Steel-Blood-Jacket.inddHappy New Year to all of my awesome readers! In honor of 2017 finally being over, and to celebrate my birthday (yes, I’m a New Year’s Eve baby), I’d like to share a scene that was left on the cutting room floor after my beta readers read one of the earliest drafts of Steel Empires #3: Steel Blood.

This scene takes place early during the novel, while Victory and Mikelos are traveling by ship to Jiang Yi Yue. While I had fun writing it and exploring more of Rob and Guy’s characters, it was ultimately felt that the scene didn’t add to the larger story of the book itself.

My only birthday wish is that if you have been enjoying my writing, please consider leaving an honest review of any of my books someplace like Amazon or Goodreads. A review can be as simple as “I liked it!” and leaving a rating. This is the cheapest and easiest way to continue supporting authors you enjoy after buying their books.

Thank you, party safely tonight, and enjoy this look at Victory in her element — with a sword in her hand! 

Note: The following text has not been professionally edited.

The nerves and excitement of travel woke Victory well before sunset the next night, but Mikelos had been kind enough to keep her company rather than disappearing right away for another music lesson with Tan. It was lucky he was still around when she discovered her dining dilemma. A small refrigerator in their suite contained enough bottles of blood to keep her fed for the voyage, but no way to heat them up.

Before she choked down the chilled liquid, Mikelos snatched the bottle away. He returned a short time later with a steaming mug after charming his way into the kitchens and reassured her that cold blood wouldn’t be an issue for the rest of the trip. The cook he’d found had told him that vampires were not unfamiliar in Qin lands, just on Qin ships, and had not batted an eye at Mikelos’ request for a heat-up.

They escaped onto deck the moment the sun dipped below the horizon. Victory trailed after Mikelos when he made a beeline for the edge of the railing. She peered over the edge of the ship with him as she finished braiding her hair into a long tail and tying off the end. “What are we looking at?” Lights from the deck surrounded the ship with a warm glow, and the stars were still bright in the tiniest sliver of new moon.

“What in the world are those?” Mikelos pointed to two thin beams that extended out from the stern and bow on this side of the ship. They dipped into the water, just caressing the tops of the waves, but otherwise served no apparent physical purpose.

Before Victory could respond, two men joined them at the railing. Rob leaned next to her, with Guy on Mikelos’ other side. The wind shifted, and she got a face full of the werewolf musk that had been downwind a moment before.

“Those are the balance brackets,” Guy said. He either failed to keep the condescension from his voice or didn’t try at all. “This ship is so big that without them we’d be listing all over the place in the open sea.”

Rob nudged Victory’s elbow with his own. “You don’t get seasick, do you, love?”

That was a new one. Only Mikelos had called her that in recent memory, and he actually meant the term of endearment.

The earl shrank back a bit when Victory raised her eyebrow, but pressed on. “Do vampires get seasick at all, even?” His curiosity seemed to outweigh his apprehension.

“No,” Victory said. “Not to my knowledge.”

“I know one who threw up over the edge right along with me on a journey in the Mare Nostrum out of Roma,” Mikelos said. “But he was just as drunk as I was.”

Guy’s eyes widened. “Do vampires get drunk?”

“We can,” Victory said. It wasn’t like it was a state secret, after all. Just not widely advertised.

“She doesn’t,” Mikelos said, shooting Victory a grin when she switched the disparaging eyebrow his way next. “Total bore, that one.”

“You both should join us for a drink after we finish our workout, then” Rob said. “No formal dinner tonight, so we ate an early meal with the crew.” That explained the designer exercise clothes the men wore. Guy was in royal blue and Rob in a green that accentuated the color of his eyes. They looked like they had walked straight out of a magazine advertisement.

“Are there training facilities on this ship?” Victory asked, her interest piqued. She had expected to let her skills languish for the seven days at sea.

Guy pointed toward the bow of the ship. “There is a section of deck set aside for guest recreation. We moved the chairs.” He made a show of looking Victory up and down, keeping it just on the clean side of lewd. Before she could take offense, he did the same thing to Mikelos. “Care to join us?”

“Oh!” Rob said. “Do you fence, Lady Victory? Ben told me you used to be a mercenary.”

“I can manage my way around a saber,” Victory said.

Mikelos muffled his sudden laugh with a cough. “Excuse me. Must be the salt air.” He pecked Victory on the cheek, whispering, “Don’t destroy the kid too bad.” With a short bow to Rob and Guy, he said, “I’m off to meet with Tan. Lovely night, gentlemen.” He strode away across the deck, but Victory was sure that only she could tell his shoulders were shaking with laughter.

“Shall we?” Guy asked. “I would be happy to lend you my sword, Lady.”

When she turned back to the two English gentlemen, Rob looked eager and Guy oozed amusement. She was getting the impression that this was their normal state of being. No wonder Reynolds was irritated with Guy, if all he did was goad Rob into foolhardy plans like challenging eight-hundred-year-old vampires to duels. “Just Victory is fine,” she said as they set off across the deck. “I have not been the lady Victory in a very long time.”

“So you were nobility?” Rob directed her to where they had set up the deck chairs, demarcating a clear area. Fencing kits and helmets spilled out of a couple large bags. He picked up two practice blades and offered them to Victory.

“Thanks,” she said, accepting a hilt in each hand. “And yes, once upon a time. I made a terrible choice in Roman husband. It didn’t last very long, but my name is still in the ledgers.” She rotated each wrist a few times, testing the heft and balance of the foils. “This will do, thank you.” She handed one of the swords back to Rob.

Guy stood to the side, holding up a fencing jacket and peering between it and Victory. This time his gaze was professional. Perhaps there was more to Guy than a pretty face. Victory revised her impression of him once again, and took a moment to study his build and muscles while he examined her.

To be fair, fencing was a human game. Werewolves asserted dominance in their bestial form, so it was probably Guy who had gotten Rob into fencing rather than the other way around. Though Rob would give Victory more of a fight in terms of speed and strength, Guy might present more a challenge if she kept her reactions at a human level, the way she sometimes sparred with Toria and Kane. “Problem?” she asked.

“This will fit, but it will hang off your shoulders and the long sleeves will be a hindrance,” Guy said.

Rob clapped his friend on the shoulder. “Nonsense, she’s a vampire.” He pulled on gloves and picked up his own foil. “We’ll be fine without all the fancy gear.”

Concern washed across Guy’s face before disappearing behind a pleasant smile. “Of course, sir,” he said.

Guy backed away, and Victory faced Rob down the makeshift salle. She returned his salute and dropped into an en guard position, mirroring the werewolf’s less poised position. It wouldn’t do to embarrass the head of the very important trade delegation. She should go easy on him.

The blunted tip of Rob’s foil flashed in the lights of the deck as he lunged at Victory. She ducked under his reach and flicked her own tip into the side of his wrist.

But not too easy. “Point,” she said.

She expected Rob to be put out at the quick end to the exchange, but he favored her with a wide grin. “Well done!” he said. They returned to their starting positions, but he paused. “Wait, so what is your title? Should I be referring to you as Master Victory? I don’t want to cause offense by being overly familiar.”

How sweet. She had no excuse to hide a laugh in a cough as Mikelos had, so she tamped down on her giggle. “Master is correct, in my position as vampire Master of the City of Limani and master rank in the Mercenary Guild, but really, it’s not necessary. I appreciate your concern.”

“Excellent,” Rob said. “Make note, Guy. We shouldn’t believe everything we hear from our elders. Not all vampires are snotty socialites concerned with rank and privilege.” He winked at her, and this time, Victory’s smile back was genuine. That was as adept a description of most Roman vampires as any.

“Or at least this one isn’t,” Guy said. He lounged in a deck chair, with arms and legs crossed. His smile at her was a bit more forced, but Victory decided not to be too put out. “Score one for the lady. Next bout.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Victory destroyed the lord. When it was nine points versus one pity point, not that the earl was aware, Rob admitted cheerful defeat. “I could keep going, but my ego is begging for a break. Up for a challenge, Guy?”

“Sure, let me suit up,” he said.

Rob dropped into the chair his friend vacated, but leaned forward to continue to converse with Victory while Guy dressed in full fencing gear and warmed up his muscles. “So I got the impression last night that you’ve been to Jiang Yi Yue before.”

Victory leaned against the deck railing and redid her loose braid to tie back the locks that had escaped during her bouts with Rob. “Not to Dongqu, but I have spent time in Qin proper.”

“Then perhaps you can tell me,” Rob said, “why old Ben keeps warning us to stay away from the ladies when we get there.”

Guy laughed, muffled in his fencing helmet. “Now, now, Rob. Ben just told us to be ‘respectful’ and ‘mindful of cultural differences.’” He mimed air quotes in addition to his sarcasm.

Victory tossed the hilt of her foil from one hand to the other. “That’s not such a bad idea, actually,” she said. “Qin culture is relatively egalitarian, placing more emphasis on ability over birthright than the British or Roman Empires. But there is an environment of respect toward women that is more restrictive than in Europa.” This was an aspect of Qin that she and Asaron had left out of their introduction to Qin lecture to Mikelos a few days ago. Then again, they hadn’t needed to worry about Mikelos going around seducing the wrong women.

And yet her words were going straight over these boys’ heads. Rob flicked a dismissive hand. “Got it. Don’t be too obvious.”

Pulling on his gloves, Guy walked to the end of the clear space and pointed his foil at Victory. “We shouldn’t have to be obvious,” he said. “We are two handsome, exotic men. I imagine the ladies of the court will be more than happy to entertain us.”

Part of Victory felt like she should warn them off now, before they got on the wrong side of someone’s well-placed father in Jiang Yi Yue. But it wasn’t her job to keep these two out of trouble—that was on poor Reynolds’ head.

This was the threat Xian was worried about? Two womanizing dandies, off on a great adventure.

Perhaps Xian had inside information on other members of the trade delegation, but from what Victory had seen at dinner the night before, they had looked more like clerks and bureaucrats, there to do the heavy lifting with Reynolds while Earl Robert Wallace took all the credit. And even Reynolds had seemed sincere about establishing new treaties.

Rob called the start of the bout, and although Victory kept her speed to human levels, she scored a point on Guy within seconds. This wasn’t a challenge either, but it was better than nothing.

This bodyguard detail was going to be even less of a challenge, and frankly, not at all worth her skills and pay rate. At this point, Mikelos’ excitement about playing in Jiang Yi Yue was what made of this worthwhile. But even with that knowledge, as the warm breeze of the Sapphire Sea caressed her bare arms, Victory wanted nothing more than to be back in Limani.

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