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Excerpt for Specters of Nemesis by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








Specters of Nemesis


by Karen Kincy





























Specters of Nemesis – copyright © 2018 – Karen Kincy

First edition

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead (or any other form), business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.









To all the readers who loved these characters.








1914






One



Walking around New York City without a sword felt like tempting Fate.

Ardis reached for her hip, fingers clenching and unclenching. She tried not to imagine a maid feather-dusting her blade back at the hotel.

Breathing deeply, she steered clear of rich ladies shopping for fripperies. Ostrich feathers bobbed from their hats, shading their bland faces. At least in Manhattan, nobody looked twice at her tawny hair and Chinese eyes. An electric streetcar barreled down the avenue, brakes squealing. Sparks rained from the trolley pole and fizzled on the wet asphalt. She shielded her eyes, though not one New Yorker flinched.

God, she was supposed to be enjoying herself.

She had survived assassins, an airship crash, and the invading Imperial Russian Army. This stupid feeling of vulnerability had to be the fault of pregnancy. Hadn’t the nausea been enough punishment? The whole zeppelin flight to America, she had paid homage to a toilet, though she felt less sick on solid ground.

Two months down, seven more to go. Maybe the war in Europe would end first.

Right.

Navigating the crowds, she walked a few blocks to Bryant Park. London plane trees waved their bare branches over the grass. Pigeons jumped, wings clapping, from the bright marble of the New York Public Library.

Where was Wendel?

He had promised to meet her for dinner, though promises weren’t his strong suit.

The perfume of roast chestnuts drifted on the breeze. Her stomach growled. She spotted an old man, probably Italian, and rummaged money from her pocket. With a tobacco-stained smile, the old man handed her a brown paper packet of chestnuts that heated her hands.

Ardis returned his smile. “Thanks,” she said, glad to be speaking English.

Her German was decent, but it was never precise enough for Germans.

She sat on a bench and cracked open the hot chestnuts. Their sweet taste reminded her of maple syrup. She rolled the last of the chestnuts between her fingers, rubbing her thumb over its glossy shell, and frowned at the street.

Still no sign of Wendel. Where the hell was the necromancer?

Like a scrap of burnt paper, a raven floated overhead and landed in a tree. “Krampus?” Ardis squinted at the bird.

Where Krampus was, Wendel was never far behind. Black feathers bristled at the raven’s throat when he croaked hoarsely. He flew from the tree and landed by her feet, pecking at her boots before yanking her shoestring.

Krampus!” Ardis shooed away the raven. “Stop being a brat. Where’s…?”

The question died on her lips.

Wendel crossed the street with his hand inside his coat. He staggered, his breath fogging the winter air, and coughed.

Ardis clenched the chestnut in her fist. “Wendel?”

He sank onto the bench, unsteady on his feet. Was he drunk? If she had to bet, her money would be on Enderman’s, that German beer hall. Wind ruffled his black hair. He combed it with his fingers, his white skin stained red.

Blood?” Her voice sounded brittle. “Wendel!”

He looked sideways at her. Daylight glinted in his eyes, shifting them from green to gray. “I should have never left the Hex.”

Why would he care about a curse thousands of miles away? Unless…

She yanked aside the lapel of his coat. Under the black wool, blood crawled over his shirt, leaking from a gunshot wound.

Her breath stopped dead in her throat. “You got shot.”

Evidently.” His smile was unconvincing, his hands trembling too hard.

We have to get you to a hospital.”

Not the hospital.”

That wasn’t a suggestion.” She grabbed his arm. “Who shot you?”

No one.”

This isn’t the time for sarcasm!”

He leaned heavily on her as they stood. “Ardis, I don’t think I can make it.”

You don’t have a choice.”

Wendel wasn’t lying. Only a block later, his knees hit the street, dragging her halfway down with him. He clutched his ribs, fighting to stay upright, before he slumped unconscious. Ardis grabbed his shoulders, trying to shake him awake, but his head lolled in the dirty slush. Strangers gathered to gawk down at them.

Someone get a doctor.” Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. “Now!”



~



The tiny hospital room stank of bleach and sickness. Outside the only window, rain streaked the evening with gloom. Wendel lay in bed with his fists clenched over the sheets. Could he sense the dead and dying, even while sleeping? Ardis rubbed his knuckles, though his hands didn’t relax under her touch.

Wendel,” she whispered.

He hadn’t woken since the ambulance brought him here. The doctors injected him with a sedative before they pulled a bullet from between his ribs and stitched him up. Blood dripped into his veins via a needle in his arm.

Dread wormed in her stomach. She hated seeing him so weak.

Ardis hunched in a chair by the bed, her elbows on her knees, and pinched the bridge of her nose. A headache throbbed behind her temples; her eyes felt gritty from her refusal to cry. The police would come knocking and ask questions she couldn’t answer. Maybe it would be better if Wendel didn’t wake so soon.

When the door opened, with the whine of rusty hinges, she didn’t look up right away.

Ardis.” The voice, more gravel than honey, grabbed her by the throat.

Wendel?

He stood with his hand on the door, his black coat dotted with snow not yet melted. His face looked blank, even his eyes unreadable. There was something wrong with his hair; it wasn’t ragged, hacked short, but longer than his shoulders. When she stole a glance back at the bed, Wendel still lay sleeping. The other Wendel wouldn’t go away, no matter how many times she blinked like she could wake from a bad dream.

I know who shot him,” Wendel said from the doorway.

The heat drained from her face and left her icy. “Who are you?” Her voice rasped on the words, and she swallowed hard.

You know who I am.”

She held up her hand. “Do not tell me Wendel has an identical twin brother.”

His rough laugh shivered down her spine. “Not to my knowledge.” His gaze wandered to the bed, his jaw tightening almost imperceptibly.

Give me more of an explanation than that.”

Wendel crossed the room, snow drifting from his coat, and dragged a chair to the bed, where he sat opposite Ardis. He kept glancing at himself sleeping. “I remember this hospital. The moment I woke. And everything after it.”

I’m asking one more time.” She leaned away; he was too close. “Who are you?”

He met her gaze, his eyes shadowed. “He is my past. I am his future.”

You traveled through time?” When he nodded, she swallowed hard. “How?”

The archmage’s temporal magic. The last thing he built before… before I came here.” Something in his hesitation wasn’t convincing.

What happened to Konstantin?”

He smoothed his hair from his face. “He tinkered with technomancy he shouldn’t have.”

She studied his face with intense scrutiny, noting how a scar slashed his cheekbone, how the lines across his forehead had deepened. The clash of strange and familiar unnerved her. “How far have you traveled?”

Too far.” His eyes darkened. “Too long.”

Cold scuttled through her stomach. “Why did you come back?”

The war.”

Of course. She wanted to know what happened, which countries joined the fray, but she wasn’t sure he would tell her the truth.

Ardis.” He reached for her hand before stopping himself. “We need to go.”

Why?”

Wendel glanced at a clock on the wall. “We have three hours to find the man who shot me and kill him first.”

She pushed herself from the chair to pace. “Murder somebody?”

Self-defense.” He shrugged. “Retroactively.”

She furrowed her brow. “Why three hours?”

Because I’ve read the police records. That’s when the NYPD question him.”

Won’t killing him make the future worse?”

Better.” He tilted his head. “Hopefully. I can’t predict every possibility.”

Then why time travel at all?”

To try again.”

Shaking her head, she combed her fingers through her hair. “God, Wendel, who is he? Why did he shoot you in the first place?”

He swept his arm toward the door. “Let me show you.”

Now?”

Yes.”

I can’t just leave him–you–there.” She waved at the bed.

His lips bent in a smile. “I’ll live.”

Of course,” she muttered. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be talking to you.”

Rest assured, I won’t wake until the morning, thanks to the morphine.”

How do you–?”

I remember.”

She held his stare. “What happens if I don’t help you?”

His smile vanished. “Far too many will suffer. This time, we do things right.”



~



Rats rustled along the street in the shipyard, fleeing from Wendel’s footsteps. Ardis touched the Chinese jian at her hip–Chun Yi hummed with sleeping magic. The enchanted blade had an insatiable thirst for blood.

Wendel halted her in an alleyway. “You didn’t need to bring that sword.”

I’m not about to walk into a fight unarmed.”

He twisted his mouth. “A burning sword isn’t what I would call stealthy.”

Fine.” She peeled her sweaty hand from the sword’s pommel. “I won’t draw Chun Yi until we blow our cover.”

What makes you think we will blow our cover?”

Wendel.” She looked at him for a long moment. “We always do.”

Speak for yourself.” From a pocket in his coat, he drew a dagger of black Damascus steel, inlaid with silver flowers.

Amarant,” she said, her stomach tightening.

Wendel cocked an eyebrow. “Shall we?”

He took her hand and she shivered. Shadows rushed from the dagger, spinning cobwebs of darkness over their skin. When the magic crawled over her face, she held her breath while fighting the feeling of claustrophobia.

Much better,” Wendel murmured.

Nearly invisible in the night, they walked toward the water. Transatlantic liners and cargo vessels lurked off the coast. Black waves sucked at the docks with a glopping noise. The air stank of creosote, saltwater, and dead fish.

Who are we looking for?” she whispered.

The man who shot me.”

She sighed. “Describe him.”

Short, balding, smug.”

Smug,” she repeated. In the shadows, Wendel’s face faded in and out, impossible to read. Was he being sarcastic?

He shouldn’t be too hard to kill. We have the element of surprise.”

Can I ask why he shot you?”

He cleared his throat. “All this talk of American neutrality is a lie.”

I don’t follow.”

See that freighter? The Reliant.” He pointed at a hulking silhouette. “Loaded with weapons, made in America. Bombs, firearms, and ammunition. All of them bound for Russia.”

They had fought the Tsar’s men there, on battlefields dirty with blood-soaked snow. They had narrowly escaped death at the claws of the Russian’s clockwork dragon. But she expected him to abandon the war across the water.

Why get involved?” she said, frowning. “Wasn’t Königsberg enough?”

Money,” he said.

Her frown deepened. “You lied to me. Told me you were looking for honest work.”

Did I?” He managed a smidgen of innocence. “It’s hard to recall.”

Who’s paying?”

Nemesis.” His eyes cold, he stared at the Reliant.

Whose nemesis?”

No, the Greek goddess.”

Of revenge?”

Of justice.” His mouth thinned. “The name appealed to a group of saboteurs and spies with loyalty to the German Empire.”

I didn’t expect loyalty from you,” she muttered.

He ignored her comment. “Nemesis first approached me in America. Recruited me at Enderman’s. They found my talents as an assassin and necromancer irresistible, not to mention my fluency in both English and German.”

She snorted. “You haven’t gotten any humbler.”

Not even I can stop a bullet.” He rubbed his chest as if remembering the gunshot. “But I can stop the police from arresting me.”

By killing the man who tried to kill you?”

Precisely.”

You still haven’t said why he shot you.”

I boarded the Reliant to steal the ship’s manifest.”

She arched her eyebrows. “In broad daylight?”

Dockworkers change shifts at four o’clock. That commotion provided me with cover. I boarded without incident, but the guard caught me in the captain’s quarters. In my infinite wisdom, I brought a dagger to a gunfight.”

God, Wendel. Your arrogance will be the death of you.”

Though the bastard won’t expect me to return for an encore performance.”

Her fingers tightened around his. “So we kill the guard and get the manifest.”

Without anyone seeing us.” Wendel’s low voice raised goosebumps on her skin. “You distract him; I attack from behind.”

Quick and dirty?”

Exactly.”

They halted behind a warehouse and peered around the corner. Light from a street lamp gnawed at the shadows cloaking Wendel; he couldn’t go any farther without being seen. A stocky guard hunched on the boardwalk, the end of a cigarette glowing red between his knuckles. He took a drag and flicked ash into the water.

After you,” Wendel whispered.

Ardis hesitated. “Hold this.” She unbuckled her sword from her belt.

Why–?”

I need a cover story.”

She untied her braid, raking her fingers through her hair, then tugged down her neckline. Wendel frowned. Unarmed, she stepped from the darkness. The guard’s shoulders tensed, his head low like a bull ready to charge.

Excuse me,” she said, “are you in charge here?”

What’s it matter to you?” His hand gripped the edge of his coat. He had a gun inside, she was sure of it.

I want to talk to the boss.”

Really?” He spat a glob of glistening mucus at her feet. “We don’t hire women.”

She raised her eyebrows, her hands at her waist, and jutted out one hip. “Sure you don’t.”

You aren’t pretty enough to be turning tricks for the boss.”

Her jaw clenched, but she kept her tone sweet. “Don’t have to be pretty in the dark.”

He grunted. “How about I cut you a deal?”

Try me.”

Give me a little taste of the goods.” He lumbered toward her, his hands on his belt, leaving the safety of the light.

Her heart hammering, Ardis stood her ground. “You sure about that?”

Wendel sidestepped from the darkness. His dagger flashed as he slit the man’s throat. Amarant sliced flesh like a knife through cake. Dark, slick spurts gushed from the wound. Choking on his own blood, the man dropped to his knees, clawing at his neck. He thudded flat on the boardwalk. His boot twitched once.

Here.” Wendel returned the sword to Ardis. “You might need this next time.”

She thanked him with a nod, buckling on the scabbard. “This way was faster.”

Wendel edged around the widening pool of blood, careful not to dirty his boots, before crouching by the dying man. He sighed, clearly impatient, waiting for the man’s last gurgling gasps to end. A moment later, he touched the corpse between the eyes and brought him back from the dead–a minion under his control.

You shot me.” It wasn’t a question. “Did anyone else see it happen?”

The undead man spluttered, blood bubbling at the corner of his mouth. “Don’t–know.”

Remember.” The necromancer’s face looked fierce with concentration. Ardis knew this magic taxed his strength. “Who else?”

Maybe…” The dead man’s dull eyes stared skyward. “Maybe Jack.”

Jack who?”

Jack Beaumont.”

Wendel cursed and released the corpse. It looked toward him, awaiting further orders. “Take a long walk off a short pier.”

The dead man lurched to his feet and shuffled down the boardwalk. Without hesitation, he stepped into the space beyond and tipped into the water. He sank without a single bubble, a man with no need to breathe.

Damn.” Wendel knelt on the boardwalk and bent over the water. Glowering, he washed the blood from his hands. “I forgot to ask him what Jack Beaumont looks like. We can’t leave another witness blundering around.”

Ardis bit the inside of her cheek. “We have to kill him, don’t we?”

He focused on scrubbing between his fingers, trying to erase the feel of death, no doubt. “And anyone else in our way.”

Are you sure this will change the future?”

I would do anything to keep you safe.”

The knot in her stomach tightened. What happened to her in his timeline? But she didn’t want to feed this fear, so she didn’t ask. “We should clean this up.” She waved at the blood, which glittered with the city lights.

He sighed. “I should have made the dead man do it.”

Nausea curdled her stomach. She knew the necromancer joked about the morbid to distance himself from it, but this was too callous. Even if the guard had shot him. What if Wendel lied? What if the guard was innocent? She couldn’t dredge up that corpse and interrogate him. Sometimes she wished she could.

Wendel dragged over a barrel of rainwater and tipped it over. Water sloshed over the blood, sweeping it into the bay. She gripped her sword’s pommel, Chun Yi’s thirst pulsing like a heartbeat. The blade wanted to spill more blood.

The shipping manifest?” she said.

Aboard the Reliant.” He swept his arm. “Ladies first.”

Are you sure that guy was the only guard?”

He shrugged. “Hopefully we won’t have to leave a trail of corpses.”

Good plan,” she muttered.









Two



The Reliant looked anything but reliable. A windjammer with an iron hull, her sails dingy like old laundry. Ardis wondered if the ship’s cargo could possibly be a real threat to Nemesis. Perhaps this disrepair served as a disguise.

A short gangway led to the ship, the gate padlocked, though that didn’t stop her from vaulting aboard. The deck of the ship tilted underfoot. Stumbling, she caught herself against a rope stretched taut in the rigging.

Are you all right?” Wendel leapt aboard with slightly more grace. He touched the back of her hand, only for a moment.

She stepped back. “Yes.” Her cheeks burned.

Be careful.” He lowered his voice. “For the baby’s sake.”

Is it a boy or a girl?” She meant it as a joke, but her voice wavered.

He looked away, his gaze on the black water. “I can’t tell you.”

Why?” The instant she asked, she regretted it.

But he said nothing, walking toward the stern of the ship. He stopped at the door to the captain’s quarters and jiggled the handle.

Nothing a lockpick can’t fix,” he muttered.

Her fingers strayed to her sword. She couldn’t help glancing around, as if another guard might interrupt them at any moment.

The lock clicked. “The manifest should be in here,” he said.

Let’s get it and get out.” She crossed the swaying deck, though she wasn’t sure if that was the only reason she felt off balance.

The captain’s quarters smelled musty, like books ruined by rain. A battered desk stretched along a wall opposite a berth with a lumpy mattress. Wendel slid open all the drawers in rapid succession, rifling through papers and folders. He stopped, for a moment, and frowned at a blueprint before handing it to Ardis.

Nemesis was right to be worried,” he said.

The blue ink smudged her fingers. “What’s this?”

She unrolled the blueprint on the desk–schematics for some sort of electrified crossbow. The Hex negated gunpowder within Germany and the borders of its allies, but that magic didn’t prevent you from electrocuting your enemies.

Thunderbolt.” She grunted at the name. “I wonder if it works.”

Wendel arched an eyebrow. “I wonder if Nikola Tesla knows about this.”

Why do you say that?”

He has a morbid fascination with electricity.”

Morbid fascination?” she repeated. “You’re a fine one to talk.”

He grimaced like he tasted something sour. “I never asked to be a necromancer.”

She gave him a look. “Nobody asked you to keep raising the dead.”

It’s useful,” he said, with no small amount of sarcasm.

She spotted a journal bound in black leather. “This looks like a manifest to me.”

Perfect.” He squinted at the Thunderbolt blueprint. “For once, I wish the archmage was here to ramble on about technomancy.”

Konstantin?”

Yes…”

She rifled through the journal, which indeed contained ledgers of shipments. Arrows, ammo, and armor. The ammo seemed odd, like they were optimistic about destroying the Hex and returning to infantry armed with guns.

Wendel rolled up the blueprint. “Perhaps these crossbows are the work of Tesla’s rival.”

And?”

Perhaps Tesla might be persuaded to work for Nemesis.”

She studied his face, which was unreadable, unsurprisingly. “Does Tesla work for the German Empire? In the future?”

He smirked. “If I tell you all the secrets, there won’t be any to look forward to.”

Didn’t you come from a terrible future?”

I did.” He pocketed the blueprint in his coat. “But together we can rewrite history.”

She followed him to the door. “You don’t believe in Fate?”

Hell, no.”





~



New York City never slept. Taxis honked at horse carriages and jaywalkers even at three in the morning. Ardis flinched, her nerves frayed. They stopped at their hotel, where she hid her sword, before walking to the hospital.

The whole time, Wendel said nothing, his eyes focused somewhere faraway.

When do we report to Nemesis?” she said.

We?” He grimaced and pinched the bridge of his nose, like he had a headache.

It pays to be prompt.”

Ardis, have I ever told you how mercenary you can be?”

You aren’t usually that rude.”

I will endeavor to be the model of politeness.”

They stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. “Of course, I need to be at the hospital when Wendel–you–wake.”

So devoted.”

The light changed and they crossed together. “What happens if he sees you?” she said.

The archmage babbled about unraveling time, or some such nonsense.”

She climbed the steps to the hospital. “Let’s not do that.”

Disinfectant stung her nose, chased by the stink of sickness. She swallowed hard, her stomach turning. They returned to the room where the other Wendel lay sleeping. Wendel from the future eyed him without emotion. “When the police arrive at four o’clock, to ask you about Nemesis, you have to claim ignorance.”

She glared at him. “I was ignorant until you told me.”

Fair point.” He shrugged. “Pretend to be my distraught fiancée. Perhaps a few tears.”

She glared harder. “Fiancée? And I don’t cry on command.”

Wendel fetched his sleeping doppelgänger’s coat from a chair. He rummaged inside before tossing a black velvet box into her lap. “This might help your alibi.” When she hesitated, he arched an eyebrow. “Open it.”

What is it?”

Not a grenade, I promise.”

Her fingers fumbled on the velvet, though it wasn’t bloodstained like she feared. She cracked open the box and forgot to breathe. A ring. An ornate knot of diamonds glittered around the ring’s heart, a ruby gleaming in the gloom.

Tears prickled her traitorous eyes. “You were going to propose?” she whispered.

At some point.” Wendel wouldn’t look at her. “Keep the ring. I have to go.”

Why?”

Before that Wendel wakes up.” He hesitated in the doorway. “Meet me at the hotel.”

Without waiting for her reply, he strode from the room and left her shaking. She closed the box, since she couldn’t look at the ring, not like this. She should put it back in the coat. It belonged to the Wendel she knew.

Not that stranger.

Ardis hesitated by Wendel’s bed before she reached for his coat. Her fingers lingered on the black wool. With a rattling gasp, Wendel blinked open his eyes. He coughed twice before he struggled to shove himself upright.

She caught him by the arm. “Lie down. They just stitched you back together.”

Ardis.” His voice was all gravel. “I had a dream–” He frowned and didn’t finish, slumping back in the bed. “You found it.”

Her face hot with guilt, she held the box in her hand. “In your coat.”

At least we know the nurses aren’t kleptomaniacs.”

His attempt at a smile brought the tears back to her eyes. “But how did you buy this?”

He cocked his head. “At a jewelry store?”

You can’t afford a ring this big!”

I wanted it to be a surprise, so I may have lied about my income.”

She cracked open the box. The ruby glinted in the shadows. “Tell me the truth.”

My inheritance remains out of reach.” He shrugged. “That’s the unfortunate truth.”

And?”

Out of necessity, I deigned to find employment befitting a commoner.”

Wendel!”

He seemed pleased by his own pantomimed snobbery. “It’s hardly one of the crown jewels, but do you like it?”

Ignoring the ring, she inhaled. “Where are you working?”

Wendel met her gaze. An emotion, too quick to read, flashed through his eyes. “I’m not sure how to best describe the position.”

She considered telling him she already knew everything. But then she would have to explain the arrival of another Wendel, and worry if that would unravel time, or whatever Konstantin told Wendel in the future.

Would tell Wendel? She couldn’t even keep her grammar straight.

Someone shot you.” She looked him in the eye. “It’s something bad, isn’t it?”

He twisted his mouth. “Not bad, necessarily, merely something you might find–”

Dangerous?”

Yes.” He forced a smile. “Though it pays better because of the risk.”

You could have died!”

He waved away her comment like it didn’t matter. “I’m working as a merchant of sorts. We do business in secrets.”

For who?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Nemesis.”

She didn’t have to fake the shock on her face. He had told her the truth. “You’re not talking about the goddess, are you?”

He tilted his head as if considering his reply with caution. “Nemesis works to protect and advance the interests of my homeland.”

By protect and advance, you mean sabotage and spying?”

He lifted his shoulders. “When appropriate.” He met her eyes. “Are you angry with me?”

She realized she was gritting her teeth and exhaled in an attempt to relax. “Honestly? I was expecting you to tell more lies.”

He reached across the bed and placed the ring in her palm. “And?”

The ruby glinted against her skin. Her throat tightened, choking her words. “I don’t know if I feel comfortable with this.”

His hand closed over hers, the ring trapped between them. “I can wait.”

Tears stinging her eyes, she blinked fast. Deep somewhere secret in her heart, she wished she could be the kind of woman who saw an engagement ring and felt nothing but joy, but she knew she wasn’t. “Wendel, I’m sorry.”

Don’t apologize. Please.”

I just–” She swallowed hard and dried her cheeks with her knuckles. “I just can’t see myself as anyone’s wife.”

He laughed, his eyes sparkling. “Forgive me, but I beg to disagree.”

The idea scares me.”

I thought you weren’t afraid of anything.”

His teasing loosened the knot in her throat. “Then you don’t know me.”

Wendel’s hand tightened around hers, his eyes stunning with clarity. “Allow me the privilege of knowing you for years to come.”

She blinked away yet more tears. “You’re impossible to resist.”

He broke into a grin. “My evil plan all along.”

I’m not sure what to say.”

Maybe yes?” He stared into her eyes, clearly trying to win her over.

Maybe.” She laughed through her tears and slid the ring on her finger, where it belonged. “You know I never cry like this.”

He smiled as she dabbed her nose. “I love you, Ardis, tears and all.”

She flapped a handkerchief at him. “This is your fault! You ambushed me with an absurdly large ruby and a secret job as a spy.”

My apologies.” He didn’t look sorry at all.

Not to mention you knocked me up.”

He squinted. “I’m not familiar with the phrase.”

You can put two and two together.”

Ah.” He dipped his head. “Hopefully this will help you worry less.”

Fear knifed her stomach. Wendel may have told her the truth, but she couldn’t tell him anything about the Wendel from the future, could she? She put on a smile and avoided his eyes, praying he would believe her deception.



~



The cops arrived like clockwork at four in the morning.

A pair of policemen strode into Wendel’s room. The taller man had a baby face and a flickering smile that made Ardis nervous. The shorter man, as grizzled and jowly as an old pug, flashed a badge. “Detective Grimaldi.” He waved at nothing in particular. “My partner, Sergeant Finnegan. Mind if we ask a few questions?”

Wendel’s stare could have frozen water. “Is that a request?”

Detective Grimaldi raised his eyebrows. “No.” He dragged a chair to the bed and tugged up the knees of his trousers before sitting.

Sergeant Finnegan took Ardis by the elbow. “Right this way.” His accent betrayed an Irish background. She let him walk her down the hallway. Better not to resist. She didn’t need to be on the bad side of the NYPD. Finnegan waved at chairs in the corner, shadowed by a shedding Christmas tree. “Please, sit.”

She did as he said. “Thank you.” Might as well pretend to have manners.

He slipped a notebook and pen from his pocket. “Your name?”

Ardis Black.” At least, that’s what it said on her forged passport. She bit the inside of her cheek and stared at her hands.

Finnegan jotted this down, his face untroubled. “And your husband?”

Fiancé.” Her cheeks warmed, since it still didn’t feel real. “Wendel von Preussen.”

Occupation?”

There was no good way to answer that. She clenched her sweaty hands into fists. “We both worked for the Archmages of Vienna.”

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his spindly legs at the ankles. “Past tense?”

We’re taking time off to visit America.” None of this was untrue. If Wendel decided to lie, that would be his problem.

Are you aware of any enemies Wendel might have?”

A bleak laugh escaped her mouth. Where to start? She couldn’t even begin to imagine how many people wanted him dead.

Miss Black?” Finnegan waited with a blank look in his watery eyes.

I don’t know who would shoot him in New York.” She twisted the ring on her finger. “All of his enemies live thousands of miles away.”

Who?”

We thought we escaped the war.” She softened her voice and stared at the floor, trying to look vulnerable.

Miss Black, I need to know names.”

She shook her head. “Soldiers and mercenaries don’t leave calling cards.”

Finnegan’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me more about Wendel’s whereabouts last night.”

The night before he was shot?” The scent of blood and saltwater lingered in her nose; she sucked in a calming breath.

The policeman studied her for a moment. “Yes.”

He was with me.”

All night?”

She swallowed hard, her mouth dry. “He stopped at Enderman’s. That beer hall.”

The one in Kleindeutschland?”

I think so.”

Finnegan jotted this down before tapping his pen on his lips. “Thank you. Wait here, Miss Black, while I check with my partner.” After unfolding his legs, he walked to Wendel’s room, but the door swung open first.

Grimaldi glanced between them with a scowl. “That will be all. Goodbye.”

The air rushed from Ardis’s lungs. They hadn’t arrested Wendel.

Yet.

When she returned to his room, he looked even paler than before, staring out the window. Rain trickled down the glass. “Ardis.”

She shut the door behind herself. “What did you tell the cops?”

When Wendel shrugged, he winced and touched his bandage. “That I fought a mugger.”

How heroic of you.”

The truth isn’t much better.” His jaw taut, he kept staring into the darkness. “Nemesis sent me to retrieve a ship’s manifest and a guard caught me. Can you believe it? When I tried to talk my way out of it, he shot me.”

Be glad you’re alive.”

He scowled. “I should finish off the bastard.”

Twice? The other Wendel beat him to it. “You can’t leave this hospital bed.”

A crooked smile bent his mouth. “Not even with you to nurse me back to health?”

I’m bound to do more harm than good.”

You would make a pleasant nurse. In that uniform…” He looked her up and down.

She braced one hand on her hip. “Careful, or I might worsen your condition.”

By all means.”

You must be feeling better. You’re being a bastard again.”

His smile widened into a grin. “Am I?”





~



Dawn came late to New York City as Ardis returned to Hotel Donovan. Sunlight crept through cracks in the buildings and fought the long shadows of skyscrapers. The hotel was hardly the Waldorf-Astoria, but marble floors in the lobby tended to guarantee a lack of bedbugs. She nodded at the concierge’s professional smile.

Her eyes gritty, she trudged upstairs and fumbled with the key to their room.

Need help?”

Wendel stepped from the shadows, cobwebs of darkness clinging to his skin, the black dagger in his hand. Ardis jumped, reaching again for the sword that wasn’t at her side. He returned Amarant to a pocket inside his coat.

Don’t try to scare me,” she muttered through clenched teeth.

I wasn’t.” He leaned against the wall. “How did it go?”

I didn’t tell the police anything.”

Good.”

She jabbed the key into the lock and twisted. Wendel reached over her shoulder and pushed open the door. She sidestepped away from him–he wasn’t Wendel, not the one she knew, not even if he looked so familiar.

He followed her into the room. The door clicked shut with a finality that kicked her heartbeat into a higher gear. Wendel tossed his coat over the couch before sprawling there. She stared at him. “What are you doing?”

He peered at her through his lashes, his eyes glittering. “Making myself comfortable.”

Here?” Her throat clenched on the word.

He let his head fall back and inspected the ceiling. “Unless you wish otherwise.”

She kicked off her boots. “You’re not wearing a ring.”

Pardon?”

Was there never a wedding?” She smoothed her hair back. “What happens to us?”

Wendel met her stare and held it without blinking. “That future isn’t inevitable.”

Damn it, why couldn’t she decipher the shadows in his eyes? “You’ve already changed so much by coming here.”

It’s too late now.”

What happens when we get to the day where you travel back in time?”

He lifted his shoulders. “Haven’t the slightest clue. Perhaps we should ignore paradoxes.”

When he stood, she resisted the urge to retreat. He stared at her with a sharp interest in his eyes, as if he wanted to dissect her emotions. Or her clothes. He wasn’t Wendel, but he was, and she couldn’t deny the heat simmering under her skin. Like she was tempted by adultery. Wouldn’t that make her unfaithful to the other Wendel?

That was a paradox worse than time travel.

He took a step in her direction, and another, cornering her by the bed. She wanted to touch him, to see if he felt real, but she dug her fingernails into her palms. “Ardis.” The way he whispered her name unleashed a cascade of shivers over her skin. She imagined his hand pressing hard into the small of her back.

Her body betraying her, she couldn’t help swaying toward him. “What do I call you?”

Pardon?”

You aren’t Wendel.”

That’s still my name.” He stared into her eyes. “I still love you.”

Don’t say that.” Her pulse throbbed in her throat. “What do you want?”

You.”

His hand slipped behind her neck, his fingers rough with years of callouses, years she hadn’t yet experienced with him. The Wendel she knew didn’t feel this desperate, didn’t look at her with such raw lust in his eyes.

How had he changed? Why did she want to find out in all the wrong ways?

She touched her fingertips to his chest, holding him at bay. “This isn’t right.”

You don’t trust me,” he whispered.

I don’t know you.”

His eyes darkened. “Allow me to introduce myself.”

When he kissed her, she didn’t have time to retreat. His mouth met hers with a ferocity that knocked the air from her lungs.

Wendel–” She tried to speak, but he kissed her again. “Wendel!”

He broke away. “Yes?”

Heat scorched her face; her heartbeat galloped like she had sprinted a mile. “What’s wrong with you?” Tempted to finish what he started, she swallowed hard and clenched her fists. “You didn’t travel through time to seduce me.”

I don’t see why not,” he said, his voice husky.

God!” She shoved him away. “You don’t care about yourself at all?”

He squinted. “At the risk of sounding conceited, I care very much about myself.”

Your past self.”

I’m giving him something to look forward to.”

Wendel reached for her hips, but she leaned back. “Are you sure that’s how this works?”

Let’s find out.”













Three



When he kissed her again, the weight of his body on hers made her melt. Why couldn’t she pretend this didn’t matter?

Wendel.” She braced her hand on his chest. “Wait.”

He did as she commanded, though he clenched his jaw. “You don’t want this?”

She scooted back on her elbows before swinging out of bed. She needed space to breathe. “I can’t. Not now.”

He withdrew, the heat of him fading from her skin. “We should sleep.”

Not together.”

I can keep my hands to myself.” He glanced at her sideways. “Can you?”

Couch.” She pointed.

Sighing, he lingered by the bed. “Nemesis wants me to attend a brunch at the Arcanaeum early this afternoon.”

Arcanaeum?”

That enormous museum.”

This was an odd request. Ardis frowned at the dawn sky. “Shouldn’t we sleep?”

For a few hours.” Wendel flashed her a smile, criminally handsome, though she found his charms less than irresistible. “Care to join me?”

At the brunch?”

Tesla will be there, along with J. P. Morgan, Jr.”

Why?”

He arched his eyebrows. “Tesla may know more about the electrified crossbow. As for Morgan, he’s been financing Russia, and is considering the United Kingdom next. Nemesis would like him to consider other options.”

I assume this consideration involves sharp implements.”

You know me too well.”

Ardis swallowed hard. She didn’t want to get involved with Nemesis, but how dangerous could a brunch be? There would be at least one friendly face–a week ago, Tesla had given them a ride to America on his airship, the USS Jupiter.

What time is the brunch?” she said.

One o’clock.”

She sat on the bed and kicked off her boots. “Don’t wake me up until noon.”

Yes, ma’am.” Wendel began unbuttoning his shirt.

She turned her back on him, since he always slept naked. As if she would lose control at the sight of him. No man was that handsome.

Ardis?”

She looked sideways at him. Of course he wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. Her gaze dropped before she dragged it upward. He met her stare, smirking, and she refused to blink. “What do you want?” she said.

Sweet dreams.”

She shot him a nasty look before climbing into bed. “I hope the couch is lumpy.”

No,” he said, “it’s quite comfortable.”

Liar.”

There’s room for two.”

She closed her eyes. “Good night.”

Good morning?”

Shut up, Wendel.”

He laughed, but she refused to dignify him with a reply.



~



Ardis woke with a headache. Where the hell had Wendel gone?

She didn’t know why he would leave her behind. Then again, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know his devious plans.

She dressed mechanically, her skull aching. Maybe some coffee would help her feel human. On the way to the café, she passed the hotel’s front desk. The concierge flagged her down. “Ma’am, a telegram for you.”

From who?”

Mrs. Jin Hua?” He completely mispronounced the Chinese name.

Jesus Christ. How could she have forgotten sending her mother a telegram a day ago? She had kept it simple:

in NYC on leave not sure if time for SF how are you?

Conveniently, she omitted the part about being pregnant. The flutter in her belly had to be nerves. The baby couldn’t be big enough to kick, could it? She wanted to ask her mother, but she didn’t know how to tell her.

About anything whatsoever.

She stared at the telegram. It took her a few tries to read it, her eyes blurry.

have ticket for next airship to NYC see you soon love your mother

Ardis forced herself not to crumple the paper in her first. She caught the concierge’s eye. “When did you receive this?”

Last night, ma’am.”

A cross-country airship took about two days. That meant Jin Hua would be here tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest.

Christ,” Ardis muttered.

The concierge raised his eyebrows. “Would you like to telegraph your reply?”

No!” That sounded rude. “Sorry, I don’t have the time.”

Definitely not enough to entertain her mother while dodging endless questions.

Damn, she couldn’t bring her mother to meet Wendel in the hospital. How could she explain away the bullet hole in his chest?

Unless…

It was a bad idea, but the best one she had. She would have to ask the Wendel from the future to act as her fiancé. Never mind Nemesis, or whatever horrible secrets he was hiding. Maybe that would satisfy her mother.

Maybe not.

Coffee. She needed coffee. Better to fortify herself with caffeine.

Excuse me.” A man touched her elbow. She stepped aside to let him pass before she recognized him–Detective Grimaldi.

Her stomach tightened. “This can’t be a coincidence.”

Grimaldi’s smile didn’t look convincing. “Indeed, it’s not. We need to speak in private. Come with me to the station?”

It sounded like a question, though she knew it couldn’t be one. “If there’s coffee.”

The detective’s smile drooped into a frown, as if this joke were inappropriate, and her ears burned. What did they want from her?

She followed him into the cold; the wind cut like a knife through her jacket. Grimaldi waved her toward a car idling on the street, one emblazoned with the shield of the NYPD. She ducked inside and hugged herself.

Grimaldi settled beside her and signaled for the driver to go. The car lurched into motion. He glanced sideways at her. “Ardis Black.”

She met his gaze. “Yes?”

That’s your name?”

Yes.” She tensed, her shoulders stiff.

How about Yu Lan?”

Her fingernails bit into her palms. “Yu Lan is dead.”

Is she now?” A corner of the detective’s mouth twitched.

The car took a corner too fast, and Grimaldi slid against Ardis, his leg heavy along hers. The smell of him–tobacco and cologne–filled her nose.

She swallowed down nausea. “What do you want from me?”

Yu Lan killed a man in San Francisco, before she fled the country.”

Her skin felt numb, even faraway. “I heard it was self-defense.”

Why did she come back?”

She challenged him with her stare. “Why do you care what happened in San Francisco?”

Grimaldi fished in his pocket before finding a pack of cigarettes. “It’s true, that murder doesn’t fall under our jurisdiction. What happened in San Francisco will stay in San Francisco, unless you decide not to cooperate.”

Diplomatic immunity,” she said, remembering. “The Archmages of Vienna said–”

Are you a diplomat?” Grimaldi laughed.

Damn it, Konstantin must have promised something he couldn’t deliver.

Tell me what you want.” She clenched her hands to hide their shaking. “You might not even have to threaten me.”

Grimaldi flashed his teeth in a fleeting grin. “To take down Nemesis.”

And you want me?” She glanced out the window. Had they been driving in circles?

We know your friend, Wendel von Preussen, has been involved with their activities. Sabotage, subterfuge, a smorgasbord of crimes.”

Smorgasbord wasn’t German, but she didn’t correct him. “Wendel got shot, remember?”

A man like Herr von Preussen has too much blood on his hands. He won’t stay out of trouble for too long.”

She sure as hell wasn’t going to admit he was right. “He’s still in the hospital.”

We don’t need him.” Grimaldi met her gaze, his eyes steady. “We need you.”

What do you mean?”

Infiltrate Nemesis and work as a double agent.”

How?”

You’re a mercenary. Be creative.”

And?”

He knocked a cigarette from the pack. “If you do this for us, you can forget about your past. If you don’t, you can forget about your future.”

She swallowed back her choking anxiety. “I don’t even know where to start.”

You’ve heard of Enderman’s?”

She nodded. “The beer hall.” Wendel had spent an awful lot of time there.

Go there. Get recruited.”

How long do you need me?”

Until you prove useful.” Grimaldi tapped the window between them and the driver. The car slid to a halt, slush hissing from the tires. He hopped out and held the door. “This conversation never happened.”

Understood.”

Ardis stepped out, the cold shock of winter a relief. She waited for Grimaldi’s car to disappear in traffic, and only then did she walk away.



~



Ardis retreated to Hotel Donovan’s café. She swigged some coffee, her hands shaking, and it wasn’t all from the caffeine.

There you are.”

She jumped at the sound of Wendel’s voice. “Where were you?”

He lifted a paper bag. “Shopping.”

For what?”

Clothes.” He waved at himself. “While stunningly handsome, I’m not in formal attire. The brunch starts in an hour.”

She wasn’t in the mood for his sense of humor. “Fantastic.”

Is something wrong?”

She sure as hell couldn’t tell him about the NYPD. “Remember that telegram I sent?”

Which?”

To San Francisco.”

Christ. I forgot.” Wendel’s eyebrows pinched in a stricken look. “Your mother.”

When does her airship land?”

He hesitated. “I can’t say.”

You don’t remember?”

These events might not echo my memories.”

Ardis groaned. “I’m not ready for this. Not with one of you in the hospital, and one of you hellbent on rewriting history.”

His cough sounded suspiciously like a laugh. “Can I help?”

Damn it, I don’t want to ask this, but I need you to be my fiancé. For my mother.”

For your mother,” he repeated. “Of course.”

She detected a wicked glint in his eye. “No.” She jabbed him in the chest. “Don’t.”

Don’t what?”

Fantasize.”

He smirked. “My imagination has been chaste and innocent.”

My mother doesn’t even know we’re engaged.”

What a pleasant surprise.” He arched one of his eyebrows.

She also doesn’t know you’re a necromancer, or a disinherited prince, or an assassin.”

Ex-assassin.”

Really?” She stared at him. “Aren’t you killing people for Nemesis?”

Not at the moment.”

Perfect.” She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be sure to tell my mother that.”

I have a better idea. Why not tell her I’m a prince with a vast fortune and absolutely no necromancy whatsoever?”

Because she will interrogate you.”

He waved away her comment. “A little interrogation never hurt.”

Ardis crossed the lobby without waiting for him to follow. Of course he did. There was no getting rid of him. As they climbed upstairs, he hummed to himself, a tune with a Turkish lilt. He must have picked it up in Constantinople.

Sometimes she wanted to strangle the necromancer.

She scowled at him. “Can’t you book your own room?”

And have them notice two Wendel von Preussens?”

I’ll tell them I kicked you out,” she deadpanned, unlocking the door.

He followed her into the room. “What would your mother say?”

Damn, she didn’t have a good comeback for that. “Do you mind? I need a bath.”

So do I,” he said, pokerfaced.

Fine, you can bathe after me.”

Wendel smiled sweetly. “Ladies first.”

She locked herself in the bathroom and undressed. Running away sounded good, but she had already abandoned San Francisco. Home didn’t even feel like home anymore. To be fair, it hadn’t been cozy living next door to her mother’s brothel in Chinatown. Expensive courtesans dressed in silk didn’t exactly inspire nostalgia.

When Ardis turned on the water, a cramp tightened her stomach. Wincing, she rubbed it. Only two months pregnant, she knew it wasn’t uncommon for an early loss, a sadness that most women kept secret. An ache choked her throat.

She wanted this baby.

The thought branded itself into her mind with fierce clarity. It didn’t matter how much she had to sacrifice to keep her baby safe. She stepped into the bath. Cradled in the warmth, she closed her eyes and let herself drift in a moment of calm.

Wendel rapped on the door. “Ardis?”

The moment was over. “Coming.” She climbed from the tub and grabbed a towel.

Are you all right?”

Yes!”

Why did he have to be so annoyingly attentive? She twisted the towel around her hair, then wrapped another around her body. When she opened the door to the bathroom, she found Wendel leaning against the wall.

He looked her over. “I’ll be quick.”

Ignoring the devilish glint in his eyes, she walked past him. She traveled light, never bringing more than a few changes of clothes, but she wished she had brought at least one traditional Chinese dress for her mother.

Trousers and shirt wouldn’t impress Jin Hua. Why dress like a boy?

Ardis twisted her mouth, anticipating the scrutiny, and picked her nicest clothes. The ones without any bloodstains, anyway. Once upon a time, she even had an evening dress, but she lost it when Wendel set a ballroom on fire.

Steam gusted from the bathroom as the door swept open. Wendel walked out stark naked, rivulets of water trickling over his chest, dripping down the lean muscles in his stomach–she forced herself to look him in the eye.

Her cheeks blazed. “Did you run out of towels?”

No.”

She clutched her towel close, which made her feel prudish. “Then dry yourself off.”

How do you say it? Fresh as a daisy?” He couldn’t help smirking.

You won’t be if I murder you and dump you in a ditch,” she muttered.

Ardis.” His eyebrows angled in a pained look. “How violent of you. Remember, we have to be on our best behavior today.”

Are you capable of best behavior?”

When he grinned, it was damn near dazzling. “Anything for you.”

She turned her back on him and grabbed her clothes. He was watching her; she could almost feel his stare on her skin.

Why couldn’t the Wendel from the future be ugly? Not so evil and tempting?

Are you wearing that?” The nearness of his voice startled her.

What was wrong with this shirt? It wasn’t even ragged. “Yes.” She growled the word.

Why not this?”

Topless, she clutched her shirt to hide herself and turned around. Wendel dangled a scrap of red silk between his fingers.

What’s that?” She stared at him. “A handkerchief?”

He laughed, then frowned like he hadn’t meant to. “I bought you a dress.”

Where?” She snatched it from his fingers. “The red-light district?”

Of course not! I don’t even know where the red-light district is in New York.”

Sure you don’t.”

Ardis held out the dress. Dragons in golden brocade writhed over red silk, though the dress wasn’t a traditional Chinese style. More of an Oriental fantasy that an American lady might wear to an avant-garde dinner party.

I assume you won’t go out sans undergarments,” Wendel said.

Her cheeks burned. “You wish.”

He feigned an innocent expression as he took a corset from the shopping bag. She snatched it from him and retreated to the bathroom. Frowning, she hooked the clasps in the front, then struggled with the laces.

Need help?” Wendel leaned in the doorway, his arms crossed.

Yes.”

When he hooked his fingers in the laces, shivers of pleasure darted down her spine. If she leaned back, she would feel the hard length of his body. He tied off the laces before he dropped the dress over her head. Silk slithered down her skin like a cool whisper. Her breasts ached, her nipples tight against the corset boning.

There,” he said, in a husky little murmur. “Beautiful.”

Fog faded from the mirror, leaving her reflection misted in the glass. She forced out a laugh. “I look like a discount whore.”

Wendel’s eyebrows angled in a frown. “Pardon me?”

She waved at herself. “I don’t do seductive.”

I beg to differ.”

Shaking her head, she wiped the rest of the mist from the mirror. “This is ridiculous. What do you want me to do? Sleep with J. P. Morgan, Jr.?”

He twisted his face in a grimace. “What a repulsive idea.”

That’s what I thought.”

Ardis, when I saw the dress, I could only think about you wearing it for me.” He bent to kiss the nape of her neck.

She shuddered, then clenched her hands into fists. “We have a job to do.”

Not yet.” He kissed her again, below her earlobe.

No.”

He stepped back, giving her space, though she ached with frustration. His eyes simmered with barely tempered lust. Damn it, she wanted to drag Wendel to bed, but he wasn’t Wendel. Not the one she knew. Not anymore.

She moved away from him and focused on getting dressed.

I can take matters into my own hands,” Wendel said.

When she turned around, she forgot how to blink for a moment. He met her gaze as he stroked himself in his fist. She thought about looking away, but couldn’t think of a reason why. His lips parted, his breath turning ragged. The muscles in his thighs tightened as he tilted his head back, his eyes shadowed by dark lashes.

He was beautiful like this, giving her the honesty of his naked body and desires.

Wendel,” she said, her voice raw.

He arched his eyebrows. “Would you like to watch?” He kept touching himself.

She swallowed hard. “No,” she lied.

He let out his breath in a harsh sigh. “You’re not much of a liar.”

Resisting the urge to argue, she sidestepped around him and left the bathroom. She wanted to turn around, but she couldn’t. Admitting her feelings to him, relinquishing control, would be admitting he had power over her.

The bathroom door clicked shut.

Don’t think about him. Think about anything but him. God, like that would work. She didn’t know how much more of this she could survive.











Four



The Hall of Extinct Monsters bristled with bones.

Ardis shivered, too much of her skin bared by the silk dress, and held Wendel’s arm. Around them, guests in suits and cocktail dresses mingled among the skeletons. Laughter echoed under the high ceiling. Ostensibly, everyone attending the brunch came to discuss the latest scientific advancements, but she overheard talk of patents, acquisitions, and Wall Street. The Arcanaeum was merely a backdrop to business.

Wendel walked along an ancient sea creature, trailing his fingers along the tail vertebrae, until a security guard cleared his throat.

Do you feel anything?” Ardis said.

He shook his head. “Plaster casts.”

Oh.” She couldn’t keep the disappointment from her voice. When she had first met Wendel, his necromancy had disgusted her and fascinated her in equal parts; now she found a strange beauty in the birthright of his magic.

Not that he would consider it a birthright. More of a curse.

Those are real.” Wendel pointed at the bones of a saber-tooth tiger. He waited for the security guard to look the other way, then touched one of the fangs, as long as a dagger. A crease appeared between his eyebrows. “Strange…”

What is it?”

Not even a memory.” He closed his eyes. “Just the shadow of a dream.”

A dream?”

His face tightened. “The taste of blood in my mouth.”

Christ.”

Shaking his head, he retreated from the skeleton. He wiped his hands on his trousers, though she didn’t see any bone dust on his fingers. “When I touch the dead, on occasion, I experience their memories.”

She shivered, the hairs on her arms prickling. “I didn’t know that.”

It isn’t under my control. And the minds of animals aren’t intelligible to me.”

But you can feel what they feel?”

Vaguely.” He waved at the tiger. “That’s no more than an overgrown cat.”

Was he thinking of Maus? He had discovered his necromancy when he was a boy, the day his kitten was kicked to death by a horse. When he petted Maus one last time, his parents saw the reanimated cat, disinherited him, and sent him to Constantinople.

Judging by the shadows in his eyes, Wendel never forgot anything that hurt him.

Enough of bones and memories,” he said, as if he had read her mind.

I’m sorry for asking.”

He smirked. “Do I bore you with all this talk of death?”

No.” She frowned. “I worry about you.”

His smirk faltered. “Don’t.”

The edge in his voice stung. She wondered if she had insulted him somehow. She wondered if she didn’t understand him at all.

He looked around the Hall of Extinct Monsters. “Let’s begin.”

Who do we talk to first?” she said.

Tesla.”

Why?”

Because I see him by the buffet.”

Wendel offered his arm. The gesture was that of a gentleman, but his eyes looked like ice. He hadn’t been this cold and distant since she first met him, but perhaps the necromancer hadn’t been entirely honest with his emotions.

She wished knowing the future Wendel didn’t make her question the past.

Shall we?” he said.

Reluctantly, she hooked her hand over his arm; he escorted her to the buffet. Nikola Tesla–a tall, elegant man–inspected hors d’oeuvres as if they were inventions. His dark hair and mustache had been styled with precision.

Mr. Tesla,” Wendel said.

Tesla nodded in greeting, with a tentative smile. “Mr. Von Preussen and Miss Black. I didn’t expect to see the two of you again so soon.”

Neither did we,” Ardis said.

Tesla glanced at the ruby glinting on her finger. “Are congratulations in order?”

Yes.” Smiling, she fidgeted with the ring. “It still doesn’t feel real.”

I’m sure it will soon enough.” Wendel hooked his arm around her waist. “We hope to marry this spring.”

Not a shotgun wedding.” Ardis laughed nervously at her own lie.

Tesla’s eyebrows shot skyward. “Best wishes.”

Speaking of weaponry,” Wendel said, “what do you know about electrified crossbows?”

Very little, I’m afraid.” Tesla picked up an hors d’oeuvre, though he didn’t eat the tiny sandwich. “Why do you ask?”

We found blueprints for a competitor’s design.”

A competitor?” With a pensive frown, Tesla nibbled the sandwich. “I have no interest in archery. Too medieval for my tastes.”

Wendel arched an eyebrow. “Ancient Rome is more your cup of tea?”

If you are referring to the USS Jupiter, the name wasn’t my idea.”

No need to be modest. Take credit for hurling lightning at a clockwork dragon.”

Tesla whipped a napkin from the table and brushed crumbs from his mustache. “If you please, Mr. Von Preussen, tell me your point.”

We thought you might be able to help us.”

Ardis heard frustration in Wendel’s voice, so she interrupted. “Mr. Tesla, we found the blueprints for the crossbow, the Thunderbolt, on a ship bound for Russia. They must plan to equip the Tsar’s soldiers.”

Tesla furrowed his brow. “An ocean away.”

She shook her head. “We all know America is on the brink of entering the war, but will it join for or against Russia?”

It’s impossible to know.”


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