Genre: Steampunk Fantasy
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Human life has value.
The poor living in the gutter are as valuable as the rich living in a manor.
The scoundrel is no less valuable than the saint.
Because of this, every life a reaper takes must be redeemed.
Raven has lived by this first tenet since she was trained by her father to become a reaper. But since his death, she’s been spending years redeeming the lives she’s taken. By her count, she’s even and it’s time for that life to end. If she settles down and becomes a wife, she might just feel human again. But on the way to the life she thinks she wants, the baron of New Haven asks her to complete a task which she cannot ignore… Just when Raven decides to give up on her life as an assassin, she’s pulled right back in.
Pauline Creeden is an award-winning author, horse trainer, and overall book ninja. She becomes the main character in each of her stories, and because she has ADD, she will get bored if she pretends to be one person for too long.
Armored Hearts, her joint effort with author Melissa Turner Lee, has been awarded the Crowned Heart for Excellence by InDtale Magazine. It is also the 2013 Book Junkie’s Choice Winner in Historical Fiction. Her debut novel, Sanctuary, won 1st Place Christian YA Title 2013 Dante Rosetti Award and 2014 Reader’s Choice Gold Award for Best YA Horror Novel.
The fishmonger’s scream broke through the chattering crowd on the bridge. He jumped into the river to avoid an out-of-control carriage pulled by a polished brass automated horse. Steam poured from the nostrils of the metal horse and leaked from its joints in an unnatural manner. Its black lacquer carriage careened on two wheels through the turn onto the bridge before righting itself. Wires shot out of the neck of the metal coachman where the head should have been. The reins in its limp, useless hands were slack and whipping against the horse’s metal flank.
Raven jumped to the rail, moving out of the way of the crowd as they stampeded toward her. She gripped the lamppost and her reaper training kicked in. No fear. Breathe deeply. Think ahead. Make quick decisions.
The black lacquer carriage squeezed between the bridge railings, and the oak boards of the narrow footbridge splintered apart as though they were balsa wood. The railing to the left gave free another meter and the automated horse jerked in that direction.
In a quick, natural motion, Raven unsnapped her crossbow and felt through the quiver attached at her thigh for the right bolt. Pulling the wire from her belt’s winch, she hooked it to the arrow, pointed it at the wooden post of the gas lamp standing closest to the carriage, and pulled the trigger.
For a moment, the heavy metal horse hung over the edge with the carriage wedged between portions of broken railing. The horse’s brass legs still poured steam as they struggled in the air, creating the eerie sound of scraping metal. Gouges raked along the black side of the carriage as it inched its way toward the river. A small hand pressed against the window. The door surged past the railing and swung open. The body of a young boy tumbled out. He hung from the door handle with his fingertips. A gasp and a few screams filled the air behind her.
A female voice shrieked, “It’s the young baron!”
Adrenaline coursed through her veins, and Raven leapt toward the boy—toward the river. She fell in a controlled arc, the wind pulling her long hair as taut as the line from her belt. The carriage broke free from the bridge a moment before she reached it. She thumbed her winch to release more line and grabbed the boy in a full embrace. The cold water enveloped them.
The sudden change in temperature forced the air from her lungs, but she held it in as they darted below the surface. Her submerged body jerked to a stop as the line reached an end. The boy’s forehead struck her in the temple. Saltwater burned her eyes, and stars danced in her vision. Bubbles of air escaped her lips.
The boy went limp in her arms. She gripped him tightly in one arm and hit the rewind lever on the winch. She grabbed the line, and it wrenched her toward the light above. Streaks of her long, black hair stuck to her face as she emerged from the river. She released her breath and gripped the line. The winch pulled her toward the bridge, and the crowd above applauded. Gasping, Raven struggled with the sudden, heavier weight of the boy, struggling to hold him until they reached the top of the bridge. The line cut into her hand and her arm muscles ached.
Her tall black boots squished against the side of the bridge as they were pulled steadily up. She pushed off a tarred pylon to make it over the lip before the cable pulled them against the railing. The winch slowed when it neared the top. She reached up with her free hand and grabbed the crossbow bolt. With a flick of her thumb, she depressed the lever and the grappling hooks withdrew. After pulling the hook free of her line, she replaced the bolt in her quiver. A slow zipping sound continued as the winch on her belt drew in the cable. She allowed hands from the crowd pull the boy from her grasp. She blinked the saltwater from her eyes, her vision still blurred, her muscles quivering.
Four armed guards and one skinny man in a bowtie surrounded the boy she’d hauled to the surface, shooing away the people. Two other guards stepped forward to hold back the crowd.
With a sputter and a cough, the boy retched water from his lungs. The tension in Raven’s chest relaxed. She smiled and attempted to step toward him, but a vice-like grip took hold of her arm. Her fingertips twitched; she was ready to grab the knife on her hip and fight her way out, if necessary. The hard faces of two guards stared down at her. She could smack one in the jaw with the back of her head, and when he loosened his grip, throw a punch at the other. The taste of escape grew bitter on her tongue when she considered the surrounding crowd. She made a count of the collateral damage and clenched her jaw. The last thing she needed were more kills on her conscience, more lives to redeem herself for. With a deep sigh, she remained still.
The man in the bowtie held the wet boy to his chest. His cold blue eyes pierced hers. He pointed and said, “Arrest her.”
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