Ice Blood (Steam Dragon Shifters Book 1), page 1
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Steam Dragon Shifters
By Lisa Daniels
Chapter One – Mia
Boots scraped against stone. Mia hopped from one rocky tor to another. Always careful. Keeping cover from above, utilizing the sparse vegetation, trees with their knotted branches and needle leaves. Frost touched the soil, leaving a film of ice over the grasses, turning certain pathways into death-slips. She didn't fancy much the thought of breaking her neck. Not after a week of tracking, and little to show for it other than a bruised ego and an itch in her bones.
Good to see that inn ahead—damn well needed a break. A nice chair to sink in, the foam of ale touching her lips. Not much opportunity to get such pleasures out in the mountains, far above human civilization. Be nice to put her feet up as well.
On closer inspection of the inn, neatly sandwiched between weathered gray stone and a clump of trees, just off the beaten path, she saw signs of disrepair. The Pineditch Inn sign swung from a single rusty chain, the other trailing the ground. Boarded-up windows sank her heart further. Still, even an abandoned tavern beat camping on the Western Reaches, exposed to wild animals, with her tattered sleeping bag. She didn't have the resources to patch it up. Her tarp currently lay in the waters of a steep ravine. Nothing to be helped. Needed to shake off the bears somehow.
At least the cold didn't bother her.
Best to be cautious. Might have squatters. Mia approached with the light prowl of a hunter, left hand clutching her varnished quarterstaff. A tiny sapphire adorned the widened tip. Past the boarded windows now, up to the door. She nudged it, enduring the groaning creak of stiff hinges.
Warmth blasted her, along with the quiet chatter of calm voices. Instantly, the chatter stopped, and people peered around their mugs at the newcomer now stumbling down uneven steps into their inn. She gave a quiet exhale, releasing the pressure off her body. No need now to regulate her body temperature. A warm meal, an electrolyte drink, she'd recover everything lost. She decided against the ale.
“Close the door!” someone yelled. Mia's gaze swept over the establishment, concealing her surprise as best as able. She pushed the door shut, noting seven men. Cracked rectangular wooden tables, stools, and a rather surly tavern keeper, tugging at one of the beer streams to fill it up for a red-faced blob of a man.
The innkeeper/bartender stared at her with the familiar hostility that closed communities gave to strangers. She shrugged it off, cheerful. The inn yielded far more results than first anticipated. Enough people to ply information out of. A crackling hearth with an enormous black bear rug in the corner, and even a modest selection of books.
Seven pairs of eyes followed her as she sauntered to the bar. Her attention fixed on the labels of the drink caskets. “A Miner's Jolt. You serve food?”
“Yeah,” the innkeeper said. “You want a room, too?”
“Sure. One night.” She teased out a few silver coins. He snatched them up with gnarled hands, the money disappearing into his apron pouch. She picked out the Mountain Bass dinner, leaning in interest to see the innkeeper holler to one of the drinking men to get cooking.
The people here were likely the regulars, maybe even the staff, and Mia the anomaly. She might have overpaid the innkeeper, and he certainly didn't care to inform her of the reality.
All those people staring made her twitchy. She didn't like crowds, especially when she became the sole receptacle of attention. Didn't like people, come to think of it. Didn't really know how to speak to people, except to extract information, and to act prickly. Too much traveling, too much lonely.
You can't live your life like this, Mia. Her mother's words, still needling even today. You need someone in your life. Someone to keep you pinned down and safe.
Rich words to come from a mother who went through men like she did shoes. So many stacked in the cupboard, none that she cared about.
No sooner had she sat down with her new drink, bubbling orange in a pewter mug, before the chatter began again. She leaned her quarterstaff carefully by the table, less than an arm's length away. Sipping at her warm drink, her ears scoured for information.
Iron Reach accents were easy enough to get. Roll out the vowels, start high in with the introduction, end flat. You had to believe it, too. Not just mimic the accent, but think of yourself as a Reach citizen. Lies sold better with conviction.
The innkeeper came around with the bass. “You a girl?” He put the plate in front. “First look, I took you for one. Small for a man, you see. Ain't much hair on you, though.”
When Mia didn't answer, he reached for her cap. She whirled and dug her nails into his wrist, nostrils flared. “Steady!” he said. “I'm not going to hurt you.” She let go, and he rubbed at the nail marks in his skin.
“There's a reason I cover up like this,” Mia replied, sniffing the dish appreciatively. “Gets less unwanted attention.” The attention that only men give women. If she really hated attention, though, she should cover up her sapphire. But she did want people to see her as dangerous.
Best way to ward off danger was to appear like you couldn't be messed with, after all. Even if the outward image didn't match the inside. She stroked at her tooth necklace.
“Cut your hair short, too.” The innkeeper's lips puckered. “Pity.”
Mia shrugged, tucking into her dish. If he expected her to talk like a tavern girl, he'd be sorely disappointed.
The innkeeper, however, didn't act deterred. He even drew up a chair, which sent a spike of irritation through her. Couldn't she eat in peace? Should she just take the food up into her room, or should she be worried about the patrons? They didn't look like the sort to rob. Well dressed for the most part. Polite conversation between old friends, not people who barely tolerated one another. No lingering interest in her. Well, aside from a certain innkeeper, of course.
“What brings a woman all the way to the ass-end of the Western Reaches? It's not safe country,” he said in that soft Reach drawl. Perhaps with a dash of Ark. Probably an Ark child, moved to the city as an adult. “Not safe people. And...” Mia noticed his eyes flick to the sapphire in her quarterstaff, “might have the odd dragon or two.”
“Really?” she said, now tasting the fish. The meat crumbled in her mouth. Best thing, picking it off the thin bones, having the grease stick.
Now a couple of the men broke off to inspect her.
Great, she thought. Unsure of the reason for their hostility but not wanting to provoke it further, Mia wrapped up her meal fast. Maybe s
Let your guard down too long, and you'll find a knife in the back. Not her mother, this time. The greasy words of her employer. The mantra he liked to repeat, just before he sent her off on the next mission.
How many had she done for him now? Seven? Eight?
Something ugly gleamed in the innkeeper's eyes then, mirrored by the others. “If I didn't know any better, I'd say you was here to slay a dragon.”
Now Mia understood their hostility. They're on the dragon wagon. Humans who liked dragons. Humans who hadn't watched villages burned to a crisp, who for some inconceivable reason, actually thought dragons could be reasoned with.
Still, best not to waste her energy on such filth. “I don't understand what you mean, sir. Why are you staring at my staff like that?”
“What's this?” the dark-haired innkeeper said, prodding at her sapphire.
My channelling stone, Mia thought. “Decoration,” she said. “I got it from a trader. He did say I should take the gem off. Might attract the wrong sort of people. Maybe I can trade it for some coin with you?”
The innkeeper still wore scowling caution. Not quite believing her. She didn't really blame him. Only magicians could do anything with a sapphire. The kind of people who ended up hunting dragons.
He opened his mouth to say something. The door creaked open once more. The newcomer slipped in, black cloak billowing behind him, the hood obscuring his eyes. “I'll take a Sector Whiskey. Two shots.” His low voice rolled out, though the stranger stopped upon noticing Mia for the first time. Mia plucked a piece of blonde hair out of her mouth, before tugging it out by the root. Her mother would probably kill her for all the split ends.
One night's rest and relaxation. That's all I wanted.
“Who's the pretty lady?” The stranger at last lowered his black hood, giving Mia a faceful of him. Dark eyes, curly brown hair. Kind face. She examined him in interest, licking her fingers as she did so. His eyebrows shot up, most likely at her ill manners.
People don't like to see a girl eating like a pig. The memory of her mother's liver-spotted hand clipping her. Not hard. Just for the shock. Her mother had been the one who drank Miner's Jolt. Trying to glean that last bit of energy for the factories.
“You first,” she said. “Still eating.” She meticulously peeled off the tiniest bit of flesh from the collection of bones on her plate. She wanted to hear his accent, gauge what he was, because his arrival had set off that peculiar ringing inside her.
The stranger snorted amusement, hand out to accept his glass. “Call me Zaine.” His dark eyes focused on her hazel, as if searching for something. Humanity? Maybe Mia had left some of that with her mother when she began the hunt. Then his attention drifted to her staff, like the others had done. “And unless my eyes are deceiving me, that's a magician's staff. You should probably cover the stone if you don't want people thinking otherwise.”
“On the other hand,” Mia said in a rather sweet voice, “maybe people who see it would know better than to mess with me. Unless they have suicidal tendencies, I suppose.”
The innkeeper's expression soured, bloating like a puffer fish. “Don't you dare speak to his—”
“I'd like to keep my anonymity, if you'd be so kind, Bennen,” Zaine said, and the innkeeper deflated.
“I don't know what your problem is with me,” Mia said, still taking the time to pick off the last pieces of meat with hardened fingers, “but I don't want trouble. I'm just here to relax.” She did leave the suggestion of a threat in her tone, however.
The innkeeper, with a last, frightened glance at Zaine—Mia noted his reaction with interest—got up, and the new seat was taken by the tall, imposing newcomer. The one that the other patrons of the inn suddenly made excuses to not look at.
What was with this guy? Mia nibbled on a fish bone. She got that irritating itch in his presence. Similar, but not quite the same as how it felt when she picked up the trail of a dragon. Muted, somehow. Different kind of itch.
“So what are you, then? ‘His Majesty?’” Mia grinned at him, aware that it might not be an attractive move on her part.
“Something like that. You're after a dragon, correct?” He gulped the whiskey in one go before leaning on one elbow, sitting on the side of his chair. “Probably the one terrorizing the Iron Reach eastern factories, right?”
Mia sighed, dropping a little of her tough act. Always needed to be cautious. Always needed to show the men she couldn't be bullied. Not like before. “Don't tell me you've been hired to take it as well. You been following me?”
“No, actually. I come to this tavern a lot. You any good?”
“Good enough.” She hoped she wouldn't need to waste her power on frivolous tricks. Needed it to deal with the cold. What was his angle? And how long before the other tavern patrons decided that enough was enough, and their hostility spilled over into fists? “If you've got a problem...”
“No. None at all. In fact, I can point you towards the lair.”
The innkeeper made a strangled sort of sound. “Zaine...?”
“You know as well as I do,” Zaine said, taking in the flustered innkeeper, “that dragon's helping no one. We're getting reports he's killing humans in the farm settlements. Men, women, children.”
“How do you know so much about this dragon?” Mia said, suspicious.
“The people I work for. Anyway. I'll give you the directions. But there's a condition.” Zaine grinned at her, and she stared at him with flinty eyes.
“I want to hire you after you've finished.”
Mia couldn't stop the derisive laugh. “You better have deep pockets. My employer's got his hands in a lot of pies.”
Something flitted across Zaine's face. Too fast for Mia to pinpoint, but she could have sworn it was something like hatred.
“I'll be heading to the Iron Reaches after this,” he said. “I'll find you there?”
Mia calculated the situation, wondering. Honestly, though she wasn't about to admit it on the spot, she found the offer intriguing. She found the stranger intriguing. Both in the way the others regarded him, or tried not to, that almost slip of a title, possibly some nobleman or other. She liked most the respect in his eyes. He didn't see a ragged urchin. He saw her. Maybe he sensed her power. Same as she sensed something about him. Different from other humans. “Sure. Two weeks. I'll visit the Steamcog daily. Southwest in the city. Near the Grad station stop.”
Zaine nodded, a faint smile curling his lips. “I see you're confident you'll get the dragon.”
She imitated the smile. “I always do.” Well, not true, but boldness served her well in places of lawlessness.
Now her new potential employer leaned forward, dark eyes twinkling. “Now, listen up. This is where you find the dragon...”
Chapter Two – Zaine
It didn't matter what the others thought. Madness, they told him. As soon as the dragon slayer had left the premises, the locals wasted no time in telling Zaine exactly how stupid he was.
“She's a dragon slayer. You're a dragon. What are you playing at?” Bennen started pacing up and down, rifling a greasy hand through his hair.
“Contrary to popular belief, dragons have issues with dragons as well.” Zaine continued staring at the door, where the woman had gone less than ten minutes ago. Hard face, steely eyes. Had a spiked fence around her secrets. What sort of troubles had she seen in her life? How close had she been to death? Were there scars under those layers of clothes? He appreciated Bennen's concern all the same.
“You... you sent her to a trad's lair.” Bennen paled, swarthy face trembling. “If she fails, he'll come this way. Won't be nothing left of my inn to show for it.”
Zaine gathered himself together. He didn't know how to explain to these people, supportive as they were, that they wanted the dr
What better way to prevent an enemy than by controlling their pawns?
Because the dragon slayer wasn't the problem. She was a sword, but someone else held it. Someone who made Zaine tense, his nostrils flare, and his fingers twitch, as if imagining wrapping themselves around a thick, corporate throat.
Forcing himself out of the spiral, Zaine thanked Bennen, finally heading off. What a lucky find. He'd heard about her some months before. Talk of a competent dragon slayer. People yammered because of her gender. Unfortunately, Zaine also heard many talk less about her skills and more about how she was a frigid, steaming bitch because she should be jumping on their cocks, as if it was a personal affront to them that someone might actually want to do more with their life.
I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It's no fluke when she has at least eight successful hunts under her belt.
Sure, the dragon inside him might make their interactions strained. But he hoped he'd judged her right. She was there for the money. Nothing else. And Zaine had plenty to flash.
“Your Highness,” Bennen said, scraping his chair aside, still pale. “Be careful. You've been good to my inn. I don't... don't want nothing bad happening to you.”
The prince forced a smile. No promises there. He stepped outside into the cold air, heat flaring inside him. Upon the highest mountain, a part of Calcite stuck out. That lump of city rock belonged to his people. Probably wondering why he went for negotiations himself, rather than letting others handle it.
His stomach churned with unease. He'd always thought his people should consider moving away from Calcite. Once the humans started climbing mountains, wedging their cities and factories on the top, digging for the precious minerals within, they'd come across Calcite. The fraught tensions between the species wouldn't end well.
LISA DANIELS SERIES:
Other author's books:
- Arthur’s Mate; Robin’s Mate; Peter’s Mate; Joel’s MateItzel's Assassin (Panthers of Brigantia Book 1)The Dragon's Life Witch (Six Isles Witches and Dragon Book 1)Panthers of Brigantia Shifter Box SetThe Wolf PrisonerSix Isles' Witches and Dragons Box SetDate with a Dragon (Date Monsters Shifter Agency)Prisoners of Scythia Shifter Box Set
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