Excerpt – Corroded

Warning! The stories in my Iron Souls Series are intended to be read in order.  Reading them out of order will spoil the fun of an earlier tale. You can find the reading order, along with blurbs, covers, and excerpts of the other books here.

Chapter 1

A hush fell over the crew and passengers of the Briar Rose as Grayson stepped out of the aft cabin. A multi-layered cake was balanced in his hands. Slathered in thick white icing and topped with ripe blackberries, the cake held everyone’s attention. Everyone except Benji, who wasn’t facing the cabin door. He started to turn when Grayson set the cake on the table in front of him.

“Happy birthday!” Briar shouted along with everyone else, the words echoing across the still waters of the canal.

Benji’s cheeks turned red, but he grinned from ear to ear, staring at the cake. “For me?”

“Not all of it,” Eli spoke up, eyeing the cake himself.

“But you will get the biggest piece,” Molly told Benji, moving a stack of clean plates closer.

“While Molly cuts the cake, you can open your gift.” Briar pulled out a pouch from her pocket and set it before Benji. It had been so hard to keep quiet about this. She couldn’t wait for him to open it.

“What is it?” Benji asked.

Zach laughed at his brother. “Open it and see.”

Still blushing, he did as told, pulling open the drawstring and carefully emptying the pouch into his palm. He gasped as a silver pocket watch tumbled out.

Briar met Grayson’s gaze and exchanged a grin.

“We all chipped in,” Jimmy said. “The face is mother of pearl and the case is silver. The innards are—”

“Soul iron,” Kali spoke up. Their Scourge passengers had left their seats to join them. “I feel it from here.”

Liam glanced at her in surprise while Perseus took her announcement without apparent shock. 

“Really?” Benji asked Grayson, his eyes even wider than before.

Grayson shrugged as he returned to his seat on the crate beside Briar. “The gears won’t warp, and the mainspring will never wear out. It’s also resistant to water damage.”

“That’s a genuine ferromancer-made watch,” Jimmy told Benji.

“And before you ask,” Grayson spoke up, “yes, you still need to wind it.”

“Oh.” Benji looked slightly disappointed, not understanding that someone would have to die to make a true automatic watch. He opened the cover and studied the face a moment before he gave everyone a wide grin. “Thanks. This is the best birthday present I ever got.”

“It isn’t every day a young man turns sixteen,” Jimmy said.

Everyone agreed, going on to tease Benji that they should have bought him a razor. They laughed and joked as cake was passed around, but Briar noticed that Grayson had grown quiet. Was he thinking about Tristan, the seventeen-year-old ferromancer boy he’d been asked to save? Unlike human boys who welcomed the onset of manhood, a ferromancer youth was looking at a far different fate.

She watched Benji dig into his cake, laughing between bites at something Zach said. Was Tristan the same, or was he already well on his way to becoming an inhuman monster?

Grayson touched her knee beneath the table, drawing her attention to him.

“We’ll figure it out,” he whispered.

She glanced up. Once again, he had picked up on her thoughts—or she had been sharing them, rather. She really needed to get a handle on that.

“I know,” she answered him, trying to appear more confident than she felt.

Molly set a plate of cake before each of them.

“Who do I have to thank for this?” Briar asked.

“Mr. Martel, of course,” Molly said with a smile. “Although, I wrote down the recipe.”

“Excellent.” Briar didn’t point out that with Esme gone, Grayson wasn’t going anywhere—unless things went dreadfully wrong in Portsmouth.

Briar took a bite of her cake, trying to distract herself with the blackberry decadence. She had told the crew that they were returning to their hometown, but she hadn’t given them the specifics—aside from mentioning that Andrew might allow her to buy the boat. That wasn’t the exact truth. It wasn’t Andrew, but Solon who had offered the boat if Grayson cured Solon’s son Tristan.

“Game of cards?” Jimmy asked once the cake had been consumed.

“Just one,” Briar answered. “We need to get an early start if we’re to make it home in a week.”

“Aye, Captain.” Jimmy went to fetch the cards.

“Why’d Andrew give you a deadline?” Eli asked.

Briar shrugged. “Who can say?”

“Maybe he’s got to buy his next organ,” Benji suggested, his voice dropping to a whisper as he glanced at the cabin door where Molly had gone. They didn’t like to speak of her ex-husband in front of her.

Eli cleared his throat. “I don’t think there’s any puzzling out a man who’d give up his comfortable home, fine wife, and even his life to be some ferromancer’s slave.”

There were nods of agreement all around, but the discussion was cut short when Molly rejoined them carrying a pot of coffee and several empty mugs.

Briar left them to their coffee and game to return to her studies in the aft cabin. When they weren’t locking through one of the many canal locks, she spent her time going over Esme’s research notes. It was sobering work since Esme would never get to finish what she’d started. Briar just hoped there was some information that would help save Esme’s son.

Unable to remain in the cabin, now stifling hot after the meal preparations, Briar took a lantern and the journal she was reading up to the tiller deck. She sat the lantern on the low rail encircling the deck and took a seat at its base, using the support posts as a backrest. Opening the journal, she took a deep breath and plunged into the complex and copious notes written in Esme’s elegant hand.

She didn’t know how long she sat there reading and rereading the in-depth biological explanations she couldn’t follow. She was ready to toss the journal over the rail when the hatch opened and Grayson stepped out.

He carried a plate with a small bowl balanced atop it, and carefully stepped down onto the tiller deck to join her. “You can’t expect to understand that with no background in science.”

Briar sighed, realizing he’d picked up on her frustration. She closed the journal with a snap. “But what else can I do?”

“Eat blackberries?” He showed her the plate he was carrying. A dozen large, ripe berries were gathered around a small bowl of the same fluffy icing that had decorated his cake.

“Where did you get that? I figured you used all the berries on the cake.”

He handed her the plate and took a seat beside her. “I saved them. For you.”

She stared at the blackberries, touched by the gesture.

“I had considered flowers,” Grayson continued, “but all the ones I saw growing along the towpath proved to be weeds—or so Zach informed me. Plus the berries aren’t quite as obvious as flowers, should other members of your crew prove to be less open-minded than Zach.”

She looked up. “Are you courting me, Grayson Martel?”

His expression sobered. “I would like to be. If we were just a couple of humans adrift in the world, I would say absolutely. But…” He hesitated.

“But we’re not.” She set down the plate.

“That doesn’t mean I can’t pretend.”

“Maybe, but what’s the point? We have a week.” A week until she would be forced to sacrifice Grayson to save her hometown.

“I’ve been living on borrowed time since I drew my first breath. You’re the one who inspired me to embrace what I have, rather than what I’ll lose. This isn’t any different.”

“You make me feel like a hypocrite.”


She gave him a halfhearted elbow. “Point taken.” She looked at the plate and sighed. “I just feel like I’m betraying… something if I sit and enjoy blackberries instead of trying to find a solution.”

“You’ve worked all day on this. Maybe a break would do you some good.” He picked up one of the berries and dipped it in icing, then held it up to her lips. “Humor me?”

She looked up, meeting his earnest gaze. He’d brought the berries as a surprise, a gift. It would be rude to refuse—even if her appetite was gone.

She leaned forward and took a bite. The ripe berry burst in her mouth and a drop of juice rolled down her chin. She laughed and lifted a hand to wipe it away, but Grayson beat her to it, rubbing his thumb below her lower lip.

“Those berries are really juicy,” she said.

“I see.” He popped what was left of the berry into his mouth, his eyes never leaving hers.

“I thought those were for me.”

“You’re not going to share?”

“Oh, very well.” She picked up one of the smaller berries, and after a hearty dip in the icing, brought it to his mouth. He leaned over and took the whole berry from her, his lips brushing her fingertips.

She pulled in a breath, surprised by the thrill that ran through her with the incidental contact.

He held her gaze, but he didn’t give her a chance to worry about what she might have shared before he leaned over and kissed her.

She welcomed him, moving closer to slip an arm around his shoulders. “You taste like blackberries,” she whispered.

He smiled against her lips. “So do you.”

His hands slid up her back and he pulled her closer. She went willingly.

The light dimmed, and she realized he’d shuttered the lantern—without touching it.

“Neat trick,” she whispered.

“I do have my uses.”


On a crowded canal boat, privacy was almost nonexistent, let alone the opportunity to steal a kiss without getting caught. The freedom to steal multiple kisses was unheard of. Perhaps she should let the crew have a card game every evening.

“They’ll get wise to us eventually,” he said.

She groaned and dropped her head to his shoulder. “So much for privacy. I can’t even have any within my own mind.”

He laughed and hugged her to him. “I know it vexes you—”

“It frustrates the hell out me.” She sat up and looked him in the eye. “Do you have any idea how I can control it?” Without Esme, Briar had no one else to ask. 

“I’m rather new to this myself.”

“What about when Lucrezia had you? Did she share her thoughts or whatever with you?”

“Thank God, no.”

“She could control it?”

“Or her talent in this area wasn’t as strong as yours.”

Briar frowned. Great. This might be another bizarre trait of her unique talent. “Being one of a kind stinks.”

He chuckled and brushed his fingers across her cheek. “We’ll figure it out.”

“You keep saying that. We’re building up quite a list of things to figure out.”

“Yes, but I have faith in us.”

She looked up at his phrasing. “Us,” she repeated. “I like that.”

“I know.” He didn’t give her a chance to protest before kissing her again. They picked up right where they left off, their kisses growing bolder with each exchange. Her heart pounded and she felt lightheaded, almost drunk. But the prolonged exchange didn’t satisfy her. Each kiss made her want another, made her want… more.

“Briar.” Grayson pulled back.

Her heart surged for a new reason. Had he caught that indecent thought? Did he think she was—

“Someone’s coming,” he added.

She held her breath, then heard the thump of footfalls in the cabin below them, followed by the creak of the ladder.

Grayson opened the shutter on the lantern, and she picked up the plate of blackberries, stuffing one in her mouth in case her lips were as flushed as they felt. Grayson retrieved Esme’s journal and opened it to a random page.

Briar suddenly wanted to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. For heaven’s sake, they were both adults. But she was glad they had made the effort to hide what they’d been doing when Liam stepped out of the hatch.

“Ah, there you are,” he said. His voice with that familiar Scottish brogue took Briar back to her childhood. She’d always loved spending time with Uncle Liam. Though he was actually her godfather rather than a blood relation, he’d been as dear to her as any beloved uncle. Her affection for him made his betrayal that much harder to swallow. Although, betrayal might be a little strong. Still, he’d kept a lot of secrets from her. Secrets that directly impacted her.

“What are you doing, lass?” He walked over to join them.

“Eating blackberries and reading through Esme’s notes.”

“Hmm.” Liam took a seat on the edge of the aft deck where it formed a step to the lower tiller deck. “How are you getting on with that?”

“I’ve about mastered the blackberries. The biological studies aren’t going as well.”

Liam chuckled. “At least it isn’t a total defeat.”

“True.” She popped another icing-covered berry into her mouth. “What do you need?” she asked around a juicy mouthful.

“I wanted a word with you.” He looked over at Grayson. “Would you excuse us, Drake?”

“Of course,” Grayson agreed, though his tone sounded annoyed. He got to his feet. “Shall I continue reading?” he asked her, holding up Esme’s journal.

“You’re more likely to understand it than I am.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” He winked. “Enjoy the berries.” And think of me.

The last weren’t words so much as sensation and emotion that translated in her mind. Unlike her, he got to choose what he shared.

Her cheeks warmed with the suggestion. After all, she seemed incapable of keeping her thoughts from him—especially her thoughts about him. Fortunately, she wasn’t required to respond as he walked away.

She looked over and found Liam watching her. “What is it?” she asked.

He cleared his throat. “I couldn’t help but notice that you haven’t been completely honest with the crew about the situation in Portsmouth.”

Briar straightened. “I didn’t lie.”

“But you didn’t tell them everything.”

“What good would it do? It will only stress them out unnecessarily. We will arrive in plenty of time, and I will take care of the problem.”

“That’s what I was afraid of.” His expression was a mix of concern and affection. “You can’t do this on your own.”

She frowned. “Are you offering to help me?” After all, he knew the ferromancer world well. He had been born into it.

“I am.”

She was surprised by the swell of relief those two words brought her, and she slumped against the rail. “Thank you, Uncle Liam.”

His brow wrinkled. “I wasn’t going to abandon you to your troubles, child.”

She smiled, not taking issue with the familiar moniker. He’d always called her that. “You’ll help me figure out how to save Solon’s son—and maybe the rest of them—without sacrificing Grayson?”

Liam’s expression turned sad. “Oh, my Briar Rose. The myth of the dragon is just that: a myth. I know you care for him, but you are chasing a phantom. Ferromancers devolve, and that’s the way of it.”

Confused, Briar stared at him, trying to make sense of what he was telling her. “If you’re not going to help me save them, then…”

“I’m going to train you. I’ve already spoken to Perseus, and he thinks—”

“Train me to do what exactly?”

“Embrace your heritage. You were born of the Scourge, Briar.” The Scourge, the executioners of the ferromancer world. “It’s time you put those unique abilities to use.”

She had hoped he had let go of this idea, but apparently not. “You don’t want me to save ferromancers. You want me to kill them.”

Liam didn’t even blink. “They’ve already been gathered for you. It would be a simple matter. You could end this war with a single song.”


Chapter 2

Briar came to her feet, knocking aside the plate and scattering the last of the blackberries. “I already told you that I won’t be your assassin.”

Liam stood as well. “You’re not doing this for me. You’re doing it for the world—starting with your hometown.”

“Don’t make it sound so noble. I’m going to save them, not kill them.”

“What happens when it turns out that you can’t? When all this nonsense about the drake turns out to be just that—nonsense? I bet he would even agree with me.”

“Leave him out of this.”

Liam sighed. “I’m aware of your fondness for him, lass, and I’m not asking you to put him down—though I fear that day will come sooner rather than later—but you must listen to those who know, who have seen, and who can show you how to end this nightmare.”

“You can argue with me until you’re blue in the face. I won’t do it.”

Liam shook his head. “You always were a stubborn one.”

Briar crossed her arms.

“How about this…” Perseus stepped into the dim light from the lantern, and Briar jumped. She hadn’t even seen him climb up from the cargo hold.

“What if we try it your way, my lady,” Perseus continued, “and if that fails, then you will have some training to fall back on.”

“I don’t think this argument is helpful,” Liam cut in. “I need you to help me convince her of exactly what we’re up against. You more than anyone can explain just what that is.”

“I can also appreciate what she is trying to do.”

Liam turned to stare at him. “Stopping a ferromancer’s devolvement will not stop him from becoming a monster. He will still be able to create the soulless.”

“Are you calling Grayson a monster?” Briar demanded. “He has never—and would never create the soulless.”

Liam faced her. “If the myth is true, then pursuing this will damn him that much more quickly. Is that what you really want?”

“Of course not.” She struggled to keep her emotions in check, even as her despair tried to swallow her. “But killing them without even giving them a chance is wrong, too.”

“Let’s say for the sake of argument that you are successful. The most powerful outside the drake is the leon.” Liam referred to Grayson and Solon by their ferromancer names. “Do you want those who survive to follow this Solon fellow?”

Briar lifted her chin. “I won’t kill.”

Liam rubbed a hand over his face before he turned to Perseus. “I’m sending word to everyone I can reach. I would advise you to do the same.”

“I began doing so as soon as I learned of this gathering of ferromancers.”

Briar faced him. “I thought you were on my side.”

“I am, but as your uncle pointed out, I do understand what’s at stake. I prefer to be prepared.”

He was preparing by gathering a Scourge army that would converge on the place where she was taking Grayson. Perhaps she should take him west and let him build locomotives as Esme had intended. Maybe they should leave the country entirely. But could she sacrifice her hometown?

She had no answers.

Without a word, she picked up the plate, now devoid of blackberries, and walked away.

“Briar?” Liam called after her.

She ignored him and climbed down the ladder, escaping to her cabin. This conversation was over. She let the hatch slam behind her.


They arrived in Canal Fulton by midmorning the next day. Briar had managed to keep busy, avoiding Liam and any new attempts to sway her to his way of thinking, but she knew it was only a matter of time before he renewed his efforts.

Without a toll office, they didn’t need to stop, but Briar decided to dock long enough to switch out the mule team—and send Zach over to the general store and post office to check for wanted posters. Her cousin Andrew still claimed she’d stolen the Briar Rose, so they’d not taken the canvas off the transom, now sporting the name Beaumont. But disguised or not, it was her own picture that was on the wanted posters. To her relief, Zach didn’t find any.

Zach moved off to take his turn driving the mules, and she headed back to the boat. To her surprise, Liam was crossing the gangplank, his suitcase in hand.

“Are you leaving us?” Briar asked, walking over to join him as he stepped onto the dock. He hadn’t said anything about departing, but she had been avoiding him. Was that why he was leaving? She felt a bit guilty about that.

“I told Agatha I’d be back yesterday,” he answered. “I’ll rejoin you in a few days. Perseus is going to telegraph.”

She frowned. Was he really leaving to keep a promise to Agatha, or was there more to it?

“You look unhappy,” Liam said.

She wanted to ask about his plans, but didn’t want to get into it again, especially if he was leaving. “I hope Agatha isn’t too worried.”

“I sent her a telegraph before we left Cleveland, but you know how she frets.”

“I do.” Especially about Liam. She wondered now if Agatha had had too many close calls over the years. After all, Liam had probably been sent on a lot of dangerous jobs when he served the ferra.

Liam gripped Briar’s shoulder, bringing her attention back to the moment. “Think about what I said. Perseus can—”

“Let’s not belabor the topic, or part on bad terms.”

Liam sighed. “Very well.” He set down his suitcase and pulled her into a tight hug. “I love you, Briar Rose.”

She hugged him just as fiercely. “Love you, too.”

He kissed her forehead, then held her at arm’s length, studying her.

“Yes?” she prompted.

He just smiled and released her, then bent to pick up his suitcase. “I’ll try to rejoin you in Newark. Check the telegraph office if I’m not there.”

“All right.”

“Keep Perseus close.”

She wanted to ask if that was a precaution against Grayson, but again, she didn’t want to part on bad terms. “I will,” she said instead.

Liam nodded, and with a fond smile, walked away. She watched him for a moment before returning to the boat.

Once the gangplank was taken in, she collected one of Esme’s journals and climbed up to the aft deck.

Eli waited at the tiller, a worried wrinkle on his brow. “Is everything all right, Miss Briar? Is your uncle—”

“He needed to get home sooner than we could deliver him.” She stepped down to join Eli. “Will you get us moving?”

He studied her a moment longer, but to her relief, decided to let the topic drop. Lifting his gaze to the waiting mules, he shouted to Zach to move out.

Zach got the team moving, silently, as he had for years. The mules started down the towpath, the towline stretching behind them until the slack had run out and the boat surged forward. To Briar’s surprise, Grayson hadn’t joined Zach. This was Grayson’s usual time of day to get off the boat and walk the towpath.

She was about to go look for him when he and Benji climbed up onto the bow deck from the forward cargo hold. They each had a fishing pole.

“Bet I can guess what we’re having for supper,” Eli said.

She chuckled and took a seat on the rail beside him. “Are you going psychic on me, Eli? Can I expect séances and such in the near future?”

“There’s that wit. I was beginning to wonder where it went.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind.” She glanced down at Esme’s journal, now resting in her lap. 

Eli sighed, gazing at the canal ahead of them.

“No lecture?” she asked.

“I think we’re well past that.”


“You don’t have to explain yourself, Miss Briar. I know you’re in love with that man. The things you’ve done to save him…”

“Almost like he’s crew, huh?” She nudged him with her shoulder. “I’d do the same for any of you.”

A slight smile touched Eli’s face but didn’t last.

“What?” she asked when he remained silent. “Are you still hung up on that boast he made the first day after we kidnapped him?” When Grayson had taunted Eli with the suggestion that he intended to seduce her in order to win his freedom.

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

Eli frowned, watching Grayson help Benji with his pole. It looked like he was working on the hook. Perhaps it had bent or something.

“I’m afraid he’ll break your heart,” Eli admitted at last.

“Because of a defect of character, or because he’ll devolve and need to be put down?”

“Either possibility would hurt you.”

She started to come to Grayson’s defense on the character aspect, but stopped herself. If Eli didn’t see the good in him, she couldn’t prove it no matter how hard she argued. As for the other… There was no argument—unless she could figure out a way to save him.

Her fingers tightened on the journal.

“You’re not going to argue with me?” Eli sounded surprised.

“No, I’m not. Life is full of risks, and I chose to take this one. You need to let me.”

He once again turned his attention to the bow of the boat where Grayson was already pulling in a fish.

“It ain’t easy,” Eli admitted.

She smiled and gave him another nudge with her shoulder. “You need to find a woman. You’d make an amazing father.”

“What?” He looked so shocked that she laughed. She was still laughing when Molly emerged from the cabin below them.

“What’s so funny?” she asked, shaking out her skirts after the climb up the ladder. “And why does Mr. Waller look so stricken?”

Briar got control of her mirth. “I was just commenting that Eli would make a great dad—after all these years looking out for me.”

“If you are the end result of his parenting skills, I now understand his expression,” Molly said.

Eli chuckled.

“Come on now,” Briar protested.

“Of course, the same could be said for me,” Molly continued. “You’ve spent several winters under my roof.”

“True,” Briar agreed as Molly stepped down onto the tiller deck to join them. Beneath the awning, but still open to the breeze, the tiller deck was the coolest location on the boat. Judging by Molly’s rosy cheeks, she was ready to get out of that hot cabin and get some air.

A shout drew their attention to the bow of the boat. Benji was on his feet, his fishing pole bent double as he tried to land whatever he had caught.

Grayson stood to help him, but had to turn his attention to his own pole as it suddenly bent over.

“That’s the third fish those two have caught in as many minutes,” Eli said. “I think your ferromancer is cheating.”

“How?” Briar asked.

Eli lifted the hand that wasn’t holding the tiller and wiggled his fingers. “Some black magic, I’m sure.” He said it in jest, but Briar suspected there was a bit of true feeling beneath the glib words.

“Guess I’d better go rein him in before he conjures a demon or something.” Briar got to her feet.

“Don’t exorcise him until after he catches enough fish for dinner,” Molly said. “I’ve already started the preparations.”

Eli chuckled, and Molly took Briar’s seat on the rail beside him.

“All right.” Briar stepped up onto the aft deck and headed for the catwalk.

“So how long have you known Briar?” Molly asked Eli.

“Reckon it’s been about ten years now. Her uncle hired me on when I was nineteen. Hard to believe it’s been that long.”

Smiling to herself, Briar headed for the bow. She was tempted to stay and tell Molly the story of that day—and how Eli had almost come to blows with Andrew, but she’d been trying not to speak of Andrew too much around Molly. She realized now that Molly had never loved him, and somehow that made Andrew’s treatment of her even more hurtful. It saddened her that Molly had endured it all those years.

Benji was already hauling in another fish by the time Briar arrived on the bow deck.

“What sort of spell have you two cast on the fish?” Briar asked. “I’ve never seen so many caught in such a short time.”

“It’s Mr. Martel’s lures,” Benji answered, then glanced at Grayson. “That’s what you’re calling them, right?”

“Yes.” Grayson’s eyes met hers, a mischievous twinkle already alight. “And it’s not a spell, it’s something of a mechanical design.”

“Look here.” Benji already had the fish off the line and held out the hook for her inspection.

It wasn’t a simple hook. A shiny, oblong silver disk had been mounted on a shaft that attached it to the string. On the other end was a multi-barbed hook.

“The silver piece swirls as it trails in the water,” Benji continued, his excitement overcoming his usual shyness. “And it looks like the flash of a minnow to the big fish. Mr. Martel says they’re not bright enough to know the difference.”

She glanced at Grayson who was smiling at Benji’s enthusiastic explanation. “I didn’t realize you were such an expert on fish intellect,” she said to him.

“As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had a varied education.”

Benji tossed the line back in the water, allowing it to trail alongside the boat.

“Soul-iron fish bait,” she said. “That is varied.”

“Mr. Martel said they could also be made from regular steel, all polished up,” Benji added.

“So you don’t need to be a ferromancer to make these fish foolers?”

“Lures,” Grayson corrected.

“Anyone can make them,” Benji answered her. “The metal could be molded, and you could bend the wire with pliers.”

“Are you thinking of going into business, Ben Beaumont?” she teased.

“Oh, I’m not leaving the boat, but I thought I’d make up a mess during the winter months. I could sell them along the canal—if you don’t mind, Captain.”

“Of course not. That sounds like an enterprising thing to do.” She chewed her lip, trying not to smile. She’d never seen Benji so animated about something. It reminded her a bit of Grayson when he got excited about one of his inventions.

“I don’t reckon I’ll be driving your mules forever, and seeing as I’m getting older, I ought to start looking to my future.”

She smiled at his earnest tone. “Seems like a good thing to be thinking on.”

“Mr. Martel said he could teach me about forging and such. Real metal,” he quickly added. “Not soul iron.”

“Of course.” She glanced over at Grayson who had turned his attention to his fishing pole. Was he wondering—as she was—if he would be able to make good on that promise? Or would the outcome of Solon’s gala prevent it?

Grayson abruptly seized his pole. He had another fish on his line.

“If your lures are half as good as these, Benji, they’re going to sell like hotcakes.”

Benji didn’t get to answer as he was fighting another fish.

“We’re going to be eating fish morning, noon, and night,” she added.

“I thought we might trade our excess for some apples,” Grayson said as he hauled in the fish. “As I recall, there was an orchard north of Massillon.”

Briar’s cheeks warmed as she remembered that particular stretch of towpath. She and Grayson had walked along it in the moonlight—hand and hand.

“And what do you plan to do with these apples?” she asked to hide her reaction.

“Molly and I were planning some pies.”

“That sounds wonderful. I’m certainly glad I kidnapped you.”

Grayson looked up, meeting her gaze. “Me, too.”

Briar blushed again—especially when Benji cast them a sidelong glance. He’d been present when she’d admitted to kissing Grayson, and no doubt knew what Grayson meant.

“Well, I’ll leave you boys to your fishing. I’ve got some reading to do.” She gestured with the journal she held.

Grayson eyed the book, his expression sobering.

“All right, Captain,” Benji agreed.

She offered another smile, amused by Benji’s outspokenness. He was certainly excited about his new business prospect, enough to converse openly with her without blushing and going silent. Or perhaps he was growing up.

Walking toward the aft deck, she mused on how quickly time seemed to pass, especially when one looked back. Benji had been a skinny thirteen-year-old when he first joined her crew. Now, he was on the cusp of manhood and considering the future course of his life. His prospects were so different from what Grayson’s had been, or those of any other ferromancer youth.

She gripped the journal more tightly. That’s why she must get back to her studies. Maybe she could find a way to give those ferromancer boys a future.


Grayson’s memory of the apple orchard had been accurate, and they were able to trade a couple stringers of fish for a basket of apples. With it being well into the afternoon, Briar would have expected him to save the pie making for the following day, but Grayson had created a hand-cranked apple peeler along with a wickedly sharp apple corer before they were even underway.

Grayson’s new kitchen implements were all made from soul iron, but that hadn’t stopped Benji from sitting at his elbow and asking question after question about their construction.

Zach, smiling at his brother’s enthusiasm, had left him to watch Grayson while he finished Benji’s turn on the towpath, driving the mules on into Massillon.

Once docked, Briar went out to help Zach with the team, though she would have liked to stay and hear the rest of Grayson’s lecture on gear ratios.

“Is Ben slacking in his duties?” Zach asked when she stepped up to take Bramble’s bridle. The good-natured mule nuzzled her shoulder—unlike Big Red who would have taken a bite.

“I’ve never seen Benji so animated,” she answered. “We had an entire conversation, and he didn’t trip over his tongue or blush once.”

“Now that’s saying something.” Zach turned his attention to Bramble’s harness. “He’s been smitten with you since we first wandered onto your boat.”

She laughed, well aware of that fact. “That birthday made a bigger impact on him than one day should.”

“Happens that way, I’ve observed.” Zach’s tone turned philosophical, though he kept his eyes on his work. “You’ll be going along, same as ever and bam, things change. It’s like you suddenly see things different.”

She glanced at him. “You thinking of going into the fishing lure business, too?”

He chuckled. “Nah, that’s Benji’s dream.”

She watched him work, his fingers moving across the buckles with an ease born of years of experience.

“What’s your dream?” she asked.

He glanced up, his blue eyes meeting hers before turning back to his work. “I can’t say as I have one, but for the first time in years, I can allow myself to entertain such thoughts.” Mute and scarred after the fire that had decimated his family, Zach hadn’t had a lot of options open to him.

“What sorts of thoughts—if you don’t mind me asking.”

“I don’t mind.” He paused in his work, though he didn’t look at her. “I was thinking about getting some schooling. Grayson’s been helping me with my letters.” A faint blush darkened his tanned cheeks. “Ma and Pa couldn’t read and didn’t put a whole lot of value on it as long as we could run the boat and sell cargo. Pa was good with numbers, of course, so we never got cheated, but…”

He straightened, seeming to catch himself. “Listen to me ramble on.” He chuckled and returned to his work. “I thought I might look into some schooling, once Benji is raised.” He looked up. “But don’t worry. Your drivers ain’t going nowhere, Captain.”

“I’m not worried, but I do feel bad that I never made an effort to teach you. I didn’t realize you wanted to learn.”

“To be honest, it’s something of a recent interest.”

“Because of Grayson? Goodness knows he makes me feel like a country bumpkin more often than I’d like to admit.”

Zach smiled at her phrasing. “Partially, but it was more his ferra friend, Esme.”


Zach rubbed the back of his neck. “She was an attractive woman, and that got me to thinking about how miserable I would be if I fancied her. Someone that intelligent and well-educated—she wouldn’t look twice at a man like me.”

“Not to speak ill of the dead, but she saw everyone as beneath her. Even Grayson. It wasn’t—”

“I know. I’m not saying I wanted to impress her, but being around a woman like that made me very aware of my shortcomings.”


“Don’t come to my defense, Captain. You know it’s true. People like Esme, and even Grayson, they move in a whole different world than me—and I’m not talking about the magic. Someday, I would like to be able to hold a conversation with a person like that—and understand them.”

She smiled at the determination that had entered his tone. “I admire you, Zach. It takes courage to admit a shortcoming and then do something about it.”

“Thank you.”

“But I do wish you’d hurry up with the schooling,” she added. “I need help deciphering Esme’s journal.”

Zach glanced over. “Do you really think you’ll find the answers you’re looking for in there?”

“No, but it beats doing nothing.” She reached up and scratched Bramble’s forehead, and the mule released a contented sigh. Ah, for life to be so simple. 

Zach started to speak, then looked past her, a puzzled frown on his face.

Briar turned to see Perseus standing a few feet away. She noted with unease that he’d donned his weapons belt.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

“You have visitors, my lady.” He dipped his chin at the honorific. For some reason, he couldn’t seem to let the ferra thing go, no matter how many times she asked him to call her by name.

“Visitors?” she asked, stepping away from the mules so she could better see the boat. “Who—” She didn’t finish her question as the answer became obvious.

“Hello, Bridget,” Andrew greeted her.


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