Kiss of Steel Page 19

Aramina blinked. “Barrons? But why? He’s a duelist, but he’s no match for a vampire.”

“Because ’e talks straight,” Blade replied. “I like that. And if ’e’s tryin’ to play me, I can’t see ’ow.”

“Besides our mutual, shared acquaintance,” Barrons murmured.

Their eyes met. Barrons knew precisely what Blade wanted of him. The hair on the back of his neck rose, but he managed a curt nod. “Aye. There’s that.”

“Acquaintance?” Aramina didn’t like being in the shadows.

“An old friend.” Barrons gave her a swift smile, then stood. “We accept the bargain. I’ll work with you to coordinate the hunt. The prince consort will supply a score of Nighthawks. And I would urge you to accept a squad of metaljackets, despite your caution. They can be useful at clearing tunnels when we don’t want to risk lives.”

A sensible thought. Blade chewed it over. “A squadron I’ll accept. Some of ’em Spitfires and a couple o’ Earthshakers. We can either burn ’im out or dig ’im out.”

Blade handed his empty glass to Lark and swung to his feet, holding out his hand. Barrons eyed it for a moment, then clasped it with his own. Despite the froth of lace at his wrist, the man’s grip was firm and there were calluses on his palms. And when Blade squeezed just a fraction more than necessary, Barrons smiled and squeezed back.

They broke the grip and nodded at each other.

“Done,” Blade said.

“Done,” Barrons agreed.

Aramina stood, smoothing out her skirts. “Well,” she said. “I’m glad you’ve reached an agreement. I’ll be in the carriage if you need me.” Turning on her heel, she swept out, leaving behind the heady, exotic scent of jasmine.

“She’s a beauty,” Blade said. “But a man’d ’ave to be stark-ravin’ to take such as ’er to ’is breast.”

“She’s not so bad,” Barrons disagreed, “when her claws are clipped.” He smiled and it wasn’t nice.

Blade gestured toward the door. Silence welled up between them, an almost visible tension that crab-walked down his spine.

Barrons said nothing as his host saw him out, but paused in the entrance. “Do you know who she is?”

There was no mistaking who he was referring to. “Aye. What’s she to you?”

“A very old acquaintance,” Barrons replied.

“Acquaintance. I don’t like that word. It tells me nothin’.”

“Her father worked for the duke of Caine for many years, until Vickers lured him away. I grew up with her.” Barrons’s gaze turned sharp. “I won’t claim that we’re friends, for we’re not, but I wouldn’t like to see anything happen to her.”

That eased Blade’s mind somewhat, but not wholly. “She came to me,” he replied. “I’ve given ’er me protection.”

“As a thrall?” Barrons was insistent.

“Aye.”

Barrons laughed under his breath, but there was no humor in it. “Gods. And I drove her to it.”

“What the ’ell does that mean?”

“It means she came to me first. And I refused to help her. If I’d known what she intended, I might have been more tolerant.” Barrons gave a little nod. “I’ll refer the agreement on to the prince consort and return with my accompaniment on the morrow.”

“Aye,” Blade bit out, but the other man was already gone, striding toward the carriage with a loose-hipped grace.

She came to me first…What the hell did that mean?

Chapter 11

The colloidal silver was thick in the vial. Honoria pushed the syringe through the rubber seal, trying to ignore her brother’s wince. The needle had to be large enough to draw the viscous liquid; hence it hurt like the devil. But the worst thing was when the colloidal silver interacted with the virus, sending Charlie into spasms of pain.

Sometimes the cure was worse than the disease. But, then, this was no cure at all. It simply held off the disease a little longer, buying more time for them.

“Here we go, Charlie,” she murmured. “Which arm?”

“Right,” he sighed, extending his scarecrow-esque arm. Little scar marks nestled in the groove of his elbow. With such frequent injections, the virus couldn’t heal the wound site.

Honoria tugged the leather strap tight around his upper arm, then slid the needle into the vein with practiced ease. Charlie bit his lip and tried not to cry.

“It will pass, my little man,” she murmured, eyeing the slowly depleting metal. “Won’t be long. Few more moments.” Then the colloidal silver would bind with the virus and he’d be trying not to scream. God, she hated this so much. There had to be a better way. The preventive vaccine had worked on both her and Lena. She didn’t understand why it hadn’t worked with Charlie.

There had always been a few people who didn’t catch the virus when exposed to it. Her father had played with combinations of their blood, at a loss to explain it, but prepared to inject willing test subjects with the resistant blood. It worked in most cases. Perhaps one in several hundred exhibited signs of the disease. It was only cruel fate that had made Charlie one of them.

Or perhaps not. She’d always had her suspicions. Her father had scratched her once with a syringe he’d used on a patient at the Institute, claiming it was an accident. She couldn’t help but wonder whether Charlie had a similar mishap. The thought made her ill, but, then, science had been everything to her father. The vaccine was everything.

“Here we go,” she said, withdrawing the needle and pressing gauze padding to the injection site.

Charlie was trembling with the effort of keeping himself still. He made a sharp, animal-like sound of pain, then turned his face into the pillow. Honoria put the needle aside and rubbed his thin back. She felt each rib as she ran her fingers over his skin.

“Did you keep breakfast down?”

He shook his head, making strangled sounds. Honoria slipped into the bed beside him, wrapping her arms around his tiny body and holding him tight. “Hush, little Charlie, don’t say a word,” she started crooning, slipping into the lullaby their father had sung for each of them as children. “Papa’s gonna buy you a mechanical bird. And if that mechanical bird won’t sing, Papa’s gonna buy you a clockwork king. And if that clockwork king breaks down…”

It was long minutes before he stopped crying. Longer still before the torturous shaking left him. Spent from the pain, he collapsed against the sheets.

Honoria slipped her fingers into his. “All over now, Charlie, for another day.”

“I wish it were all over forever,” he whispered.

A lump caught in her throat. “Don’t say that. You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” She heard the sound of tears in his voice. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“Shush.” She rubbed his back, her mind white-hot with pain. I promised you, Father, that I’d take care of him, but how do I protect him from this? From himself? Then bitterly, You promised it would work. That the preventive vaccine would work.

But it hadn’t and her father had never finished working on a cure. There were only his notes, in the diary and…

Her fingers froze. Her father had written most of the diary in code, but she knew the code. Maybe she could finish his work.

It was a desperate idea. But so was she. She’d been trying to fool herself for weeks, but the truth was that Charlie was getting worse.

Lifting up on one elbow, she peered at Charlie’s face. His lashes fluttered against his cheeks. The pain had exhausted him. He often slept for hours following an injection.

Honoria slid off the bed and scratched a swift note for him, then tucked it on the pillow beside him. She paused just long enough to kiss his cool forehead, then gathered her shawl to keep her warm. It was a long walk to the Institute.

***

Nothing. A whole day spent canvassing the rest of the rookery and not even a single reek of vampire. Blade scowled to himself as he stalked along the rooftop, balancing on the capped tiles.

“It’s got to be ’ere somewhere,” Will muttered, following on his heels.

“It’s in Undertown. It’s the only place we ain’t checked.”

“Bloody ’ell.”

It was a sentiment Blade shared. Undertown was a refuge for the homeless and poor, those who couldn’t afford to pay the Echelon’s taxes, and those who didn’t want to be found. The desperate. The Slasher gangs ruled Undertown, hiding in the tunnels of what had once been the Eastern Link Underground Rail’s project to connect to the district line, before it had collapsed and buried hundreds of railway workers alive. The resulting scandal drove the ELU Railway Company into dun territory, and the project had stalled for want of finances. Various attempts to clear the tunnels had resulted in toxic explosions as live gas deposits were hit, and rumors had spread of ghosts that tore the living apart. It hadn’t taken long for the Echelon to declare the tunnel project a failure and board them up.

It was a bloomin’ rabbit warren down there. The perfect place for a vampire to hide. Blade had always suspected that was where it was, but a part of him had hoped he was wrong.

The breeze stirred, carrying a familiar scent with it. Blade’s head shot up and he scanned the street. Dozens of people scurried home from work. He didn’t recognize anyone…and yet he could smell Honoria, sure as it was day. Where?

Not that old woman near the corner. Or the gaudily dressed dollymop digging at her nails as she eyed the slim pickings in the crowd. The streets were a riot as a gang of rookery lads played tumbler in the alleys. They bolted in and out, chasing the clockwork tumbler ball that, once wound, careened off walls and carts and passers-by with equal abandon. The aim was to catch the tumbler before anyone else could, or before it got crushed beneath a passing cart.

The tumbler dashed past a dark-haired coal lass carrying a pair of pails balanced on a stick across her shoulders. Its clockwork whir was getting louder, a sure sign that the tumbler was winding out of energy. The girl staggered as the horde of boys swept past, whooping and carrying the long hooked sticks they used to net the ball—or to trip each other.

“I’ll be damned,” he muttered. Honoria had smothered her hair and cheeks in coal dust until she was barely recognizable. London was full of young women just like her, selling coal to get by. It was a bloody good disguise. Even his eye had skipped over her, so used to the sight.

Perhaps it helped that she moved with such diffidence, bobbing her head whenever anyone looked at her. The only thing that gave her away was the neat, clean fingernails. No coal lass had hands like that.

“Bloody hell,” Will cursed as he narrowly avoided walking into him.

“Go ’ome. Get some rest. I’ll be along shortly.”

“She ain’t worth it.”

Blade knew why his lieutenant showed such dislike. Will despised most women or avoided them entirely. After his mother had sold him for five pounds, he’d vowed them all to the devil.

And then, of course, there’d been that confusion two years ago when the two men had agreed to the feedings. Will was a young male in his prime with few sexual escapades, if any. The feeding took him hard, stirring his body to feel things that he might otherwise not have been inclined to. It had taken Blade awhile to realize what was behind the sudden way his lieutenant couldn’t meet his gaze anymore. And then that disastrous evening when Will had reached for him and broken all the rules.

They’d sorted it out. So it was with a gentle hand that he caught Will’s grip and eased it off him.

“You’ll get yourself killed. She’s trouble. You ain’t thinkin’ clear on this,” Will growled. “You got an itch, you get yourself down to one of the flash houses or find a bit of laced mutton on the street. There’d be plenty of lasses to give you a tumble.”

“I want this one.”

“Why?”

Blade shrugged. It wasn’t something he wanted to share with Will, or even admit to himself, but Honoria intrigued him. “Let it alone, Will.” He stepped onto the angled tiles of the roof and rode them down to the gutter. “I’ll be back.”

Ignoring his second’s muttered curse about pigheaded fools—Will had to know he’d be heard—Blade landed with a jolt on the cobbles. His prey was just slipping through the narrow alley that led into Petticoat Lane. Where was she going?

He followed her through the foot traffic on Petticoat Lane and along Whitechapel High. She was heading for Aldgate. The city. And the heart of Echelon rule.

His gut twisted. A sudden vision of Barrons’s face sprang into his mind and his fists clenched. If she was meeting up with Barrons, he wanted to know. He weren’t no Brother Starling to lie with the same woman. She’d accepted his protection. That meant that any trespass on her person by another man was cause enough to kill.

As he followed her beneath the heavy brick edifice of Aldgate, people took one look at his face then darted out of the way.

It was a pity. He had almost liked Barrons.

Chapter 12

The Institute was an enormous stone building in Blackfriars, ringed by fifteen-foot walls topped with wires that conveyed charged lightning. Anyone touching those wires would be given an enormous shock.

From the outside it appeared a forbidding place, meant to keep people out, but Honoria knew what those walls and wires were really for: keeping the newly infected craving sufferers from escaping.

There were three ways to get inside. Carrying her pails around the back, past the ivy-covered walls, she looked around to see if anyone was watching.

Prev Next