Zoe Archer - [Ether Chronicles 03] (10 page)

BOOK: Zoe Archer - [Ether Chronicles 03]

Her expression was set, determined. “I can’t get stronger if I coddle myself.”

“It’s not coddling,” he growled. “It’s being smart. You’ve got new equipment. Things aren’t going to be the same for you anymore.”

She stopped in her tracks and glared up at him with fierce resolve. “Thank you kindly for pointing out that I’m crippled. I would’ve forgotten, otherwise.”

“That’s not what I said, bloody woman.” Most people would be afraid to stand toe-to-toe with a Man O’ War, but she didn’t back down. Neither did he. “I’ve had crewmen who’ve lost legs, arms. They still do their duties, and no one thinks less of them. But they make adjustments. And it takes more than three damn months to get used to the changes. You push yourself too hard, you’ll burn out like a turbine running too fast.”

Her expression became tetchy. “I can’t get stronger if I don’t test myself.”

“Never said not to test yourself. But don’t try to keep up with me, because you can’t.” He glanced away. “Nobody can. Except other Man O’ Wars.
the strange ones.” He’d always gotten looks whenever he was off his ship, and crewmen with no experience with Man O’ Wars gaped like children at a clockwork menagerie. It wasn’t difficult for him to command a ship, but he didn’t like attention in other ways, coming to reinforce what he’d started to believe about himself and those like him—that they were oddities, aberrations.

Finally, quietly, she said, “All kinds of things in this world are strange. But they’re a hell of a lot more interesting than the mundane.”

Something eased in his chest, as if bolts had been loosened.

She grinned suddenly. “Do you know what they call a woman with one leg?”

“Peg,” he answered.

She scowled. “If you steal my punch lines, then we most assuredly can’t be friends.”

“Promise to let you get in the last word.” He pressed a hand to his chest.


He added, “Next time.”

She laughed again, and they resumed walking, this time at a more moderate pace.

Sometimes, on airships, they had to vent the ether tanks in order to make a fast escape from the enemy, or to give chase at a quicker speed. But venting the tanks always meant the ship dropped steeply as it shot forward. It was a sensation that took getting used to, but he learned to like it, the drop and plunge forward. Being with Kali felt almost exactly the same way, as if at any moment he could crash or fly.

his should do it,” she said.

Fletcher glanced around. They stood in the middle of the moors, the
a dropped toy in the distance. Twenty-five yards to the right of the airship rose a copse of trees. The moors remained as empty as always, only scrub and rock and stretches of nothing—a landscape he’d come to enjoy. But as to what he and Kali were doing there now, he’d no idea.

“Time to let me in on your plan,” he said.

She pointed to the ether rifle hanging on his back. “I want to fire that.”

He was starting to get used to her enigmatic turns of thought, but this still caught him off guard. “First time we met, you had a Webley in your belt and a double-barreled coach gun on your back. You seem well-armed to me.”

Spreading her hands, she said, “There’s a reason I didn’t bring any of my guns today. I’ve never fired an ether-powered firearm.”

“And you want a go at mine.”

“Like I said, I’ve never shot an ether rifle before. They usually don’t put them in civilian hands.”

“Because they’re sodding dangerous if you’re not trained to use them.”

“So train me.”

He tried to think of all the reasons why he shouldn’t. Most civilians couldn’t be trusted with the might of an ether-powered gun, but she wasn’t most civilians. She wasn’t much like anybody he’d ever met. “There’s no need. You’ll never own an ether pistol.”

“Probably not.” She shrugged. “But don’t you ever want an experience just to have it?”

He felt himself reluctantly smiling. “Didn’t join the navy for the handsome pay.”

“A farm boy wanting to see the world?”

The idea of him on a farm made Fletcher snort. “More like a factory boy from Wycombe turning chairs who wanted to see the world.” As she continued to look at him, a hint of entreaty in her gaze, he scratched thoughtfully at his beard. He couldn’t fault her for wanting to try something new. “There’re women who can shoot ether-powered weapons—intelligence agents, mostly—but they’re also taught how to balance their lighter weight against the guns’ kick. It’ll knock you on your arse if you aren’t strong enough. Or if your balance isn’t altogether there, both feet planted firmly on the ground.”

Her mouth firmed into a line. But at least she didn’t seem insulted. Then her lips softened. “We’ll compromise, then. You stand behind me, brace me, and if I get knocked back, you keep me from falling on my arse.”

Hearing her say that word shot heat through him. Forced him to think about what kind of arse she had. If it was rounded or had a subtle curve. And if she had those intriguing little dents just at the base of her spine. Walters, his first mate, had once called them
dimples of Venus
. A bit of a poet and a self-made aesthete, that Walters.

Fletcher ought to refuse. He’d be rattled like a sail in a typhoon if he had to press himself tight against her.

Then again . . . he wasn’t an idiot, either.

“You do everything I say,” he said sternly as he handed her the ether rifle.

She took the gun, giving him a salute. “Of course, Captain Fletcher.”

“To start, don’t call me
Captain Fletcher
. Just Fletcher.”

Glancing up from studying the weapon, she noted, “We’re still not on last name terms. Usually, it’s the other way around.”

“We do things differently on Eilean Comhachag. It’s better with us being just Kali and Fletcher. We’ve got no history. We’re . . .” He struggled to find the right words.

“We’re simply us,” she filled in. “As we are at this moment. No past. No thoughts of tomorrow. Only now. Only here.”

Damn him, he didn’t know how he’d met the one woman who seemed to understand him on this isolated lump of rock. But somehow he had, here, on this lonely slab of rock.

All he could do was nod in response.

She returned her attention to the ether rifle, hefting it. “It’s lighter than a regular rifle. I’d wager it’s because of the ether tank on the side.” Studying the brass tank fastened to the right side of the gun, she noticed the small metal disk on the ether tank’s butt cap. She slid the disk to one side. Even in the daylight, the green glow of the ether was unmistakable. “The tank’s full. But what’s this piece for?” She pushed the disc back and forth on its pin hinge.

“Firing at night,” he answered. “Keeps the shooter from having their night vision muddled.”

She nodded. “And you won’t give your position away to the enemy.”

“Catching on fast,” he said, smiling. “But I wouldn’t expect anything else from that sharp engineer’s mind of yours.”

Kali grinned. He was glad she didn’t try to hide her pride. She seemed to know how extraordinary she was, and it pleased him that not only did she know her worth, there wasn’t any feigned modesty.

“Someone had to learn that lesson about the tanks the hard way,” he continued.

“That’s why you need engineers like me.” Her expression clouded a little. “Though I’ve never done much work with weapons.”

“It’s work that’s got to get done—I used to believe that. That we need guns and cannons. War’s as old as history.”

“I won’t argue that. But dropping incendiary devices from the sky onto an unsuspecting target . . .” Old, dark memories flickered behind her eyes.

Hot anger crawled up from his chest. “War isn’t always honorable. I hate that we’ve come to such shame. The Admiralty’s been debating using such bombs on the enemy. I pray to God it never comes to that. Soldiers, seamen, and airmen—they know they’re signing on to fight. Maybe to die. But it’s too damn easy to make a mistake and drop a bomb on the wrong target. A school instead of a munitions plant. A village instead of a cantonment.”

“Maybe the airships dropping the bombs don’t care that they’re killing civilians. The Hapsburgs and Russians surely didn’t.”

He held her gaze. “The men who killed your colleagues and your friends, the ones that caused you to lose your leg—they’re dead. The
shot one down, chased another until it broke apart into the sea.”

A sad smile touched the corner of her mouth. “Thank you. But I’ll be happier when no one has to die for the sake of telumium and tetrol.”

He’d dug six graves after crashing on the island. Buried six good men—Vane hardly out of boyhood—the cost that followed every battle. He’d grown used to it, yet it never grew easier.

“I’d joined the navy to leave Wycombe and turning chairs,” he said gruffly. “To keep Britain safe. Not to kill. But that’s what I became. A dealer of death.”

Her smile this time was gentle. “You saved lives, too.”

The steel cables that felt knotted into his muscles loosened slightly. She saw him as something other than a weapon. Even when other Man O’ Wars had destroyed most of Liverpool. She had every right to despise his kind. Yet she didn’t.

These thoughts and sensations she stirred up in him—he didn’t know what to make of them. How to act. What to say.

“The, uh, ether intake is controlled by this valve,” he said, turning his attention back to the rifle. He pointed to the small brass piece attached to the tank. “You can shoot the rifle like a normal weapon, but if you release the valve, it adds ether to the chamber.”

Maybe she found his sudden change of topic strange. If she did, she kept silent. Instead, she examined the valve. “It adds ether to the rifle’s chamber, lightening the air and adding velocity to the round. So it can go faster and further.”

He grinned. “You hardly need me here. Seems like you can figure this out all on your own.”

“I might,” she answered with a cheeky smile of her own. “But I like the company.”

When was the last time a woman flirted with him? He’d kept himself apart for so long, he didn’t know the ways of it anymore.

“The rest of the gun works just like any other bolt action rifle,” he muttered.

“Let’s give it a try.” She turned the release valve on the ether tank, then raised the rifle.

“Hold your fire.” He pulled a clip of rounds from his pocket. “Might need these if you want to actually hit something.”

She pulled a face at him, and he couldn’t stop his laugh.

Taking the clip, she then threw the rifle’s bolt back, and loaded the bullets into the fixed magazine. She threw the bolt forward, loading the first round. All damned fast and efficient. “My father taught me,” she said when she caught Fletcher’s astonished look. “He said any soldier’s child worth their pepper needed to know how to use firearms without fear. That went double for his daughter.”

“Smart man, that father of yours.”

More pride shone in her face. “My mother, too. She wasn’t an engineer, but she’d a devilishly clever mind.” From the moment he’d seen Kali, he’d thought her pretty. But her unfettered delight in her family made her beautiful.

“You miss them,” he said quietly.

Her beauty didn’t fade, but her happiness quieted. “I send letters and telegrams. And they write back as soon as they can. But I do. Especially since . . .” She glanced down at her leg.

“You stayed in England.”

“They’d fuss over me if I went home. I hate fusses. I just want to . . .”

“Move on,” he finished. “Be alone.”

She gave him a wry smile. “That plan didn’t quite work out as I’d thought.”

Maybe he just needed another person’s company after three months alone. Maybe anyone would’ve been welcome. But he didn’t think so. “Now it’s time to shoot.”

“Hold on to me, so I don’t go toppling arse over teakettle.” When he hesitated, knowing what a sweet pain it would be to touch her, she looked impatient. “Don’t turn prude on me.”

What could he say to her? That his hands had begun to ache with wanting to touch her? That he’d started to long for a connection—any connection—they could have? Touching her would only give him a taste of what couldn’t be his. But he didn’t back down from challenges. So he stood close behind her, bracing his chest against her shoulder and upper body. He placed one hand on her waist. Warmth from her body soaked through the wool of her dress into his hand, and right up his arm.

“You’re hands are so hot,” she exclaimed, glancing over her shoulder. “Are you ill?”

“Man O’ Wars have higher body temperatures than normal men,” he said roughly.

Her eyes widened. “Oh,” was all she managed to say, her cheeks turning that rosy spice color he liked so much. This time, it was she who chased the topic back to shooting the ether rifle. She lifted the gun. “So, um, you’ve got me.”

“I do.” In fact, he had to make an effort not to hold her too tightly. He’d learned back in training how to keep control of his strength, but this tested his training and control. Considerably.

Yet she didn’t lift the weapon yet. Instead, she examined the gun’s sight. It was longer than a normal rifle’s sight, adjusting to different target distances. “Can this really shoot to a thousand yards?”

“A thousand yards for top accuracy. If a sniper really wanted to try their luck, they could go for twenty-five hundred yards. “

“Good God. And if I wanted to shoot a leaf off of one of those trees over there”—she indicated the copse—“that’d prove no trouble.”

“A standard rifle could do the same. If you truly desired to test what an ether rifle can do, give that a go.” Releasing her, he pointed toward a rise in the hills, two hundred yards away. A mound of stones was piled at the top of the rise. “Aim for the rock at the top. The one that’s the size of an apple.”

It looked like she was about to object or insist that she couldn’t possibly make the shot, but she visibly pushed away her doubt. She turned to face the rise and her intended target. She started when he placed his hand on her waist again, and shored her body against his.

“Arse over teakettle, remember?” he murmured.

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