Chances are you’ve realized by now that we are more than a little obsessed with HEART OF IRON, the Anastasia-in-space retelling we never knew we needed, but passionately love now that we have it. It’s also the latest release from GEEKERELLA author Ashley Poston, and has pretty much everything we could ever ask for. Daring heists! Page-turning action! A rag-tag band of space pirates! And the cast of characters is so good that we literally cannot decide who is our favorite.
Not to mention twists that straight up SHOOK US TO OUR CORE.
Intrigued? You should be. HEART OF IRON comes out February 27th, but you can get a head start and
fall in love with read the first three chapters right now!
Nine hundred and ninety-nine candles lit the Iron Shrine.
Ana curved a crescent moon across her chest—in honor of the Goddess she didn’t believe in—to disguise tucking three coppers from the offering tray into her burgundy coat.
Di gave her a long look as he sat in the pew beside her.
“What? It’s called an investment,” she told her best friend. “Don’t give me that look.”
Di—short for the serial number D09 inscribed at the nape of his neck—gave a human-looking shrug. His voice sounded like garbled static from a damaged voice box. “I am not sure what you are referring to.”
“The judgy one you’re giving me right now.”
“I am incapable of giving looks.”
“Says the Metal giving me a look.” She shifted uncomfortably, and then sighed. “Fine. I’ll go put the money back when we leave.”
“Do not be chivalrous on my account,” he said in his monotonous, staticky voice. If he had emotions, she thought he would’ve said it dryly—like a joke.
As if he could tell one, she thought, amused.
He sat forward, elbows on his knees. His hood was pulled low to disguise the slats and plates that made up his face, without a nose or ears or eyebrows. He was more dented than other Metals, having fallen through mine shafts on Cerces and been shot at by mercenaries on Iliad. She felt bad for a particular ding on his forehead, but she had apologized a thousand times for accidentally running him over with a skysailer.
He still refused to let her drive.
An abbess passed down the almost-empty aisle. Ana could hear her humming a sad, lonely hymn from The Cantos of Light as she swung a thurible, carrying with it the heavy scent of moonlilies. At the head of the shrine stood the statue of the Moon Goddess, seven men high, her arms outstretched as she looked to some distant point in the domed ceiling, where murals of the Moon Goddess’s story, the kingdom of shadows and the girl of light, were painted. The entire space station of Nevaeh felt empty in the shrine, as if the world only existed between the alabaster pillars and stained-glass trappings, so quiet she could hear the electric hum of Di’s wires and functions, as soft and soothing as a song.
She figured most of the kingdom’s citizens were at home or at the pub, glued to their holo-pads and newsfeeds. Today, the Grand Duchess would choose her heir—and the thirtieth Emperor of the Iron Kingdom.
So naturally, with everyone distracted, it was a good day for a heist.
As the abbesses in their shimmery silver robes roamed the aisles, two older women scooted into the pews a few rows up. “May the stars kep us steady, and the iron keep us safe,” they murmured as they drew crescent shapes across their chests and sat. One of them had a mechanical hand—a sign that she had been infected with the Plague twenty years ago.
The woman’s friend glanced back to Ana, and gave a start. “Goddess save me,” she said in a hushed whisper to her friend, “I think a Metal is behind us. Do you think it’s HIVE’d? I hope it’s HIVE’d.”
The HIVE was the Iron Kingdom’s way of dealing with misbehaving, or rogue, Metals. Instead of imprisonment, the kingdom stripped Metals of their free will and assimilated them. Then, with them obedient and unthinking, the kingdom used them as guard dogs—Messiers.
The woman with the mechanical hand looked back, too, before quickly turning around again. “No, its eyes aren’t blue.”
“They all give me the chills. To think our Iron Adviser created them to help people, and then they go and do that dreadful thing seven years ago.”
“Not all of them are bad.”
“Please. It probably gave that girl those scars, poor thing. They should all be HIVE’d—they’re unpredictable.”
So were humans, Solani, and Cercians, but the kingdom didn’t try to control their minds.
They’d probably feel differently then, Ana thought, absently pulling a pendant out from under her collar and tracing her thumb around it. Her good luck charm. She’d had it for as long as she could remember, a dragon or a snake molded into an open circle. Once, it might have been a fancy brooch, but whatever had burned the left side of her face had also melted the brooch. She wished she could remember who gave it to her—she always felt safe with it on—but her head ached every time she tried.
Captain Siege had found her and Di in an escape pod in the wreckage of a cargo ship. It had been set upon by mercenaries. No survivors—except for them. She didn’t even have pictures of her parents, and her own appearance didn’t give her any clues. She had warm bronze skin and wide golden-brown eyes, full lips, and a heart-shaped face. Her hair was as dark as space itself, but it always curled into tangles. She wore it atop her head in a long braid and shaved the sides. She was moderately tall, solidly built for a life of evading death at every turn, and wore hand-me-down coats like the red one she wore now and darned trousers that never fit right. She looked like a girl from any part of the Iron Kingdom—and nowhere all at once.
She loved the crew of the Dossier, Captain Siege’s ship. They were her home. But Di was her only family—her best friend—and if it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be suffering in this stuffy shrine, listening to old ladies who couldn’t mind their own business.
Di glanced over to her as she rubbed her thumb and forefinger around and around the melted circle pendant.
“You are nervous,” he said.
“Am not,” she lied, but when he flicked his eyes down to her pendant, she dropped it back underneath her shirt and admitted, “Maybe a little. I wish I could be more like you. Not programmed for emotions. To have a clear head. It sounds great sometimes, you know?”
“I am unsure. I know nothing else.” He flicked his white-eyed gaze to her. “If you are nervous, then we could leave—”
“But the captain did not want us to pursue—”
“The captain didn’t want us to come because Mokuba did her over on the last deal,” she interrupted, lowering her voice as an abbess walked by. “And I’m not going to pass up this opportunity just because some two-bit information broker screwed Siege out of a few coppers. We’re running out of time. We have to fix your memory core—your glitches are getting worse.”
“I have had them since we were found by the Dossier. They are not so bad—”
“You glitched for three hours last night.”
“But I rebooted,” he replied simply, and she wanted to throttle him.
“And what happens when you glitch hard enough you can’t reboot? The mechanic on Iliad said you’re getting worse, and your memory core won’t just magically heal itself.”
“Could we not simply pay the info broker instead of stealing the coordinates?”
“If we had that sort of money, I wouldn’t be stealing from offering trays, Di.”
His moonlit gaze—optics blazing in his eye sockets, looking like tiny stars—bored into her and almost made her feel guilty. Almost.
“Besides, we’re not stealing it from Mokuba. You never steal from your info broker—that’s bad business. We’re stealing it from the Ironblood he’s selling to,” she went on. “Some rich kid isn’t going to do one over on us.”
“I am more worried about the captain. She frowns on outside jobs.”
Ana rolled her eyes. “Di, we live on a ship that pirates other ships, transports illegal goods, hunts lost treasures, escorts Ilidian underground kingpins—”
“—The captain promised we would never do that again—”
“—and smuggles weapons. We don’t have job descriptions, except for being outside the laws. And hey!” She held up her hands. “We’re outside them. So stop worrying so much.”
“My worrying keeps us alive.”
“Your worrying is giving me a headache. This is worth it, Di. Trust me.” She reached for his gloved hand and squeezed it tightly—more of a comfort to her than him. As the medic on the Dossier, Di’s hands had stitched her up more times than she could count. “If these coordinates lead to your creator’s lost fleetship? We won’t need another fix. The Adviser’s lab was destroyed in the Rebellion seven years ago—nothing survived. Except this ship. The Tsarina. Which might happen to hold a key to fixing you. Maybe a spare memory core. Maybe an empty Metal to transfer you into—something. Anything.”
“But I rather like this body.”
“Even the dent?” She grinned, her gaze straying to the light scuff on the corner of his forehead.
“We do not talk about the dent.” The slats around his mouth rippled into a frown. “Ana, the likelihood these coordinates lead to the Tsarina is dubious at best.”
“It’s called hope, Di.”
“The probability of this hope of yours is point-oh-four percent.”
“But there is hope,” she pointed out, and knocked her shoulder against his—
Movement caught her eye. A tall, burly gentleman in a stained long coat and trousers, the seams frayed and boots greasy.
She’d know his curly peppery-gray hair anywhere—Mokuba.
He was moving down the far side of the shrine, against the mosaic windows, away from her, until he was completely obscured behind the pillars.
She leaned forward to get a better view.
Between the marble pillars, the buyer in question shook hands with Mokuba. He glanced over his shoulder, and piercing sky-blue eyes peered out from beneath his dark hood as he quickly surveyed the shrine. He was definitely an Ironblood, she could tell by that ridiculously lavish coat. Blue, with floral embroidery along the cuffs and collar, the buttons so polished they blinded. And he carried a lightsword on his back. Well dressed and well armed. Not a combination she saw often.
Except the poor Ironblood probably didn’t know how to use the sword.
“Okay, Di, now’s our chance,” she whispered, easing herself to her feet slowly, so as not to attract attention. But Di didn’t go with her. “Di?”
She glanced over.
He stared straight ahead, elbows almost touching his knees, as if he’d been beginning to rise to his feet but time froze before he could. His moonlit eyes flickered like a lightning storm.
“Goddess’s spark,” she muttered, earning a scathing look from the elderly ladies in front of them. She grabbed him by his coat sleeve. Tried to shake him—but it was like trying to budge a six-foot all-titanium boulder.
The Ironblood and Mokuba were departing now in opposite directions. If she didn’t go after that Ironblood now, she’d lose him.
Panic crawled up the back of her throat, tasting sharp. “Di, I’ll be right b—”
With a crack, the heavy shrine doors flung wide.
She ducked instinctively, turning back toward the entrance. A skysailer landed just outside. The gust from its wings roared into the shrine, blowing out the candles that lined the Goddess’s outstretched arms and the chandeliers overhead.
A patrol of six Messiers appeared in the doorway. They were sharp, metallic. Made of planes and slats she knew well, because they looked like D09. Like Metals.
Because once, they had been.
Now HIVE’d, the Messiers’ blue eyes blazed like virtue incarnate. They moved in unison, their blue-and-black uniforms pristine, shined boots making solid thumps on the masonry floor as they marched into the shrine.
Cursing, Ana took Di by the shoulder and with all her might shoved him onto the floor so the Messiers couldn’t see him, and covered him with her body. She and Di were wanted in at least twelve different districts across the Iron Kingdom, never mind Cerces. She was sure the entire mining planet had them on a watch list.
Goddess-spitting rotten luck, she thought, pressing her forehead against Di’s unmoving cheek. If the Ironblood bolted she’d never catch up to him.
“We pardon the intrusion,” the head Messier said, its Metal voice pleasant and melodic—how Di’s should have sounded if it hadn’t been damaged years ago.
Another Messier—she could tell from the brief pause—went on, “But we are looking for one—”
“Mokuba Jyen,” finished a third.
They completed one another’s sentences, since they were all part of the HIVE mind, and the effect was so eerie it made her shiver.
Why were Messiers after Mokuba? How in the blasted Dark had they tracked him down? Mokuba was the best at what he did—he never left a trail.
Are they after the coordinates, too? she thought, alarmed. How did they know he had them?
“Come on, Di,” she muttered, knowing he could hear her.
Hoping, at least. Hoping he could work through this glitch.
She didn’t want to think about what would happen if he couldn’t. She didn’t have time to worry whether this glitch was his last.
The Messiers passed her aisle, moving toward the towering statue at the front, and she slowly got onto her knees to peer over the pew in front of her. One of the abbesses—the only one not petrified by the Messiers’ entrance—shuffled up to greet them.
On the other side of the shrine, still inching toward the side exit, was the Ironblood with the coordinates chip she needed.
She waited another moment, hoping Di could fight through his glitch, as the abbess pointed to Mokuba, who shifted nervously in the corner of the shrine.
Think, Ana, she told herself, exhaling a calming breath, tuning out the whispers from the other worshippers—and especially the crones in front of her—trying to think of what to do. Maybe she could sneak after the Ironblood and—
But Mokuba will be arrested and sent to the mines on Cerces, her guilty heart reminded her. And she had heard enough about those mines from the crew on the Dossier to know Mokuba would die there.
Goddess blast her conscience.
She reached into her coat, hoping she’d brought at least one of Riggs’s flashbangs in her mad dash off the Dossier this morning. Her fingers wrapped around a small oval canister, and she brought it out, thumb slipping under the pin.
At least she had a little luck.
“Di, don’t move,” she told her glitching Metal.
The Messiers reached for the shiny Lancasters at their hips. “Mokuba Jyen. You are under arrest for—”
She flicked out the pin and jumped to her feet.
“Hey, spacetrash!” she shouted, and the Messiers turned in unison.
Giving it a good-luck kiss, she lobbed the flash grenade high into the air. It arced across the domed ceiling—and exploded in a dazzling blast of solar white. With a wail, the blast from the grenade blew out the candles, the smell of burned wicks sweeping through the shrine.
His mother always said he longed for trouble.
It was never a compliment. She said it while looking down the bridge of her nose, her mouth too refined to snarl, like the time he invited “special” entertainers to his brother’s coming-of-age party, only to find the house burgled the next morning and the topiary bushes crudely defiled. She said it when the headmaster at the most prestigious Ironblood private school, the Academy of Iron and Light—the Academy for short—busted him for running a perfectly reasonable gambling den underneath the school. And the time he challenged Viera Carnelian to a duel in only their knickers on the rooftop of the dorms . . .
Robb Valerio did long for trouble—
But this . . . was not the kind of trouble he liked.
The flashbang brought tears to his eyes. Disoriented, he caught himself on a stone pillar, blinking. Spots danced in his vision as candle smoke filled the shrine.
Goddess-spitting rotten luck, he thought, rubbing his eyes.
In the middle of the aisle, the Messiers pressed back against one another, their vision resetting. That was smart, to trick Metal optics with a flashbang and use the blowback to wipe out the candles. Assuming it was on purpose.
It probably wasn’t.
The shrine was almost completely dark now, the only light the colorful streams coming through the mosaic windows.
He blindly took another step back toward the side exit. Almost there. Then he could call for his skysailer and ride it off into the sunset like nothing had happened.
The coordinates chip in his pocket felt heavy, weighed down by all the years he’d been searching for Lord Rasovant’s lost fleetship. He couldn’t lose it now. He had somewhere to go—somewhere to find answers. After seven years of searching, he deserved them.
The person who must have thrown the flashbang was grabbing Mokuba by the hand. Tattered burgundy coat, a Metroid at her hip, long black hair in a renegade braid, and looking like she hadn’t bathed in a week—the girl must’ve been an outlaw.
With Mokuba in tow, she turned to pursue the person with the coordinates—him.
Yeah, he needed to leave like three seconds ago.
Pressing the comm-link pinned to his lapel, he snapped, “Ride. I need a ride!” and made a mad dash for the side exit.
Ten feet, five—
A shadowy figure stepped in front of him, hood pulled low. Robb collided with it—a brick wall would’ve had more give—and stumbled back, holding his nose.
“Goddess!” he cried in pain.
The figure raised its head slightly, white eyes gleaming.
A chill curled down his spine. A rogue Metal, of all the things. Its soulless gaze flickered toward Robb’s hand inching toward the lightsword on his back, as if daring him. For a moment, he actually hesitated. The Metal could break his arms in two moves if it wanted to.
I’ll chance it.
With a cry, he reached for his sword—
The girl tackled him from behind and slammed both him and the Metal into the door. It gave a groan and swung outward onto a staircase and into the grimy alleyway. He grappled for the railing, trying to catch his footing, but his ankle bent. He tumbled down the steps, striking his head against the cement.
The world split with pain and he gasped, gagging on his own breath.
Beside him lay the girl—the one who’d thrown the flashbang. Mokuba rushed down the steps, the Metal bending the door handles inward so the Messiers couldn’t follow.
Robb rolled onto his knees, world spinning, and pulled himself to his feet. His head pounded. He wanted to vomit.
Worth it, it’s worth it, he tried to convince himself as he heard the sound of a skysailer drawing closer. His ride. He reached his hand up, higher, higher—
“Stop!” the girl cried, standing quickly. “I need those coordinates!”
The skysailer broke over the buildings. It came in low, tilting sideways.
“No hard feelings,” he told her as one of his family’s guards leaned out and took him by the hand as the ship passed, its fanlike wings almost scraping the ground.
The girl screamed for him to wait—why, so the Messiers would catch him too? Great Dark strike him, he’d rather not.
The guard heaved him into the skysailer and banked the boat upward, so sharply Robb’s head spun. He lay down on the backseats, trying to keep from vomiting.
“We’re late to your brother’s announcement ceremony, sir,” said the guard. He was older, with a graying mustache, the most loyal to Robb’s late father—and more loyal with a sack of coppers to keep him from tattling to Robb’s mother. “Your mother will not be pleased.”
“I’ve got my entire life to kiss my brother’s ass when he’s crowned Emperor. I think I can be late to one more party,” he muttered, fishing in his coat pocket for the coordinates chip Mokuba had sold him. He held it toward the skylight, its insides sparkling green.
The guard eased into Nevaeh’s flying traffic. Skysailers zoomed past them, the sound of the congested airwaves enough to drown out his thundering heart. “What shall the excuse to Lady Valerio be this time, sir?” asked the guard.
Once, a Solani who claimed she could read the stars had told Robb that his silver tongue would be his undoing, and he took that as a compliment. Lying was an art form. He simply had perfected it.
“I was paying my respects to the Goddess,” he replied, and curled his fingers around the coordinates chip as the skysailer rose toward his family’s floating guarden in Nevaeh’s man-made sky.
The skysailer with that stupid Ironblood climbed into the air, leaving a cold feeling in Ana’s gut. There went Di’s last chance, disappearing into the Nevaeh sky right before her eyes.
Behind her, the shrine’s side door buckled out with the force of the Messiers on the other side.
Di pressed his back against the door to keep it closed. He must have stopped glitching after she lobbed the flashbang.
“That door won’t hold,” Mokuba said nervously, taking her by the arm. “Kid, you gotta get out of here before they break through. If they catch you or your Metal, then Siege’ll skin me alive. You were stupid to come after those coordinates. I told you no to begin with—”
“I have to!” She twisted out of Mokuba’s grip. “Di, we need to call Jax.”
“On his way,” Di replied.
She gave a relieved sigh. “Goddess, I’m glad you didn’t glitch long.”
“My”—Thud! The door shook again—“apologies.”
“Kid, don’t go after it,” Mokuba begged. “It’s cursed. People have died for those coordinates. You don’t understand. This whole thing is—”
A lightsword sliced through the door beside Di’s head. He ducked out of the way, but not quick enough before it tore through half of his hood.
Sweat prickled on Mokuba’s upper lip. “Ana, you have to run.”
“Now,” the info broker snapped. His black eyes were frightened and desperate. She had never seen Mokuba like this before. “Siege’ll kill me if anything happens to you.”
“What’ll you do?”
Alarmed, she shook her head. “They’ll catch you. They’ll—”
The Messiers kicked the door open, and it fell outward with a terrifying crash.
Hurtling over the railing, Di landed at the bottom of the stairs and curled his cold gloved hand around her wrist. He pulled her down the grimy alleyway before she had a chance to argue, leaving Mokuba to face the Messiers alone.
Well, what did you think?! Are you prepared to become the level of certified space trash that we are? Tell us in the comments below!