PRAISE FOR THE AGE OF STEAM NOVELS
PRAISE FOR THE
ALLIE BECKSTROM NOVELS
BOOKS BY DEVON MONK
For my family
They named the comet Mercury Star. Not for how brightly it burned, but for the star-shaped hole it punched into the land, and the rich, strange mix of minerals it left behind.—1603
—from the journal of L.U.C.
The way I saw it, a girl needed three things to start a day right: a hot cup of tea, a sturdy pair of boots, and for the feral beast to die the first time she stabbed it in the brain.
“You missed, Matilda,” Neds called out from where he was leaning in the cover of trees several yards off.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t. This one doesn’t have a brain to hit. Kind of like a certain farmhand I know.” I pulled the knife out of the crocboar’s skull and sank it into the thrashing creature’s eye before dodging out of the way again.
It lunged at me, three-foot tusks and long snout lined with crocodile teeth slashing a little too close for comfort. Crocboars weren’t smart, but they had the teeth, claws, and tough skin to make up for any intelligence they lacked.
“Now you made it mad,” Neds said.
“Not helpful.” I jumped out of the way and pulled my other knife.
“I’ve got the tranq gun right here,” he said. “And a clear shot.”
“No. Wait. I want the meat clean.”
Keeping property out here in the scrub meant occasionally trapping and taking down feral beasts before they damaged crops or the domesticated animals. Crocboars weren’t good eating, since they were too filled up on the nano that laced the soil of this land. But they made terrific dragon chow.
The beast thrashed some more, ran out of steam, folded down on its knees, and fell over dead.
Just like that.
“Can’t get over how quick those things fall,” Right Ned said.
“Who are you calling brainless, by the way?” Left Ned grumbled.
I shook the slime off my gloves—crocboars excreted oil—and glanced at Neds.
Most people stared, eyes wide and mouths open, when they first meet Neds. There was good reason for it. Neds had two heads but only the one body, which was never the most normal sort of thing.
Both of him had sandy blond hair cut short and soft blue eyes that gave him an innocent shine, when most times he was anything but. He was clean-cut good-looking, a few inches taller than me, tanned and hard muscled from farm work; something you could tell even though he wore a dark green T-shirt and baggy denim overalls.
He’d left the touring circus and was looking for a job when he saw the ad I’d taken out at the local feed store. I wanted a farmhand to help with the land and the stitched beasts my father, Dr. Case, had left in my keeping.
Especially since my brother, Quinten, hadn’t been home in more than three years, something that worried me terribly.
Most people had been scared off by one thing or another in that ad: the hard work, the beasts, or me—a single women holding down her own chunk of land far enough from a city we weren’t even covered by House Green, nor were we on the power grid. Neds never complained about any of that. He’d been a fixture on the farm for two years.
“Bring the net over,” I said. “We have some dragging to do.”
It didn’t take us long to throw the net over the beast and tug it tight so the rough hide caught in the rope fiber. That was the easy part. Dragging was the hard part.
I walked over for my rifle, picked it up, and took one last look at the trees and dry summer underbrush around us. Nothing else moved; nothing reared for attack. So that was good.
“Who gets this one?” Right Ned asked, tossing me a rope. “Pony or the leapers?”
“Lizard. I think it’s about ready to molt. It should be nice and hungry.”
“Just tell me we don’t have to boil down scales today and I’m happy,” Right Ned said.
I took a length of rope and slung it over my shoulder, and Neds did the same.
“No boiling.” We put shoulders to it and dragged the half ton of dead and stink behind us. “But we could have a little fun and scrape a few scales free while it’s eating.”
“Never have seen the fun in that,” Left Ned complained, like he always complained. “But if it pays extra . . .”
“It doesn’t. Same pay as every day: food, roof, honest work. And the pleasure of my conversational company.”
“Speaking of which,” Left Ned said. “Isn’t it about time we converse about a raise?”
“When we clear a profit, you’ll get your share,” I said.
Right Ned slid me a smile, and I grinned back. Left Ned and I had had that conversation daily since they’d wandered up the lane and shook on the terms and job. My answer had never changed, but it didn’t stop him from asking.
Lizard wasn’t hard to spot since it was approximately the size of a barn and was napping behind the electric fence. It was harmless as long as you didn’t move fast around it, didn’t look it straight in the eye, and didn’t poke it.
“Always meant to ask,” Right Ned said. “Where’d the lizard come from? Did your Dad make it too?”
“Yep. Stitched it up piece by piece.” We stopped dragging, and Neds and I bent to the task of pulling the net free of the beast.
“What’s it all made of?” Right Ned asked.
“Iguana, if you’d believe it,” I said. “Of course, bits of other things too—crocodile, kimono. No boars.”
“And how do you explain the wings?”
“No idea. Mom said Dad had a whimsical side to his stitchery. Said if he was going to make living creatures, he may as well make them beautiful.”
I threw the last of the net off the crocboar and straightened.
The lizard stirred at the commotion and shifted its big shovel-shaped head in our direction.
“You stand on back with the tranquilizer,” I said, handing Neds my rifle. “I’ll heave this into the corral. Plug it twice if it gets twitchy. Takes a lot to put it down. Are we gold?”
“We’re gold,” Right Ned said. He stepped back and set my gun down while he pulled his tranq gun.
“You know no one says that anymore,” Left Ned said. “Gold isn’t what it used to be.”
“Gold is just the same as ever,” I said. “People aren’t what they used to be.”
I hefted the front half of the dragon kibble up off the ground, dragged it a little closer to the fence. It was heavy, but I was an uncommonly strong girl. My brother had made sure of that when he’d stitched me together.
“Did you ever ask your father why he stitched a dragon?” Right Ned asked.
“Four legs, four wings, reptile the size of a house.” He raised the tranq gun at Lizard who opened its yellow slitted eyes and then raised its head and rose onto its feet. “Dragon.”
“All right, dragon. Who knows? Mom said it was during his scatty years, shaking off his time after he left House White. Maybe just to see if it could be done.”
“So your dad gets a pink slip from House Medical and stitches together a dragon?” Right Ned shook his head, admiration in that smile. “Wish I’d met him. He aimed high.”
“I don’t mind high, but I wish he’d aimed smaller.” I heaved the first half of the crocboar over the metal wires. “Then maybe Lizard would go catatonic every couple of months like most stitched creatures of a certain size.”
I heaved the other half of the lizard’s breakfast over the fence. It landed with a squishy thump.
“And maybe Lizard wouldn’t be such a big, smart, pain in the hole to deal with.” I stepped away from the fence, but did not turn my back. Lizard was cobra-fast when it caught sight of something it wanted to eat.
“Do you think it could survive on its own, if it were set free?” Right Ned’s voice muffled just a bit from holding the gun ready to fire if the fences failed.
“I suppose. Well, maybe not in city. It’s never been on dead soil. Large things unstitch there, don’t they? Not enough mutant nano to keep them going?”
Left Ned answered, “Can’t keep a stitch that big alive in the city. Hard to keep the smaller bits alive unless they are very, very expensive and very, very, well made. It’s not because of the soil, though.”
“Sure it is,” I said. “It’s all about the soil. Out here in the scratch, we still have devilry in our dirt. Makes stitched things stay stitched.”
“Never thought you were the sort of girl who believed in magic, Tilly,” Right Ned said in the tone of a man who clearly did not believe in the stuff but had spent years taking money from people who did.
“Stardust, nanomutations, witchery. Whatever you want to call it, Lizard there is breathing because of it.”
Lizard finally got a solid whiff of the dead thing and smacked at the air, sticking out its ropelike tongue to clean first one eye, then the other. It started our way with that half-snake, half-bowlegged-cow waddle that made a person want to point and laugh, except by the time a person got around to doing either of those things, Lizard would be on top of them and they’d be bitten in half.
It opened its big maw and scooped off a third of the beast quick as a hot spoon through ice cream, then lifted its head and swallowed, the lump of meat stuck in its gizzard.
“All right, we’re gold,” I said, as Lizard made contented click-huff sounds. “Looks like it’s not going to attack the fence. Or us.” I pulled off my gloves and smacked them across my thigh to scrape away the dirt and slime. “So, are you hungry? ’Cause I could eat.”
Neds shifted his finger off the trigger, set the safety, and leaned the barrel across his shoulder. “I wouldn’t mind a hot breakfast.”
“Good.” I picked up my rifle and slung it over my shoulder, then headed up the dirt lane toward the old farmhouse. “It’s your turn to cook.”
• • •
Left Ned complained his whole way through it, but he and Right Ned put up a decent egg and potato scramble.
I made sure Grandma had her share of the meal, ate more than my share, then did the dishes as was only fair. Just as I was drying the last plate, there was a knock at the door.
Neds stopped sharpening the machete they called a pocket knife. He glanced at the door, then at me. We didn’t get unannounced visitors. Ever.
Our nearest neighbors were five miles off. If they needed anything, they’d tap the wire before stopping by.
Grandma in the corner, didn’t seem to notice the knock. She just went right on knitting the twisted wool spooling up off the three pocket-sized sheep that puttered around at her feet. The sheep were another of my dad’s stitched critters, built so they grew self-spinning wool. I’d tried to breed them, thinking I could sell them and make a little money for the repairs on the place, but like most stitched things, they were infertile.
I wiped my hands on a kitchen towel and opened the door.
“Are you Matilda Case?” the stranger asked in a voice too calm and nice for someone who was holding his guts in place with one hand.
“I am,” I said, even though Neds always told me I shouldn’t go around giving people my name without having theirs first. “You’re a long way from the cities. Do you need a ride to a hospital?”
The stranger was a couple inches shy of seven feet tall, had a broad sort of face with an arrangement of features that fell into the rustic and handsome category, five o’clock shadow included. His mop of brown hair was shaved close by his ears and finger-combed back off his forehead so that it stuck up a bit—which passed for fashion maybe a hundred years ago.
His shirt, under the gray coat he wore, was high collared, buttoned, and might have once been white. That, along with his dark gray breeches and military boots laced and buckled up to his knees, gave him a distinctly historical sort of look.
Gray clothes meant he was claimed by House Gray, one of the eleven powerful Houses that ruled the modern world’s resources, from technology and agriculture straight on up through defense, fuel, medical, and the gods we worshiped. Gray ruled the human resource—all the people in the world, except for those who claimed the twelfth, powerless House: House Brown. Loosely democratic, House Brown was made up of people who lived off the grid, scraping by without the comforts and amenities of the modern world. House Brown was barely recognized by the other Houses.
I was House Brown, but I wore green, Agriculture, when I needed to trade with nearby businesses. No one from House Gray, or any other House, had ever come to my farm.
I had changed out of my filthy hunting clothes into a pair of faded blue overalls and a checkered shirt. It wasn’t at all House Brown or House Green compliant, but, then, I’d been off grid and below the radar all my life.
Just the way my brother wanted us to be.
“Unless you’re here to sell me something,” I said as I leaned the door shut a bit. “In which case I’ll just save you what air you’ve got left and say no, there’s no Matilda Case living here.”
He didn’t smile, but his eyes pulled up a bit at the bottom and something that looked like humor caught fire in them. That’s when I noticed the color of his eyes: cinnamon red, like mine when I was injured.
I took a step back, startled, and he took a step forward.
Neds racked a round in the shotgun he’d had propped by his knee and then all of us in the kitchen held perfectly still.
Well, except for Grandma. She just kept on singing her knitting song about sunshine through lace and liberty’s death, her fingers slipping yarn into knots, smooth and liquid for a woman of her still-undetermined years.
“Not a single step closer,” Left Ned said, his voice always a little colder and meaner than Right Ned’s. “You have not been invited into this home.”
The stranger looked away from me, and I thought maybe for the first time he noticed that there was a house, a room, and people around us. A whole farm, really: 150 acres tucked back far enough in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania that the nearest fill-up station was thirty miles away.
He certainly noticed Neds—both heads of him. And the gun.
Since Left Ned was talking, I knew he was willing to bleed up the stranger a little more if that’s what it took to keep him out of the house.
“I’m looking for a doctor,” the stranger said. “Dr. Renault Case.”
“He doesn’t live here anymore,” Right Ned said calmly, everything about his voice the opposite of Left Ned’s. “If you need someone to take you to a town doctor, I’d be willing. But there’s no medical man here to help you.”
The stranger frowned, sending just a hint of lines across his forehead and at the corners of his eyes. “You think I came here for help?”
I nodded toward his gut. “You are bleeding rather strongly.”
He looked down. An expression of surprise crossed his face and he shifted his wide fingers, letting a little more blood ooze out, as if just noticing how badly he was injured. If he was in pain—and he should be—he did not show it.
Shock, maybe. Or expensive drugs.
“I didn’t come here looking for help from Dr. Case,” he said, cinnamon gaze on me, just on me, and the sound of his blood falling with a soft tip tip tip on my wooden floor. “I came here to warn him.”
“About what?” I asked.
Left Ned spoke up. “Say it, or get walking.”
“His enemies are looking for him. For him and what he’s left behind on this property. I come offering protection.”
It was a dramatic sort of thing to say, and he had a nice, deep, dramatic sort of voice for it. Chills did that rolling thing over my arms.
But there was only one problem.
“He’s dead,” I said.
“My father, Dr. Case, has been dead for years.”
That, more than anything, seemed to take the starch out of him. He exhaled, and it was a wet sound as he tried to get air back in his lungs. I almost reached over to prop him up, afraid he might just pass out and further mess up the clean of my kitchen floor.
He was a big man, but, like I said, I’m strong.
“Are you certain?” he asked.
I’d been twelve years old when the men from House Black, Defense, and House White, Medical, came to the farm. I’d hidden like my father had taught me, up in the rafters of the barn. I’d watched those men kill him. Kill my mother too. I’d watched them search our house and carry out boxes. I’d watched them pick up my parents’ bodies, put them in a black van, then use our garden hose to clean up the drive so not even a drop of their blood was left for me to cry over.
My brother had come home from studying the old skills—electrical tinkering, metalwork, analog and digital system repairs—out on the Burnbaums’ homestead about three months later. He’d found Mom and Dad gone, and me and Grandma trying to hold the place together. Right then, he’d started his crazy crusade for information and histories that had eventually made him unofficial head of House Brown.
The same crazy crusade that had left me alone on this farm for three years with an addle-minded grandmother, a two-headed farmhand, some impossible creatures, and the communication hub for the scattered, off-grid House Brown folk my brother promised to look after.
My brother might still be alive, but not my parents.
The image of their bodies being carried away flashed behind my eyes again.
“I’m very certain,” I whispered to the stranger.
“I . . .” He swallowed hard, shook his head. Didn’t look like that helped much. His words came out in a slur. “I thought . . . I should have known. Sooner. We thought . . . all our information. That he lived.”
“Neds,” I called.
The stranger’s eyes rolled up in his head and he folded like someone had punched him in the ribs. I put my hands out to catch him, got hold of his jacket shoulders and pivoted on my heels, throwing my weight to guide him down to the floor without knocking his head too badly.
I crouched next to him. This close, I thought maybe there was something familiar about him.
Neds strolled over. “What are you going to do with him, Tilly?” Right Ned asked.
“I don’t know. Check his pockets, will you? See if he has a name. If he’s really House Gray, we might have trouble on our hands.” I was already pushing his hand to one side so I could get to his wound. It was deep and bad. Might be from a crocboar. Might be from any number of beasts that grew up hungry and mean out on the edges of the property.
I could mend him enough to get him to a hospital hours away in my old truck on these old roads. If he hadn’t lost too much blood, he might survive.
I stood. “I need the sewing kit. The medicines.”
“Tilly,” Right Ned said. “I don’t think that will work.”
I was already halfway across the kitchen toward the bathroom, where I kept all the supplies for taking care of Neds and Grandma.
“Tilly,” Left Ned snapped. “Stop and listen, woman.”
I did not like being bossed around by that man. Either of them. I turned.
Neds hunkered next to the stranger, his shotgun in easy reach on the floor beside him, his shoulders angled so the shirt stretched at the seams. He’d pushed the man’s jacket sleeve back to reveal his arm up to his elbow.
Stitches. The man had a thick line of charcoal gray stitches ringing his entire forearm. Not medical stitches, not medical thread. Life stitches, like mine.
I instinctively held my own hands out, turning them so they caught the light. Thin silver stitches crossed my palms and circled my thumbs, making the gold-brown of my skin look a little darker. Just as those same silver stitches tracked paths across my arms and my legs, and curved up my stomach, my breasts, and around one shoulder. Just as stitches traced my left ear to the curve of my jaw and ran a line across my neck. I kept my hair free to cover them up. If I wore gloves and long-sleeved shirts and pants, no one knew I was made like this.
Made of bits.
Not quite human.
Stitched like my father’s other illegal creations.
The only other people in the world who were stitched were the galvanized. Warriors, historians, counselors—they were prized and owned by the heads of the Houses. Rumors said they were owned against their will and put on display in the fights during the annual Gathering of Peace, and any other politically influenced event. Owning a galvanized was proof of the House’s wealth and power. Rumors said they were the reason the Houses were no longer at war with each other, because the galvanized refused to be involved in House-to-House conflict.
Rumors also said they were immortal.
The galvanized began as a medical curiosity, then went on to become oddities, supersoldiers, historians, while remaining technological and medical guinea pigs. Tired of being owned and used, the galvanized walked away from the Houses. It became known as the Uprising, and once people saw that the galvanized refused to follow House rules, they too defected from House control.
The Uprising saw thousands of people fleeing from multigeneration debt to the Houses and forming their own House—House Brown—which they intended to run democratically as a loose collective of people unhappy with House demands and injustices.
The galvanized stood with them. In an attempt to kill House Brown and its promise of freedom, the other Houses banded together to wage war on House Brown, vowing it would never be recognized as a legitimate House. Years of guerilla resistance and war nearly brought the world’s system of resource management crashing down. The Houses finally agreed to a peace treaty drawn up by the galvanized.
House Brown would have no voice in world affairs or the affairs of Houses, but they would be left alone. In exchange, the galvanized would return to the Houses; give up their rights to be considered human; and become servants, slaves, and subjects once again.
The galvanized had agreed to those terms. No one knew why.
I’d never once in my life met a person stitched like me.
Until this man. This stranger bleeding on my floor.
“You’ll need the other thread,” Right Ned said. “Hospital out here won’t know what to do with him, or with us for having him.”
I was nodding but my body seemed far away. “He’s . . . he’s . . . like me. I thought galvanized were different. Immortal and perfect.”
“He’s hurt.” Neds strolled over to me.
He touched me only in the most urgent of times.
Contact for him, he had told me, was an intimate sort of thing. He knew an awful lot about a person if he put his hands on their skin for too long. He said he respected me too much to do that, to know things about me I wouldn’t want him to know.
But he touched me now, his warm fingers brushing oh so lightly across my palms.
It was a strange enough occurrence, it snapped me right out of my drift.
“You’ll need the medical supplies at the pump house,” Right Ned said again, his blue gaze searching to see if I was listening. “Your father’s supplies.”
I glanced between him and Left Ned, who seemed a little disgusted. But, then, Left Ned was always a little disgusted when he touched me. Right Ned never let that show. Right Ned never made me feel like I should be ashamed of what kind of things I was made up of.
“I’ll be back quick,” I said. “Watch him. Watch Grandma. And make up the spare bed. Clean sheets are in the linen drawers.”
I jogged out the door, wanting to move, to be away from that stranger and the questions he had brought into my kitchen. What enemies? How close were they? And which House did he belong to exactly?
The sun pushed up over the tree line. The birds couldn’t seem to sing enough about it, but there was no heat to the day yet. I jogged down through the trees, down past the ramble of blackberries until the rush of the stream outsang the birds.
The pump house was a long stone building set beside the stream. It generated electricity for the farm and the computers and other off-the-grid equipment we used for communication and for keeping our place out of sight. It pumped fresh water up to the house and out to the water troughs in the field and barn for the beasts.
On the inside—or, rather, the underside—was my father’s workshop that my brother had forbidden me to enter when we were young.
That moratorium had lasted one week before I picked the lock, hacked the code, and let myself in. He hadn’t found out about my frequent visits to the lab for almost a year, and by then, I knew the secrets of the place better, even, than he did.
I pushed open the door and stepped into the cool dark and damp. I didn’t bother switching on the light. I knew exactly which stone in the back wall to pull free to expose the lever for the hatch.
I pulled that lever, the sensors within it accepting my fingerprint signature. The floorboards lifted, revealing wooden stairs. I hurried down those and flipped the light switch.
Bulbs popped on, burning with such cool intensity, I closed my eyes and counted to three before opening them again.
This steel room beneath the wood and stone and dust of the pump house looked like it belonged in a spaceship.
Every wall was covered with steel and burnished to a soft shine, drawers and shelves built from ceiling to floor. Some of those drawers were locked in such ways, I’d never been able to open them. Others I never wanted to open again.
In the center of the room was an empty metal table wide enough for two people to lie on it side-by-side. The floor was carved and burned with symbols, lines, and figures that made my head hurt if I stared at them too long.
I’d asked Quinten what the symbols represented, but he just shook his head and said he hadn’t figured it out yet. Some of the things on the farm were old. Older even than Dad’s research and experiments. Maybe older than Grandma. Dad had never explained them and the records were seized by the Houses back when Dad had been killed.
Mysteries at my feet, and all around.
I strode to the drawers, counted three in from the corner and pulled on the smooth, cold handle.
Inside were a dozen master spools of thread, each filled with glassy silver strands of different thickness. Filum Vitae, or life thread. It was my dad’s concoction, made of the minerals and organic matter that filtered from the soil and river to spin out here—nanowitchery and devilry included.
Next to the threaded spools were empty wooden bobbins. I hooked the heaviest threads into the notch of two bobbins.
I pressed my thumb on the button on the side of the drawer, engaging the machinery. Bobbins spun, filling with thread from the master spools. As soon as the bobbins were fat I let go of the button and a diamond-edged blade cut the threads.
I put the bobbins in my pocket and gathered up a sheet of needles, surgical scissors, and clamps.
Most of my knowledge of how to use my father’s medical supplies was taught to me by Quinten, the genius that he was, whose hand at stitchery was even finer than Dad’s. Over the years he’d left for months at a time, leaving me to repair the beasts Dad had pieced together. Leaving me, sometimes, to repair myself.
I was human—I ate, drank, laughed, and cried. I’d grown from a baby to a girl. Then I’d gotten sick and almost died.
Quinten had spoken of it only once over a bottle of moonshine he’d gotten for repairing the Phersons’ radio. When I’d almost died, I’d been eight, and he’d been thirteen. He’d stolen me out of bed when Mom and Dad weren’t looking, and with that genius mind of his, he’d done . . . something to me.
Made it so my memories, my soul, and all the me of me were picked up and transplanted into the sleeping mind of one of Dad’s hidden experiments: a stitched-together girl child who had been sleeping for a couple hundred years.
Dad had been furious. Mom had been horrified. But shortly thereafter, my original body failed and my stitched body survived.
With me in it.
I was our biggest secret: the real monster the outside world would tear apart if found.
So, yes, I was human. But I wasn’t only human, since the sleeping girl’s body was a remnant from a failed experiment that had happened so long ago, she’d been forgotten. Dad had smuggled her out when he left House White.
Good thing for me that he did.
I shut off the light, jogged the stairs, closed the hatch, and traded the dampness and memories for the warming light of day.
The whine of a drone engine high above made me walk a little faster.
That wasn’t good. The farm wasn’t on any of the flight paths of low-level crafts or drones. We were a pocket of nowhere surrounded by the bustling cities of everywhere.
I knew it wasn’t a coincidence to hear an engine up in the blue above me today, of all days.
Whoever this man was, he had troubles following him. Which meant I needed to get him patched up and off my property before those old enemies of my father became new enemies of mine.
Slater Orange preferred to walk, taking the long, narrow hallway and stairs down fourteen flights, deep into the earth. House Orange, Minerals, controlled the mineral resources in the world, and he had been the head of that house for seventy years.
Over those years, he had refined the treaties and deals held between his House and all the others to his benefit. Minerals were, after all, limited and desired. That scarcity placed his House firmly in the highest ranking among Houses, though there were those who saw themselves as above him.
But all the deals he had secured had not given him the one thing he desired: immortality.
His body, which appeared to be only forty years old, was nearly one hundred. The youth treatments developed by House White, Medical, and House Yellow, Technology, had stalled the advancement of age for him, and for most of the heads of Houses.
But it could not stall the disease that had been eating away at his body for decades.
Death ended all mortal men. This was a truth even the heads of Houses could not bribe, innovate, or deal away.
But not all men were mortal. The galvanized, six men and six women, were more than three hundred years old. Nothing short of violently destroying their brains could kill them. There had been extensive experiments on the first galvanized to prove out that theory. Arms and legs could be removed, organs destroyed, but the brains of these twelve strange people remained active, their bodies easily repaired, stitched together, and made whole.
It had made them unholy terrors on the battlefield—foes that never fell and never forgot.
And it had made them the thing he most wanted to tear apart to understand.
He had assumed Dr. Renault Case and his wife would know why the galvanized were immortal. That question had been the center of Dr. Case’s research when he was at House White. But the capture of the Cases had not gone according to plan. They’d been killed, and the brightest minds had confirmed that their research seemed to be nothing but nonsense full of antiquated theories and abandoned experiments.
His hope of applying the galvanized technique to his own failing body had ended with them.
Until three years ago, when the existence of an intelligent and overly curious man by the name of Quinten Case had been brought to his attention.
Slater Orange reached the bottom of the stairs and paused, pulling the cuffs of his silk shirt straight beneath his copper brocade vest and burnt orange frock jacket, and then adjusting the ascot at his neck. He was, after all, civilized.
Today he and his House would offer a deal he knew Mr. Case would not refuse.
He pulled a silk cloth out of his pocket and dabbed away the sweat that slicked the top of his lip. Better Quinten Case think this just another day in the long string of days that had constituted nearly three years of employment.
Better he not know today would be the day everything in his life changed.
Assured his personage was in order, he walked the softly padded hall down to the huge library and research room that served as a place of study for Mr. Case.
He held up his hand, and a door-sized section of the wall faded from sight.
“Good day, Mr. Case.” Slater stepped into the room. “How are you?”
Quinten Case was a lean man in his thirties with a mop of messy brown hair and a tightly trimmed beard and mustache. His eyes were glints of navy blue that missed no detail. He’d been contracting himself out from House Gray, People, to a variety of Houses, and had landed in the possession of House Silver, Vice, before being loaned to House Orange in lieu of a large debt between House Silver and House Orange.
He was a brilliant, restless man. Perhaps even more brilliant than his father. Slater Orange knew Quinten had agreed to be loaned to House Orange only in the hopes of gaining access to his data, as he had found a way to gain access to the data at each House where he had worked.
Slater believed he was looking for his father’s research. And he had made sure he found it.
“I am well enough, Your Eminence,” Quinten Case answered from where he was pacing in front of a shelf full of rare books.
The chair by the false window that displayed any view in the world was pushed to one side, the window blank. The table that had always been covered in books, papers, and recording devices—not that the frustrating Mr. Case had ever taken a single note in all the time he’d been here—was cleared and dust free.
“My contract with you has been fulfilled,” Quinten said. “More than fulfilled by months now, as I’ve been trying to explain to your servants. My three years are over. I have organized your research library. I have scoured every entry for the information you wanted. There is no data that indicates the galvanized experiment can be replicated. I am sorry not to have found more encouraging results. I will be taking my leave.”
“Will you?” Slater Orange asked with zero interest. “And where do you think you will go?”
“Back to House Gray, of course.”
“Such an interesting choice.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” he said. “It is the House that has legal claim to me.”
Slater almost smiled at him bringing up the legality of his ownership. The Houses were the law, and the law was whatever they desired it to be.
“While you have been looking through my records, Mr. Case,” Slater said, “I have been looking through yours. Not the records of your service to House Gray. Older, hidden things.”
Quinten was still pacing, pacing. No expression on his face, no pause in his step. He was a caged thing that had finally spotted the open door. He wanted out. But he knew if he rushed his keeper, he would never be granted freedom.
“I have found something very precious to you. Something you hid away on a farm. Do you know what that is, my dear Mr. Case? Do you know who it is?”
Ah, there. Quinten faltered just slightly in his pacing, the surprise catching at his feet.
“I see that you do,” Slater went on. “Would you like to know how I discovered the creature you built, that lovely young girl?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Quinten said. “I do know I have a right to contact House Gray.”
Slater ignored him. “Your mother believed she could get information out to someone who cared, all those years ago before they died. She believed there would be other people at other Houses willing to take her side. To save her husband. To save her. And, yes, to save the abomination they had been so intent to keep a secret all these years. A stitched daughter.
“She said nothing of you, her only natural son,” Slater continued. “I have spent months wondering over that. Perhaps you have spent years wondering why your mother would send out a distress message and not mention you.”
That finally made Quinten stop pacing. He turned and pressed his fingers to his lips, gathering his thoughts.
“I am a man of some intelligence, Your Eminence,” he said. “Unless I am allowed to see this message you speak of, I have no opinion on it whatsoever. I respectfully request contact with House Gray.”
“There is nothing House Gray can do for you, Mr. Case,” Slater Orange said. “I own you now. And with the press of a finger, I can send forces out to capture that young woman you built.”
“I respectfully request contact with House Gray,” he repeated.
“Let me make my intentions very clear,” Slater Orange said. “I will go to extremes to tear that lovely young girl apart slowly and brutally until I see what makes her tick.
“Or . . .” He lifted the cloth to pat the sweat at his lip, just once. “You can tell me what you know. What have you found in your father’s research? Better still: how did you make that girl galvanized? Is she immortal or is she nothing more than a toy doll, slowly unwinding?”
Quinten shifted his shoulders a fraction and curled his hands at his sides. He might be a scholarly man, but he had spent most of his life out in the unclaimed lands, scratching out his survival day by day. He was a resourceful man, and maybe just a bit wild.
“I have served my contract,” he said. “You will release me now or allow me contact with House Gray.”
It was all he said. A curse of sorts. A defiance.
“Ah, now, Mr. Case. You know I can’t do that. What I can do is kill her while you watch.”
Quinten didn’t even blink, nor did his breathing change. He had probably already worked through the outcome of this meeting. An outcome that would not be in his favor.
Slater needed that young stitched girl alive. If Quinten refused to give him the information on how to create a galvanized body, then she was the only person in the world who had been stitched in modern times. A blueprint. A beginning of his forever.
She was his chance at immortality. A chance he must take before his body gave in to the disease even his best doctors had run out of solutions for.
She was his last chance to cheat death.
“Now,” Slater Orange said. “Let us negotiate your life and the life of that poor, helpless creature.”
Settlers cleared that land, staked their farms, built their homes. They did not know a dead comet lay beneath their soil until they dug up its grave and discovered what it had left behind.—1712
—from the journal of L.U.C.
I jogged across the porch and into my kitchen. Neds and the stranger were gone, leaving behind a good-sized puddle of blood on the floor.
Grandma still sat in the corner, knitting away, the little sheep, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, having curled up to sleep at her feet. She was singing about sawbones at the grave and hope begging for mercy’s gun. For a sweet old gal, she sure did have a bloody taste in music.
“Where’s Neds?” I asked as I dug in the cupboard and pulled out the jar of scale jelly.
She blinked watery eyes and lowered her knitting—still the same cream-colored scarf she’d been working on for months. It was near long enough to wrap a person head to foot with a good yard or so left over, but she insisted it wasn’t long enough yet.
“Which Ned, dear?” she asked.
“Both of them.”
“I think he was moving that dead body that came to visit,” she said. “Don’t know why a body would want to die on the kitchen floor. Bedroom floor, maybe. Or porch. Wouldn’t be too bad to die on the porch, would it? If you could see the sky.”
“He’s not dead,” I said. I hoped.
“Oh, that’s good.” She glanced around the room, then whispered, “Is he a ghost come to haunt? All these years later, I have my regrets. Of course, we all do.”
“Not a ghost either, so no need to regret anything, Grandma. Just sit here. I’ll be right back.”
That was about as much sense as I could get out of her these days. Sometimes she’d clear up and every word out of her mouth was right on target. But most the time she was wrapped in that aging mind of hers, singing that one bloody song, living those old, regretful memories, while fingers counted off her remaining time in loops and stitches.
“Don’t step in the blood on the floor, though,” I said as I headed out of the room. “I’ll mop it up in a second.”
She went back to her knitting and song again. “Coated with blood, knife cut to the bone, filling the cup that peace drank alone . . .”
There was a time when her hush-little-baby tune was about Papa buying mockingbirds and golden rings. Now it was verse after verse of sadness and pain.
I didn’t know how much she remembered of my parents being killed. She’d never spoken a word about my father or mother in fourteen years. But she’d never been the same since, really. I suppose neither of us had.
The spare room was next to Neds’ room, which used to be my father’s office.
Grandma and I bedded on the other side of the house—I in my parents’ master bedroom; she in the room that used to be mine when I was a girl.
The entire upper floor of the house was empty and dusty and had enough space we could put up a traveling sideshow if we wanted. That space had come in handy now and then, when we’d hosted House Brown families on the move who had lost their stakes to the creep of cities or had their farms swallowed up by House claims.
It was part of why I kept Quinten’s communication network going. Those of us in House Brown were nomads, living on the fringe, unwilling to buckle to the rules and regulations of the other Houses. Unwilling to give up our lives and freedom because the rich and powerful decided to tell us how to live.
House Brown had no voice among the other Houses. Which meant we had only each other to count on for our safety and needs. Clear and fast communication was vital for the survival of thousands. I wasn’t the only communication hub in the world—there were four others—but I was the only one in North America. And if the Houses found out what I was doing here, found our network and equipment in the basement, they’d shut us down and put thousands of people at risk.
Which was why I needed to get this galvanized man off my land, pronto.
I caught up with Neds in the hall. He’d hooked his arms under the stranger’s shoulders and was walking backward toward the spare room, sweating hard as he dragged the man.
“You change the sheets?” I picked up the man’s boots, helping to carry him. He weighed twice what I expected. No wonder Neds were sweating.
“Yes,” Right Ned grunted. “Did you get everything?”
“I think so. Brought some bandaging just in case. And the jelly. It did good for me when the pony put a hole in me last year.”
Neds stopped next to the bed, which had an old quilt and blanket pulled all the way down to the footboard and fresh, fold-creased sheets stretched out across it.
“Ready?” Left Ned said. “Lift on three.”
“One, two, three.” Neds lifted and swung the top half of the stranger, while I did the same for his bottom half.
The springs creaked and moaned under the man’s weight, and the mattress sagged alarmingly. But the frame was hardwood and held up.
“Feet hang over pretty bad,” I noted. I got busy unlacing and unbuckling his boots—a good, sturdy pair that had seen years of wear and repair. I tugged those off and dropped them to the floor.
Right Ned wiped at his sweaty bangs, then tucked thumbs into the tool loops on the sides of his overalls. “You need anything else? Water and rags for the blood maybe?”
“Water’s a good idea. A bucket should do. Then maybe some help lifting him if I have to wrap the bandage all the way around his middle.”
“He shouldn’t be here,” Left Ned said. “House Gray. Probably a spy. Or worse.”
“Isn’t your say,” Right Ned replied. “This is Tilly’s house. Her decision.”
I turned away from setting the supplies on the nightstand to find Neds standing right behind me.
Left Ned was scowling and obviously working to keep his opinion to himself. Right Ned raised one eyebrow, and I grinned at the spark of humor in his soft blue eyes.
I didn’t know how that man could stand Left Ned’s attitude sometimes. But they were brothers. What else could he do?
“Do you think there’s something dangerous about our visitor?” I asked. Neds had more worldly experience than I, since he’d been in and out of the big cities and traveled for most of his life. “Seeing as how he’s unarmed and unconscious,” I added.
“Go ahead,” Left Ned said, “joke about it. But he’s trouble. Galvanized trouble.”
“It’s fine,” Right Ned said. “Nothing about him you can’t handle. We’ve seen you take down crocboars bare-handed.”
“You should have kicked him out on his heels, not dragged him in here and bedded him down like a lost puppy,” Left Ned muttered. “He’s a stranger.”
“I take in lots of strangers,” I said. “Plus, he’s wounded. A Case always tends to those who are hurt. Even if he was my sworn enemy, I’d patch him up before kicking him to the crocs.”
“We know that’s your way, Tilly,” Right Ned said. “And we respect it. Don’t we?” he said to Left Ned.
“No, we don’t,” Left Ned said. “Too much kindness will just get you trouble. And that”—he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the bed—“is already too much trouble.”
Right Ned rolled his eyes. “We’ll get the water. Be right back.”
I knew Left Ned was right. Sometimes it was better for all involved just to let a wounded thing lie. Sometimes kindness only reaped a bitter harvest.
But the man had come to warn my father. He’d come to help him, quite possibly at the risk of receiving that wound he now suffered. If for nothing more than his stated intentions, I felt he deserved to be mended.
And quickly, before he drew unwanted attention to my property.
Neds, probably Right Ned, had pushed the curtain back from the window, letting the daylight in to cheer the place.
From here I could see the row of oak trees stretched out on either side of it, all the way down the two miles before it ended at the old highway no one used anymore now that the cities were connected by freeways, sky, and tubes.
I pushed my hair out of my eyes. Grandma said my hair was the color of maple syrup and beautiful. I just thought it was bouncy and got in the way too much. I turned back to the supplies.
Thread, needles, scissors, clamps, plain cotton, and bandages. Regular disinfectants didn’t work on me, and I’d guessed they might not work on him either, which was why I’d brought a small jar of scale jelly. It looked like fruit jelly, a nice amber yellow of peach or tangerines boiled with sugar. But it was not eating jelly at all.
It was boiled-down lizard scales. When Neds had taken some of it down to the feed and seed just to see if they had ever seen the stuff, the owner had no idea what it was made of.
Dr. Smith, who’d been buying wormer for his goats that day, took an awfully strong interest in it, and said it didn’t look, smell, or feel like any medicine he’d ever used to patch up people or animals. He’d volunteered to run it through his lab to see what made it up.
Luckily, the Neds aren’t the sort who trust easily. They’d told the doctor no, laughed it off as just a single near-empty jar they’d found down by the old nuclear power plant at Clark’s River, and come on home.
We didn’t know why it worked on me—maybe it was a stitched thing. It did nothing at all for the Neds. But as long as it worked, I was happy for it and did my best to keep a supply stocked.
“You’re lucky I was a nosy and willful child,” I said as I rolled up the sleeves of my checkered shirt. “Even luckier Quinten answered my questions. Well, most of them, anyway. Let’s get to patching that gash of yours.”
I braced my knees against the box spring and lifted him a bit, then tugged off his jacket sleeve by sleeve.
I put him down as easy as I could, but it must not have been that easy. He moaned a little, and his eyes rolled under the lids.
“Now I’m going to take off your shirt,” I said in a friendly voice. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me, but I didn’t want him to wake up fighting. I’m strong, but preferred not to stitch up a wound while ducking a fist.
His hands, covered in half-dried blood, were twice the size of mine. And the rest of him matched that proportion.
Not much could knock me out cold, but I figured if he clocked me, I’d be seeing stars.
“I’m starting here with your sleeves.” I made sure all the cuff buttons were undone, then leaned over him. “Rolling up the right sleeve, my friend.” My fingers brushed against the ridge of stitches that circled his forearm.
I’d never touched another person life-stitched like me. Never touched a man, unless the few times I’d patched up Neds’ cuts counted. My father, then brother, had insisted I stay hidden. Said if I let any other person find out I was stitched, they’d come to kill me, kill us all—land, beasts, and every last Case included.
So I didn’t have the experience with men that other woman my age had. I had long ago accepted that was just the way it would be.
Unless I found someone whom I could trust with my secret. Whom I could trust with my life.
And that only happened in fairy tales.
Gently, I dragged one finger along the stitches on the man’s arm again. It wasn’t a horrible feeling; it wasn’t frightening or odd.
Being stitched was evidence of a mending, an overcoming of pain. Our scars were proof that we were strong enough to keep living.
I carefully slid the button at the top of his collar through the hole. His collar loosened. He caught his breath just slightly as my knuckle brushed the bare skin of his neck.
I didn’t think the galvanized had much feeling. Just in case I was causing him pain, I decided to keep talking.
“My farmhand says you’re trouble. I hope you prove him wrong and see that I’m just here trying to help you.”
I thumbed the next button open. “So just stay still. I’ll try to be gentle.”
I hadn’t put my hands on this much of a man, well, ever. I was trying not to get distracted by it, but couldn’t help but let my imagination wander over him a bit.
I undid the rest of his buttons, then assessed the situation of his torn-up undershirt. Seemed a shame to cut up a man’s shirt, but it already had a slash through the front from whatever sharp edge he’d gotten into an argument with.
Didn’t look like a crocboar did it. Too clean, and he had too many of his guts still on the inside.
I tugged his undershirt up out of his pants, exposing just an inch or two of his bare stomach above his belt. His skin was a shade lighter than his hands, several shades lighter than my skin.
No stitches at his belt line, just smooth ridges of muscles.
I took up the scissors and cut along the seam of his undershirt, holding the material in one hand away from his skin. Even at rest, he had a body of a fighter: muscular arms, chest, stomach, and thighs. I knew the galvanized fought for show, but I’d always suspected it was just for show.
I was wrong.
“Hold still. I’d hate to stab something important.” I slid the scissors under the narrow strap over his shoulders. Snipped, blew a breath to get my hair out of my eyes, stretched across his chest, and cut the other shoulder free.
I folded the material down and away to one side, leaving him bare beneath me.
Stitches ran from the muscles of his left shoulder, crossed with another set over his well-defined chest to make an X over his heart. The stitches continued over the tight muscles of his stomach, skirted the edge of his wound, and ticked down across the muscle ridge above his left hip bone. Three thinner lines of stitches tracked from the center of his chest and buried in the knotted muscles across his right ribs.
Other stitches ringed his right shoulder, elbow, wrist, and ring finger.
I’d seen Neds shirtless once when he’d gone swimming in the creek. He was put together in a pleasant, natural sort of way: skin and muscles all the same smoothness, tone, and stretch, making a well-built man who happened to brace a bit wide at the upper back and shoulders to make room for both heads.
But still, even with the unusual number of heads Neds possessed, he was all one body. Organic. Natural.
This man was not natural. It did not mean he was ugly. Quite the opposite.
The stitching joined pieces that were not quite the same color as the rest of him; a little too light as if some of his skin never quite took to sunlight, and in other places a little too dark, with muscles and scar tissue bunching thick beneath. The work it took to make him, to piece him together, was amazing. As fine as anything I’d seen my dad or brother do, even though his thread was much thicker than mine.
“I understand there are only twelve of you in the world—galvanized. But I have no idea why you’d come out to my land. Did you know my father? Do you know his enemies? Your stitches are gray. Does that mean House Gray still claims you, or are you on the run?”
I reached for a cloth to clean the blood from his wound. “Were you in an accident, or put together for a purpose? There must be a point to it, to you. You must have a story.” I brushed the cloth gently along the smear of blood on his stomach.
His breathing let go and he gasped. I looked down at his face.
Into eyes red as banked coals.
It was called Mercury Fever, and like the California gold rush before it, brought hundreds to the little town, searching for a fortune in the dirt and hills. But the promise of mercury also attracted men of the sciences: mad men with mad plans.—1869
—from the journal of L.U.C.
He didn’t blink, didn’t look away from my eyes.
I’d seen crazy before. I’d seen beasts mad with pain, and I’d been the one who put them in that pain.
They looked a lot like the man lying in the bed below me.
“You are safe,” I said. “You are in my guest room in my home. I am just about to sew up your injury.”
For too many tumbling beats of my heart, I thought for sure he had forgotten how to understand the language. There didn’t seem to be a lot of sanity left in him, just a raw, mindless anger.
I licked my lips and tried out a soft smile even while logic was telling me best thing would be to back up nice and slow and find my shotgun.
“These are scissors.” I lifted them so the sunlight could catch them in gold. “I’m just going to put them over—”
The floorboards creaked.
His hands shot out viper-fast, wrapped around my wrists, and yanked me down against him as he shoved back with his heels and pushed both of us off the bed.
I’m a strong girl, but along with speed, that man had monstrous brute force. He was on his feet and I was too, as he manhandled me over to the corner of the room.
“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Simmer it down. We’re all friends here. We’re all friends.”
He planted his back against the wall, seeking a defensive position. My back was against him and the heat of his blood soaked through my overalls and cotton shirt, trickling down toward my belt.
He’d yanked the scissors out of my hand with that grab and roll he’d just done off the bed. He held them hidden, tucked by his thigh, while his other arm hung over my shoulder and across my chest, keeping me still.
I could hurt him. He was in his stocking feet and I had on steel-toed boots, not to mention I knew how to throw a wicked elbow. I wasn’t afraid to aim for the parts of him that would hurt the most—including his wound.
Revue de presse
“A must read.”—New York Times bestselling author Keri Arthur
“The action is superb, the stakes are sky-high, and the passion runs wild...Devon Monk rocks—her unique setting and powerful characters aren’t to be missed!”—New York Times bestselling author Ilona Andrews
“Beautifully written and brilliantly imagined.”—New York Times bestselling author Rachel Vincent
“Loved it. Fiendishly original and a stay-up-all-night read. We’re going to be hearing a lot more of Devon Monk.”—#1 New York Times bestselling author Patricia Briggs
“Powerful and action-packed, Monk’s pacing is hypnotic.…Keenly crafted characters and a deftly depicted landscape make this an absolute must read.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)