Heart of Iron Page 1


London, 1879

Fog clung to the Thames like a lightskirt to a rich patron. Here and there, gaslight gleamed, flashing will-o’-the-wisp in the shrouding pea soup mist. It was the perfect night not to be seen.

Will Carver loped across rooftops and gables, leaping across an alley and coming to a halt behind a chimney near Brickbank.

A man landed lightly on the tiles beside him, breathing hard from the exertion. He wore black leather from head to toe, and the only weapons he carried were a pair of razors, tucked in his belt. “Bloody ’ell. You tryin’ to run me to death?” Blade muttered.

The words were quiet, but the sound carried in the still night. Will’s lip curled, and he glared at his master.

“They won’t be listenin’ for us, bucko.” Blade straightened, staring at the ruddy pillar of smoke ahead of them. “Not with that burnin’. And none of ’em ’as your hearin’.”

A column of red glowed against the night sky ahead, barely muted by the fog. Every time Will breathed he could taste the ash in the air. Ahead, a massive brick gate and wall blocked the way into the city. A company of metaljackets paced in front of the gate, gaslight gleaming off the shining steel plates of their armored chests. With the flamethrower appendages in place of their left arms they looked formidable enough to keep the general rabble at bay. They were, however, automatons and not human.

He’d long since learned they didn’t look up.

“Over?” he asked.

“I got me pardon now,” Blade said. “Could waltz right on through them gates and they’d not say a word.” The devilish light in his eyes said he wanted to try. There was nothing Blade liked better than thumbing his nose at the blue bloods who ruled the city.

“Yeah, well, we ain’t all that lucky,” Will reminded him. “I’ve still got a price on me head.”

Blade sighed, eyeing the massive edifice. “Over it is, then.”

“You’re gettin’ lazy.”

“I should be at ’ome, tucked up with me cheroot and a nice glass of mulled blud-wein.” What he didn’t add was the fact that he most likely wouldn’t have been doing either of those things. If the fire hadn’t called them out, Blade’d be in bed with his wife, Honoria.

Will took a few steps back. No point him being at home. The flat he rented these days was cold and uninviting. There was nothing for him to go back to.

A wide leap took him sailing across the street and onto a rooftop beside the gate. Taking a running start, he bounded up and over the wall before the guard on top had finished shaking out the flame on his match. Human eyes were sometimes just as bad as the automatons.

Bootsteps echoed him on the rooftops as he flitted lightly through the night. Fog parted around him, drifting in his wake, but he was moving too fast for anyone watching to see.

Here in the city the streets were a touch wider, the buildings not as jammed together as they were in the Whitechapel rookery he called home. Blood flushed through his veins as he leaped from rooftop to rooftop. He’d been cooped up for too long; he needed this.

Screams caught his ear along with the organized shouts of people trying to marshal water pumps. Little snowflakes of ash floated through the air, almost thick enough to choke a man. Will paused in the crook of a chimney.

Ahead, the world looked like it was on fire. Billowing gouts of orange flame licked at the skies, and a thick dark pall of smoke hung over the river. Lines of people manned water pumps, desperately trying to stop the flames from spreading.

“Jaysus,” Blade cursed as he knelt at Will’s side.

“The draining factories,” Will said. “Someone’s fired the draining factories.”

It was unthinkable. The line of factories down by the river were owned by the ruling Echelon to filter and store the blood gathered in the blood taxes. This would be a huge blow to them.

Blade’s eyes narrowed. “You and I ought to get out of ’ere, quick-smart.” His nostrils flared. “The place’ll be swarmin’ in metaljackets before we know it.”

Will backed up a step. He knew what Blade wasn’t saying. Two more perfect scapegoats couldn’t be found. Most of the aristocratic Echelon had been furious with the queen’s pardon and knighthood of Blade three years ago. And Will was just a slave-without-a-collar to their eyes.

A clink of metal caught his ears. Iron-booted feet on distant cobbles. A legion of metaljackets by the sound of it. “Go,” he snapped, shoving Blade in the back.

Blade needed no urging. He scrambled up the tiles on the roof, a break in the clouds bathing him in moonlight. Once, a few years ago, his hair would have lit up like a beacon. Now it had dulled to a light brown, and his skin was no longer as pale as marble.

Will followed at his heels in an easy lope, his ears alert to the slightest sound behind them. They’d seen what they came to see. No doubt word of it’d be all over the streets by morning.

Movement ahead caught his eye. A swirl of a black cloak stirring the fog. Will leaped forward and shoved Blade flat, covering him with his body.

“Ooof,” Blade wheezed. He lifted his head. “Thanks, but I’ve already got a wife—”

“Shut up.” Will pressed his hand between the other man’s shoulder blades, coming to a crouch. His gaze raked the fog. There. A metallic chink. Voices in the shadows.

From Blade’s stillness, he’d heard them too.

“Stay here,” Will breathed, close to his ear. “Keep your bloody head down and I’ll check it out.”

“Do I look like I need a friggin’ nursemaid?”

Will shot him a look. Three years ago, no. Blade’d been the most dangerous thing to stalk the night. But his hair and skin color weren’t the only changes in him since he’d started drinking Honoria’s blood.

“You go left,” he finally murmured. Short of tying Blade to the chimney with his belt, there wasn’t much chance of leaving him here.

Both of them faded into the fog. The voices ahead were getting farther away. Will moved like a wraith through the night, the movement rippling his dark wool coat around his hips. Beneath it he wore a heavy leather waistcoat that had been modified with steel inserts, as well as steel caps over his knees. You couldn’t be too careful in a world where a man’s main weapon might be a shiv or a heavy wrench. His loupe virus could heal almost anything, but being knifed still hurt.

Metal clanged and a pair of curses littered the air. Then silence, as though both people froze to see if they’d been heard. Will slowed, creeping across the tiles with one foot placed carefully in front of the other. He knelt low, easing on hands and feet around the edge of a chimney. There was no sign of Blade, but then Blade was even better at this sort of thing than he was.

“You drop that again and Mercury’ll have your head,” someone snapped.

Two figures. Both dressed in black and moving with a footpad’s efficiency. The shorter one picked up something heavy. A hollow metal tube, like the flamethrowers that the Spitfires used.

“Mercury ain’t here, is he?” asked the shorter man, hefting the flamethrower over his shoulder. “And when he hears how well we done, then he’ll be burying us in ale and whores.”

“That’s if the Echelon don’t rip your guts out first,” Blade said pleasantly, materializing out of nowhere.


Will leaped forward, even as the two men turned on his master. Despite their bickering, they moved with military efficiency. The shorter one snapped the flamethrower up, just as the other drew his blade. The tube coughed and then bright orange flame spewed through the fog, highlighting the roof and everyone on it.

Blade spun low, sweeping the knife-wielder’s feet out from under him. Will grabbed the barrel of the flamethrower and elbowed the man in the face. There was a satisfying crunch, then his mind registered just how hot the tube was. He dropped it and it rolled toward the edge of the roof, catching in the gutter.

“Just the two of you boys?” Blade taunted, not even bothering to draw a knife. He bent backward, avoiding the swipe of the knife with a gravity-defying movement, before snapping upright.

The man he was facing stiffened. “Frigging bleeders!” He reached into his pocket to press something and then agony screamed through Will’s head.

The sound was like an ice pick to the brain, wiping out all sense of time and place and even connection to his body. He hit the tiles, scrabbling blindly for purchase as he started to slide.

Something hit him hard under the chin, snapping his head back with resounding force. Words sounded, distorting the high-pitched scream, but he couldn’t make any of them out. Then movement blurred at the edge of his vision. Another smashing blow against his cheekbone. Blood splashed over his face, wet and hot.

Will clapped his hands over his ears, collapsing back on the tiles. That sound! Like razors in his head.

In…his pocket. Something in the man’s pocket. A device of sorts, making the noise.

Grinding his teeth together, he saw the shorter man lifting the flamethrower high. No time to think. He kicked out, aiming for the man’s knee.

A heavy weight landed on him and they both grunted. The throbbing squeal of noise pounded in time to his heartbeat. Will clawed to his feet and staggered forward, searching for Blade.

There. On the roof. The other man knelt over him and Will realized he had a knife buried deep in Blade’s chest. Trying to cut out his heart.

“No!” he roared, seeing red.

Anger rushed over him, swallowing him whole and burning him in its wake. He grabbed the man by the collar and flung him away. Blade gasped, clapping a hand to the knife hilt, but his reactions were still slow, disorientated.

The noise.

Will slammed the man down and yanked at his pocket. A small, vibrating device came free. He crushed it in his fist and the world fell silent.

Will staggered, throwing aside the crushed pieces. His ears were still ringing, but at least he could think. Breathe. Move.

The scent of hot, coppery blood washed over him.

“Blade,” he growled, leaping over the gasping man on the roof and sliding to his knees beside his master.

Blade lifted his head, then collapsed back down. “Bloody… Get it out…’s silver.” He lifted his fingers and flinched as they brushed against the knife hilt.

“Hold still,” Will snapped. A cold ring of sweat beaded on his forehead. The knife was buried to the hilt. He had no idea of the damage it had done, or what would happen if he removed it.

Behind him, the two men helped each other to their feet. Will spared them a glance, but they were trying to get away, now that the advantage had shifted once more to him and Blade.

“Gutted by a human.” Blade laughed incredulously. “Always thought…it’d be one of the Echelon. In the end.”

“Stop your whinin’.” Will wrenched his shirt off, a frisson of icy cold trailing down his spine. Blue bloods were notoriously difficult to kill. That was one reason the French revolution had guillotined their aristocrats. The only other way to stop them was to cut out their heart or cause severe damage to it. He swallowed hard and shoved his shirt around the wound to stop the bleeding. “Nothin’ more’n a scratch. We’ll have you hale in no time.”

Blade met his gaze. His fingers were surprisingly strong when they closed around Will’s. “Swear you’ll look after ’er,” he snarled. “If…if I don’t…”

Will dropped his gaze. “Aye. You know I’ll do it.” He owed Blade his life, no matter what he personally thought of Honoria. “Hold still. You need blood.”

Darkness slithered through Blade’s pale eyes. His head rolled to the side. “Feels…numb…” he murmured.

Panic speared through Will’s gut. “Don’t you dare!” Ripping at the heavy hunting knife he carried, he cradled his friend’s head in his hands. “Here. Have me blood. It’ll help.”

It was short work to slash the vein in his wrist open. He cupped the back of his head and held Blade’s mouth to his wrist.

A moment of hesitation that never used to be there. He knew what Blade was thinking. He’d stopped taking directly from any of his thrall’s veins when Honoria came into his life. Now he drank his blood either from her or cold, out of the icebox.

“Don’t be a fool. She won’t mind,” Will snarled.

That hint of darkness swept through Blade’s irises again. Will’s chest caught. Not in fear. Gods, not that. Anticipation swept through his veins, lighting them on fire. It’d been a long time since he’d been one of Blade’s thralls. He’d not realized how much he missed it.

As Blade’s mouth closed over his wrist, his tongue sliding over the ragged wound, Will collapsed forward onto his hands. A gasp tore from his lips. Feeling flooded through him that he hadn’t felt in years. It had confused him when Blade first took him as a thrall, but it was nothing more than his body’s reaction to the chemicals in his master’s saliva.