suspect I’m going to find this whole situation vastly entertaining.”

“Until she decides to cut on you again,” Briar said.

“Until then,” he agreed, pulling on his coat.

Briar frowned at his indifference.

Esme didn’t seem upset by her comment, either. She had already turned back to her work. “Lock the door on your way out, Drake.”

“Of course,” Grayson agreed. He turned toward Briar, lifting his brows in question.

Huffing, Briar turned on her heel and headed for the stairs. She was no longer concerned about learning to use her ferra magic. She was concerned about leaving Esme alive long enough to show her.

This couldn’t end well.

<<<>>>

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