Excerpt: Redemption

Steampunk Romance

Redemption by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

It all started with the dog—a real one, not a mech one.  Not that Matilida Upton blamed the poor creature for changing her life in a most dramatic and permanent fashion.  No, the blame could be laid squarely at the studded boots of Sir Magnus Grimshaw, the queen’s Chief Royal Inventor.

Tilda knelt on the slippery flagstones of the lane running alongside her London townhouse, the elongated and fitted cuirass style of her bodice lending a degree of difficulty to the task.  She peered into the underground cavity, wrench in hand.  The blasted air filtering system had stopped working again and Tilda, being the only one in the household of four women who knew how to fix it, tinkered with the gears.  She loosened a nut and a burst of steam shot out of the pipe, fogging up the goggles of her leather and brass mask.  It would have scalded if she hadn’t taken the precaution.

She set the wrench aside and peered into the cavity.  Warmth and the scent of damp metal drifted out but the smell of something more putrid penetrated the mask’s breathing holes.  Urine.  She wiped the goggles and looked closer.  Something was in there.  A grey ball of fluff.  She reached in and pulled it out.  It whimpered and stared up at her with huge brown eyes.

“Hello, little one.  Who do you belong to?”  There was no one else in the lane, and certainly no one looking for a dog.  The animal blinked at her and snuggled closer.  It was made of flesh and fur, which didn’t necessarily categorize it as a real animal, but Tilda could feel little ridges through its coat which were unmistakably bones and not metal rods or gears.  It was also warm and rather affectionate.  Clearly it was someone’s pet and used to human contact.

She took it into the kitchen and set it down on the wooden table on which Mary had just finished preparing the vegetables to go into the soup.  The maid glanced up from her stool near the cast iron oven and dropped her ladle, handle and all, into the cauldron.  “Ew, what’s that bedraggled thing, miss?”

“A dog,” Tilda said, removing her mask and hanging it on the hook near the door.  The air was cleaner in the house than outside but still not fresh.  With the filter not working, it would remain that way.  “A real one,” she added.  “I found it outside.”

“Are you sure it’s a dog?” Mary said, bending down to get a closer look at the animal.  She screwed up her nose.  “Could be a rat.”  The dog peered at her beneath fluffy grey brows then buried its nose under its paw.  “I mean, who would want a real dog?  You have to feed and clean a real dog, and pick up its whatsit.”

Tilda patted the animal’s matted hair.  “Shall we clean it up and find out?”

“Your aunt won’t approve,” Mary said, casting a cautious eye at the door.

Rather eerily, the door opened but instead of Aunt Winnie, Tilda’s sister bounced in.  Letitia was always bouncing.  She had far too much energy for a genteel lady, even one of only eighteen.  “There you are, Til,” Letitia said.  “I’ve been–.  Oh!  What are you doing with that rat?”

“I think it’s a dog,” Tilda said.

“A real one,” Mary added.

Tilda explained how she’d come across it.  “We’re about to clean it up.  Perhaps there’s a clue to its owner beneath all this hair.”

“Or perhaps there isn’t.”  Letitia clasped her hands as if in studious prayer and bounced.  “If not, can we keep it, Til?  Pleeeease.  I’ve always wanted a dog.”

“Mr. Cranker has mech ones for sale,” Mary offered.  “With red fur and everything.  Red suits your coloring, Miss Letitia.”

Letitia stuck out her bottom lip.  “I rather like the idea of a real one,” she said.  “I could take it for walks.  And buy it a pretty red collar, studded with pearls—”

“Before you get carried away, we can’t afford pearls,” Tilda said.  She sighed.  Her sister was a delightfully fun companion but she was rather trying at times.  “And I think you’ll grow tired of walking a dog every day.”

“And scooping up its whatsit,” Mary said.  “The Council for Cleanliness doesn’t like dog mess on the pavements.”

Hence the growing rate of mech pets instead of real ones in the city.  “Besides, it may have an owner already,” Tilda said.  “Come on, let’s clean it up before Aunt Winnie returns.  She’ll have a fit if she sees a dog in the kitchen.”

Mary dipped the brass temperature stick into a small pot of water sitting on the stove then wiped it on her apron.  “This’ll do,” she said, showing them the read-out in the panel at the stick’s crown.  “I was going to use it for washing but it’s just the right temperature now for the little mite.  Come on, let’s dip him in.”

“After we feed it.”  The dog’s ears waggled as if it understood.  They gave it the ham bone Mary had kept aside for the soup and filled a bowl with water.  After the dog had eaten its fill, they plunged it into the pot.  It yelped and struggled for a moment then its eyes fluttered closed and it seemed to enjoy being scrubbed, dried and pampered.

It turned out to be white, not grey, and quite a pretty little thing.  It wore a slender leather collar studded with black jet surrounded by rings of gold.  A lovely piece that must have been worth a small fortune.

“Let me have a closer look,” Tilda said, removing the collar.  “It might have a name or…”  Her sentence trailed away as a sliver of tingles crept from her hand along her arm.  Her fingers grew warm, as if the collar threw off heat.  Impossible.

And yet she knew it wasn’t.  This strange phenomenon had happened several times over her twenty-four years.  Whenever she touched an object separated from its owner, her skin heated, as if the source of the heat was the object itself.  And then a clarity came to her, like a vision of a path to follow.

Her mother had explained what it meant when Tilda had first asked her about it.  She’d been barely eight years old.  The object was like a talisman and it was using her to find its way back to the owner.  Tilda’s mother had possessed the skill too, but had warned Tilda to keep it a secret.  At the time, Tilda didn’t know why but later she did.

Divination was a dangerous skill to possess in a time when machines ruled and the men who controlled them were treated like Gods with wealth and privilege thrown at them.  Anyone possessing paranormal abilities—a power not based on mechanics but on the unexplained—was treated with suspicion and fear.  The most powerful, the hellhags, were blamed for all the ills to befall a community.  An epidemic of disease was said to be caused by the hellhags, the unexplained death of a child or the occurrence of any strange phenomena was laid at the feet of women with even the most tenuous skill.

It only took one accusation, one pointed finger, and an entire community would jump at the chance to punish the person responsible for their tribulations.  According to the law, hellhags were to be put on trial and hung until dead.  It was a long English tradition, one deeply entrenched in the hearts of even the good.  No one would deny the simple folk a target for their fears, least of all the inventors.  A cynical person would claim the inventors didn’t want rivals more powerful than themselves, didn’t want anyone to take their place at the helm of the government and the forefront of progress.  And since their class held the ear of the law-makers, the law stated that anyone possessing strong non-mechanical abilities must be put to death.

Tilda, like her mother before her, may only possess a weak and rather useless talent for finding people but it was not a talent she wanted to advertise to the world.  She didn’t want to be branded a hellhag by mistake.  Letitia too had shown signs of some skill at divination but hers was even weaker than Tilda’s.

The heat from the collar grew more intense so Tilda placed it on the table and plopped down on one of the chairs.  She and Mary exchanged glances.  Letitia was too busy cuddling the dog to notice.

“You all right, miss?” Mary asked, eyeing Tilda closely.

“Did it have any writing on it?” Letitia said, nodding at the collar.  She scratched the dog under the chin and made coo-coo noises at it.

“Er, yes.  An address.  I’ll take the dog back.”  Tilda scooped it up.

Letitia pouted.  “Now?”

“I’m sure the poor thing would like to see its owner again.”

“I suppose.”  Letitia sighed.  “Some little boy or girl must be missing him.”

“Be careful, miss,” Mary said, fixing the collar around the dog’s neck.

“Why?” Letitia asked, frowning at one and then the other.

“There’s a lot of construction work going on in the city,” Tilda said quickly, scooping the dog into her arms.  Its fuzzy little face nestled against her chest.  “Of course I’ll be careful.”

Tilda set off immediately with the dog tucked under her arm.  It would be lovely to see it back where it belonged.  As Letitia said, perhaps the owner was a child.  How happy they’d be to see their beloved pet again!  It seemed to enjoy the company of people and didn’t mind the loud grinding of digging machines, the whir of cranes and the shouts of workers that had taken over London of late.

She followed the path laid out for her by the divination, a somewhat tenuous thread that pulled her along.  Whenever it weakened, she touched the dog’s collar and the way was made clear to her once more.  The process took a great deal of concentration, and so keen was she to reunite the dog with its owner, she walked right up to the palace gates before realizing where her divination had taken her.  Straight to the queen.

It wasn’t that the sovereign was so terrible.  Tilda actually admired her.  It mustn’t be easy for a woman to rule over a rapidly changing country dominated for so many centuries by men.  It’s just that the queen was the one who’d reinstated the law to terminate all the hellhags after a deranged one had tried to assainate her early in her reign.  The country had gone nearly three hundred years without incident and hellhags had become normal members of society in that time, neither feared nor loathed until the horror of thirty-seven.

Not that Tilda was a hellhag.  A little skill at divination didn’t put her into that category.  Nevertheless, it was best to keep even her small amount of power from the authorities.  They tended to get over-zealous.

With her heartbeat skipping more erratically than it usually did after divining, she walked up to one of the red-coated guards standing to attention at the gate and told him about the dog.  She gave him a story about having seen the queen’s servant out walking it once and so was able to identify it as belonging to Her Majesty when she found it.  The guard gave her an unreadable stare.  He opened his mouth to speak when a man approached.  He was tall with a pointed black goatee and moustache and bright striped vest of green and gold.  Set against his cream colored coat and breeches he looked different to the dreary figures who usually walked the city streets.

“Forgive me,” he said, bowing.  “I couldn’t help overhearing.  My name is Sir Magnus Grimshaw.  I live in the palace.”  He indicated the grand colonnaded façade of the royal residence beyond the gates and fountain.

“Oh, then perhaps you could return the dog,” she said, holding out the animal.

He winced and shook his head.  “The guard will.  I simply want to ask you how you knew it belonged to Her Majesty.”

Tilda went cold.  She hadn’t been careful enough.  “As I told the guard, I recognize–.”

“But there are probably hundreds of dogs who get walked every day in the city.  Do you mean to tell me you knew that this particular one was the queen’s simply by looking at it?”

“The collar is distinctive,” she said, thinking fast.  “And mech dogs are more common than real ones nowadays.”

“It’s not that distinctive.”  He smoothed his thin moustache with his thumb and forefinger then turned to one of the guards.  “Open the gates.”  The guard pressed a lever set into the wall.  The mechanism hissed and the great iron gates yawned.  “And take the dog.  It does indeed belong to Her Majesty.  I believe it was the very one that bit me last week.”  Sir Magnus strolled through the gates.  As they slid closed behind him, he turned and added, “Find out where she lives.”

Tilda felt sick.  Her stomach roiled as she handed the dog to the guard.  Should she flee or stay and pretend nothing was amiss.  In the end, she found her legs were too unsteady to run so she answered the guard when he asked her where she lived.  She didn’t dare give a false address.  If her lie was detected, Sir Magnus’s suspicions would be confirmed.  For he was suspicious.  He must have guessed she’d found the dog’s owner by using a paranormal skill.  She only hoped he would forget about her or decide she was not worth bothering about.

But she knew with a dreadful foreboding that he would not forget.

A week later she was proved correct.  Sir Magnus came to her house.  Aunt Winnie and Letitia were out and Tilda had to entertain him on her own in the parlor.  Mary brought tea and biscuits, forked a brow at Tilda in question then left when Tilda shook her head.  This was a person she must face alone.  Thank goodness her sister wsn’t home.  Letitia might have only a little skill at divination but she also possessed the unenviable skill of not being able to keep her mouth shut.

Sir Magnus stared out the window at an airship ascending into the clouds, its sails full and its engine humming, the great iron wings tucked into the side of the hull to minimize the disturbance over the city.  It must have come from the docks which could be pinpointed in the distance by the hundreds of craft of all shapes and sizes hovering above it.

“Let’s not beat around the bush,” Grimshaw said, turning to Tilda.  “You have the skill of divination.”

“Not true!”

He snorted a laugh.  “Don’t try to fool me, Miss Upton, I can smell the magic on you.”  He sniffed the air which was now pristine thanks to the filter she’d fixed yet again that morning.

Ugh.  “That is disgusting.  I have no magic.  If this is about the dog, I told you I recognized the collar–.”

He held up a hand for silence.  She swallowed her retort.  She didn’t want to antagonize him.  If he lived at the palace he was most likely very influential.  “I won’t tell a soul,” he said, “if you do one thing for me.”

She swallowed.  “Sit down, sir.  Please avail yourself of my maid’s biscuits.”  She tried to smile.  It was difficult.

He flipped out his coat tails and sat.  She poured him a cup of tea and handed him the plate of biscuits.  He refused them and ignored the tea.  He simply looked at her through eyes as black and round as the buttons down the front of Tilda’s gown, and licked his lips.

“It’s unusual to find a girl so pretty and not yet married at your age, Miss Upton.”

“Twenty-four is not that old,” she said, repeating an oft-said line.  She was growing a little tired of the comments concerning her marital state, or lack of it.

“Not for a hellhag.”

She dropped her cup into her saucer with a loud clank.  “I am not a hellhag.”  It was all she could do to get the words out through her tight throat.

“You can divine, Miss Upton.  Is there anything else you–?”

“Nothing else, I assure you!  Most determinedly assure you.”

He seemed to relax.  His wiry moustache stretched as a fleeting smile passed over his lips and he nodded.  He had been afraid of her!  If she truly were a hellhag then he ought to be.  But as a simple diviner, he had nothing to fear.  And now he knew it.

“I see,” he said.  “Very well, then it is most fortunate you’ve come to me now.”

“Pardon?”

“I wish to commission you, Miss Upton.”

“Commission me?  To do what?”

“Find someone.  An Oriental man is traveling on an airship called the Adrienne bound for France.  The ship belongs to the King of France and is heavily armed.  I want you to bring the Oriental to me and the machine he carries with him.  Understand?”

Tilda’s head was spinning.  Surely this was all a dream.  Sir Magnus could not possibly be serious.  And yet he looked quite serious going by the grim set of his mouth and the challenge in his hard black eyes.

“Out of the question,” she said.  “What an absurd suggestion.  I can’t simply drop everything to find a man for you, Sir Magnus, no matter who you are.”

“I am Her Majesty’s Chief Royal Inventor.”  It was said with a raised chin and pompousness that got up Tilda’s nose.  “And you most certainly can and will drop everything to find this man for me.  If you don’t, I’ll make sure the relevant authorities are alerted to your…unusual skill.”

It was the moment Tilda had been dreading.  Her chest suddenly hurt and she felt a little weak all over.  “I see,” she managed to say.

“Besides, it’s not as if you have anything to keep you here.  You’re not married and you don’t work.”

So he’d investigated her.  “I’m a gentlewoman,” she said and winced.  Now she sounded pompous.  “And I, I…”  She couldn’t think of a single good excuse not to do as he ordered.  “And I don’t want to.  You can’t force me.  I’m no hellhag so you may say what you want to the authorities.  Apart from a little divination, you have no proof.”

He shrugged.  “If you think I need proof then you are indeed naïve.”

She sat back against the sofa’s cushions and concentrated on breathing and not shaking.  It all felt so hopeless!  The more she tried to dig herself out of this, the more she seemed to bury herself.

“How am I to get this Oriental?” she asked.  “I doubt the French will hand him over to me with a smile.”

“I don’t care how.  Just get him.  If you don’t, you will suffer the fate of all hellhags.”

“Hanging!”

“And your aunt and sister with you.”

“B, but they don’t have any skill!” she spluttered.  “And I have so little.”

“You have enough.”  He sneered, curling his fleshy top lip into his moustache.  “You hellhags make me sick, even you pretty ones.”  He spat into his teacup.  “What a waste of sweet flesh.”

Tilda recoiled.  Her insides twisted and her mouth went dry.  She needed to be very, very careful.  Grimshaw wasn’t a man she could charm or trick into leaving her alone.

So what was she going to do?

Grimshaw cleared his throat and flattened his moustache with his thumb and finger.  He dug into his inside coat pocket and handed her an envelope.  “This letter belongs to a man traveling on the Adrienne.  Not the Oriental, another.  It will direct you to the airship.”

She stared at the letter and with a sinking, sickening feeling she realized she had no choice.

***

A week passed in which Tilda and her aunt and sister tried to think of ways to get out of Sir Magnus’s clutches.  But they were trapped.  They had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.  The authorities held tight control on population movements so they could not flee London.  It would instantly raise suspicions if they were to turn up in another city or even a small village in the middle of the moors.  To travel without triggering an investigation required new identities to be made, false papers to be drawn up and other people to aid them.  No, there was nothing to be done but find a way to fetch the Oriental and his machine.

It was after listening to Mary’s story about the latest exploits of Black Jack Knight the sky pirate that Tilda had decided he was the man she needed.

“They say he captured the trading vessel The Eagle and stole all the cargo,” Mary said over breakfast one morning.

“I heard he tortured the crew,” Letitia said, tearing up her toast.

“Torture!”  Aunt Winnie flapped a hand at her breast.  “That man’s a beast.”

“So they say,” Mary said, teapot poised over a teacup.  “I heard he once kidnapped a cousin to the French king and ransomed him for a thousand pieces of gold.”

Letitia, eyes bright, leaned over her plate.  Everyone else leaned closer too.  “And I heard he kidnapped the entire family of the Russian ambassador.”

Mary nodded knowingly.  “While holding off no less than three navy airships.  Three!  He may be a beast but he’s a mighty strong one.”

Aunt Winnie sniffed.  “Strong or not, he has no morals,” she muttered.  “Not that I’m surprised, considering what he did to his poor brother.”

“Aye,” Mary said, pouring the tea.

“The authorities would have his head if they ever caught him,” Letitia said, somewhat wistfully.

Tilda swirled the tea around her teacup, thoughtful.  A man with legendary fighting skills, no morals and no incentive to go to the authorities—he was perfect.

“They say he’s terribly handsome,” Letitia went on.  “And can charm the skirts off–.”

“Letitia!”  Aunt Winnie snapped.

“All I meant was, everyone says he prefers charming women to…”  She dropped her gaze and her voice became a whisper.  “To killing and raping them.”

“Letitia!  Don’t speak that disgusting word.”

“But it’s true!”

“I’ve heard the same thing,” Tilda said.  She cut her boiled egg into slices, careful not to meet anyone’s gaze.  “That’s why I’m going to hire him.”

Letitia gasped.  “Really?  How thrilling.”

“I think I’m going to faint,” Aunt Winnie said, flapping her hand faster.

“Is that wise, miss?” Mary asked.  “He sounds barely civilized.”

“I don’t require him to be civilized, I require him not to…you know.”

“Kill or rape you,” Letitia offered.

Aunt Winnie whimpered.

“Quite,” Tilda said.  “Entering into a business arrangement with a pirate who prefers charming women to hurting them is certainly a point in his favor.”  She stabbed a slice of egg with her fork.  “Besides, I’ve never met a man whose charms I couldn’t resist.”

***

For someone with Matilda Upton’s unique talent, finding England’s most infamous sky pirate had been easy.  Catching him, however, was proving more of a challenge.  Black Jack Knight darted like a cat through the deep shadows of the taverns and brothels crammed as close to London’s old docks as possible.  For a tall man he was surprisingly nimble.  Tilda and her aunt struggled to maintain the same swift pace.

“Curses,” muttered Aunt Winifred between bosom-heaving breaths.  She stamped the point of her closed parasol on the flagstones.  “We lost him.”

Tilda could think of more appropriate words than “curses”, most of which she’d overheard earlier while waiting for Knight outside The Noose tavern, but she refrained from using them in her aunt’s presence.  Instead, she rubbed the pocket chronometer clenched in her fist.  The brass felt smooth against her thumb and the gears whirred to life where moments before they had been silent.  The case grew steadily warmer until it branded her skin, but Tilda didn’t let it go.  If she did, the connection linking object to owner would be severed and the best chance she had of finding the one man able to help her would be lost.  Like a mist consumed by morning sunshine, the way to Knight suddenly cleared and she moved off down the damp, narrow lane, signaling her aunt to follow.

“Matilda–”

Tilda signed for silence and Winnie obeyed, although with much reluctance and a lot of tongue biting on her aunt’s part Tilda suspected.

Her senses, taut as a stretched rope, directed her to the pirate.  Where a wolfhound used smell to seek out its prey, Tilda used something less tangible but just as accurate to locate Black Jack.

He had stopped around the corner.  He waited.

She turned into the street and as she did so one of the dirigibles hovering overhead moved, plunging them into near darkness.  The light was bad enough in a city choking to death on its own soot but the old docks area was a notoriously dingy place with the hulls of the airships always blocking what little sunshine managed to pierce through the gray miasma.

Even though she knew exactly where he stood, backed into a recessed doorway nearby, Tilda’s heart, already tripping over itself like a child learning to walk, lurched when he jumped out in front of them.  Much less prepared, Aunt Winnie screeched.

Black Jack Knight, silent and quick, clamped his hand over the wide open mouth.  Winifred’s wild eyes, round with fear, appealed to her niece.

Tilda swallowed and shifted her gaze to the man she had decided two weeks ago to seek.  He towered above her and his broad shoulders stretched the stitching of his black leather coat.  He possessed an imposing silhouette, but she had waited impatiently for his return to English airspace and wasn’t about to be frightened away now.  They were, after all, in full public view.  Although the public in the old docks area seemed as foul and slippery as the lane in which they found themselves.  Adding credence to her thoughts, miserable faces turned away without offering assistance.

Squaring her shoulders, Tilda gave her full attention to the pirate.  The first thing she noticed was that his name was inappropriate.  Captain Black Jack Knight had hair the color of sand and eyes as blue as the sapphire set into the ring on his little finger.  Unlike most people of that coloring, his skin was tanned a golden honey from the warmer regions where he reportedly committed most of his crimes.  He was also distractingly handsome.  His lips were wide and full but not thick, his nose was straight, his cheeks defined without being sharp and his brow untroubled with lines.  But more than the sum of his features, he had a presence about him, an aura that pulled Tilda in so that she found it difficult not to stare at him.

“Well, well,” he said cheerfully.  “It seems you have caught me.”  His arm flexed as Aunt Winnie tried to speak beneath his hand.  “Or have I caught you?”

“Let her go,” Tilda said.  “Please,” she added as an afterthought.

“Please?  Such manners.”  His blue gaze took in her tight bodice, gold and pearl drop earrings and matching necklace.  Tilda willed herself to be still under his bald scrutiny.  “You are a long way from home, Little Chick.  Or do London’s whores dress like ladies now?”  A smile flicked the corners of his lips but vanished when Aunt Winnie bit him.  “Ouch!”

He let go and she bustled to Tilda’s side.  Belatedly remembering that she was the chaperone and her niece the virginal lady of only twenty-four tender years, Winnie pushed Tilda behind her broad skirts and tossed her head.  “We are not whores!”

Inspecting his bitten hand as if checking a bucket for holes, he said, “In your case, Madam, there was never any doubt.  But to the young lady, I humbly apologize for the mistake.”

Winnie frowned.  Before she could realize he hadn’t paid her a compliment, Tilda moved out from behind her aunt.  “And I apologize for following you, Black Ja…Lord…ahem…Captain.  But if you had stopped when you first heard our approach, this cat and mouse game would not have been necessary.”

“Ah, but it was fun.”  He flashed a brilliant grin that Tilda didn’t trust.  “Now, who are you and what do you want?”  The sudden change in his voice, one moment playful, the next as cold and sharp as the hidden dagger strapped to her forearm, sent a chill through her despite the oppressive thickness of the laneway’s air.

“My name is Matilda Upton and I have a proposition for you.”

“Really?  How intriguing.”  He gave a shallow bow.  “I am propositioned by beautiful ladies every day but none of them are quite so…determined as you.”

She blushed then silently cursed the pale complexion that made it obvious.  “Oh.  When I said proposition, I meant…my aunt and I would like to employ you, Captain, in a venture rather risky in nature.”

“My favorite kind.  But my services are not for sale.”

“You haven’t heard my offer yet!”

“I don’t need to.  I have enough copper.”  He strode off and did not look back.

“I’m not offering copper,” she said quickly.  “I’m offering redemption.”

He stopped and for one long moment, didn’t move.  Then slowly he walked back to her.  “Redemption?”

Tilda’s skin tingled with excitement.  She had him.  When she’d first made her enquiries about this man, she’d guessed he couldn’t be lured by copper or material objects so she’d looked for other means.  It seemed her instincts had been correct.  “A chance to clear your name.  Of your original crime,” she added, in case he assumed she meant all his subsequent pirating.  She was no miracle worker.

Knight said nothing.  The light summer breeze carried the sounds of the new docks both above and at ground level—the hammering of iron nails, the clank of chains as cargoes were loaded and unloaded, the whistle of the steam engines as ships jostled for space above.  In the lane where they stood motionless, a baby mewled and a door banged.  Dirty faces in the shadows pretended not to watch the strangers.  Tilda pretended not to notice them.  Thankfully they were out of earshot.  No one must overhear their conversation.

Eventually Knight spoke.  “For a guilty man, that kind of redemption is impossible.”  His blue gaze challenged hers.

“You don’t believe you’re guilty.”

“I know I’m not,” he said, too mildly for a man who would be locked up in Newgate if the constables discovered him and hung if convicted by a jury.  “But do you?”

Beside Tilda, Aunt Winnie drew a sharp breath.  “That,” said Tilda, “is irrelevant for my purpose.”

“And what is your purpose, Chick?”

“Her name is Miss Upton,” said Aunt Winnie from behind the lacy handkerchief she held to her nose.  “A gentleman would call her such.”

He laughed.  “I’m no gentleman, Madam.”

“You were,” said Tilda.  “Once.”

“I repeat,” he said as if he hadn’t heard her, “what is your purpose with me?”

“I want you to find a ship,” she said, “and capture its treasure.”

“Which ship?  What treasure?”

“The Adrienne.  It carries an object I wish to obtain.  That’s all you need to know.”

“No, it isn’t.  What object?  Gold?  Jewels?  Information?”

Perhaps it was only fair that he knew the reason he would be risking his life.  Although not the entire reason.  Not yet.  Not until he had agreed.  “A man.  He’s traveling from the Orient to the king of France.  The airship is equipped with cannon and a brigade of gendarmes.  He won’t be easy to capture.”

“What is so special about this man that requires the French king to send some of his own personal bodyguard to protect him?”  He stepped closer and his hard blue eyes swept over her, their iciness pinning her to the spot.  She shivered but met his gaze when it finally returned to her face.  “And why, Miss Upton,” he continued, “do you want him badly enough to risk your reputation and your neck to follow the likes of me through the bowels of London?”

Tilda hesitated.  How much should she divulge?  Reveal everything and she risked the unscrupulous pirate making off with her treasure.  But reveal too little and he might refuse the commission altogether, despite her offer.

“Matilda,” Aunt Winnie whispered.  “Tell him.”

Tilda nodded reluctantly.  “I have been, er, commissioned to find him.”  Knight gave no indication he’d noticed her hesitation.  “The Oriental is an inventor.”  There, not a lie, although it danced around the truth.  “He’s made a machine which my employer wishes to possess.  Don’t ask me what it does, I don’t know.  Nor can I tell you who I work for.  I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

“I see,” said Knight.  He rubbed his stubbly chin with a hand criss-crossed by old scars.  “And my payment?  My redemption?”

Tilda’s discreet enquiries had taken her to a moderate and rundown house in the low part of Clapham where she had bought the chronometer talisman from a man only too pleased to liquidate his one valuable asset.  She had probably paid too much for it but the man, once the butler in the Ironside household, had given her the piece of information she could use to entice Knight.  He’d told her the entire story behind Jack Knight’s downfall from younger brother of the third Baron Ironside to ironwing slave then sky pirate.  She had been fascinated, appalled and ultimately relieved when she realized she could use his history as leverage for her cause.

“I can find the witness you’ve been seeking these last three years,” she said to him.

His head jerked back as if he’d been punched in the jaw.  If he’d been wearing a hat it would have fallen off.  “How do you know about that?”

“I visited your family home in Richmond and asked some of the servants about you.  Everyone knows you fled the country but they told me you were in fact seeking the man you claim witnessed the death of your brother.  Most of your servants think you’re innocent, by the way.  Of your brother’s murder, at least.”  It was one of the maids who’d suggested Tilda find the man who’d been the Ironside’s butler at the time of the baron’s death.  She had, and was relieved the visit had been fruitful.

“I am.”

“So you say.”  His innocence was neither here nor there, although it was reassuring to think that the man she was about to employ wasn’t as black-hearted as his name implied.  Fratricide was a serious charge and all the evidence pointed to his guilt.  He stood to inherit his childless brother’s lands, title and factories, but worse, Thomas Knight, Lord Ironside, was known to have been a beast to his employees, something the younger brother couldn’t abide.  They’d clashed many times, often with violent consequences.  In the past, Thomas, older by four years, had always won those physical contests but when Jack eventually surpassed him in size and ability, he had out-mastered Thomas.  The younger brother had proved to be a superb natural swordsman, shooter and puglisist and by all accounts, Lord Ironside hated him for it.  Their rivalry became legendary.  And deadly.

Jack Knight’s coarse laughter unexpectedly cut through the silence.  “Go back to your mama, Little Chick.  You’re wasting my time.”

He made to stride off again but Tilda caught his arm.  Her fingers closed over hard muscle that flexed beneath her touch.  “My mother is dead, as is my father.  Aunt Winnie is all I have.”  She let go of his arm.  He didn’t move.  “He’s a sailor on a merchant airship, your witness.  But I suspect you know that already.”

The brief flicker of his lashes meant Tilda had guessed correctly.  Knight had apparently fled to the sky after his brother’s death to find the witness as well as avoid capture.  Even after he escaped the airship on which he’d been an ironwing slave—one of dozens of men forced to operate the massive iron wings when the ship ran out of steam—he’d stayed in the air, albeit as a pirate.

“I will take you to him after you bring me the Oriental.  Trust me, Captain.  I will find him for you.”

“How?”

She concentrated on being still to give an outward appearance of calmness even though her nerves felt frayed under the pirate’s penetrating gaze.  “I don’t feel obliged to reveal that at this point in our negotiations.”  She had no intention of sharing that particular secret with someone she didn’t know and certainly didn’t trust.  She’d made the terrible mistake with Sir Magnus Grimshaw, she wasn’t going to make it again.

“I see.”  He leaned one shoulder against the grimy brick wall of the nearby warehouse.  Two young boys ran past, squealing with excitement as they chased each other.  Knight crossed his arms and watched the boys disappear round the corner.  “You’ve been following me for some twenty minutes through a part of London where no lady should wander,” he said without looking at her or Aunt Winnie.  “Considering my reputation you took a risk coming here with only one matronly aunt and a hidden dagger to protect you.”

How did he know about the dagger?

The eyes he turned on her shone with a wicked gleam.  “Is it strapped to your thigh?” he asked, his voice a purr.  His gaze traveled lazily from the crimson lapels of her gown down the tight black bodice to the base of her skirt, slashed to reveal the crimson satin inserts, as if he could see through all the layers to her drawers.  “No, too difficult to retrieve in a hurry.”  He caught her hand, the one not holding the chronometer.  She didn’t try to move away although Aunt Winnie protested loudly.  His calloused fingers slowly pushed up Tilda’s sleeve to reveal white skin and the point of her dagger.  He explored the goosebumps prickling her flesh before drawing her hand up to his lips.  He kissed her fingertips, knuckles and wrist, sending warmth humming across her skin.

Tilda, caught off guard by the gentlemanly gesture and her body’s enthusiastic response to it, took several heartbeats to react.  She snatched back her hand.

In a move so quick she didn’t have time to gasp, Black Jack Knight spun her round and held a dagger to her throat.  Her dagger.  The cold steel stroked her skin and the lips that had kissed her hand now whispered in her ear: “How did you find me?”

Behind her, Aunt Winnie screamed again but the sound ended with a stifled gurgle.  The Captain must have given her a murderous glare to silence her.

Tilda shivered as the blade dug into her flesh.  One flick of his wrist and she would bleed to death before Aunt Winnie could run for help.  Not that Aunt Winnie could run anywhere with her voluminous skirts and a bustle the size of a watermelon.

Tilda’s fingers closed tighter over the talisman still in her free hand and recited the story she’d memorized earlier.  “We frequented several taverns near the docks until we saw you at the White Swan.  When you left, we followed.  I suppose we were fortunate to find you so quickly.”

“Very.  Considering my spies at those taverns would have sent word that a pretty lady sought me.  Besides which, I only docked yesterday after a long voyage and no one except my crew knew we were coming to London.  You would have to be a seer to know I would be here today.”

She sucked in a steadying breath.  Keep calm.  He doesn’t know.  He couldn’t possibly.

He let go of her only long enough to swing her round and grab her other hand.  He squeezed her wrist and her fingers opened, releasing the chronometer.

“Where did you get this?” he growled.

“That’s my business.”

“No.  This…”  He held it up and the sliver of light filtering between the hulls of two airships above picked out the Ironside family crest etched into the brass case.  “This is very much my business.  Talk.”

Beyond him, Aunt Winnie shook her head emphatically.  “We’ll tell you nothing.”

“Then let me guess,” said the Captain without looking at Winnie.  “You’re not a seer, you’re a hellhag and this chronometer is your talisman to find me.  And you have something else in your possession that will lead you to the Oriental as well as the man I seek.  Correct?”

Aunt Winnie’s face drained of color and Tilda felt the heavy air wrap around her like a stifling blanket.  The two women drew instinctively closer together.

“I’m not a hellhag,” she whispered.

“But you mustn’t tell anyone about this,” Winnie added.

He shrugged.  “Honor our transaction and I will keep your secret.”  He dropped the chronometer in the inside pocket of his long black leather coat.  “But if you use your powers to help the authorities find me, I won’t be able to keep that promise.  Understand?”

“Agreed.”

He nodded.  “Now, let’s discuss terms.  Everything on the Adrienne other than your Oriental is mine.”

“I thought you didn’t want financial payment.”

“Not for me, my crew.  If I don’t give them some incentive I’ll have a mutiny on my hands.”

“You can’t command your own men?”  Aunt Winnie snorted.

“Madam, my crew’s loyalty is not something I want to test up there.”  He nodded skyward where one of the airships moored to an iron ring on the ground nudged the propeller of a dirigible next to it.

“I agree to your terms,” Tilda said.  “I only want the Oriental.”

“I sail at first light.  I’ll have an agreement drawn up by then for you to sign.”

“A little formal for a pirate, don’t you think?”

His eyes narrowed.  “I don’t trust anyone.  Especially little chicks and their mother hens who can find anyone anywhere.”  A devil-may-care wickedness tugged at the corners of his lips and eyes.  “Don’t worry, it will merely stipulate that I’ll hunt you down and gut you like a fish if you double-cross me.”

Aunt Winnie swooned and Tilda caught her before she hit the ground.  Fortunately the big woman recovered quickly because Tilda didn’t have the strength to hold her for long and Knight didn’t make any attempt to help.

“I won’t double-cross you if you keep your word,” Tilda said, unperturbed.  She had every intention of keeping her end of the bargain.

“Then you’ll have no problem signing the articles.  You can do it before I sail in the morning.  Be early.  My airship is the three-mast brigantine flying the German flag.”

“German?”

He nodded.  “Under the patronage of an obscure merchant from that country.”

“So obscure that no one has heard of him?  Including other German merchants?”  She couldn’t hide her smile.  Tilda admired the devil’s ingenuity.  She had wondered how the pirate could dock undetected by the authorities while he restocked and repaired.  “I’ll be there,” she said.

“You can wave us goodbye from the sky pier.  My men always appreciate a pretty face.”

“But Tilda–”

Tilda shot her aunt a warning glare.  “Come along, Aunt.  We must get home.  It’s tea time.”  She hooked her arm through Winifred’s and the two women turned their back on the pirate, leaving him and the dismal lane behind.

***

Sir Magnus Grimshaw’s servant watched the fair beauty and the woman with a face like a comfortable old boot until they were out of sight.  He was sure he hadn’t been seen, hidden as he was in the shadowy eaves of a disused warehouse.  He’d been following them for two weeks and finally they were doing something interesting.  Very, very interesting.

When he turned back to look for Knight, the lane was empty.  He had gone.  Willy raised his eyes to the ships above in silent thanks to God beyond, although he wasn’t an overly pious man.  He was grateful he’d carried out his errand without attracting the attention of Knight.  He did not want to become an enemy of Black Jack’s.

But then, he already was—by association.  His master was the black-hearted pirate’s enemy and that meant Willy, as his servant, was too.

Sir Magnus would be intrigued by this new development in his plans.  His history with the Barons of Ironside was long and troubled, and the lady’s association with the pirate was cause for concern.

The servant skirted the dirty industrial heart of London on his way back to the palace, but still the sooty air cloyed at his throat.  These days the entire city seemed to be teeming with activity.  There was no escaping the noise of the big digging machines used for clearing out the foundations of the old buildings and of the pounding of hammers and the hiss of temporary forges where new ones were being built.  The constant tremor beneath his feet told of the burrowing as tunnels were dug out for the new underground railway.  He felt a surge of pride knowing his master had had a hand in the creation of the excavation machines.

Everywhere people moved, on foot, on two-wheeled bimotors and in the carriages and carts pulled by mech horses.  They were a new invention and not nearly as graceful as real horses, but at least they didn’t shit all over the roads.

The endless noise of the city made him nervous.  It would be easy for Knight to hide amidst the throng and the hubbub if he wanted to stalk Willy.  The servant started every time someone drew too close or a horse backfired.  When he reached his destination he wiped his sweating brow and sighed heavily.  Safe.  The guards gave a blink of recognition and pulled a lever tucked into the side of the brick wall.  In a breath of steam, the magnificent iron gates swung open.

The servant waited in the mews until nightfall.  Under cover of darkness, Sir Magnus arrived and heard his full report.  Afterwards, Sir Magnus was silent a long time.

“You’ve done well,” he finally said, thrusting out his pointed beard.  “Now I have one more task for you.”

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