Zoe Archer - [Ether Chronicles 03] (4 page)

BOOK: Zoe Archer - [Ether Chronicles 03]
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His shocked gaze shifted from the leg to her, the surprise plain in his eyes.

“I planned and built the thing myself.” She tugged at her left foot, pinned beneath the rocks.

He lifted some of the larger stones, casting them aside easily. Soon, her leg was free.

“I didn’t trust the design to anyone but me.” And with many, many weeks of recovery, she’d needed something to occupy her time. She removed her small screwdrivers and pliers from her toolbelt to repair the damage wrought by her fall.

She pulled off her boot and adjusted the screws that joined the foot to the ankle. The sooner she fixed the damn thing, the sooner she could get away from him.

Satisfied with her repairs, she tugged her boot on. She ignored his outstretched hand and clambered to her feet. Carefully, she tested her weight on the leg, and breathed a quiet sigh of relief when it held. Fixing the prosthetic wouldn’t be a problem—if she were at her workbench or even using the table at the cottage—but she seldom had to make field repairs. At least it would hold enough to get her back to her little hut.

She examined the shotgun, worried that she’d damaged it with her fall, but aside from some scratches on the barrel and stock, it seemed in good condition.

At least he didn’t press her with questions—what had brought her here, how long she planned on staying. And she wouldn’t ask him the same questions.

Still, she couldn’t help her curiosity. He wore a long navy coat, patched in places and a little threadbare, with tarnished buckles. Standard naval issue. All of his clothing seemed clean but slightly ragged, from his linen shirt, to the buckskin breeches clinging tightly to his dense, burly thighs, to the scuffed tall boots, stained with seawater.

Was he a disgraced sailor? A deserter? Or one who’d left the navy but kept some of the trappings.

Whoever he was, he continued to stare at her as if she’d descended from the sky on iron wings. Well, he hadn’t looked in disgust at her artificial leg, and he wasn’t leering at her, either. Two small elements in his favor.

“You’ve got an odd voice,” he said suddenly.

“And you’re an expert conversationalist,” she retorted.

A slight ruddy color stained his cheeks above his beard. “Been a while since I had company. But”—he narrowed his eyes, thoughtful—“I hear a burr in your accent, and a lilt of Hindi, too.”

She tried to hide her surprise. “My father’s Scottish. Maa’s from Nagpur.”

He nodded contemplatively. “Bit of Scouse in there, too.”

Here was another shock. She’d only lived in Liverpool for five years, but apparently it had been enough to give her accent some color. A perceptive man, this wild former sailor. Unease crept through her belly. She’d come here to be alone, not to think of the past, but those plans were crumbling apart.

“The last place I lived was Liverpool,” she said cautiously. She could turn and flee, ending the conversation, but even under good conditions, her prosthetic didn’t let her run fast. This stranger could easily catch her. The length of his stride was twice her own. Maybe more.

He was silent, however, for a long moment. Then, “The Battle of Liverpool. You were there.”

Her left leg suddenly ached, and the air in her lungs turned brittle. “And I survived. Which is more than I can say for more than half the people with me on the ground.”

Images, sounds, smells—phantom senses assaulted her.

Hapsburg and Russian airships, captained by Man O’ Wars, dropping explosive devices upon the city, setting everything ablaze. Flattening buildings and crushing the men, women, and children within them. Screams. Cries. The useless clanging of the fire brigades’ bells. Seafaring ships at dock turned to charred, sunken wrecks. The British Man O’ Wars and their airships arrived quickly, and they’d fought the enemy in the skies above Liverpool—something mythical and terrible straight from the
Mahabharata
.

Trapped beneath a collapsed wall, Kali had seen it all. The bursts from ether cannons. Airships plunging out of the sky, crashing into the rubble as the men within shouted in terror. She’d watched the world become a fiery hell. She’d seen, too, the remaining British ships destroy or chase off the enemy vessels. Until loss of blood had claimed her consciousness. And her leg.

“It’s still a smoking ruin,” she said. Just as she was. “There’s no Liverpool left in Liverpool. And the navy lost a lot of airships that day.” She stared at the man, his face ashen.

“The sun’s going down,” he growled. “Better get back to wherever it is you’re staying.”

Without another word, the big man turned and strode away. The mists engulfed him, and in an instant, he’d vanished. She couldn’t even hear his footsteps. It was as though he’d never been there.

Kali was many things, but never fanciful. She hadn’t imagined the meeting and conversation with the stranger. He’d left giant footprints in some of the mud amongst the rocks. So he
was
real. But her exploration of the island had left her with more questions than answers. Who was he? Why had he run away so abruptly? It had to have been his home casting the light—but why did his house hum?

It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. She was here to be alone. He didn’t concern her.

Whoever the man was, though, he’d spoken truly. Daylight didn’t last long this far north. And the mists still hadn’t cleared. The safest thing to do was retrace her steps.

Carefully, she made her way back, taking extra care not to get her prosthetic leg caught in the uneven terrain.

He clearly wanted to be left alone. Just as she did. They could share this island without actually
sharing
it—couldn’t they?

Yet if she’d come to Eilean Comhachag in search of peace, she knew now she wasn’t going to find it.

 

C
HAPTER
T
HREE

F
letcher had seen the cottage when he’d first arrived at the island. He’d explored it, finding it in worse shape than a dockside strumpet. Nothing that a day’s work couldn’t fix, but he had to stay at the north end of the island, and so he’d left the cottage to its decay.

Unseen, he’d followed the extraordinary woman back to the cottage. He’d wanted to make sure she got back to wherever she stayed safely, and to prove to himself that she’d been real, not a hallucination born from months alone. But no, she was an actual human being, and had taken up residence in that crumbling pile of rocks. Part of him had wanted to stay and watch her, learn what had brought her to his island. Instead, he’d slunk away, retreating into the isolation he knew best.

Approaching the structure warily now, two days after they’d met, he saw she’d been busy. The cottage wouldn’t ever be top class, but she’d patched the roof and did the best she could with the windows, given that there wasn’t a glazier for miles. More intriguing was the device attached to the water pump—an assembly of gears and vulcanized rubber belts, and a hose fitted to the end of the pump itself. The hose ran toward the cottage. She’d managed to dig under the wall, and installed a hose leading inside. Some kind of plumbing she’d fashioned?

After seeing the ingenuity of her false leg’s design, he could believe it.

Cheerful smoke curled up from the chimney, fragrant with peat. Either she’d brought the fuel with her, or learned how to harvest it. Resourceful.

He stopped on the edge of the field, deliberating. After following her to her home, he’d made sure to avoid her over the past few days—not an easy job, considering the island was only ten miles from the southern end to the northern tip, and six miles wide. She’d stayed out of his way, too, staying south of an invisible border beginning at the pond. He’d missed going down to the beach to watch the waves tumble against the rocks, and the good fishing the bay offered. Yet he could survive without both. He’d learned, these months, just how little he needed for his survival, how spare his life could become. The loss of half the island wasn’t much.

And yet, here he was. At midday, standing at the periphery of a field and staring at a little stone cottage. A cottage that housed the first person he’d seen or spoken with in three months.

He wanted to bolt back to his end of the island and stay there, content in his solitude. Another force, bright and demanding, tugged him toward the home, and the woman within it.

And then he stood in front of her door and knocked.
Knocked
, for God’s sake. An ordinary gesture made odd by the fact that only two people lived on this island, and he’d dispensed with things like knocking on doors and speaking in complete sentences. At least he still wore clothing.

The woman opened the door. She held onto it, as if pretending that she could bar him entrance. He backed up a step, preparing to bolt. They stared at each other silently for a long time.

The other day, he’d been too shocked by her presence on the island to fully look at her, but now that he’d had a few days to get used to the idea, he really saw her.

True to her story about her origins, she had skin the color of spiced tea with milk, and warm brown eyes. Her thick black hair was twisted into a knot at the base of her neck. Little golden hoops adorned her ears. The simple green wool dress she wore revealed ripe curves. But the coolness in her gaze and firm line of her mouth were anything but enticing. He wasn’t here for ravishment or seduction, anyway.

Wordlessly, he held out a brace of rabbits. He’d hunted them only this morning.

She gazed at the still bodies of the rabbits, and he realized only then that, as a city woman, she probably wasn’t used to strange men showing up at her door with dead animals. Once, he’d been charming with young women, enough to secure a steady sweetheart. All that had changed, though. He had stopped interacting with women and their land-bound ways long ago. Now that he’d been on the island, his meager manners had degenerated even more.

But she didn’t scream, didn’t faint. Frowning, she simply took the rabbits from him.

“This has to be the strangest present I’ve ever received,” she said.

He liked her voice—low and smoky—but her words were little needles of embarrassment. He didn’t think he could
be
embarrassed, and yet here he stood, his face hot, his tongue thick.

“Be sure to eat all of the rabbit,” he said, turning away. “Guts, brains, eyes, organs. No squeamishness. You just eat the meat, you’ll starve.”

“It’s fortunate that I’m not a vegetarian.”

He began to walk off. He was nearly at the edge of the field, when her voice called out, “Wait.”

He stopped but didn’t turn around.

“You brought me some dead animals,” she said. “The least I can do is offer a cup of tea in exchange.” She sounded as though she were forcing the words out.

Tea.
His stores of it had run out two weeks ago. Some things an Englishman could go without, but depriving him of tea was tantamount to giving up his own blood.

But he
could
live without tea. He’d done so for two weeks. It wasn’t truly essential. Yet he still wavered. Stay or go? It didn’t sound like she honestly wanted him there.

Staying meant the possibility of questions he didn’t want to answer. It also meant talking with another human being, and a pretty one, at that. A sudden sharp ache hit him in the center of his chest. He hadn’t realized that he’d craved company until it—she—had mysteriously arrived a few days ago.

Slowly, he turned back and gave her a brief nod. “One cup. Then I’ll go.”

She didn’t look entirely pleased by his decision. “Go or stay. No one’s forcing you inside, Captain.”

He tensed. “Never said I was a captain.”

“The naval coat and air of command rather gave it away,” she said drily. “Captain.”

“Don’t call me that.”

She planted her hands on her hips. “‘
Hey, you
’ has a slightly impersonal feel to it.”

“Fletcher,” he ground out.

“Mr. Fletcher, if you’ll—”

“Fletcher’s my Christian name.”

She crossed her arms over her chest. “No last names.”

He shook his head. “Don’t serve any purpose out here, anyway.”

She nodded, as if agreeing with—even approving of—his logic. “I’m Kali.”

This time, he was the one caught off guard. “The goddess of death?”

“And creation. I’m surprised you know of her.”

“There aren’t many places in Britain’s empire that I haven’t been.” Why did he say that? He didn’t need or want to tell her anything about himself, but the words seemed to spring from his mouth.

“Still,” she murmured, “not many
videshi
bother to learn such things.”

He shrugged. It seemed only right to study the ways and customs of a foreign place, if only to keep from offending the locals. And learning about new cultures had been part of his desire for joining the navy in the first place—but he wouldn’t tell her that. The less he revealed of himself, the better. For both of them.

“A powerful, feared goddess,” he said. “Didn’t think anyone would be daring enough to name their daughter after her.”

Kali’s mouth softened into a guarded smile as she leaned against the doorjamb. “My full name’s Kalindi. Father always called me Kali. He said it was fitting.”

“Bloodthirsty child.”

She waved a dismissive hand. “Ah, I cried when my father killed snakes and scorpions. But I was . . . wild.”

The word, spoken in her husky voice, sent an unexpected pulse of sensation through him, like the first stings after a chilled limb began to warm.

She started to speak, then stopped. She looked ready to send him packing. He took a step backward.

But then she pushed the door open wider. “Come in,” she said, unsmiling.

I
nside the cottage, he felt as if he’d stepped into one of the Admiralty’s research facilities. The rough stone exterior of the cottage hid the latest in technology.

After laying the rabbits on a table, Kali moved toward a self-contained cooking apparatus, its different components neatly fitted together, from the range to the fire to a tap, under which sat a kettle on a small metal trivet. She pulled a lever on the side of the contraption, and the tap opened, filling the kettle. Before the kettle overflowed, the tap shut off on its own. The trivet swung out on a hinged arm, setting the kettle onto the range, where a flame automatically sprang to life.

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