Assassins_of_the_steam_age_cover_final

Author of dozens of science fiction and fantasy books, Joseph Robert Lewis enjoys creating worlds in which history, science, imagination, and humanity collide in unpredictable ways. He also likes writing about heroines that his daughters can respect and admire, women with courage, wit, and fierce intelligence. Series include the humorous fantasy Elf Saga, the steampunk thriller Aetherium, the urban fantasy Zelda Pryce, and the epic fantasy Angels and Djinn.

Assassins of the Steam Age - Aetherium Book 1 by Joseph Robert Lewis

When the local airfield is destroyed, Taziri Ohana is the only airship pilot left to chase the killers across the skies of Marrakesh. Along the way she meets a brooding marshal, a wild young pilot, and a grim detective who isn't afraid to get her hands dirty, but can they stop a conspiracy of the richest and most powerful women in the world? And when Taziri learns that her enemies have turned her own inventions into strange and deadly weapons, her family's survival may hang in the balance!

Meanwhile, exiled Incan princess Qhora and her swashbuckling lover Lorenzo face a gauntlet of assassins, cruel aristocrats, and wealthy industrialists conspiring against the very Queen that Taziri is trying to save, and their only hope for peace may be a lone airship falling out of the sky over a steampunk city erupting into civil war!

CURATOR'S NOTE

I first had the pleasure of working with Joseph Lewis when he wrote a short story for an anthology of tales set in my world of Feyland. His writing is a delight, whether he's writing epic elves or steampunk adventures. Legend of the Skyfire Stone blends the derring-do of Indiana Jones with a wonderfully re-imagined alternate history Europe.

– Anthea Sharp

 

REVIEWS

  • "A masterful weave of multiple story lines...Lewis's characters leap off the page to run and jump through the imagination, the dialogue is tight, fast, real and peppered with witticism."

    – Allan Douglas, The Write Stuff
  • "Lewis gives us a well woven story with brilliant characters and non-stop adventure. I found the story so well written and entertaining that I flew through it...and I want the next novel immediately!"

    – Battlin Jack, As the Bookworm Turns
  • "Superbly written, tightly woven, and packed full of action scenes. The Burning Sky is quality writing with great characters, an interesting mystery, a cunning antagonist, and a number of unusual but compelling protagonists."

    – The Alternative
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

"Once more around the Middle Sea!" Taziri swept up her tiny daughter and carried her around the dining room, through the kitchen, and back again. Menna giggled and waved her chubby arms. After several minutes of dashing around the house, Taziri gently crashed her baby onto a pile of cushions in the corner of the dining room. "And back home to Marrakesh!" Taziri groaned as she straightened up and rubbed her back. "She's getting heavy."

Yuba finished setting the table. "You always say that when you come back. You know, she'll be walking soon," he said quietly.

"Time flies." She stroked Menna's cheek. Time flies, Menna grows, and you, Yuba, what about you? What's happening to you? His once glorious mane was gone, shaved during her last trip as yet another surprise to come home to. They were all doing that now, everywhere she went. The men were changing. Some things were small, like the shaved heads. Other things were more troubling, like their missing veils.

Yuba paused in the doorway. "I went by the university again this morning. My work is backing up. Trees to move, gardens to plant, and a new fountain to build. They asked when I'll be back full time, again, but I think they're just going to replace me soon."

Taziri sighed. Please, Yuba. Just one evening together as a family without an argument. She said, "I told you, as long as I'm a flight officer, I don't get to decide my schedule. I'm sorry, but you might just have to let that job go, at least until Menna's older."

As Yuba came back into the dining room with the steaming tajine, a booming detonation thundered through the house. Plates and glasses crashed to the floor. Lights flickered. Neighbors screamed. Taziri held her baby girl close to her chest as she knelt down under the dining room table. The ground shuddered again. "Yuba, down here!"

He ducked down beside her and together they huddled around their crying child, listening to the muffled sounds of frightened children and frantic parents in nearby houses. After a moment, Yuba leaned back and surveyed the room, one hand absently stroking his daughter's hair. "I think it stopped."

Taziri ran to the front door and looked outside. Uphill to her right she saw townhouses huddled close to the street, their pale brick faces painted red by the setting sun. Spidery cracks lined most of the windows and many nervous faces poked out through open doorways. Above the homes rose the temple and the slender towers of the governor's mansion gazing out over the city of Tingis. Downhill to her left, Taziri saw the evening sky filling with black smoke rising from the long arching hangars beside the railway station.

"It's the airships!" Taziri dashed back into the house and knelt by her husband. "Are you all right? Yes? Let me see her. She seems fine. Just let me look at her. I think she's fine. Right, Yuba, listen, I need to get down there. If the fire spreads…"

"I know." He avoided her eyes. "Go on. We're fine here."

"Just let me get this." She grabbed the bottom half of a broken glass and began gathering up the smaller shards into it.

Yuba raised an eyebrow. "I said go."

"You're sure?" She set the glass on the table.

"Yes." He stood, their teary-eyed baby on his hip. He cleared his throat and she thought he was going to say something, but then he frowned and turned away. "Go do what you need to do. We're fine here."

She kissed them both. "I love you."

"I know." Yuba carried Menna back to the bedroom.

Taziri snatched her jacket from its hook by the door and struggled into it as she bolted down the stone-paved street, her steel-toed boots pounding out the rhythm of her strides. She passed men in blue shirts and women in red and green dresses standing in doorways, all gazing down the hill at the angry blaze vomiting a column of smoke into the sky. Some people moved slowly down the street, some even jogged after Taziri, but none kept pace with her.

At the next intersection, she dashed around a motionless trolley filled with gawkers. The electric cables overhead hummed their last faint hums of the evening as the sun vanished, taking their power with it. A tired old siren wailed in the distance and somewhere behind her a bell was ringing. More people were standing in the road now shouting about water and hoses, arguing about pumps and buckets. She ran past them all.

Houses gave way to shops, which gave way to warehouses. Rooftops covered in solar sheets and heavy wires glinted dully in the fading light, and windmills of all shapes and sizes rattled and creaked as they choked on winds laced with smoke and peppered with ash. She almost didn't see the two homeless men lying in the shadows near an alleyway entrance, and she vaulted over them to avoid tripping and falling. Taziri ran faster, she ran until her lungs burned and her legs burned, and then she was through the gates of the airfield where the air itself burned, clawing at her throat and stinging her eyes.

"My God."

The field danced with yellow and white flames that rippled and roared as the cool sea breezes swept up the hillside. To her left, the shapes of the train station platform and clock tower stood black against the purpling sky. Smoke and steam billowed ever upward all around her while glowing cinders fluttered down over the grassy field, swirling on the hot winds. Slowing to a walk, Taziri yanked her flight cap from the strap on her shoulder, pulled the padded headgear tight over her head, and wound her dangling blue scarf across her mouth and nose. She lowered the circular lenses of her flight goggles over her eyes and scanned the area. "Hello! Is there anyone here? Hello!"

Three massive hangars stood before her, built wall to wall. The flames and smoke danced and growled somewhere farther down the row, perhaps on the second or third building. As she entered the first hangar, Taziri plunged into a darkness broken only by the dull orange glow prying through the cracks in the wall, bleeding around the windows and doorframes. Even in the shadows, she could clearly see every line and curve of her airship Halcyon filling the chamber. For a moment she paused, staring up at the long gas envelope above and feeling the waves of heat rolling through the hangar.

"Taziri?"

"Ma'am?" She turned with a start to see a woman wearing an aviator's orange jacket and goggles identical to her own. Taziri had barely heard her over the growling and roaring of the fire. "Captain?"

"You got here fast." Isoke Geroubi pushed her goggles up to her forehead. "What happened?"

"Maybe it's the Crake?" Taziri pointed to the door to the next hangar and they both approached it cautiously as the sounds of falling debris echoed beyond the wall. "No, it's probably the Grebe. They were due in at sunset. Something must have happened when they landed. A crash. Look, the sprinklers aren't working! And the fire brigade is taking its damn time. Where's the ground crew? We need to keep the fire from spreading in here. If we open the hangar doors to cool the chamber, the wind could fan the flames. But once the temperature of the air in here gets high enough, the seals on the Halcyon's envelope will crack apart anyway and then, well, boom."

Isoke grinned. "You engineers are all pessimists, you know that?"

In the distance, something metallic keened and crashed to the ground.

"Yes, ma'am. I suppose you just want to fly Halcyon out of here?" Taziri coughed into her scarf. "I wish you could, but no one could control an airship with all this heat and wind, not even you."

Isoke winked at her. "Life is full of small challenges."

"If the fire brigade is on strike—"

"Firefighters can't go on strike. Not legally, anyway." Isoke slowly crossed the Halcyon's hangar, her eyes darting all about. "One thing at a time. First, let's see how bad it really is."

She waved Taziri to follow her to the door. The boiling air shimmered and the sharp cracking of wood echoed in the next hangar. Isoke touched the door handle, then yanked her hand away and shook her head. She motioned Taziri back and kicked the door. It rattled in its frame, but held. She kicked again and the latch snapped free. The door swung wide and smoke belched through the opening, creeping up along the walls of Halcyon's hangar. Isoke replaced her goggles and stepped through the doorway. Taziri stood just behind her, peering into the filthy air, struggling to breathe as a warm sweat trickled down her neck.

A sharp cough punctuated the dull roaring and a tall man stumbled toward them out of the smoke. Gray fumes curled off his tattered black coat. The right side of his shaved head and beardless face was a black and red ruin of weeping cuts and scorched skin. His right eye was shut, if it still existed, but his left eye stared at them, a single blot of white in the dark haze. Isoke reached out to catch him as he approached the open doorway.

The firelight flashed on something in the man's hand as he swung at the pilot. Isoke shrieked, her hands pressed to her face as dark blood spilled over her fingers. She dropped to her knees, and then the floor, her head thumping on the concrete. Her wheezing, gurgling noises barely rose above the roaring flames. Taziri darted toward her, but then froze when she saw the burned man holding the bloody knife at his side. The man lunged forward and Taziri fell back, crashing into the edge of a workbench and knocking a toolbox to the ground. Steel handles and round head attachments clattered across the concrete floor. She grabbed a heavy wrench in her shaking hand and rose to her feet.

Taziri glanced at Isoke still shivering and gasping on the floor, still covering her face with both hands as the pool of blood around her head expanded, and she hurled her wrench at the man. It flew past his head, several hand spans to one side. The brute stiffened as the tool flashed past, and he turned his head slightly but the scorched flesh of his neck refuse to twist that way and he cried out in agony, his empty hand flying up to cover the burnt skin. In that instant Taziri leapt forward and tackled the man to the ground, landing awkwardly across his body. She crawled up to sit on the man's chest and planted one boot on the hand holding the knife covered in Isoke's blood.

Taziri drove her fist down into the man's face. As his head bounced off the concrete floor, a hideous vibration tore up Taziri's arm, and she slid to one side, cradling her hand against her chest. The burned man lay still.

Coughing so hard her throat went raw, Taziri crawled through the filthy haze toward Isoke. The smoke stung her eyes until they gushed tears, and she tasted only ash and dust in her mouth. The sounds of wood cracking and flames roaring echoed through the hangar, and something heavy fell on her left arm.

The world faded into smears of gray and white.

The world snapped back into focus as hands grabbed Taziri by the arms and jacket, hauling her up and away from the ground. She heard voices all around her now, women and men, all shouting about hoses and pumps. Jets of water hissed in the air and boots pounded the concrete floor. Two men carried her backward across the hangar and outside onto the grass. They pulled off her goggles and scarf and she felt the cool air on her skin. The stars overhead hid behind waves of smoke and bright cinders rained down upon the earth.

Taziri sat coughing on the grass while the two men hovered over her, talking in low voices. She focused on just breathing, on the sting in her eyes and the ache in her chest. Her left arm throbbed dully and her little finger hummed with a slight numbness, feeling fat and rubbery. She stared at her blackened sleeve. I need to tell them something, something very important. There was something they should do, but she couldn't remember what it was. Something she had left behind.

A moment later the pair stiffened sharply, boot heels clicking, and Taziri looked up to see a young woman approaching. The woman ignored the men's salutes and knelt down in front of Taziri, peering into her eyes, wiping her face with a damp cloth, asking her questions in a professional monotone. Taziri muttered back her name, her birthday, the queen's name. Rank and service number? When did you get here? Do you know anything about the two people in the hangar? A man and a woman?

A woman?

"Isoke! He stabbed her! You have to go back for her, you have to help her!" Taziri tried to stand but her legs wouldn't lift her and the two men on either side wouldn't let her, and she fell back on her rear, stunned. "I couldn't reach her! Where is she?"

"They're working on her now." The young woman nodded off to her right.

Taziri followed her gaze and saw people in uniforms swarming around a lump on the ground wrapped in blankets. They were all talking at once so she couldn't tell what they were saying, and they kept blocking her view so she couldn't see what they were doing. She's in there, lying on the ground, with strangers tearing off her clothes to try to fix her, like some machine. A wagon backed up to the medics. The uniforms stood, carrying the bundle of blankets between them, and then suddenly they were all on the wagon and it was racing away across the field, turning the corner onto the street and vanishing into the city. Taziri went on staring at the street, blinking dry eyes, swallowing rapidly, and feeling hollow and cold.

"Is she going to be all right?" She looked up but the young woman had already moved on, taking the two men with her. So Taziri sat there, breathing hard, watching the hangar burn as she rested her left arm in her lap and massaged her numb finger. She watched two dozen men pull Halcyon out the opposite end of the hangar and tether it to a mooring mast far from the flames. They ran left and right, shouting at each other, dragging smoking debris, pointing at smoldering furniture. It was all just a stone's throw away, but it felt like a distant dream, familiar and yet unreal. As the minutes passed, the airfield continued filling with people and equipment while the walls of the hangars gradually disintegrated and collapsed. The fire brigade's wagons rolled onto the field behind teams of oxen, sooty pumps began cycling, and the men in yellow coats uncoiled the hoses. Water arched through the air and fresh steam blossomed everywhere, filling the field with a new flavor of wet burnt filth. Slowly, the heat faded and the smoke thinned. In just a few minutes, the entire scene was transformed. Flaming havoc receded into the mundane work of dragging debris, dousing blackened objects, and inspecting melted equipment.

Chaotic shouting broke out across the field and Taziri looked up to see a dozen firefighters wrestling frantically with one of the water pump engines. The pistons were cycling furiously, the entire apparatus shaking violently as the pumps worked faster and faster. High-pitched voices barked orders over the screams of two men rolling on the ground, pressing their gloved hands against their bright red, peeling faces.

Taziri was on her feet in an instant, jogging toward the panicking crowd around the engine. The machine hissed and groaned as the pressure built inside it. She broke into a run and snatched up a firefighter's axe lying in the grass. People shouted, a cacophony of panic and white noise punctuated by the cries of the two men still ignored on the ground. As Taziri reached the outer edge of the circle of firefighters, one of them glanced over his shoulder and they locked eyes for a moment.

"Everybody back!" The man yelled. Half the firefighters stumbled back and craned over each others' heads to see what was happening, while the other half pushed forward to wave the intruder off.

Taziri plowed through the objectors and lifted her axe above the wagon. She swung once across the main line and smashed a gauge off the pipe. A scalding white jet erupted into the air from the headless junction. Without pausing, she dashed to the end of the wagon, hollered, "Get back!" and brought the axe straight down on the boiler's drain cap. The small iron lid shattered, releasing a small torrent beneath the wagon, and steam erupted from the withering grass.

The firefighters leapt away from the boiling pool spreading across the ground, and even as the engine cycled slower and quieter behind them, they shouted, "What do you think you're doing?"

Taziri was already a dozen paces away, heading back toward the grassy patch where she had been sitting a moment earlier. She tossed the axe aside and shouted over her shoulder, "Medic! See to those men!"

A single fire chief still trailed after her. "Lieutenant! You just destroyed my engine!" She pointed back at the machine bathing in its own steam.

Taziri paused to glare back at her. "I broke the two cheapest parts. I'm sure you'll have it working again within the hour, but those men will be harder to replace unless you see to their injuries, Captain. "

The fire chief turned away to bark more orders and point at her damaged equipment.

Taziri sighed, feeling all the heat and tension in her back flooding away, draining her, leaving her cold and tired. She walked back toward the spot on the grass where they had put her before, where she had watched them take Isoke away. There was no reason to be there now, but there was no reason to be anywhere now. Not yet. She couldn't think yet. She stopped to stare at the smoking hangar.

"Lieutenant Taziri Ohana?"

To her left, Taziri saw a middle-aged man in a blood-red coat decorated with brass studs and bars striding toward her. She cleared her throat and dragged a filthy glove through her hair. "Yes?"

"I'm Major Syfax Zidane, Security Section Two, royal marshals. I'm here to oversee the investigation." He glanced at the hangar. "Sorry for your loss."

"My loss?" She stared at him as though he had spoken a foreign language. Did he mean Isoke? Or…no, oh no. The other airship crews? Or the ground crew? Or all of them? All of them dead? Taziri wiped a dirty hand across her sweaty face and took a long breath. "Is there something I can do for you, sir?"

"I need to ask you a few questions about what happened here." He had a deep voice and he spoke just a little too slowly, as though he were just waking up from a deep sleep, or as though he didn't find the burning airfield particularly interesting.

"Uhm." Taziri looked away, her eyes itching. She looked back at him, a huge thick-necked man with a sleepy-eyed squint. Since when are men promoted above captain? He must be part of some special transfer program with the army. "Can it wait until tomorrow? I'd really like to go home to my family right now."

"I'll get you home as soon as I can."

She swallowed and nodded. "All right, sir."