Happy book birthday to the third book in the Steel Empires series! Steel Blood features the continuing adventures of Victory and Mikelos, who couldn’t quite manage to stay safe at home while their kids were off having adventures in Steel Magic.
Today, the book is now officially available in hardcopy and ebook form from the following retailers:
ABOUT THE BOOK
As her children begin lives of their own, Victory struggles with the loneliness of an empty nest. Just when the city of Limani could not seem smaller, an old friend requests that she come out of retirement for one final mercenary contract—to bodyguard his granddaughter, a princess of the Qin Empire.
For the first time in a century, the Qin and British Empires are reopening diplomatic relations. Alongside the British delegation, Victory and her daywalker Mikelos arrive in the Qin colony city of Jiang Yi Yue. As the Qin weredragons and British werewolves take careful steps toward a lasting peace between their people, a connection between the Qin princess and a British nobleman throw everyone’s plans in disarray.
Meanwhile, a third faction stalks the city under the cover of darkness.
This is not a typical romance. It’s a good thing Victory is not a typical vampire.
For stop #3 of the Steel Blood blog tour, I’m happy to feature an excerpt from the book itself. How does Victory get roped into her first mercenary contract in almost a hundred years? Read on to find out!
Victory considered herself a rich woman.
Rich in life experiences. Rich in family and friends. Rich in material wealth. After over eight hundred years as a vampire, she had found her place in the world. The city of Limani was her home, and centuries of previous mercenary work had been more than adequate to buy and furnish an old plantation manor house at the edge of the city. Though her job of vampire Master of the City was nothing more than titular, her current position as a member of the city council earned her a decent honorarium and she lived well enough off the interest from investments made decades and centuries ago.
But when her sire Asaron swaggered into the library that served as her office and dropped a scrap of paper in front of her, even she blinked at the large sum printed in his neat copperplate.
“You need a loan?” That was a lot of money, with a lot of zeros listed at the end. She’d have to do some creative juggling to come up with that much in cash, but she wouldn’t hesitate to do it. The trick would be finding out why Asaron needed the money. He had nest eggs on three continents, and considering he kept his permanent residence in her basement rather than bothering with a place of his own, she knew he didn’t have too many expenses.
“No, I don’t need a loan,” Asaron said, huffing in irritation. He tucked a lock of curly red hair that had escaped its tail behind his ear. “We have a job offer. I figured this would get your attention.” He presented another packet of papers.
Victory flipped through the fragile rice paper painted with vertical lines of Qin characters. The rest of the pile consisted of regular paper, computer-printed. The right sides of the pages contained more Qin, but she could read the left-hand column of Loquella text with no problem. It was a standard mercenary contract. The exorbitant fee Asaron had shown her first was indeed listed near the top. Typical bodyguard gig for some princess. Likely, the rate of pay had more to do with the girl’s political standing than the difficulty of the job.
She examined the rice paper again. Now she recognized one of the first characters as “Moon,” the name she had operated under during her and Asaron’s stint in Qin almost two hundred years ago. She scanned to the bottom of the page and puzzled out the signature. “Zhuanxu Xian? He’s still alive?” She knew weredragons lived for ages, but even so, the man had to be elderly at this point.
“Apparently so. Job’s for his grandkid.” Asaron stopped looming and dropped into one of the armchairs facing her desk.
Victory leaned back in her chair. “Huh.” She found herself twirling her pen in her fingers and used it to twist her dark hair in a bun. She crossed her arms to stop fidgeting.
“That’s all?” Asaron said.
“What do you want me to say? It’s a lot of money, but I don’t do this anymore.”
“There’s even a personal time allowance in the contract,” Asaron said. “One night a week.”
“How modern,” Victory said. “Your name’s on the contract, too. You can take the job without me.”
“You are missing the point,” Asaron said. “Max warned me this would happen.”
“Oh? And what does Max have to say?” Victory didn’t hide the sarcasm that slipped into her voice. Maximillian Asher, the head of Limani’s Mercenary Guild, was one of Victory’s closest friends. But he was Asaron’s best friend, and the idea of the two of them discussing her behind her back was both hilarious and terrifying.
“He says you have empty nest syndrome,” Asaron said, “since the kids left.”
“I already went through that when they moved out for college,” Victory said, dismissing the notion with a flick of her fingers. Her adopted daughter Toria recently began her official career as a journeyman mercenary, and she and her partner Kane had left Limani three short weeks ago on their first job.
“But they’re not down the street at Jarimis University now,” Asaron said. “They’re out of reach in New Angouleme. As far as we know. They could be anywhere by now, depending on where the job takes them.”
Victory ignored the chill that crept up the back of her neck in favor of pulling the pen out of her hair. She tossed the heavy locks over her shoulders and shifted forward again. “I have work to do.” Bills needing payment waited for no woman.
“You should accept the job.” Asaron didn’t move from his seat. He wasn’t going to let this go.
She pointed the pen at him. Time to play a new angle. “We can’t both take the job,” she said. “One of us has to stay here and be Master of the City.”
“Indeed,” Asaron said.
Ha! Since he didn’t admit defeat, Victory pushed again. “When I left Limani for the peace talks in Roma two years ago, you were miserable and claustrophobic here. I wouldn’t do that to you again.”
“This is also true.” Before Victory could claim triumph, he continued, “But how is that different from how you’re acting now?”
He didn’t get it, but Victory wasn’t going to argue further. She still had work to do. “I’ll consider it,” she said, even knowing he could read the lie in her voice. She slid the letter and contract to his side of the desk.
Asaron shook his head, but he collected the papers and left the library.
Victory organized receipts for a few minutes, then abandoned them and settled back in her chair. She stared out at the library, but did not see the dark fireplace, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, or her daywalker Mikelos’ second-best piano. She saw Xian as she had last seen him centuries ago in the Qin court, tall and dashing in silk robes that did nothing to hide the lean strength of his young body. She saw herself and Asaron fighting by the weredragon’s side on a mission from the emperor. Saw herself trading kisses with Xian in the palace gardens in the moonlight.
And now Xian wanted her to protect his granddaughter.
But how could Victory leave Limani when her own daughter was far from home? How would Toria and Kane contact her if they needed help?
She was being silly. She knew that. But a small part of her felt like she was also abandoning Toria if she left Limani, even with Asaron remaining to take her place and protect her home.
She returned to the receipts. Asaron could have the job, and the money. Limani was her home. She belonged here.
When the doorbell rang the next evening, Victory paused mid-jab. The punching bag swung from its chain in the corner of the ballroom appropriated into a gym, and she steadied it while stretching her hearing to the front of the house.
The strains of violin music paused, followed by footsteps as Mikelos left his studio and answered the front door. She heard the door swing open, and Mikelos greet the newcomer, then listened long enough to identify the visitor. But it was just Max, probably here to harass Asaron, and so she refocused on the punching bag and tuned out the men’s voices.
When Mikelos entered the gym a few minutes later, Victory was more than ready for a break. Vampires didn’t sweat or breathe heavily, but a comfortable ache had settled in her muscles. She finished her combination with a fierce roundhouse kick that sent the bag spinning. She steadied it again before facing the lanky frame of her daywalker.
“Max is here,” Mikelos said, all but bouncing on the balls of his bare feet. Though he was multiple centuries old, he still appeared in his early twenties, and his excitement added a boyish cast to his features.
The arrival of Max wasn’t usually a cause for such celebration. “Okay?” Victory asked, crossing the room to Mikelos.
“He brought a message for me,” he said. “You’ve got to come see this.” He grabbed Victory’s hand and tugged her close.
His delight was infectious, and Victory rose on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “I suppose I can take a break.” The tension in her shoulders had eased with the exercise, and she noted a similar looseness in Mikelos’ broad back as he all but dragged her through the house.
The fact that Max had a message for Mikelos sparked her curiosity. Mikelos was a musician, not a former mercenary, and so while she had been drowning her stress over Toria and Kane’s departure in combat with imaginary opponents, he had spent more time in his music studio, practicing and composing.
Max and Asaron sat at the kitchen table when they entered. In contrast to the silver that laced his hair and a face lined by weather and age, Max was the youngest person in the room by centuries. But despite his decades, the human still maintained a muscular physique and regularly gave both Victory and Asaron a run for their money on the sparring mat.
Victory dropped opposite them and accepted the cold bottle of beer Asaron pushed to her. A black lacquered chest sat centered on the table, decorated in swirls of inlaid mother-of-pearl. Victory recognized the sigil on the lid at once.
“This is cheating,” she said, tracing a finger over the stylized dragon that twisted around the characters of the Zhuanxu name. She should be irritated at Xian for manipulating her daywalker, but she had to admire his initiative.
Mikelos nudged her hand out of the way and lifted the top. Within the velvet-lined box nestled a delicate stringed instrument with a rounded body and long, thin neck. It only had two strings, and came complete with bow and roll of sheet music, tied with a black ribbon. Etched onto the body of the instrument was a smaller version of the Zhuanxu seal. “I don’t care if it’s cheating or flat-out bribery,” Mikelos said. “I love it, and I’m keeping it.”
“What’s the catch?” Victory eyed the three men before her, all of whom displayed a momentary flush of discomfort. She knew how Qin politics worked. There was always a catch.
“The erhu is a gift,” Mikelos said. “But I’ve been invited to perform with the Jiang Yi Yue Provincial Orchestra next month. They want to give a concert featuring both Qin and British music in honor of a trade delegation.”
Asaron at least had the grace not to play dumb. “Same delegation Xian wants to protect his grandkid from. Guess he figured he’d need a plan B to get us there.”
“What was his plan B for you?” Victory asked.
“There wasn’t one,” Asaron said. “He knows about Limani and how we operate here. He already knew he wasn’t getting both of us, and you know he wants you more.”
So many levels of subtext there. “That was a long time ago,” Victory said.
“Uh-oh,” Mikelos said. “Should I be jealous?” He had stopped fondling his new toy and winked at Victory in amusement.
Asaron laughed. “Xian had a thing with one of his bodyguards, and to cover it up the Emperor exiled him to be the governor of one of the colonies. It was quite the public scandal.” He picked at the label on his beer bottle. “But you know he wants Moon the famous bodyguard more than he wants you.”
It was convoluted, but it made sense. Xian had been a consummate politician in his youth, and the scandal had devastated his career. Victory had offered to follow him to Dongqu, the continent to the south, but he had sent her and Asaron away rather than risk his reputation further. Xian might be elderly by now, but weredragons had long memories. Xian’s risk of further scandal showed how valuable he regarded his granddaughter’s life.
The fact that he had dragged Mikelos into this made Victory view the contract with a more critical mind. Max sipped his own beer and watched the conversation flow around him, the amusement on his face as evident as on Mikelos’. With her foot, she nudged the ankle of the heretofore silent member of the table. “What do you think, Max?” Victory asked.
“I think getting a ridiculous amount of money to deliver a box to the daywalker of Limani’s Master of the City was an excellent surprise,” Max said. He handed a smaller envelope across the table to Victory. “I was going to come over anyway. Zerandan dropped this off this morning.”
Victory opened the envelope and retrieved a check made out to Torialanthas Connor and Kane Nalamas. “This is the balance for the job the kids took?” The oldest elf in the city had contracted them for the first job of their journeyman mercenary career— escort his niece Syri to New Angouleme and investigate the state of magic in the world. It all seemed nebulous to Victory, but she had always dealt in more certain prospects when she accepted mercenary contracts. For example, guarding princesses.
“Said he had business outside of the city and wasn’t sure when he’d be back,” Max said. “Wanted to make sure everything was settled before he left. And as for your question— I’ll keep Asaron from getting bored. You know Mikelos wants to go play with new music. Take the job.”
“It doesn’t strike you as odd that they would hire a musician not from Britannia to play for the British delegation?” Victory asked Mikelos.
“Not necessarily,” Mikelos said. He had toured Europa for centuries as a premiere musician, mercenary in its own way from the stories he had told her over the years. “And if they know enough about you to know exactly how to bribe me to get you to go there, then they know enough about me to know I can play whatever music they want.” He stroked the erhu. “I’m in if you are.”
Under the table, Victory stroked the top of Mikelos’ thigh with the back of her knuckles. The warmth of his skin seeped into her, grounding her, though she felt the tension in his muscles and knew he itched to go experiment with his new instrument. “Let’s go protect a princess.”
“Now I’m almost sad I’ll have to stay here,” Asaron said.
Join me tomorrow for the next stop on the blog tour as we learn about the history of Limani at the blog of author A.M. Justice!