Steel Victory (Steel Empire Book 1)

Steel Victory

J.L. Gribble

Steel Victory © 2015

by J.L. Gribble

Published by Dog Star Books

Bowie, MD

First Edition

Cover Image: Bradley Sharp

Book Design: Jennifer Barnes

Printed in the United States of America

Library of Congress Control Number: 2015943000


Books should never be written in a vacuum. I could not have accomplished this without the support of many.

To my incredible writing community: Jennifer Brooks, Christe Callabro, Ron Edison, Judi Fleming, Vanessa Giunta, Kathleen Kollman, Chun Lee, Rhonda Mason, Jason Jack Miller, Erica Satifka, Deanna Sjolander, Shara White, K. Ceres Wright, Stephanie Wytovich, and everyone else from the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction program (past, present, and future). Thank you for your support.

To everyone who read all or bits of this novel in its many incarnations: Sabrina Benulis, Matt Betts, Faryn Black, Greg Fisher, Glenn Garrabrant, Tristan Horrom, Adrienne Kapp, Michael Mehalek, Heidi Ruby Miller, Maryn Rosenberg, and Chris Stout. Thank you for pushing me to be a better writer.

To Jennifer Barnes and John Edward Lawson. Thank you for believing in Limani.

And to Jeffrey Coleman, Timons Esaias, Diane Turnshek, and Stacie Yuhasz.
Thank you for being my mentors in literature, writing, and life.

Victory tapped the fingers of her right hand against her thigh in a steady rhythm as she watched a lone moth circle the overhead light. Each beat counted the movement of a blade as she dueled an imaginary opponent in her mind’s eye. Lunge, slash, parry—launch into a forward roll, hamstring her partner—reset, en guarde. Next to her, her daywalker Mikelos made another notation in pencil on the blank sheet music spread across his lap. To him, the beat of fingers against denim in the tempo he’d set for her represented the music of a full orchestra, a hundred instruments in his head as he worked on his latest symphony.

A dock worker in a battered coverall entered the customs house’s scant waiting area, heading toward Victory and Mikelos. She paused her tapping, and Mikelos looked up from his work.

“Ms. Connor?”

Victory suppressed a stab of irritation and jabbed a thumb toward Mikelos, who sat next to her on the stiff bench. “He’s Mr. Connor. I’m just Victory.” Wouldn’t be the first time in her long life that she’d been called the name of her male companion, probably wouldn’t be the last. Mikelos was smirking—he knew her pet peeves.

The dock worker lowered his eyes, scrunching a rag in his oil-stained dark hands. “Sorry. Master Rhaavi asked me to give you a message.”

Victory smelled fear and hesitation twisting from his skin along with undertones she could not identify offhand. Forest and shadow. She forced herself to stay seated—the poor guy might bolt from the room. She checked the nametag on his uniform. “Go ahead, Taba.”

Taba opened his mouth, but hesitated, almond eyes switching from Victory to Mikelos and back again.

“Don’t worry. I promise she won’t eat you,” Mikelos said. His hazel eyes danced with amusement. The overhead fluorescent light tinged them a green that matched the faded streaks in his spiky brown hair. His compact form lounged on the bench, but his musician’s hands twisted a loose thread at the hem of his shirt.

Victory smiled, careful not to flash fang and traumatize the young man any further. “Ignore him, please.”

Steeling himself, Taba took a deep breath and said, “The, ah, river transport isn’t stopping.”

Visions of the two-hundred-foot-long riverboat careening into the small dock to crush the Limani customs house—and them in it—with cargo containers tumbled through her mind. Mikelos rose to his feet and shoved the roll of sheet music in a pocket of his cargo pants just when Victory realized Taba’s true meaning. The riverboat intended to pass them by. “Where’s Rhaavi?” Mikelos said.

Victory also stood, but Taba seemed past his fear now that he knew their reaction would not be taken out on him.

“His office. Want me to take you there?”

“Please,” Victory said, as she and Mikelos followed Taba down a hallway. “You know whether he got that old radio fixed?”

“Part came down from the Brits last week, and I supervised the elf who installed it. I think that’s how he got word. I wish real radio was still around.” Taba hesitated.

The glass door to the back offices reflected in the fluorescent light. It picked up Mikelos and Taba’s own reflections, but only Victory could see herself standing between them. “So do I. I miss cell phones even more.” Victory stalked between the men, pushing her way into the back. Taba would have seen just what he saw with his own eyes. A woman of average height, with blue eyes and deep auburn hair pulled into a long braid. Paler than most, maybe, but that didn’t make a distinguishing characteristic on its own.

Taba regained his equilibrium and led them through an open office area brimming with file cabinets but lacking any occupants. Taba’s coworkers waited for the riverboat outside in the warm night, leaving the room with an eerie abandoned air. Light and the low fuzz of static emanated from one of the smaller offices in back.

After the Last War, traditional wireless communication became impossible because of the radiation still in the atmosphere. The elves had found a way around it, but protected the necessary enchantments. Victory suspected they wanted to keep the pesky warmongering humans from getting out of hand again. That wasn’t a crazy conspiracy theory when one of the eldest elves in the city of Limani had confided that to her himself.

“Master Rhaavi?” Victory tapped the doorframe with her knuckles before stepping into the cluttered office. “Everything okay?”

The customs master sat hunched over a small table covered in old electronics. Without looking up, he raised one hand to silence them. He twisted a knob on the enchanted radio and picked up a microphone. “Limani Docks calling Roman One Three Nine. Come in, One Three Nine.”

Victory sensed Mikelos hold his breath next to her. She would have done the same had she needed the oxygen.

The radio spurted more static, and after a few seconds Rhaavi set down the microphone. He wheeled his chair away from the table and back toward his desk. “That’s all I’ve heard for the past ten minutes.” He rubbed his bald head, shiny with sweat, and took a sip from the mug on his desk. “Guess you two should have a seat.”

“What’s going on?” Victory moved the stack of folders on one chair to the floor before sitting. “Taba said the boat wasn’t stopping. How far away is it?”

“I got the first call, oh, maybe twenty minutes ago?” Rhaavi shuffled through the forms on his desk. He found the appropriate paper in a pile on his computer keyboard and handed it to Victory. “Captain of One Three Nine said he was receiving conflicting orders and that he might be late. Then he radioed in again a few minutes later, saying something about his new orders to skip Limani and continue upriver to his stop in Calverton.”

Rhaavi’s scrawling handwriting revealed nothing more than his report, so Victory set the paper back on the untidy desk. That made no sense. Why head straight to the British colonies north of them? Limani was a good customer, and the riverboat must have deliveries to make. At least it still had to sail past the city to continue up the Tranosari Bay toward Calverton. “We can’t let that happen.”

“Yeah, and what do you propose to do about it?” Rhaavi leaned back over to the radio and twisted a knob again, but it just emitted more static. “All we’ve got here are fishing boats. By the time we call in people to captain the yachts, the riverboat will be too far away.”

Victory stood. “So we take a fishing boat. Keys?” She held out her hand, palm open.

“And I might need to raid whatever sort of armory you have out here,” Mikelos said. “Victory, your sword still in the car?”

“It is.”

Rhaavi still didn’t move, sitting back in his chair and looking up at them in perplexity. “You two are nuts. Yeah, some deliveries might be missed, but that’s the shipper’s problem. People here’ll complain and it’ll get made up. Some British stockholder must’ve thrown his weight around.”

“That boat is going to Calverton,” Victory said, emphasizing the destination. “My sire is on that boat as a registered passenger. If it docks in the British colonies, he will be sought and killed.” This time, she did bare fangs and repress a growl.

Realization dawned in Rhaavi’s eyes. “That ridiculous new ban up north. I’m sorry, I didn’t know he was on the boat.”

“It’s okay.” Victory backed away. “But now we need your help. Keys to a boat, and if you have a spare firearm for Mikelos to use, that might be handy.”

The customs master darted around his office, opening a safe in the corner and retrieving a revolver and a box of bullets. “This is all the weaponry I’ve got here, but you’re welcome to it. The keys to the boats are hanging on the wall in the main office. Taba!”

The dockhand poked his head back in the office from where he’d been lurking outside. “Sir?”

“Get the
Good Choices
gassed up and ready to go.” Rhaavi passed the gun and ammunition over to Mikelos. “This pistol has been in my family three generations. I want this back, you hear?”

Mikelos tucked the box under his arm while he inspected the revolver. “My word,” Mikelos said, popping a moon clip into the cylinder.

“Are you sure you don’t want to call anyone for backup?” Rhaavi said. “You’re in the Mercenary Guild, right?”

“There’s no time. We can’t afford to miss the boat and let it go up the Tranosari. I’ll grab my sword,” Victory said. “Meet you by the boat, Mik.” He passed the roll of sheet music to her before following Raavi.

She jogged out of the customs house and across the small parking lot toward her electric town-car. So much for a simple evening, reuniting with her sire Asaron after his latest mercenary contract in the Roman holdings to the south. Perhaps catching up on news and gossip over dinner in town. She opened the passenger door to dig around in the glove compartment after dropping the sheet music on the seat. Good, she had left her stiletto there after loaning it to her daughter Toria last week. She buckled its sheath around her left forearm, then flexed and rotated the arm to settle it.

Victory had given up her own mercenary life decades ago, retiring to the independent city of Limani after the Last War. Following the upheaval of the city’s political system almost eighty years ago, her quiet life vanished when she received a permanent seat on the ruling council representing the city’s vampires. However, those vampires consisted of her and Asaron, and she had lost when they drew straws. These days, she used her sword to stay in shape and train new Mercenary Guildmembers, not for defense.

She unlocked the trunk to withdraw her beloved hand-and-a-half bastard sword, sheathed in a battered leather scabbard. She would wield it with pride to protect that vampire who’d saved her life for the first time eight hundred years ago.

Before he shoved the
Good Choices
away from the dock, Taba looked caught behind words he couldn’t express. Victory scooted to the other side of the prow. “What’s wrong?”

“You, ah, want me to come? I might be able to help.”

His scent of fear returned, crisp and dark, overlaying the fishy aroma from the nearby boats. “No, kid, we’ll be okay,” Victory said. She gave him a closer study. He had broader shoulders than the more common varieties of werepanther usually did. “You’re a, what?”

“Leopard, ma’am,” he said. “Sinai Clan.”

That explained both his dark skin and shoulders, and he hadn’t even reached his full bulk yet. “You’re also young, Taba,” she said. “Strong as I’m sure you are, no. Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. But thanks. And call me Victory.”

“You’re welcome, Victory,” Taba said. “I’ll be here when you get back.”

At that, he pushed the small fishing boat away from the dock. Mikelos started the engine, and with a low rumble, they headed out over the river.

“We may have done this before, but that was a long time ago.” Mikelos’ low voice carried just over the engine and wind. “We should have brought the leopard.”

“And get him killed?” Victory scanned the dark water for the slow-moving barge’s lights. “The Sinai Clan is dying out over here, and no one knows how they’re faring in Old Europa. Genevieve would have my head if anything happened to that kid.” The head of the werepanthers in Limani was protective of her clan. The wolves might have the reputation for being a close-knit pack, but the cats had their own protective instincts.

“True, very true,” Mikelos said. “See anything?”

Brilliant summer stars and a waxing moon bathed the world in pale silver, reflected back again by the undulating surface of the river. A faint golden glow caught her eye in the distance downriver. “There! Cut the engine.”

The low rumble faded into silence. “How’re we going to reach them?”

“It’s hugging this shore,” Victory said. “We can drift to them. We’re shielded by the front of the barge itself.”

Using an oar to steer, they kept themselves head-on to the barge until it came within reach short minutes later. The growl of the engines camouflaged any splashes they made.

Victory uncoiled a line of rope and lassoed one of the barge’s cleats. Limani had been the scheduled first stop, and the transport rode low in the water, laden to the maximum limit with dozens of massive shipping crates. After pulling the smaller boat toward the barge, she secured them together so the sides wouldn’t scrape and betray their presence.

“I’m going up.” She double-checked her weapons and reached for the barge’s hull. “You coming, or do you want to stay here and guard our retreat?”

“No close-range weapons.” Mikelos left the stern to give her a boost up. “One shot, and the whole crew will be on us. I’ll stay here and be ready to drive the getaway car. Give a shout if you need me.”

“You’ll hear more than shouting if I need you.” Victory hauled herself over the edge and onto the barge’s deck. It was a good thing she hadn’t dressed up to welcome her sire home—grime from the side of the hull now streaked the front of her jeans, and she had a feeling it was only going to get worse.

With one last wave to Mikelos, Victory darted between the large shipping containers stacked in the front of the barge. She made her way toward the rear of the vessel, where the working and living quarters for the crew should be.

The real question concerned Asaron’s location. They were nearing Limani, but had not yet passed it. He might not even know his travel arrangements had changed. If all else failed, she could sit tight in hiding and wait for the mayhem to start when her sire figured out his new destination. Even before the British colonies had begun their crusade against vampires, echoing their European homeland’s long-held discrimination policies, Asaron refused to travel there. Something about a girl.

But she had no guarantee Asaron was still loose on the riverboat. The captain might have ordered him restrained at once upon learning his new orders in order to prevent said mayhem. Either way, Victory needed to find him now.

Could it be possible to take over the boat and force it to dock at Limani? Rhaavi didn’t seem too concerned, and she wondered how often he let deliveries slide. She paused, placing a hand against the side of a container that was damp with evening dew. The customs master was right—this was a commercial shipment, and she didn’t want to open that can of worms considering her political position in the city. But if Asaron landed in Calverton, he would have mere hours.

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