Authors: Christine D'Abo
Tags: #Fiction / Romance - Erotica, #Fiction / Romance - Fantasy, #Fiction / Romance - Science Fiction, #Fiction / Science Fiction - Steampunk
So much for showing him what a mature woman she’d become.
Had Samuel’s presence been the only complication, Piper would have found a way to work past her surprise and regain her composure. The moment the prostitute’s memories hit Piper’s mind, the rest of her world had been thrown on its edge.
There was a killer in the Archives. Images from the prostitute’s mind—Mary’s mind—were clear on that. His eyes were white as snow, the only thing she’d been able to clearly see. This man was someone who not only knew how to take the life of another in a brutal way, but also understood how the archivists functioned. He’d taken care to let Mary see only what he wanted her to. He stared into her eyes, the rest of his face concealed, until Mary knew she was going to die.
For the first time in years, she didn’t know whom to trust. Piper closed her eyes and tried once again to keep the barrage of images and emotions from the prostitute at bay. But it was Mary’s voice in her head that was slowly driving her mad, yelling at her, prodding her to action.
The fucking zombie has a knife. Oh Christ, who art in heaven, protect me.
Someone help! Help poor Mary!
Piper’s stomach clenched as the feeling of her skin being sliced stabbed through her. Bones being split before a wave of darkness turned her stomach. A moment or two of blessed peace, before another rush of memories and pain wormed its way through her mind.
Steady. She could do this. She was an archivist, after all. The Guild Masters wouldn’t have selected her if they didn’t think she could handle the pressure of the role.
Master Ryerson hadn’t spoken to her on the journey home and she’d been too thankful for his silence to be bothered by the unusual behavior of her mentor. Her head ached and her body was raw from the events of the night.
While she didn’t believe in fate, she’d felt a sense of the inevitable when she stepped from the carriage to see Samuel standing over the body. But then, he’d never really stopped being present in her mind. A blessing and a curse, to see him at her first official crime scene, but somehow not a surprise.
The line shuffled forward as the acolytes waited for their midday meal. Piper craned her neck around, trying to catch a glimpse of Samuel. “He’s never this late.”
Emmet Dennison, one of the newer arrivals, snorted. “Why do you bother with the likes of him? He’s a rat who’ll never be an archivist.” Piper slammed her foot on Dennison’s. “Shit!”
“Because he’s my friend.” Dammit, Master Tolan wouldn’t save any food for Samuel if he didn’t show up on time. “And he’s smarter than the likes of you, Emmet.”
“I find that unlikely. I had a tutor from Oxford.”
“A lot of good that will do you in here. You’re no better than the rest of us.”
She might have been little more than a coal miner’s bastard out on the streets of New London, but in the Archives everyone was the same. Money, connections, pedigree were all wiped away when the Archives came to collect you. It was sad, but he’d figure that out sooner or later.
Dennison’s blond hair flopped forward to cover his face as he lowered his chin. “We’ll see.”
Piper reached out and gave his hand a squeeze. Coming here was harder on some people than others. Not on her, though. She could survive anything. And someday she’d be tall enough to see over these oafs. “Dennison, turn around.”
She spun him until he faced the back wall, and then she jumped up onto his back. “Much easier.”
“You’re bloody heavy for a girl.”
“Shut up, Emmet.”
Piper pushed up on Dennison’s shoulders, giving her more leverage to look above the heads of the acolytes. Still, she started to worry when it was clear that Samuel wasn’t among the group.
Dennison looked up as he walked backward in line. “Do you see him?”
“No… wait. There he is.” Samuel was taller than most of them by several inches, making it easy to spot his entrance into the room. “Sam!”
The moment she saw his face, she knew why he’d been late. His cheek was as red as his rimmed eyes. His shirt was stained with smudges that could only have been picked up from the machine room. She slid down Dennison’s back and righted her skirts seconds before Samuel finally joined them.
“What the bloody hell happened to you?” Dennison made room for Samuel to join the line. “You won’t get served looking like that. You’re not up to code.”
“Fuck you, Emmet.” Samuel’s voice was raw, like he’d been screaming. Or crying. “I’m not hungry.”
Piper couldn’t stop herself from reaching up and touching his cheek. “Who did this to you?” She wasn’t sure why he never said anything to the Guild Masters about the abuse. Or at the very least, why he didn’t tell her. They’d been friends for four years now and in the whole time of their acquaintance, he never once let anything slip. “You need help. Maybe Master Ryerson—”
“I got what I deserved.”
“I don’t believe that.”
“I do.” Dennison snorted. “Spare the rod.”
Samuel turned his back to Dennison, took Piper’s hand in his and gave it a squeeze. “It’s fine. Turn around before they notice we’re talking. I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
There he went, trying to protect her again. It didn’t matter that she didn’t need protecting. Master Ryerson told her she was one of the most promising acolytes he’d seen in years. Soon she’d qualify as an apprentice and take her learning to the next stage. Her talking in the meal line wouldn’t change that.
She wasn’t the one being beaten.
Piper ignored the protests from the people standing behind them, put her hands on her hips, and stared him down. “Sam, I want to help you.”
“I know you do, Pip. You’ve always had my back.” He leaned in and snuck a quick kiss on the tip of her nose. “And I have yours. But right now you need to get some food.”
Piper’s face was blazing hot and she turned around to hide her embarrassment. “Fine. But this isn’t over.”
“I didn’t think it would be.”
The line shuffled forward again, and this time Samuel stood close beside her.
Five years she’d spent trying to redefine herself since his leaving. She’d tried to find a way to regain the sense of stability she’d always felt when she was with Samuel. A feeling of security that had been obliterated when he’d left her all alone standing on the cold stones of the Archives.
She couldn’t deal with this now. Long-buried emotions had no place in the kaleidoscope of events tumbling around her. Piper needed to be focused if she was going to solve this crime and ensure her home was safe.
There wasn’t time to mend a battered heart.
She surely couldn’t worry about Sam. He didn’t need saving any longer.
The sound of heels clicking on the marble floor grew in volume. The steady gait of the stride, unhurried and confident, alerted her to the arrival of Master Ryerson before the rattle of the office door. Piper didn’t flinch, holding her position.
She’d no doubt her mentor had been watching her through the watch glass, looking for signs she wasn’t coping well with the bombardment of images from the prostitute’s borrowed mind. If anyone were to show physical manifestations of distress, it would be her. Piper would give him no cause to doubt her mental state. She needed time to inform Dennison and Jones about her suspicions.
A singular image from the prostitute, Mary, was fixed in her mind. A winding tattoo, red and raw in appearance, etched in black ink upon a pale forearm. The mark was fresh; the scent of blood consumed her senses.
The fucking zombie has a knife.
“Well, Miss Smith, I expect a full report.” His tone had lost some of the coldness of earlier that evening during his confrontation with Samuel.
Piper turned to her mentor and waited for him to still before giving him a small smile. “Sir. I delivered the woman’s memory cathode to the Archives personally. Master Lowe was able to add the extracted memories into the machine and the analysts are sorting them now. They will be catalogued and annotated and the cathode logged and stored in the violent crime section. Master Lowe is confident he will be able to recover a number of images to review with the King’s Sentry.”
Ryerson sat on the edge of his mahogany desk, feet securely on the floor and hands folded in his lap. “I am very pleased with your performance. You handled both the state of the body and the harsh nature of the extracted memories smoothly. Well done.”
The panic building in her chest melted. “Thank you, sir.”
“Did you conduct your interview?”
Unable to maintain eye contact any longer, Piper dropped her gaze. “I have not.”
Master Ryerson sighed. “Child, you know the emotional catalogue is as critical as the imagery. Without the emotional context there is room for misinterpretation, which leads to incorrect assumptions and shoddy investigation. That bastard Hawkins will take any opportunity to accuse the Archives of treachery.”
“Sir, Samuel would never—”
“Enough, Miss Smith!” Piper snapped her mouth closed. Master Ryerson hadn’t yelled that way since she was ten and had been caught trying to sneak into the vaults. “That man isn’t one of us. He doesn’t deserve your sympathy or your consideration. He’s a tool to be used, nothing more.”
The words stung like a slap. Piper lifted her gaze and met the pale blue-white eyes of her mentor, the closest thing she had to a father. “Yes, sir. I will make my report immediately.”
“That’s better.” Master Ryerson nodded. “We can’t have anything go wrong with your first extraction. You’ve been my most promising student in years and I won’t have a blemish on your name because of some impulsive decision on your part to draw Hawkins back into the fold.”
“How are you feeling?” He cocked his head to the side, lifting a finger to tap against his pursed lips. His anger seemingly having evaporated as quickly as it flashed to life. “No headaches, flashes, ghosts?”
Piper had to concentrate to keep her hands from balling up.
Stay calm. Relax. Eyes front.
Losing her temper and attacking her mentor wouldn’t bode well for her. “A bit of a headache, but I know that’s to be expected.”
“You need quiet until you are able to undergo the lethefication process. Go to your quarters and wait until you are summoned. Once this is over you will require at least a week to let your mind rest before you can be subjected to another extraction.”
They would wipe her memory during lethefication and everything would be lost. The torrent of emotions, the vivid color of the memories as they collided in her brain, all washed away with a single injection from the Archives’ medic and a pulse from the Machine.
She would even forget about seeing Sam, and her impulsive warning. For the first time in years, she’d finally gotten her wish of being with Sam again, and it would be gone forever. Life’s cruel nature at play once more.
Piper bobbed a quick curtsey before turning to leave.
She paused, looking back at him over her shoulder. “Sir?”
“I am extremely proud of you.” The smile on his lips was faint, but present.
“Thank you, sir.” She quickly made her escape.
It would be odd to know there was something she would no longer be able to recall. Her eidetic memory, the cornerstone trait of every archivist, would be forever punctured. With each subsequent extraction, her awareness of the permeation would continue to grow until she was forcibly retired, or went mad.
As a child she’d always wanted to try to forget something, just to see what the experience would be like. Now, she wanted nothing more than to hold on to every scrap in her head.
The air in her room was heavy as the steam pipes let loose another short burst of hot vapor. She’d yet to be moved from her apprentice’s chambers to one of the archivist’s quarters. Her rushed initiation hadn’t given anyone time to prepare. She’d been the only available female archivist when the notice arrived, and they preferred to have female archivists work on female victims and children. Master Ryerson seized the opportunity to push her initiation to full archivist with little thought.
The fucking zombie has a knife.
Piper froze at a sound of movement in the hallway. She’d started to get lost in the random surge of images and memories that flooded her mind. Voices drifted her way from outside. She had only a moment to compose herself before there was a knock at her door.
Thankfully, it was Jones. She relaxed as he stepped into the room. He was a year older than Piper, but appeared younger due to his baby-faced cheeks and ginger hair. She’d often teased him about it growing up. Hell, she still teased him about it.
Jones grimaced as he looked outside and back down the hall. “I’ve been asked to fetch you and escort you for the interview and completion of the process.” Jones shook his head. “Sorry.”
“That’s fine.” She tapped the side of her head. “It’s a bit crowded in here at any rate.”