Bronze Gods

Bronze Gods Publisher: Ace
(April 30, 2013)

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Blurb:

Danger stalks the city of steam and shadows.

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.

Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…

 

Excerpt: Bronze Gods

The first taste is free.

 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

—WB Yeats

 

Prologue

Long ago, ten princes lived across the waters and through the mists in a land called Hy Breasil. They governed the wild, fey folk who dwelled in that place, where every rock, tree, blade of grass, ripple of water, and whisper of the wind contained powerful magic. The Ferishers were terrible and immortal, but they were few. Yet even in those small numbers, they divided amongst themselves into two Courts.

The Summer Court embraced all those bright and beautiful while Winter plotted against them in briars and darkness. Into their eternal struggle came the barbarians: the bearded folk from another world—a sweeping enormous one—outside the safe confines of Hy Breasil. In that land, ships went missing from time to time, their cargoes and crews simply vanished, no wreckage found. And so the conquerors came to Ferisher lands with their relentless drive, cold iron, and incomprehensible ways. With them, they brought mortal bloodlines.

After the long and bitter Iron War, both sides hovered at the brink of annihilation. The bearded ones bred quickly; they had numbers while the Ferishers had magic. Auberon, the most powerful of the princes, chose the loveliest of the human flotsam to keep the peace. His siblings followed suit. Those treaty-born marriages created a lasting peace and a new people. Thus the first ten great Houses were founded, though some failed to withstand the test of time.

That course created a schism in the Ferishers. Some felt it was better to fade and leave the physical world than to defile pure bloodlines. The two Courts fell into disarray, and eventually, eons later, only a handful could claim more than a flicker of fey blood. Hy Breasil changed forever, and the centuries marched on.

Only the wind knows what happens next . . .

 

One

Waking had never been easy for Janus Mikani; where others merely dreamed, he was seduced. His Ferisher blood brought visions of a different world than the one in which they lived. On rousing, he was left with a lingering headache and a sense of loss. That afternoon was no different as he wound his wayb through the thinning crowd toward South Ward Station, affectionately dubbed Southie. He paused at the corner to let an omnibus clatter past, blue eyes narrowed and hat braced against the breeze from its passage. Cradling the weathered cane under his arm, he resumed his trip band let his mind wander while force of habit guided his steps.

In his dreams, he was a gray knight, fighting for the honor of an icy, untouchable queen. By night, he wore dark, rumpled suits and fought against an unstoppable tide to control the city’s sins. Most members of the Criminal Investigation Division had trouble adapting to sleeping during the daylight hours, but he was, in truth, more at home in the darkness. Sometimes he wondered if his dreams weren’t truly glimpses of the world before, before the bearded strangers landed and the Courts splintered during the Iron Wars. Rarely, he’d heard of people dreaming future events, but never of the past.

Ah, well. I was ever backward.

Mikani shunned the steam coaches and hansoms that wound their way through the busier city streets, their rattling din mingling with the invective of pedestrians. The clamor had always seemed particularly out of place among the redbrick homes of South Ward; their tall, peaked roofs and simple lines had, for him, always evoked a time before steam and steel ruled supreme. A hansom chugged hard, then puffed out a cloud of tawny, bitter smoke and shuddered to a halt. Cursing roundly, the driver got out to check the boiler and ember sphere assembly, which drove all steam engines. The Houses kept close the secrets of binding fire elementals into the devices; other than what he’d once learned to keep an engine running smoothly, Mikani cared little for the hidden details. He moved past the driver and down the worn stone steps of the station.

Unlike most, he preferred the underground, likely from a combination of the comfort he’d always derived from dark places and his voyeuristic tendencies. After work, he sometimes surrendered to sleep as he rode the rails home, cocooned in the fading darkness until the rising din of the packed cars drove him out to find his way to his quiet cottage on the weathered cobblestone street, half-asleep and lost to the lure of dreams. It was a dangerous habit—an idiosyncrasy that would earn him an appointment with the headquarters mental examiner, should anyone report him. The demands of life as a Criminal Investigation Division inspector had wrecked more than one man’s mind; Mikani would claim it was the work that kept him half-sane.

His reflections were less grim half an hour later when he emerged from the fading warmth of a half-empty car and stepped onto the scuffed marble floor of Central Station’s main platform. The still air was redolent with oil and the scent of humanity. Wending his way through milling knots of people waiting for their trains and past columns whose carved reliefs he’d long since memorized, Mikani spotted a slender figure across the platform.

Celeste Ritsuko took the same car to headquarters each night, and she sat in the same seat. She wore her shiny raven hair parted on the left and bobbed neatly at chin level, and Mikani sometimes teased her that she used a slide rule to measure it. She used peach lip rouge to protect her mouth from the elements and nothing more in the way of adornment. She’d told Mikani that paint was a waste of time, better spent on other things.

Looking at her, it’s hard to believe she keeps a knife in her boot.

As she did every evening, she checked her attaché case and credentials. Her glance wandered over him from across the platform, and she pursed her lips in faint disapproval. But he reveled in his slept-in chic and resisted her efforts to improve him. Wearing a faint smile, she crossed to his side.

As they went up the stairs and into the cool night, he said, “The darker it gets, the prettier she looks.”

He gestured at the somber, baroque tower housing CID Headquarters, looming high above the neoclassic buildings and palazzi at the near edge of the park. HQ at Central was a relatively desirable assignment, second only to the Temple Constabulary Office. Other wards had higher crime rates, worse felons, and token law enforcement.

“Mmm.” When Ritsuko took that particular tone, she was already obsessing about work. The solitary trait they shared was the tendency to be consumed by the tragedies that filled their nights. They just dealt with it differently.

“Mind if we stop for a drink?” he asked.

Ritsuko checked her timepiece. “It’s fine. I’d hate for Electra to go a day without your pretty face.”

Mikani laughed. “True. It would be criminal.”

He had been buying his coffee from Electra for years. His favorite waitress was no delicate flower; her dark hair flowed to the small of her sturdy back. She had strong features, a sharp nose, and a determined chin, which probably contributed to her outcast state. As a daughter of the Summer Clan, wanderers that mysteriously appeared on the isles a scant century ago, she wasn’t supposed to settle—to serve drinks or read cards in the same places year after year. But Electra did as she pleased, part of the reason he liked her. With such incredible power through their control over the shipping and transportation industry, the Summer Clan could easily force her to comply with their edicts, but so far, they’d let her sow her wild oats. Mikani was sure the patriarchs imagined she would get rebellion out of her system and return to the fold in due time.

“I’m glad I stayed late,” the waitress said to him in greeting. “You’re a mess.”

“Espresso,” he ordered, grinning. “You know how I like it. But then you know that I’m always a mess, too.”

She fetched his drink, her brow furrowed. “A different mess. All red, black, and violet, frayed about the edges. That means bad things are headed your way.”

Beside him, Ritsuko made a scoffing noise. Mikani didn’t bother to read Electra, as she made her living from dire pronouncements. Half a dozen people would panic at such news. He wasn’t one of them as he’d seen her trick forty silver crescents from a mark, only to have some mundane tragedy revealed.

He shook his head. “No reading today, thanks.”

“Tomorrow,” Electra predicted.

Laughing, he took his drink in the ceramic cup she trusted him to return, one of the benefits of being a favored customer. He turned to Ritsuko, who said, “So tell me what you did last night.”

Mikani knew his romantic history fascinated his partner in a horrific sort of way. “Went home to an unmade bed and a note. Jane’s gone to visit her brother. Or so she claimed. I doubt I’ll ever hear her complain about my job again, though.”

He’d been first to bring his relationships into casual conversation; it had since become a ritual of closure. Over the years, his partner had met a few of his women, and Mikani remained friends with a scant handful. The disappointment never lasted for more than a week or two.

Awkward silence reigned between them for a few seconds. Then Ritsuko touched him on the shoulder. All around them, tradesmen and heirs, dilettantes and nouveau riche made their way to and from their gorgeous homes, their days finished with the encroachment of evening. Mikani paid them no mind.

“Surprise. I have a story, too. Warren moved out last week.”

He arched his brows at that bit of news. The memory of Jane’s angry eyes receded as he glanced over at his partner. “Warren?” They drifted apart as they rounded different sides of a gaggle of bodyguards and sycophants holding some noble scion in their midst. When they resumed their side-by-side position, he continued. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Even in sympathy, he couldn’t call her by her given name. “I thought nothing could come between the two of you.”

She watched a hansom rumble past before she answered, her steps matching his. “You were right. God forbid I ever say it again, but you were right. You know, all the times you said we were just using each other?” She sighed and juggled her bag unnecessarily. A telling cue, because Ritsuko did not fidget. “We just looked at each other over dinner one night and knew. That it was pointless.”

Mikani nodded. “I’m glad the two of you realized that in time. Now you can go and find someone worthwhile to build a future with. Someone completely unlike me.” He winked and touched the tip of his hat to her as he turned to HQ’s massive front doors.

“I feel guilty,” she said.

He paused midstep and angled a penetrating look at her. “Why?”

“Because I denied my grandfather’s dying wish . . . to see me settled with a respectable man. I followed my heart. And it led me to this.” Her almond-shaped brown eyes conveyed rueful sorrow. “I’m a ruined woman, unmarriageable by contract now, and for what gain?”

“I know it’s traditional for you to . . .” He trailed off, unsure how to best express the custom of choosing a mate from a buffet of dossiers compiled by the bride’s family.

“It’s the only way to safeguard our heritage and cultural identity,” she said.

But he could tell she was only parroting her grandfather; and her regret came from disappointing the old man in his last days. “For what gain? Freedom. If you’d accepted one of the choices your grandfather offered, you’d be bound for life, no matter how you felt.”

“True. The flat is emptier now than I realized it would be.” Her tone was almost soft, or the closest Ritsuko ever came to it. She appeared to realize her mistake at once and increased her pace. “Nearly time to start the madness.”

“That it is.” He stood at the top of the steps, looking up the elaborately carved stone of the building’s facade, toward recessed windows and decorative motifs in dark granite, darker than the smoke-attenuated night sky. “So. You don’t want me to hunt him down like a dog?”

Mikani enjoyed her startled expression. The little grin he tried to hide said it all; her glare spoke volumes on his sense of humor. Together, they entered the cathedral-like CID Headquarters, weathered gargoyles and carved Furies watching their passage.

As with any old, refurbished building, the fixtures were past their prime, and the gas lamps flickered at odd moments, throwing shadows that wavered with lives of their own. The dingy green tiles showed wear from the countless feet that had tramped up and down the aisles, being led to holding cells, shipped to the penal farms and exile . . . or if they were fortunate, bonded into the custody of someone willing to take responsibility for their misdeeds.

At night, a light crew worked in their department—Criminal Investigation Division, Park Ward—comprised of Mikani, his partner, Inspector Celeste Ritsuko, and Anatole, the man who mopped the floors. There were officers with other assignments down the hall, and other city wards and Council divisions, each located in its own hole in the sprawling complex. They all sacrificed their own officers nightly, lest the cogs of the great machine grow cluttered with criminals and the city shudder to a stop.

Night brought a particular madness, as they had quickly learned. All the depravity, mayhem, and deviance that hid itself from the day oozed into the streets like runoff from a sewer. And without fail, much of it landed on Mikani and Ritsuko.

Sometime later, he engrossed himself in piling documents on his desk, arranging them so they wouldn’t collapse in disarray too soon. Anatole and Ritsuko’s matched disapproval of this pastime only made it more appealing, but over the years, she’d learned to express her discontent with stern looks instead of nagging.

“The moment it falls, I’ll start filing them.” He did not even need to glance at his partner to know she was glaring at him.

Given the city’s tendencies, the silence rarely lasted long. So it was no surprise when a whoosh announced mail from the sorting facility—a system of pneumatic tubes permitted citizens to send messages and small packages back and forth throughout the sprawling city of Dorstaad. More sensitive correspondence was entrusted to a private courier. Ritsuko moved to fetch it, but Mikani already knew the gist. The incident report comprised the beginning of a tale unlikely to have a happy ending. Clumsy with the weariness of boredom, he ambled over to read across Ritsuko’s shoulder as sheaves of paper cascaded to the floor.

“We have a missing House scion,” she said.

He swore beneath his breath. Offspring of the great Houses tended to be spoiled, rarefied, and persuaded of their own importance. Given the power and wealth attached to their stations, he couldn’t entirely blame them, but drawing this case would complicate their lives. Leaving the mess of scattered documents, they hustled toward the lift, a monstrous cage of iron and bronze. Each time it groaned into motion, Mikani thought it might be preparing to tear free from its gears and pulleys to send them plummeting into darkness. But like a crotchety old woman, it did the job, just not without complaint. They alit on the subterranean level, where the sleek steel-and-brass cruisers were parked.

Mikani favored the red one with white-rimmed tires. It also had been equipped with a ceramic condenser by an aspiring engineer, long since gone north—and it could, in theory, be pushed well beyond the posted speed limit for mechanical conveyances within city limits. Anything that required less maintenance was a good thing; and as Mikani saw it, anything that could outrace House roadsters was a great thing. As luck would have it, Big Red was waiting for them, and he claimed the keys from the tyro with a half smile. He’d once minded the CID vehicles, so he knew what it was like to watch other officers jaunt off to their investigations.

Mikani drove like a man possessed, which Ritsuko sometimes thought he was. He wove through the chaotic traffic with hard jerks of the steering wheel and taps of the brakes, the cruiser’s rumbling a counterpoint to his murmured imprecations about other drivers and some pedestrians. Certainly, he had issues, but she had long since given up trying to reform him. Mostly, he was a rogue with good intentions.

They had been partners for just over three years. At first, she’d resented being assigned to someone with such unorthodox methods; it was an open secret at HQ that Mikani had been blessed with a unique ability to ferret out information he shouldn’t possess, both at crime scenes and about potential suspects. Ritsuko thought that was office gossip until she saw him in action. Unquestionably, his talent was real—and it hurt him. Sometimes she worried about the consequences of using his gift as often as he did, but their closing rate depended as much on his uncanny methods as her own impeccable attention to detail.

Dorstaad was a dark mistress tonight. Clouds hung heavy over the city, threatening rain. Mikani was silent as he navigated the last turn and stopped the cruiser with a muted hiss of venting steam. As she stepped out, the wind felt chill on her bare fingers. Fashion demanded she wear a hat and gloves, but such frippery got in her way during the course of an investigation. Tonight, the air carried a hint of damp inland from the sea, a whisper of salt, as if the wind were kissed with tears.

House Aevar occupied several blocks across city center southwest of the park; their holdings proclaimed their power. They took heritage seriously and liked to glorify themselves, which had to be taken into account during questioning. With a daughter of the house gone missing, these interviews would require tact. Ritsuko flashed her credentials for the security bondsman guarding the gates. His gaze followed her, as if disapproving of a mannish woman who worked for a living and wore split skirts. Mikani ambled in her wake, his lazy manner concealing a vicious streak.

The monolithic walls rose into the night sky. Built to impress, the front doors stood wide and tall; beyond, the atrium within held enough art and luxury to awe any visitor. These details, however carefully arranged to enhance that effect, seemed lost on Mikani as he marched through, striding over the hand-woven carpet with a tap of cane and sharp slap of heel. He paused a moment, his dark blue gaze drifting from one door to another and ignoring the servant signaling the way into the drawing room. Ritsuko hoped he wouldn’t cause trouble or offense, both of which were her partner’s specialties.

Under ordinary circumstances, they wouldn’t even be here. The girl had been gone for a day, not long, perhaps, but sufficient to alarm her family. Murder was their métier, and they only attended on missing persons under two circumstances—if the family was powerful or there was some reason to suspect foul play. In this case, Ritsuko suspected it was both, and Mikani was sensing . . . something. She watched as he canted his head, attending to currents undetectable to an average person.

At last he said, “Come on, then. Let’s see if we can get at the truth.”

She nodded, leading the way into the interrogation chamber, for no matter how luxuriously it was appointed, she treated the people in it the same as she did those who were confined at the CID. That was to say, she treated all suspects better than most. This space, however, put the drab gray interview room to shame, with its silken carpets, luxurious wall hangings, and the hand-carved table upon which a porcelain-and-gilt tea service perched.

Donning her helpful smile, she extended a hand to the gentleman who was clearly the head of the House. Despite silver at his temples and lines about the eyes, Oleg Aevar still retained considerable charisma. Most of his attention was devoted to a pale woman weeping into a linen handkerchief, but he broke away to greet them.

Aevar clasped her hand. “Officers,” he said in such a gracious tone that she found it off-putting.

House scions didn’t waste courtesy on underlings unless they had something to hide. She’d been promoted as the first female inspector, and she meant to have that achievement acknowledged, even by Oleg Aevar. No matter his station, she wouldn’t permit him to treat her like a coffee girl. Her face reflected none of those thoughts, but she corrected his mode of address.

“I am Inspector Ritsuko, and this is my partner, Mikani. We know this is a troubling time, and please be aware that any questions we ask, which may seem difficult or insensitive, are intended only to help you find your daughter”—her gaze skimmed from wan woman to older man—“and your granddaughter. Shall we get started?”

“By all means,” Aevar said.

She sat beside Mikani on a small settee while Aevar claimed one of the damask striped chairs opposite. The other woman held a fine, lace-trimmed handkerchief to her face, daubing at tears that kept trickling. If she wasn’t mistaken, Aevar looked a little impatient with his daughter. Ritsuko could almost read his thoughts. Don’t show weakness in front of the help. You’re better than this.

“When did you become aware Miss Aevar had gone missing?” Ritsuko asked.

Aevar exchanged a look with his daughter, then he answered, “Cira never returned home last night.”

“Is that unusual behavior?” Some House scions liked to kick over the traces, spend time with unsuitable companions, drink and gamble, before settling into profitable marriages contracted by their families.

The girl’s mother spoke for the first time. “Yes. Cira doesn’t have a wild bone in her body. She comes home every night by ten of the clock, without fail.”

Except last night, Ritsuko thought, glancing at her partner.

Mikani’s reading them. She didn’t altogether approve, mostly because of the suffering it inflicted on her partner, but there was no denying its effectiveness. Though the CID didn’t officially sanction it, the practice wasn’t verboten, either. They accepted that some of their officers possessed Ferisher blood, so why not make use of such tricks, glamours and small magics? Sadly, she had none, just logic and dogged persistence.

“Have you been in contact with her friends and acquaintances?”

Aevar nodded. “I sent word ’round to all her companions. Nobody has seen her or admits to knowing where she might be.”

“I’ll need a list of those names,” she said. He nodded, then she went on, “Did your granddaughter have any enemies? Anyone you can imagine wishing her ill?”

“Of course not,” the girl’s mother gasped.

Ritsuko ignored the hint of shock and outrage in the other woman’s voice, directing her next query to the man across from her. “What about you, sir?”

A stunned silence followed, which she took for surprise; it had never occurred to Oleg Aevar that his rivals might use his grandchild against him. To his credit, the man gave the question due consideration, before nodding.

“I’ll make a list of those who might believe they have reason to harm Cira because of me.”

“Thank you. Do you have any information on who saw her last? Did you find anything in her suite to give you a clue where she might’ve gone?”

Cira’s mother hiccuped out a sob. “No, there’s nothing. No trace . . . it’s like she’s vanished into thin air.”

That’s impossible. There’s always a trail, however faint. But she didn’t argue with the distraught woman. “We’d like to see her room now, please.”

As Aevar stood, Mikani signaled her with a nod, and she fell into step with him. Some distance behind, they trailed the old man down the hallway. “There’s something odd about this.” His whispered words were barely above a breath, meant for her ears alone. “I can feel it.”

A girl has vanished without a trace. That’s not odd enough? As if he heard her thought, Mikani’s mouth compressed into a white line. The lack of evidence was enough to drive a person crazy, not that Mikani had that far to go. He worried her with his sixth sense and his hunches. But there was no denying he knew how to read people.

“Verdict?” she whispered.

“They’re truly frightened. Aevar’s a little angry, too. No deception, though.”

At times like this, he was uncanny, and if he said the family had nothing to do with the girl’s vanishing act, then she believed him. In silence, they followed Aevar to the elevator cage, Mikani pausing here or there, canting his head in touch with some reality no one else shared.

To distract the patriarch from Mikani’s behavior, she fell into step with him, encouraging him to remember happier times, which often provided small clues regarding the victim’s life. Hints that when relatives dug after them, resisted being brought to light. By the time the lift stopped, she had a pretty good idea what type of person Cira Aevar had been.

Victim. Had been. Mentally, Ritsuko chastised herself for having formed a conclusion without evidence to support it. But she was not without instincts of her own, or she would never have passed the CID’s rigorous qualifying exams to become an inspector. All those instincts told her that Cira Aevar would never be seen alive again.

Aevar could not bear to enter his granddaughter’s room, so he excused himself, leaving the inspectors to conduct their investigation in private. Done in pink, ivory, and gold, the suite confided that it had housed a young girl, one with varied interests and rather sweet taste. At once, Ritsuko paused, letting Mikani pursue his practice of touching and pausing and ambling on, before she began the more scientific aspects.

“Check the window, would you?” Mikani sounded distracted already.

With a faint sigh, she got to work.

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