Six years since Steamborn debuted, and I’m thrilled to share with you the first chapter of the fourth book, Skyborn. And don’t miss the cover reveal at the bottom of this excerpt. Available for Preorder Today! (Amazon, Apple Books, B&N, Google Play, Kobo) – Release Date: 06/29/2021.
Furi weaved through the sea of people. Countless citizens milled about below banners hung above an endless wall of vendors. It never sat right with her, this kind of celebration whenever Ballern went to war. She was proud to be on the crew of the Nightingale, one of the most storied airships of the entire fleet, but another battle wasn’t something to celebrate. At least, not until they’d won.
Annoyed as Furi might be at the bright smiles and merriment around her, it didn’t stop her from picking up a handful of skewers from a favorite chef. She eyed the braised meat with some suspicion as vendors, even her favorite vendors, were known to substitute less savory things.
“The finest Pill-Bug you’ll find this side of the seas, child,” he said from behind a mustache as wide as his head.
She was almost seventeen now, and old enough not to be called a child. Furi narrowed her eyes as she nibbled on a corner of the topmost cube of meat. A little chewy, but a burst of rich broth and salt backed up everything the man had said. She jammed the skewers between her fingers while digging in the leather pouch at her side.
“Thanks, Chef. Good as always.”
“That’s lovely praise from a Skyborn connoisseur as yourself.”
Furi grinned at the man despite herself. Most of the people who lived in the city used “Skyborn” like a curse, as if those who dwelled on the docks were somehow less than the rest of them. But not Chef Jakon. The man might have spent his days cooking for royalty in the palaces, but it was his cuisine on the streets Furi wanted.
Chef Jakon wiped his hands on a stained towel before taking the two square coins from Furi. The bulbous golden spires of Ballern’s towers had been worn down on the coin’s faces, but it would spend just as well.
“Keep the extra. I … won’t be needing it for a while.”
Jakon frowned at Furi, and she met his gaze despite every instinct to fidget. “Your tunic.” The chef’s frown deepened. “You go to war.”
“It’s the right thing to do.”
The chef shook his head. “No, my friend. War is rarely the right thing to do.” Jakon looked at the citizens around them before leaning closer to Furi. “You will not be dissuaded?”
Furi hesitated. “No.”
“You’re still looking for your friend who left for the same war, yes?”
Rin. He meant Rin. A dear friend whom she could not remember a time without. Well, at least not a time before he’d deployed to fight the “godless heathens of Belldorn,” as he liked to call them. Furi had never understood that. Never understood how Rin, one of the smartest people she knew, couldn’t see it was their own leaders crushing the Skyborn beneath their heels. It saddened her he could be as blind to the corruption of Ballern as so many were.
“Furi?” Chef Jakon asked.
She shook herself out of those thoughts and offered him a smile. “I don’t think I’ll ever see him again, but I’d like to find out what happened to his ship.”
The chef flipped a coin back to Furi, and it smacked against her palm. “You’ll need this more than I. Be safe.” He leaned over the booth, whispering into her ear. “Do not give your life for those who would not do the same. War is not what you think it is, and you will not forget the horrors you see.”
A frisson of fear crawled down Furi’s spine. She nodded to the chef and hurried away, snacking on the grilled Pill-Bugs. But despite the deliciousness of the skewers, they tasted like ash on her tongue. She knew war was terrible. She knew there were awful things waiting across the sea. But Furi didn’t believe all the people of Belldorn were evil, just as she didn’t believe all the people of Ballern were good.
She still had the golden coin in her hand when another vendor flagged her down. A woman with a radiant smile stood inside a booth filled with exquisite hair ties and two gowns that looked fit for a princess.
“That is quite a long braid you have there.” After a hesitation and a glance at Furi’s coin, she added, “My lady.”
“Thank you. I could use a new tie.”
Furi didn’t need to know any more about the vendor. She could already tell the woman had no patience for those who were less than royalty or didn’t at least work in the palaces. The vendor likely would have thrown Furi out if she realized she was Skyborn and lived on the airship docks. Furi hadn’t missed the fact the woman had chased off two Skyborn who weren’t in uniform.
The vendor pursed her lips, eyed the straight lines and leather satchel at Furi’s waist, and then held up a finger. “I have just the thing for you.” The woman turned away, showing a surprising level of trust that Furi wouldn’t pocket her wares and run. Crystals caught the light in the woman’s own braid, casting a rainbow of color through the graying brown bun atop her head.
When the vendor faced her again, she held up a rich green hair tie. It wasn’t gaudy or pompous, unlike a great many things in her tent. “Now, I see you wear the Nightingale’s colors. This should match exactly. It’s woven from the leftover fabric we used to make the ship’s flag.”
Furi took it and pulled on the edges, smiling at the dense weave, which had the feel of an elastic band. It was certainly nicer than anything she planned to bring onto the ship, but she had another concern. “I don’t think I can afford this.”
“For you, one who defends our fair city? A mere two silvers, and it’s yours.”
Furi didn’t question the vendor further, as that would approach the realm of haggling, which would be a dead giveaway she was Skyborn. To most vendors, the Skyborn were only known for their lack of wealth and penchant for stealing. Furi pulled two silvers from her pouch and dropped the gold coin and the hair tie inside.
“Oh nonsense, give me that tie. I’ll fix your hair for you.”
Furi handed it over and turned around, almost losing her balance when the woman yanked the old tie out of her hair. She grunted, thinking her dark hair would be quite a bit thinner after the vendor was done ripping it all out.
“There. Now have a look at that.”
Furi looked to the side, glimpsing the mirror the vendor held out. The streak of emerald in her dark braid matched the hem of her tunic. It looked right, it felt right. She didn’t hide the smile that lifted her thin lips and crinkled the skin around her small eyes.
“Be brave out there, and serve your city well.” With that, the vendor set the mirror down and turned to greet another shopper.
Furi patted her braid, double-checked to make sure both clasps on her satchel were secured, and continued down the street toward the city wall. It was built of the same beige and faded red brick as much of the buildings within. There were no vendors set up in the tunnel that led outside the walls, and Furi let her fingers run across the rough stone as she walked into shadow and back out into the sunlight.
The Crystal Sea was at high tide, which meant the historic docks on the shore were nearly underwater. But that was the perfect time for the fisherfolk to haul up both fish and the water beetles much of Ballern subsisted on. Two men wrestled with a long fishing pole, casting the bait out as far as they could before collapsing to the dock in exhaustion.
Furi smiled at the sight and then turned to the vendors lining Ballern’s outer walls, more than she could hope to visit in a single day. Every space between the small stone guard shacks was crowded with craftsmen and shoppers alike. The scent of the sea filled the air, complementing the nearby grilled fish.
She stopped at a tinker’s stall, marveling at the useless gadgets strewn across the tabletop. She supposed some of them might provide some benefit, but most were toys for kids. And that was something she would have no use for on the Nightingale.
Furi whiled away a few hours watching the churning mass of Ballern citizens. She didn’t miss the fact that the upper class, clad in finely cut fabrics and jewelry, stayed inside the walls while she found far more people like herself closer to the shore. She wasn’t sure if she’d ever feel like she fit in with upper-class people, despite the relative kindness of vendors like the woman who had sold her the hair tie.
Furi was near one of the stone docks that stretched out into the Crystal Sea when she heard the scream. It echoed around her, bouncing off the old steel warship permanently docked as a reminder of what had once been. She couldn’t make out what people were saying as she scanned the area, trying to find the source of the commotion.
But two small words sent a bolt of fear down her spine. “Red Death!”
More of the shoppers screamed and started to scatter, but Furi frowned at the palm-sized beetle buzzing toward her chest. She’d seen Red Death, and they were like an armored crawler in both size and tenacity, but this little beetle was not that. She supposed if she were wrong, she wouldn’t have to worry about it for long.
One of the fisherfolk charged the bug, lashing out with his pole. Furi snatched the bug out of the air on pure instinct, hugging the rather annoyed beetle to her chest. It buzzed and pushed against her with its bright red wings before finally giving up and settling in to chew at her tunic.
“Don’t you even think about that,” Furi muttered, holding the bug out farther from her chest.
“Thank the gods you caught him! My dad was ready to kill me.” A small girl, not much more than ten, beamed up at Furi.
“It is the Great Machines you should thank, little one,” a cloaked man said, extending his hand and a heavily tattooed forearm.
Furi stepped in front of the man, shielding the girl from him. The disciples of the Children of the Dark Fire were easy enough to recognize. If their black cloaks didn’t stand out enough in the searing heat of the day, the flame tattoo formed of steel plates and rivets could not be more obvious. Not to mention their constant prattling about the Great Machines.
Furi yelped when the beetle managed to catch her forearm in its mandibles, but it quickly let go. She took the moment of distraction to turn her back on the cloaked man, who grumbled and walked away.
“Oh yeah, he’ll give you a nip if he isn’t happy,” the girl said.
Furi glanced back to watch the cloaked figure blend into the shadows near the edge of the dock.
“Not him,” the girl said, exasperated. “The beetle. Here, give him to me.”
Furi handed the bug over, raising an eyebrow when the girl pulled it to her chest like a stuffed toy.
“My dad will pay you, you know. It’s hard to catch a breeding pair, and this slippery guy almost got away.”
“No need,” Furi said. “I’m … just glad you have your pet back.”
“Pet? Oh no, I’d never keep a Crimson Beetle as a pet. They’d eat every bug on the farm if I did that. We sell them to the flower peddlers. Keeps the worse bugs out of the gardens, you know?”
Furi glanced back toward the wall where one of the flower peddlers had set up a sweeping booth, crowned by a violently bright bundle of purple blooms. A man waved, and the girl gave an exaggerated nod.
“That’s my dad. Thank you again!” She grinned before sprinting away, leaving Furi somewhat baffled at the exchange, but also amused at the looks of horror the girl got when someone screamed, “She’s carrying a Red Death!”
It was easy to forget how sheltered some of the people of Ballern really were. Furi hoped it would stay that way, and that the wars they fought would never reach their own shores. Three rapid cannon shots echoed out from the city as the royal airship signaled the start of the day’s second block of celebrations. That meant she didn’t have much longer to spend in the markets. She’d need to get back to the Nightingale soon.
She brushed at her tunic where the beetle had snapped a handful of threads. Her commanding officer was not going to be amused.
Furi made her way back through the crowds, passing the celebration’s main stage where a cadre of masked performers put on a show. All of them wore brilliant colors as they performed the play of the founding of Ballern.
She didn’t stay to watch, instead circling around the small space near the back of the courtyard that led to an alley just wide enough for two people to pass each other. No vendors were allowed to set up in the narrow alleys, and Furi only passed two other people in the shadow of the city courts. The place made her skin crawl. It was in that same building her father had been sentenced to a prison camp for speaking out against the expulsion of Gray Woods refugees.
A conflict in the nearby forest had ravaged the small villages, leaving thousands homeless. Some turned to Ballern for aid, but for whatever reason, the leaders of Ballern would not intervene against the warlords. They accepted refugees into the city for a time … before the executions began.
Furi shivered and hurried away from the shadows.
The street stood vacant, as none of the celebration was scheduled to take place on Breckenridge. It was an odd thing to see one of the main thoroughfares so empty. Two of the restaurants had opened but were mostly empty as the city joined in the festivities.
Curved roofs towered above Furi, flanked by taller buildings that were squared off, which, in turn, were dwarfed by the spires for which Ballern was known. As Furi passed beneath the oldest of those old towers, a stone construction with slanted sides that took up almost an entire city block, the distant airship docks came into view.
While most of Ballern had preserved its history, keeping ancient buildings repaired and updated, even in the slums, the docks were another beast entirely. Steel scaffolding soared into the skies, linked together by platforms and cabling in the northwestern corner of Ballern. The only access to the docks—other than flying into one—was the cable elevators for the common folk, and the gondolas for royalty.
Furi waited at the base of one of those steel towers, two groups preceding her before she finally managed to catch a lift. Even in times of celebration, the lifts weren’t enough to meet the demand for them.
“What in the three hells happened to your tunic?”
Furi stiffened and looked around at her fellow passengers. At first she thought the voice belonged to her commanding officer, but a knot of dread untied itself when she saw Beck’s hooded eyes filled with mischief.
“Dammit, Beck. Almost gave me a heart attack.”
The lift lurched into motion, causing most of the occupants to stumble. But not Furi or Beck. Growing up on the docks taught you something about balance that earthers didn’t have.
“Did you see the flags?” Beck asked. “Looks like they called for us to come aboard early.”
“What?” Furi asked, squinting as if that would help her see through the fast-moving mesh on the lift.
“Are you telling me you just happened to wander back here when they were calling for us to return to ship?”
Furi pursed her lips. “Maybe.”
Beck shook his head. “The first call was almost half an hour ago. You really are the luckiest soldier in the company. Let me see that tunic.”
Furi didn’t argue when Beck slid his hand just inside her collar to better inspect the bite from the beetle. She trusted him, having grown up near the second gas chamber atop the airship docks. He’d been a friend and a regular sight before that.
Beck opened the pouch at his waist, flipped through two pockets, and pulled out a needle and thread.
“Are you serious?” Furi muttered.
“This is for my sake too. You think I want to run laps around the Nightingale with our squad? You think the squad wants to run laps?”
Furi rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine.”
Beck worked on the pull, deftly adding stitches in just the right places so when he pulled it tight, Furi could scarcely tell where he’d patched it. He bit his lips as he often did when he was thinking, folding the collar of her tunic out and slicing the thread on the edge of his ring.
Furi adjusted her tunic when he leaned away, nodding at his work. “There. Now I won’t have to run laps.”
“You two are adorable,” said an older woman beside them.
Whatever Furi had been about to say fled in a moment of horror, embarrassment, and maybe a little disgust. Beck was like a brother. An annoying brother. So when he said, “Yeah, next week is our fifth anniversary,” and the woman just said, “Aww,” Furi wanted to leap out of the lift to whatever fate awaited someone who fell from those great heights. Thankfully, the lift stopped, and she didn’t need to do anything quite so dramatic.