Iron Dominance Online - Cari Silverwood

Dedication

To all those at ERAuthors who offered critiques and to my intrepid beta readers, Nerine Dorman, Bianca Sommerland, and Kimberely for all their help wrestling Iron Dominance into shape. Also a big thank-you to my editor, Crystal Esau.

Chapter One

Beneath Claire’s feet, the timber floor vibrated in harmony with the airship’s engines. Opposite her, through the brass-lipped oblong porthole, at the end of a long pylon, the port engine shone with reflected light against the backdrop of night sky. She stayed at parade rest, both hands behind her back, pretending to be unconcerned with how little of her was covered by the skimpy evening dress.

The Common Room door was latched back. Whenever crew passed by, they tended to slow and give her an appraising look before continuing on. Even so, she’d rather the door be open—for apart from the four square tables and their chairs, she was alone with Lieutenant Inkline.

As if he exuded frost, whenever Claire was near the lieutenant, her fingers and lips grew cold. With his arm propped on the table, Inkline leaned over studying the papers fanned out before him. He’d not spoken for ages. His name badge falsely declared him an officer of the PME Diplomatic Corps.

Inkline—a diplomat. What a laughable cover identity. Except no one, especially she, would ever dare to laugh.

“Sir,” she ventured, “permission to put on an overcoat before we land?”

Lieutenant Inkline looked up, one corner of his plump mouth twitching. He smoothed his palm down the leg of his immaculate uniform whites as if wiping off sweat, then across his bald scalp. Already, she regretted speaking. “You’re a frankenstruct. You don’t question me. You don’t speak without permission. And you certainly don’t feel.” He casually swung his hand and smacked her face.

The force jolted her sideways.

“See?”

She tasted blood, felt the sting from his fingers, but didn’t make a sound or do anything more than move her head until she once again stared over his shoulder. Tears wet her eyes. She blinked, ignoring them. Don’t feel. What an illogical statement. She could feel. She could, but no one cared, so yet again she curled her mind up in that dark cold place where others couldn’t see, and there she wept.

“Your instructions.” Inkline read from the folder in a monotone. “After arrival at Helspin Airport, you will be conveyed to a residence where later this evening, there will be a state reception. Meet your target. Get him alone, seduce him, then kill him by whatever method you can, preferably using the poison spike in your shoe to make his death appear natural.” He glanced up and asked drily, “You do know what seduction is?”

Confused as to whether she should reply, Claire stayed mute. From Inkline and the other trainers, she’d been taught enough to approach a target. The lessons, despite the subject matter, hadn’t been pleasant.

“Let me remind you.” He took a step forward and put his hand around the back of her head, pulling her to him. His lips bit down, crushing her lips onto her teeth, his tongue snaking into her mouth. She didn’t struggle even though his foul breath almost made her gag. That would only earn her a reprimand.

“Pah!” He released her and wiped his mouth. “Let’s hope you can do better than that tonight!” The glitter in his eyes told her the kiss had stirred him. The man had a cruel streak.

“Now, for the target’s name. Theodore—”

With a loud bang, the airship shuddered and slewed sideways. Through the porthole to her left, Claire saw the pylons of the engine twist like taffy. The engine broke away, propellers shrieking. Sparks of flaming metal and timber streamed backward into the night. Another bang. In a staggered line, three holes pocked the wall, spitting debris and shrapnel into the room. The lieutenant fell screaming, arm flung out sideways, a cloud of blood spraying from his shoulder. Knocked off balance, Claire grabbed at the back of a chair and barely stopped herself skidding across the floor. People yelled and cried in pain. An acrid, burned odor overlaid the sweet smell of blood and the perfume she wore.

Still clutching the chair even though the damn thing’s legs had little more hold on the carpet than her shoes, she prayed the ship had enough buoyancy to stay in the sky. Prayed whoever shot at them lost interest, real fast.

She kicked off her high heels and let her mind slide into a state of honed awareness, thanking God for her training. Sharp time, they’d called her ability,