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Heart of Light
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Heart of Light

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Author: Sarah A. Hoyt
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2008
Series: Magical British Empire: Book 1

1. Heart of Light
2. Soul of Fire
3. Heart and Soul

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Set in a magical Victorian British Empire that never was, this unique fantasy blends adventure, intrigue, and romance, as a newlywed couple embark on a dangerous quest--and, in the process, discover their own heart's desires.

On a luxury magic carpetship in 1889, an English couple travel to Cairo for their honeymoon. Except for a brush with a dragon, the voyage is uneventful. But for Nigel Oldhall and his beautiful Indian-born bride, Emily, the holiday hides another purpose. Within hours of arriving in the teeming city, they are plunged into an extraordinary struggle among demons, murderers, and magic.

In Cairo, Nigel can no longer hide his secret from his wife: he is on a mission to rescue a ruby that will ensure Queen Victoria's hold on Africa forever. But the search has already swallowed up Nigel's older brother--and now it has put his own Emily in mortal danger. But is she the innocent Nigel imagines? Soon, separately and apart, the two will set off for the heart of the continent among conspirators and traitors, all seeking the ruby and the gifts and curses it offers them--and all of humankind....


The Wedding Night

"What is wrong?" Emily asked.

She sat, naked, on her bridal bed, the waves of her dark hair falling like a dusky veil over her golden shoulders and small breasts. Over it, wrapped around her, she clutched a multicolored flowered shawl, a legacy from her Indian grandmother.

Nigel, her husband of ten hours, stood at the foot of the bed, trying to arrange his blue dressing gown with shaking hands and only managing to twist it, so it hung askew and displayed a portion of his pale, muscular chest.

He had turned away from her, but she could see his face reflected in the full-length mirror. It showed a complexion splotched by sudden high color, pale blond hair on end where sweaty fingers had run through it again and again and gray-blue eyes animated with an odd passion and rimmed by red as if Nigel-Nigel!-were near tears.

Emily pulled her long legs up till her knees came right up to her pointed chin, and clutched her arms around them as she took a deep breath. It wasn't possible that Nigel would cry. Proper gentlemen didn't cry, and Nigel was as cool and collected as a gentleman could be.

"Have I done something?" Emily asked. Her voice wavered and trembled, sounding too childish in this sumptuous suite, all red velvet and heavy mahogany furniture. "Failed to do something?"

Nigel's back remained turned. He didn't seem to hear her. He was tying and untying his dressing gown as if it were the most important task in the world.

Emily wished to shout, to scream, to ask him what had happened and why. But proper young ladies didn't rail at their husbands. Instead, insecurity trembled in her voice as she said, "How did I fail you?"

"Fail?" Nigel's head jerked back at the word. He looked at her, startled, then quickly away.

"Mr. Oldhall," Emily said, making her voice as formal as she dared.

The family name, which she hadn't used since they'd become engaged, made him give her a look of undisguised horror. Emily felt blood rush to her cheeks, though she knew the blush would show only the color of sunset against her golden skin. "Nigel..."

Nigel pulled a packet of tobacco from a dressing gown pocket and a pipe from the other. "Yes?"

"No one ever told me what should happen on our marriage night." She paused. "My stepmother did tell me it was all worth it for the children, but..." Her voice floundered and she shook her head. "I have seen..." A deep breath to gather courage. "I was raised in my father's country house, Nigel. We had dogs and horses and..." desperately, trying to avoid being explicit, she said, "geese. And it seems to me the interaction between men and women cannot be all that different from what happens between... animals. Even horses and cats... and..." Deep breath. "Geese."

She glanced up to see Nigel staring at her, his mouth half-open, his face an odd mix of shock and amusement. Slowly, he turned and drew a long breath that echoed noisily in the room. Turning his back on her, he fumbled. She smelled tobacco and saw him, in the mirror, pushing shreds of it into the bowl of his pipe. He struck the flint to light the wick of his lighter, then lit his pipe and inhaled deeply. The lighter clicked closed and Nigel exhaled, a breath like a tremulous sigh forming a gray, aromatic cloud in the air in front of him. He put the lighter back in his pocket.

"I... I understand your disappointment," he said at last. He pulled a heavy draft from his pipe and expelled it in increasingly neater rings. "Emily, I do understand how in your innocence, you might believe something untoward has happened, or..." He cleared his throat, and a slight flush tinged his pale cheeks. "Or failed to happen, but... Emily, now that you are a wife, you should understand that marriage... isn't always perfect." He cleared his throat again. "There are moments when the body will not... obey the mind."

He smiled suddenly, but his smile vanished just as quickly, and it was only after another puff on the pipe that he managed to shape his mouth to his normal, aloof smile. "Don't let it disturb you, my dear. We're just both tired. The day started devilishly early with the wedding breakfast and... with the parties. You've been trotting too hard, my dear, and no mistake. Let's have a good night and then we'll... we'll both feel better in the morning."

He reached over to pat her arm, then strode toward the closed door between their two rooms. He'd no more than set his hand on the polished brass doorknob when the whole room shook.

Emily stopped, holding her breath. It had felt as though, three floors beneath them, the magic carpet that supported the luxury carpetship, cruising above the clouds toward Cairo, had fluttered unsteadily on some air current.

"It's just the magic field we're crossing," Nigel said. "Or the weather. I'm sure the flight magicians..."

But the curtains danced again and a rattle echoed through the ship, composed of stemware and crystal mage-light chandeliers colliding in liquid notes, crockery clashing down in the kitchen, and the groaning of wood in framing and floors and furniture. Emily clutched at the bedcovers. She remembered this noise-it bought back memories of her first trip to England. Every little current, every jolt had terrified Emily then. The ship had been all strange and scary. And her mama had been in her room, very ill, leaving no one but a cool English nurse to tell Emily not to be a goose.

But that trip had ended well. The carpetship had not fallen. Yes, Emily's mother had died six months after arriving in England, leaving Emily stranded in the midst of her father's family. But the carpetship had landed safely. She closed her eyes and willed the ship to keep flying.

The carpetship trembled again, harder. Every window frame rattled. Every bed bucked. The support beams mounted on the carpet and holding up kitchens, ballrooms, parlors and passenger rooms twisted and groaned like a dying beast.

Emily opened her eyes and caught a moment of panic in Nigel's expression. He grabbed for the bed to steady himself. The ship rattled again and started a ponderous half-roll, throwing Nigel against a green-velvet sofa. Emily barely managed to hold on to the bed, whispering prayers to a divinity in which she very much wished to believe.

With a groan of stressed lumber, the carpetship started rolling the other way. Nigel held on to the sofa, his panic no longer hidden. His lips were moving, and she supposed he must be saying words, but no sound reached her over the creaks and groans and sharp sounds of breaking glass and pottery.

Horns sounded, magically amplified, alerting everyone on the ship to the danger. This meant they should seek the lifeboats outside, on the deck. It meant the carpetship was falling. Falling through the dark night sky to the cold ocean far below them.

Nigel's hand was on her arm and Emily opened her eyes, without realizing she had ever closed them. Nigel was very pale, holding on to the headboard of the bed with one hand and on to her with the other. His lips moved, but only a word here and there emerged above the shrilling distress of the alarms. "Madam," and "sensible," and, she would swear to it, "decent."

Emily was sensible of her need to be decent; sensible of the fact that she was naked and clutching only a flowered shawl. Her panicked mind told her she would die naked, her shamelessly nude body washed ashore in some foreign land.

And then she realized Nigel was dressing her. He had somehow gotten hold of her white dressing gown embroidered with green sprigs and was attempting to pull her hand up from the bed.

Clinging, frightened, one hand clawing at his shoulder, Emily forced her other hand to let go of the bedcovers and to allow Nigel to put it into a sleeve. He was murmuring at her, but she could get no more than a general feel of comfort and an attempt to calm her. She clutched at him and allowed him to slide her other arm into another sleeve. And then he was tying her belt firmly and pulling her up, still talking.

"Must," she heard him say before the words submerged in other sounds. And then "safety."

She rolled from the bed, with Nigel gripping her. Safety meant the lifeboats-mounted on smaller flying rugs tethered to the side of the ship. Each of them would take ten travelers apiece and lead them, unerringly, to the nearest patch of terra firma.

Fumbling, she and Nigel scrambled, holding each other, toward the French doors that opened from Emily's room onto the deck. They held on to furniture in passing, and Emily had a moment of gratitude that every piece was firmly bolted to the floor.

Nigel struggled to open the door, kicked it open and yelled, "Go, go, go," propelling her through the open door to the deck outside.

The Royal Were-Hunters

Emily stepped out the door and onto the polished mahogany of the deck. "The boats!" Nigel yelled above the din. "No one has pulled in the lifeboats!"

Emily looked across the deck where bedlam had been unleashed in the form of half-dressed-or hardly dressed at all-men and women of all ages. Emily's dressing gown was positively proper compared to many of the people who were rushing about in their underthings; one young, disheveled woman was clutching a sheet to her otherwise naked body and shrieking in fear. One of the gentlemen nearby wore his hat, his gloves, and his underwear and seemed perfectly composed, until one realized he was strolling about pointing with his cane and giving orders to no one.

On the other side of the deck, past the frightened throng, a glass partition six feet tall and composed of small glass panes protected passengers and crew from otherwise deadly flight...

Copyright © 2008 by Sarah A. Hoyt


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