Wine-dark sea? No, the water was black as tar when the Kestrel crashed into it.
The storm came up so suddenly, they might have hit a wall. It proved too massive for the airship to try to fly around, or over—it could only ascend so high, and the storm reached higher. They stayed aloft as long as they could with a torn bladder and damaged engine, searching for some spit of sand to alight on. The lightning seemed to flash green around them. They jettisoned all the ballast well before they finally hit the water. But they managed to reach that spit of sand.
The wreckage spread out for a mile along the beach. The bladder’s fabric was shredded; the gondola was smashed, scattering wooden spars and brass bands, hooks and rails, cabinets and boxes.
Come daylight, Harry sat exhausted on the sand looking over it all. She might have been Maud, Princess of Wales and granddaughter to Queen Victoria, but the storm didn’t care. A slight breeze played with her hair, which had come loose from its bun. Her clothing was dry, but stiffened with salt water, and her shirt was ripped on one shoulder. She needed to salvage what she could—instruments, food, water, rope, weapons.
During the crash, she had kept hold of two things: the strongbox containing the Aetherian artifacts they’d collected, and Marlowe. The only things that mattered. She turned back to the rough shelter she’d been able to erect, where the injured man lay.
She had not seen the exact moment it had happened, whether he’d been struck by flying debris or had fallen. He’d been at the helm, leaning his whole body to the wheel to keep the rudder up, to keep them airborne against the hellish wind. She’d been working the pumps by hand after the engines died, trying to put more gas into the bladders. Then the whole gondola turned upside down—
And they plummeted.
Now, Marlowe lay on a still-damp stretch of grass—the best Harry had been able to do for him. She’d bound the wound on his head and was fairly sure the bleeding had stopped, but he still hadn’t woken. She didn’t think he had any broken bones or worse injuries, but she couldn’t be sure—and why wouldn’t he regain consciousness? His breathing was shallow; his hands were cold. He needed water. He needed a hospital. Alas, they were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Somewhere.
“Marlowe,” she whispered, touching his face. “Do wake up. Please.”
His lips pursed, and he moaned a little, which was such a vast improvement that she smiled. Harry squeezed his hand, then went to find water.
• • • •
She made three trips along the beach, each time hauling armloads of detritus back to the shelter. Using lengths of torn fabric from the bladder, she created a lean-to to keep the sun and further rain off Marlowe. Using wrecked timbers, she built a fire.
She found a machete and a utility knife, a waterlogged rifle that might or might not be salvageable, a compass, a tin cup, a shattered bottle of brandy, and two semaphore flags—the ones for “negative” and the letter “C.” She did not find either of the two casks of drinking water they’d kept aboard the Kestrel, but she did find some fruit growing nearby. It would serve. She cut up and mashed several papaya into a cup and produced some liquid, which she brought to Marlowe’s cracked lips.
“Marlowe, just a sip. You must drink something.”
He made that small, ill moan again, with a slight working of his lips. She poured a few drops past them, and he seemed to swallow. He let out a sigh, took another breath, and another.
• • • •
Harry piled together surviving pieces of Aetherian machinery from the Kestrel. Remains of the wireless transmitter were among them. She did not know if there was enough left to repair. The maps were gone, not that she would have been able to find their location if she’d had them. They had been en route from Honolulu to Shanghai, a long but relatively straightforward ocean passage. The storm had blown them hundreds of miles off course. They could be anywhere, and were very likely far out of reach of any passing ships, aerial or marine.
Marlowe grew feverish. Harry changed the bandages on his head. The wound was black and crusted, and she longed for fresh water to clean it with. She ought to move inland, to search for a spring.
On the second morning, she went to the beach and found footprints that were not her own. The person who’d made them appeared to have come down from the jungle and walked some ways along the sand, stopping in several places to survey the wreckage. The owner of the prints had a small foot, a long stride. Harry immediately set about dismantling and cleaning the rifle, but she feared it was useless. The charging cartridge was drained and the circuitry corroded with salt water. The thing was meant to be weather proof, not waterproof. Not that a conventional gunpowder rifle would have survived the crash, but one might have hoped the Aetherian-derived weapon would hold up a bit better.
She buried the strongbox containing the artifacts she and Marlowe had collected over the last months. Their prizes. The mound of sand marking the spot was nestled among the roots at the base of a palm tree. They would be safe there, she hoped.
She surveyed what she could of the island from the beach. It didn’t seem terribly large, but a tall, conical volcano occupied the middle of it, likely dormant given the dense green jungle climbing to its peak. Each afternoon, clouds gathered around it like airships coming to rest, and a brief rain fell. She collected some of the rainwater and gave it to Marlowe to drink; it was not enough.
In other circumstances she would be eager to explore, but those footprints had given her the feeling of being under siege.
• • • •
On the afternoon after Harry had first found the footprints, Marlowe blinked to wakefulness for a short time.
“Marlowe!” She rushed to his side, fell into the grass, and took his hand.
He squinted at her. “You’re blurry,” he murmured.
“You’ve been badly hurt.”
“That explains it . . .”
“Don’t move, please rest.”
“Where are we?”
“I don’t know. An island.”
“Harry . . .”
“Just rest, that’s all you need do at the moment. I’ll take care of us.”
He fell unconscious again. The skin of his face blazed with heat. His hairline was dampened with sweat.
She was able to make something resembling a water bladder from a salvaged leather aeronaut coat; then, collecting her weaponry, she set off into the trees, searching for fresh water.
• • • •
Harry found a shallow, mossy pool filled with ground water that probably seeped up through the surrounding volcanic rock. Tediously, she strained moss and dirt from the pool through fabric torn from her shirt, and collected it in the leather coat. A gallon or two, perhaps. She knotted the top closed, and walked very carefully back to keep from dropping the awkward load.
While she had not seen any sign of other people during her trek, she imagined she was being watched. She didn’t breathe easy again until she saw Marlowe and confirmed that he was alone and alive.
Finally she could give him plenty of water and clean what she could of the wound, which didn’t bleed but had swollen alarmingly, becoming bruised and purplish. The fever was worse, and he murmured deliriously about someone named Richard, who must be furious, and how he would never go back. She prompted him, trying to learn more—trying to draw a coherent phrase from him. “Who is Richard? Why is he furious?”
He replied, “They can think what they like of me, for I am most ashamed of them,” and then slipped into another wracked sleep.
“Oh, Marlowe, I don’t know what to do,” she said, resting a hand on his arm, scrubbing a soreness from her eyes. She lay down—just for a moment, just to rest—and fell asleep slumped partway on Marlowe’s bed of grass, her head pillowed near his shoulder.
• • • •
The third day dawned, and though she did not want to attract the attention of whoever lived there, she resolved to set the whole mountain on fire if it would draw possible rescue to them.
She knelt by Marlowe’s pallet and set another damp cloth on his head. He didn’t wake, not even a little, and wouldn’t swallow the water she offered.
“Marlowe?” She leaned her head on his shoulder as she choked on a sob. “Please, stay with me,” she murmured.
She didn’t hear it when the intruders approached, their steps on the sand careful and silent. They came up the beach, enough of them to form a crowd around the edge of her camp.
At least, it seemed like a crowd to her addled mind. In truth, there were only six or seven, but she couldn’t seem to take them all in. They filled the space around her.
Grabbing the rifle, she took a defensive stance over Marlowe’s pallet. The motion had an air of desperation to it, and her voice came out more panicked than she’d intended. “Back! Stay back!” She belatedly remembered the rifle didn’t work, but perhaps they wouldn’t realize that.
A woman from the group stepped forward, her hand out in a universal gesture of calm. Harry’s heart raced; she was not calm.
The strangers were brown-skinned, of Polynesian extraction, with black hair, long and full—even the men’s. They had broad noses, dark eyes. Several were stocky, with powerful bodies; others were lean and graceful. They wore robes of a light woven fabric, in dark blues and reds, batik printed.
They would kill both her and Marlowe in short order, she was sure. She’d failed, very decidedly.
“Get away from us,” Harry muttered.
The woman spoke in a language Harry had never heard before. Harry wet her lips and shook her head. The woman tried again, monosyllables. Harry didn’t lower the rifle; it was all she had.
Several of them, including the woman, held staves of some kind. They were metallic, pale bronze, with a texture that twisted around itself, as if cast in the shape of vines. At the heads were a crystalline structure, facets held in place by wires, and within those facets glowed a haunting green light, otherworldly and very familiar.
Here, at the farthest corner of the globe, an Aetherian component Harry had never before seen.
Then the woman said, “Parlez-vous francais?”
Harry let out a shocked burst of laughter. “Oui. Oui, je parle francais.” Some of the islands in the region were French colonies. Of course.
The woman smiled gently.
Harry’s cheeks burned with tears. “Au secours. Please. We need help.”
She gestured back to Marlowe, and in so doing dropped the rifle, then fell to her knees. She simply couldn’t stand any longer.
• • • •
The next few hours were strange. Two of the woman’s companions went to Marlowe’s side, and Harry’s instinctive reaction was to pull them away, to protect him. But as she well knew, there was nothing she could do.
The woman knelt by Harry and said, “It’s all right. We will help.”
Harry stared at the glowing head of the woman’s staff. It pulsed, green charges passing along intricate wires. She had so many questions, but her tongue was stuck in her mouth.
It took some time to mount a procession. They had a litter with them, as if they’d known they’d need to carry an injured body, and carefully arranged Marlowe on it. They had some method of coaxing water down his throat. Leaving Marlowe to the care of strangers was the most difficult thing Harry had ever done.
They offered Harry the use of a second litter, but she insisted on walking. She took one last look over the camp. The islanders hadn’t found the strongbox, and Harry left it in place.
They made a slow procession inland. The woman invited Harry to walk with her in the lead, but Harry stayed by the litter. Marlowe seemed to wake once, groaning as he squinted into the canopy of trees above. His bearers moved a touch more gently after that. Harry pressed his shoulder whenever their path was wide enough to allow her to walk alongside.
“It will be all right,” the woman said. “You must trust us.”
How? she wanted to demand. “What is your name?” she asked instead.
“My name is Moea,” she said, and was too polite to ask for Harry’s name in return. Harry was being churlish in not offering it, but she didn’t know how else to be just now.
They must have walked an hour when the group stopped. Harry looked around for a village, open-air huts in a clearing, but saw only the continuing stretch of jungle. Moea and one of the men came forward, and at a silent nod between them, touched the crystals of their staves to the air in a pattern that must have had some meaning.
Then, all was revealed.
The points they had touched were part of a gate, two pillars of stone that had heretofore been invisible. When triggered, the air before the gates wavered, and some kind of camouflaging screen parted in a shimmer of heat. Beyond it stood a city. An entire city, occupying the valley at the base of the volcano.
Harry stared, astonished, as the procession moved past her.
“I thought . . . the island appears to be nothing but jungle . . . nothing at all.”
“That is what we want people to think,” Moea said, smiling with obvious pride.
Moea indicated her staff. “You keep looking at this. I think you know what this means.”
“Aetherians. You have Aetherian technology.”
“We will save your friend’s life. Come.”
Past that invisible wall, Harry saw vaguely familiar details—palm trees that had been trained to grow perfectly straight made a fence. Wires joined the living fence posts, and transmitters were placed on the top—these conducted a glowing green energy, and this must have been the source of the shield, an Aetherian-generated charge protecting what lay within. British prisons and the military used such Aetherian-powered energy barriers. But Harry had never seen anything like this.
“How is any of this possible?” she asked Moea.
“The wisdom of our mothers and fathers, and the gifts they received, has built all this.”
“But—” She was going to say it was not possible, but the evidence before her clearly said it was. Unless she and Marlowe had died and were now entering some kind of hell. Or heaven, unlike any promised by any sermon.
The city’s streets were paved with pale stones, lending a pleasant brightness to the place. Everybody walked. Once or twice Harry saw something like rickshaws, carts that held one passenger while another person pushed, but only the elderly or injured seemed to ride in them.
Terraced buildings made of wood, palm, and stone climbed up the side of the volcano, and every flat surface seemed packed with planters, blooming trees and dripping flowers. The gardens were a haven for nectar-drinking birds and butterflies which flitted like living jewels. This place was unreal, some artist’s ideal of an island paradise. Some hazy painting of a mythological scene.
The stone in the streets, though clean, was worn. The depressions of thousands of footsteps wearing the path were evident. The buildings had accreted, additional floors and terraces added. It all gave the impression of a crystal growing over time.
How much time? How long had they been here? And how long had they been under Aetherian influence? She saw lanterns by doorways that used Aetherian filaments. Aetherian pumps attached to wooden pipes carried water to upper floors. Harry had not been able to get a closer look at the staves Moea and the others carried. She stole glances, and saw only that the mechanisms within the wire-wrapped crystals were small, and alien.
The procession climbed steps and sloped pathways until it entered a long stone house, an open space with a low ceiling and curtained windows overlooking a narrow channel of water. There were several low pallets in back, and many planters hanging along a wall, filled with ferns, flowers, orchids. The islanders set the litter on one of the pallets and a crowd of people got to work, stripping Marlowe of his bloody, sweat dampened clothes, washing him with sea sponges.
Harry wanted to call out that she’d done her best, she knew he was in terrible shape but she’d done everything she could to help him. She had tried so, so hard. As if that made up for failure.
Their ministrations came to focus on his head, with poking, prodding, an examination not just of the wound but of his entire skull. There seemed to be a leader of the group, a slender, older man—a doctor? He muttered a few orders, and one of his assistants opened a cupboard in the wall, revealing more equipment. Harry was entranced.
The doctor put some kind of mask over Marlowe’s face, a thing made of wood and metal connected to a pair of tubes leading to a humming device that might have been a pump. The mask was solid and completely enclosed his nose and mouth.
Harry snapped. “He can’t breathe—take it off, he won’t be able to breathe!”
Moea put a hand on Harry’s arm. “It will breath for him. It is providing him with pure oxygen, which will ease his lungs and brain, helping him to heal. Do you understand?”
The Kestrel used a similar pump to feed gas into its balloon. Marlowe’s chest continued to rise and fall—if anything, the rhythm of his breathing became more deep and steady, not so rushed and shallow. But with the mask over his face, the Aetherian-derived tubes and wires coming off him, he looked . . . inhuman. Moea’s people placed more devices near his head, attached more tubes. One of the doctors held a very thin, very fine knife—then touched it lightly to Marlowe’s skull. A sudden gout of blood gushed into a bowl.
“Marlowe!” she cried, pulling against Moea’s grip.
“Mademoiselle. You must rest. Your friend is safe now, please trust us.” She gestured to one of her companions, who brought over a cup made of some kind of gourd. “Drink this, please.”
Like a kind nursemaid from her childhood, Moea guided the cup to her lips, and like a child, Harry drank. Her lips were so parched, her mind scattered. It wasn’t water, it wasn’t juice. Or not just juice. It appeared to be medicinal. Poisoned, her paranoia said. They would suffocate Marlowe, they would poison her, they would find the strongbox, and all was lost.
Her vision blurred, her head tilted. She couldn’t focus, and then she couldn’t stand at all. She did not remember falling; only that she floated into darkness, and she had to assume that someone caught her.
• • • •
When her oldest brother Eddy—Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence—died, it had been just like this. All panic, all helplessness, Mother not even complaining, just crying, and Father slumped in his chair like he had somehow failed, while Eddy writhed with infection and finally slipped away. George, “the spare,” became very serious indeed, determined to shoulder all the responsibility of moving forward. Then the same thing happened to Father. Two heirs gone in as many years, and the whole country looked to some conspiracy, some poison released by the country’s reliance on alien technology. But no one would stop using airships to fly to the continent, or Aetherian-powered trains to travel swiftly and cleanly.
Harry entered adulthood vowing to take on some of the burden that had settled on her family. The alien craft had crashed in Surrey the same year of her birth—she was a child of this new world, and she would understand the new technology of the Aetherian Revolution. She would bend it to her will.
But sometimes people just died. Despite all one’s will and effort. Sometimes there was simply nothing one could do.
She awoke on a clean pallet, with crisp clean sheets made of some soft fiber—bamboo, perhaps. She was washed and wearing a loose tunic; her dark hair was also clean and brushed over her shoulder. The pallet was in an open-air room, raised at the corner of some larger complex: a courtyard, with a trickling fountain and channels of water. She could see the ocean from here, threads of white surf brushing against the distant, sandy beach. A large-winged seabird soared overhead.
She did not know how long Moea’s potion had made her sleep. How many days she’d lost.
The windows overlooked a long drop to jungle below. Harry had a thought that she should try to escape, but quickly realized she was far too tired to consider it.
As soon as Moea appeared at the far side of the courtyard, Harry went to her. “Marlowe, where is he?”
“He is resting,” she said. She was taller than Harry—statuesque, imperious. Harry would not be intimidated.
“I want to see him. I want to see how all of this is possible.”
“All of what?”
“This—your Aetherian technology.”
“Aetherian—this is what you call the work of the teacher from the sky?”
“The teacher—” Harry fell speechless.
“You have many questions,” Moea said, clearly amused, and Harry bristled at the condescension. “First, come see your friend, so you will be assured we mean you no harm.”
Moea led her through the courtyard to a path made with basalt paving stones. Trees formed a canopy overhead. They turned next to a room that was darker and more sheltered than the rest, and there lay Marlowe, next to a brazier that glowed with Aetherian energy, keeping a space of controlled warmth around him. Better than a blanket, the brazier made the room dry and comfortable. Marlowe lay clean and cushioned, nude but for a sheet pulled up to his chest. He was breathing easily, steadily. The mask they had put on his face earlier was gone.
“James,” she murmured, and ran to his side, taking up his hand. It was cool, limp.
His head showed scarring, some of it rough—likely from the original injury—but some of it very fine, as if from surgery. Part of his hair had been shaved away. The skin around the wound was healthy pink, and the horrifying swelling was now gone. She brushed his cheek, longed to do more, but was afraid to disturb him. Her relief made her weak, and she could not stand to face their benefactor.
“He will sleep for some time yet. His injuries were grave—bleeding inside his skull made his brain swell. He will be a long time healing.”
“But he will heal,” Harry said.
Harry murmured, “I don’t know how to thank you enough. Merci mil boucoup. My name is . . . my name is Maud,” she said, not realizing until she spoke it which name she was going to use. Maud—pretense stripped away, which was exactly how she felt. And Harry had not been much use at all, had she?
• • • •
The islanders had a system for caring for the invalid, feeding him a warm gruel that slipped down his throat, cleaning him and his bedding, all without unduly disturbing him. Moea was right—he slept deeply for days. Harry stayed at Marlowe’s side, sleeping on and off, eating. Without realizing it, she had starved herself, those few days on the beach.
On Harry’s third day in the city, Moea appeared at the sickroom and asked her if she would like a tour of Ahomana. It was the name of both the city and the island.
“You wish to know what makes all this possible,” Moea said. “There is a furnace that drives all we do here. I will show you.”
Moea and several attendants—or perhaps guards; they had no obvious weapons—led her down the pathways to the center of the city.
Islanders leaned out of windows or stopped to stare at her—and why shouldn’t they? She was the only outsider in the city, apart from Marlowe. She might have expected them to show fear, awe, wonder—but they only revealed frank curiosity. Moea waved at onlookers, who went back to whatever it was they’d been doing. Harry felt a little disappointed; they might have shown a bit more interest in her.
In the city center, they crossed a wide plaza. A fire pit lined with slate marked the middle of the space, and palm trees around the perimeter offered shade. Moea explained that this was where the city gathered for celebrations and meetings.
They crossed the plaza to a wide archway and a set of broad stairs leading down. Moea picked up a lantern from a hook on the wall. The filaments within lit with a familiar Aetherian glow, soft and green. The light revealed a tunnel continuing down, into the earth.
“Are you ready?” Moea asked. Harry nodded, noting that this—several islanders wielding strange devices leading her into some dark subterranean passage—was the start of any number of lurid adventure tales that she ought to be mindful of.
The lantern meant their journey down the stairs was not so ominous as it might have been. All the corners were lit, even if the light seemed muted. The bottom of the stairs opened into a cavern, and the cavern itself opened into a chimney, reaching to a distant spot of sunlight, like a bright bulb far overhead. This was the volcano, the empty caldera inside the mountain. But not so empty. This was a factory, a workshop—a womb.
The volcano’s interior had been made into a great engine, geothermal heat transformed to steam that turned turbines, glowing green and humming with potential. Twisting tubes and wires fed in and out, connecting the engines both to the roots of the earth and to the work of various machines drawing out twisting lengths of wire, the circuits and hearts that formed the basis of Aetherian technology. She felt like she was standing inside a body, looking at the skeleton, nerves, and organs of the greatest Aetherian machine that ever was.
“This is our foundry, where we refine our metals and build our machines. This is what our Teacher left for us, and we have kept it safe.”
In the back of the cavern, a large alcove had been carved into the volcanic stone, and in the alcove was a ship. Harry had studied the wreckage from the Surrey crash and knew this was an Aetherian vessel—but this one was intact: a shell-like form, built in plates that layered over one another like scales, gray and dull. The size of the Kestrel’s gondola, large enough for two people to sit in the cockpit, with some small amount of cargo. It seemed to have split in two, and the interior was hollowed out—salvaged for materials. The ship’s outer shell had been kept as a shrine.
“This . . . this ship did not crash. This ship landed,” Harry murmured. “All this time, my people have been dealing with scraps. Piecing together broken bits and trying to find the shape of the vase. But here—”
“The Sky Teacher brought us wonders.”
Harry felt a deep jealousy. “When—when was this?”
“It was many generations ago. When my people first came to this island, we found the Sky Teacher already here.”
For a long time, Harry speculated that the Surrey crash was not the first time Aetherians had visited Earth. She had found evidence to support this all over the world—bits and pieces left behind by an enigmatic civilization from beyond the heavens. She had not dreamed she would find a place like this.
“The pilot—the Aetherian pilot survived?” Harry’s desperation to know made her voice shrill.
Moea showed her a second alcove, arched, with a flat floor—like a sepulcher, ten feet long, wider than human. All that remained were scraps of metal, dust, some leathery pieces no bigger than her hand, and several hard scales. The pilot, long since rotted away.
Harry put her hand on the wall and said a small prayer. Not that the pilot needed it, but she was sad, and it was all she knew how to do. Pay some small respect.
Moea showed her other wonders. A man and woman sat at a console where dials glowed with power; they seemed to be monitoring something—shell-shaped metal cones through which hollow voices spoke. Wires ran from it up the cavern wall and out of sight, reaching for the outside world.
“You have antennae up there,” Harry said wonderingly. “You have wireless!”
Harry leaned in and listened more closely—a male voice speaking French was giving location and heading information, estimating his airship’s arrival at a destination. He never said what destination, which might have given her an idea of where she was. The islanders were monitoring wireless traffic, perhaps through the entire region, across this whole stretch of the Pacific.
This was it, this was their way home.
Harry wet her lips and began pleading. “Please, I must send a message. How far are we from Hong Kong? Australia? Where is the nearest British port? Do you hear from British airships? I must send them a message to tell them where we are, that we are safe—”
“That is not possible.”
“I see, you only have the means to receive signals, not broadcast. But that is nothing, if you can do one you can adapt your equipment to do the other. Marlowe can do it, he is an able engineer—”
“It is not possible because we cannot permit you. No one from the outside can ever know we exist.”
“But . . . Marlowe and I—”
“Maud, you were doomed when your ship flew too close to our island. Usually, our defenses destroy intruders.”
That . . . that sudden storm hadn’t been a storm. It had felt as if the Kestrel had struck a wall, and the lightning had flashed green. In retrospect, it seemed obvious: Aetherian green. A powered shield, like the fence, but this one immense, designed to protect the entire island. To protect all their secrets.
“That you survived is unusual. You are very fortunate,” Moea said.
No, she thought. Marlowe is an excellent pilot, that is how we survived. “Then why save us at all? We would both be dead on that beach now if you had not helped us.”
“We did not know that. As I said, you are very fortunate. You intrigued us, so we helped you.”
“You can never leave Ahomana. This is how we have stayed safe for so long.”
“No,” Harry said. “I do not accept that. You do not understand—I am Princess Maud of Wales, my grandmother is Queen of the greatest empire this world has ever known—”
“Do you think that matters here?”
A hundred threats waited at the tip of Harry’s tongue. She could bring the might of the British Navy upon them, lecture further about her status and her obvious need—her right—to dictate what would happen here.
The storm shield that destroyed the Kestrel could destroy any other ship that approached. As long as Marlowe was ill, he was in the islanders’ power, and Harry couldn’t do a bloody thing.
• • • •
The next morning, after a night of formless, angry dreams, Harry went to Marlowe for the usual survey: Yes, he was breathing; no, he wasn’t feverish; yes, the wounds were healing. This morning, at long last, she found him looking back at her.
“Marlowe,” she whispered.
“What happened?” he murmured in a dry, scratching voice.
She fell against his shoulder, crying, her face pressed to his bare skin. She was aware this was undignified and possibly upsetting to Marlowe, but she didn’t care. She had held herself upright for too long, without even a corset to lean in to.
“Oh, my dear, shh,” he said, his voice holding a smile, however weak. He stroked her hair, a feather touch before the weakened limb fell across his chest.
She recovered quickly, wiping her face clean. “You have no idea how good it is to see you awake.”
“It was a . . . a close thing?”
She found a pitcher and cup of water the nurses had left, and helped Marlowe drink. He could only lift his head from the pillow for a moment before slumping back, sighing as if he had run a mile.
“It was. We crashed.”
He winced. “I . . . I’m not sure I remember.”
She held his hand, brushed what was left of his hair from his forehead. “You were badly hurt. The people of the island saved us. These islanders—Marlowe, I have so much to tell you. It’s all so strange, so impossible, I don’t know where to start.”
“You’re all right? They haven’t hurt you?”
Except for insisting that they couldn’t leave. “I’m well,” she said, so that he would be easy. He slipped back to sleep as gently as a feather falling.
The physicians came, and Marlowe woke again. He knew a little French, enough to say yes or no to their questions. They declared him mending nicely.
• • • •
The islanders held a feast that night, and Harry could have flattered herself that it was in her honor, but she knew better. She just happened to be there for one of their usual feast days. If they treated her kindly, and were solicitous of her needs and wants, it was out of general politeness.
There was dancing of the primitive sort she had read about and seen in photographs, all movement in the feet, hands, and hips. Hypnotic, vaguely scandalous—both the men and women wore little, and their hair was left long and streaming. Harry was startled when Moea leaned in to say, “This one tells the story of how the Sky Teacher came.”
With each gesture the dancers made, Moea told of an accompanying event. “Our ancestors were great travelers. They took their catamarans across the water to all the islands they could find, including Ahomana.”
As she explained, Harry could see meaning in the movements of the dancers’ hands—the suggestion of paddling an oar from side to side, the rippling movement of the waves, spread hands lifted high to show the rising sun.
“When our ancestors came here, they found another traveler, one who had crossed the spaces between stars.”
The dancers held one hand high, then brought it drifting down to meet the second, and both cupped downward into what was meant to be the shape of an island. A ship, coming to land.
“The Teacher was trapped here, his craft broken, and so he taught our ancestors the wonders of his world.”
The feast progressed. There was fruit, fish, something made of taro root. All good, but Harry found herself missing an afternoon of scones and cream. She quickly wiped the moisture from her eyes. She didn’t want the islanders to think she was ungrateful.
If she were a proper explorer, she’d be carefully remembering all this so she could write about it in some sensationalist travelogue, the marvels of the lost civilization of Ahomana. But all she really wanted at the moment, and for the first time during all the months of the entire journey, was to go home.
• • • •
Sooner than Harry expected, Marlowe, dressed in one of the islander tunics, was able to leave his pallet for short walks. She helped him, though at first he was reluctant to lean on her. “Marlowe, I’m your friend here, let me help you as a friend.” He gave up on propriety, then, and kept hold of her arm as they made slow progress around the room, then into the courtyards beyond.
She would not presume that no one here understood English. Some of the broadcasts that came through on their wireless device were in English. Thus someone here must know the language, whether they admitted it or not. So, Harry spoke softly when she explained to Marlowe that they would not be allowed to leave.
“They seem to give me some amount of privacy here,” she said. She brought him to the courtyard and pavilion where she had been spending her nights.
“It’s because you’re hardly likely to escape this,” Marlowe said, leaning to the edge of the window and the sheer drop of the hillside below.
“Indeed. Still, they do not seem to consider us prisoners, per se.”
“Honored permanent guests, then?” he said wryly.
“Marlowe, what are we going to do?”
He sat on a low bench, looking out the window to the ocean, and didn’t speak. She closed her eyes and listened to the water trickle from the fountain, a sound that seemed entirely counter to any sort of anxiety.
When she felt a pressure on her hand, she looked. Marlowe had taken hold of it and seemed to gain some fortitude from the pressure. “We’ll think of something,” he said.
He started to draw his hand away, but she kept hold, pulling herself in to sit beside him, hip against hip. Too close, but the further touch brought further comfort, and he responded, not by pulling away, but by bringing his arms around her in a heartfelt embrace. In that moment all was well, and she did not care what happened tomorrow.
She let out a comfortable sigh. When she tipped her head back to look, to try to guess what he was thinking, he was right there looking back at her, and their lips met, and they kissed. He tasted warm; he tasted like home.
This seemed then like no momentous thing. They were lost on an island, they might never leave, they were all but dead. But they were alive, they were together, of course they should kiss, and more, because in that moment, that was all they had.
• • • •
She lay beside him, studying every inch of him. Marlowe slept long and heavily, resting in her arms. He had overexerted himself, and the thought should have been terribly amusing. Instead, she felt confused. Complicated. But only when she thought of what to do next. For now, she pressed her body close to his, and was gratified when he came awake long enough to put his arms around her.
• • • •
“Marlowe heals quickly, with your care.” Moea’s sly smile and wink meant she was talking about more than Harry’s nursing duties. Difficult, keeping anything secret on this island. Harry blushed, though Moea seemed matter-of-fact about it.
They walked, Moea showing her more of the city, telling stories of this or that house, this or that grove of coconut trees, giving her both the French and local words for everything—teaching her about her new home. Harry wasn’t sure she wanted to know, and she wasn’t sure she had a choice.
“It’s terribly improper,” Harry said.
“You know that means nothing here,” she replied.
Of course it meant nothing on this placeless, timeless island. She was mere Maud here, not a princess. She should have enjoyed it, but she couldn’t forget about home. High on the peak of the old volcano, a series of antennae rose up—receivers for the islanders’ wireless device, transmitters that produced the defensive shield around Ahomana. A well-placed explosive charge would destroy the shield and allow ships to approach the island. A great deal of work for one person to accomplish, clandestinely, in a place where she was being watched at all times. Perhaps she could wait until Marlowe was stronger and could assist.
“What are you thinking, Maud?”
The woman saw her looking up, gaze narrowed, thinking. “I am thinking of far too much,” she murmured. “My mind is full.”
• • • •
For another night, for all of them now, Harry and Marlowe shared a bed.
“I’ve been over and over it,” she said, her voice muffled against his shoulder. “I believe I can get a signal out, I just need a few minutes alone with the equipment. The difficulty is we must also find a way to disable the shield, or we doom any ship that comes to search for us. This has to be done quickly, secretly. I don’t think I can do it alone, but the two of us working together—”
“Or we could stay,” he said.
She propped herself on an elbow and looked at him. This wasn’t a statement of surrender, because Marlowe did not give up.
No, he was stating the implication of choice. They could stay, because if they returned to England they could not be together as they were now. They would be giving up much by staying here. But they would also be giving up much by leaving.
She brushed strands of hair from his face, pressed the skin of his cheek. His blue eyes were shining and his gaze didn’t waver. His wound was healing, but there’d always be a twisting, puckered scar. The hair was growing back, but around the rough scar it was coming in white. It would look striking. He caught her hand, pressed her palm to his lips. His kiss sent a rush of warmth through her, penetrating to her bones. They could stay here, could stay just like this—forever.
She looked away, to the fountains and a world that anyone would call paradise. “We can’t abandon everything. God only knows what’s happening with the war back home—”
He chuckled, an expression that made his face light up in a way she hadn’t seen in weeks. “I like to think the realm is strong enough to survive without two of its subjects, even if one of them is the Queen’s granddaughter.”
He was right, of course. “When you were feverish, you talked. I think some of it was about your family, which made me think: You never speak of them.”
Now it was his turn to stare outward, and she regretted mentioning it. She quickly added, “I beg your pardon, the subject is obviously painful to you—”
“I am a middle son in a very large family of very poor gentry. My father has—” He paused, obviously seeking polite language, “—has been dissolute. My brothers have followed in his footsteps. They have chased many schemes to make their fortunes, and all their schemes cost more. My mother and sisters—” At this, he shook his head. “I ran off to join the Navy, and they have never forgiven me for it. It ought to be beneath us. We were meant to be well born, and my desire to make something of myself by working flies in the face of the story they tell about themselves. I changed my name so no one would mistake our connection. I haven’t spoken to them in something like ten years. Most of them, at any rate. My eldest brother found me last year to ask for money, and called me an ingrate when I would not give it.”
“Yes. I must have said quite a lot when I was ill.”
“Not so much.”
“You see—if I do not return, there is no one to miss me. But you—you would miss your family,” he said.
“I would,” she said, smiling sadly. “I miss my brother, and I miss May and the boys, and Louise’s letters, and I even miss Mother and Toria. We’ve had an odd life, being who we are, but we are a family.”
“Well then,” he said, touching her cheek, brushing his lips to her forehead. “We will find a way to bring you back to them.”
• • • •
When he was strong enough, Harry and Moea brought Marlowe to see the cavern and the shell of the Aetherian craft.
He stood for a long time before it, staring in awe as one might do when walking to the altar of a medieval cathedral. He put his hand by the niche where the pilot’s body had lain, and Harry wondered if he also murmured a prayer.
He asked Moea questions. Dozens of questions about the engines, the turbines, the cooling mechanisms, the lubricants they used on the machinery—a mixture containing coconut oil—and the composition of the metal alloy their manufacturing process produced. The islander answered some of the questions, but when Marlowe’s words became too probing, she said, “This was built generations ago, even I do not know all its workings.”
It was a clear evasion. She would not say how their camouflaging shields worked, or if there was a way to reach the peak of the volcano.
The short outing exhausted him, and they retreated to their room.
Marlowe seemed struck again and again by what they had found. “An intact ship, and the pilot still alive to explain it all—dear God, what Carlisle and the others could have done with that.”
“I know,” she said.
“You’re right, I think. With enough care and planning we could send a signal and disable the shield. One of us would have to climb the mountain—that’s a full day. It should probably be you, I’m not yet strong enough for that. But I have a confession, Harry.” He held her hands; his body was stiff with anxiety. “I think of the Navy here, airships and soldiers crawling all over the city, and pillaging—and I’m not sure I want to do it.”
She was almost relieved, because she had had the same thought, and felt like a traitor for thinking it. It seemed her choice wasn’t between staying or escaping; it was between betraying her home, or betraying the hospitality of the islanders.
Sacrifices must be made, she thought in a voice that sounded disconcertingly like her grandmother’s. But such calculations removed the emotion of the actual sacrifice.
Surely the fate of the realm did not depend on two lost souls. But what if it did?
She said, “We could defeat Germany with what we’ve found here.” The war between Britain and Germany had been going on for years already. She would do much to end it, in England’s favor.
“Or make the war worse,” he said, no doubt thinking, like she was, of the endless power generated by those great turbines. They could make an energy shield built around the whole of Europe.
Not to mention . . . what horrible weapons could be derived from such technology?
• • • •
Harry decided: Britain and the war were more important than Ahomana. Returning home with technology that would ensure British supremacy was more important. Her duty said that she must do what she could to escape.
Marlowe was right that he wasn’t strong enough to scale the volcano. He was so much better than he had been, but he still spent most of every day sleeping, healing.
So Harry would have to find a way to do this on her own.
Despite how much time she spent with Moea, despite all her careful observation, she still didn’t know how the islanders’ staves worked. She would have to steal one, examine it. If she could master one of the control staves—that was the key to all. She might not need to climb to the peak and physically destroy the shield generator if she could simply turn it off. Leave it intact, for the Navy to examine. Find a staff, send a message, deactivate the shield.
The members of the city’s governing council carried the staves. Harry counted seven of them. There might have been others, spares, in storage somewhere. But she concentrated on those seven.
Moea had chambers with her family: her husband, Hina, and three children—nearing adulthood, they were seldom at home as they embarked on apprenticeships. They were an admirable family. They’d hosted Harry and Marlowe for meals every few days. As with the tours of the city, they seemed to be doing their best to make the strangers feel welcome, since this would be their home, now.
At home, Moea kept her staff in its own chest, a box dug out of a tree trunk, near the door. Protected, out of the way. It was not locked. The house was not guarded. Harry could go there while everyone slept; no one would ever know.
She didn’t tell Marlowe what she planned because she didn’t want him to worry.
They were still being watched—an attendant outside the courtyard, who would see if either of them left through the doorway. So Harry didn’t use the doorway.
The route she took was long and harrowing, especially in the dark, but a near-full moon offered sufficient light. She managed to climb through the jungle, along the outer terraces of the city, then slip back in through a window.
Quickly, quietly, she made her way along back streets, the very pathways Moea had been so careful to show her, until she reached the woman’s home. Ideally, she could grab the staff and execute the rest of the plan shortly after. If the Navy was already on its way when she was discovered, the islanders wouldn’t be able to stop her.
Like so many of the houses here, the front room had wide windows to let in cool air. Outside, jungle trees rustled, and a bird called. The room was clean, sparse, so different from the jumbled ornate parlors of home, with endless furniture and decorated walls. Matting made of palm fronds covered the floor, there was a low table, and a pair of carved oars hung on the wall. They’d been made by Moea’s great-great-grandfather, she said. There was a second table that held bowls, cups, dishes, utensils, and a planter with orchids growing in it.
Harry knelt by the chest where the staff was stored, put her hand on it, and stopped.
She had become a thief. Finally, after all she’d been through, that was the thought that defeated her.
She could be a thief, or she could surrender to her fate. Thief, or coward. Neither choice was acceptable for a Princess of Wales. Dammit. She leaned against the wall, covered her face with her hands, and decided.
She stepped away from the chest and left the house.
On the pathway outside, Moea and several of her attendants were waiting, carrying lanterns that threw strange shadows. They were like carvings in mahogany. Harry felt small and useless before them.
Harry said, “You’ve been watching the whole time.”
“Yes, Maud,” Moea said.
“I should be ashamed. I am mostly confused.”
“You are at sea.”
“Maud. Come, we will watch the sunrise from the courtyard.”
Harry joined the group and went with them down the sloping path to the center of the city. She said, “Do you know anything of duty? What holds your loyalty, Moea?”
“I have a duty to my family, to my friends. We all have a duty to this island and what we’ve built here. And to the world. We hold this place in trust, and protect the world by keeping it secret.”
“I have a duty to my island as well. It’s duty to the world I’m only just learning of.”
In the courtyard, she was surprised to see Marlowe there. He was sitting on the stone pavement, leaning against one of the palm trunks, seeming exhausted.
She ran forward to meet him. She hadn’t meant to, but she was so happy to see him. He held her arms, kissed her, his touch lingering, and comfort filled her, sunshine pouring through her whole self.
“I was coming to help,” he whispered. “But I seem to be having one of my off days and lost my breath. You were discovered.”
“Yes. But I changed my mind first.”
“It’s all right, we’ll figure something out.”
Moea waited patiently for them to turn and face her. Harry wondered what punishment awaited her. But the woman was smiling.
“Marlowe, Maud. Can you keep a promise?”
• • • •
Moea’s wireless operators sent a distress call the next day. They asked for, and Harry and Marlowe gave them, the shortest message possible that would elicit a response: HMS Kestrel downed in a storm, coordinates to follow. Send help.
High enough up the chain of command, word that the Kestrel was in trouble would inspire an immediate response. They wouldn’t need to say anything else.
After that, Moea and her council, along with a crowd of onlookers, came to the shore to see them off. Two men prepared one of the smaller outrigger canoes—the craft their ancestors had traveled across the ocean in had been giant, Moea said, enough to carry a whole village and their necessities. That must have been an incredible sight.
Harry and Marlowe looked over their old camp, in tatters now after the weeks they’d spent in the city. The fabric had decayed to nothing, and what remained of the timbers and brass fittings had been blown or washed away. Evidence remained of Marlowe’s bed—a sunken pallet of grass, covered now in mold and grime.
Marlowe stared at the spot for a long time. “I don’t remember this place,” he murmured.
She touched his arm, bringing him back to himself. They’d changed back into the clothes they’d arrived in, leaving the clothing of the island, and further evidence of their time here, behind. They looked awful, rags hanging off them, all the scars and trials of the last months marked on their features. Her matted hair was tied up and out of the way, and Marlowe had a beard.
She found a rotten trunk, dug around for a minute, and while the sunken spot where the strongbox had been was still evident, the box was gone. She slumped back, sitting heavily, defeated once more.
“Maud?” Moea asked.
“There was a box here, it had . . . artifacts I’d gathered. I suppose I should just let it go.” All that work, all those months of journeying for nothing. Well, not for nothing—she and Marlowe had survived. That was something. “It is already in the canoe, along with another box. A gift, from me.”
Harry stared. “You’re too kind. You . . . have been all too kind.”
“Remember that kindness, if you ever think of breaking your promise. You owe me your promise.”
They would be allowed to leave, but they must never speak of Ahomana. They must never say a hint of its existence. They must keep the secret forever. Moea said that she and the council realized Harry and Marlowe would never be at home on the island, would never adapt and would always think of escape. But they did not know if they could trust the foreigners until Harry walked away from that cabinet.
“Yes, ma’am,” she said.
“Don’t open my gift until the canoe has left.”
Harry nodded. Then, finally, they embraced.
They loaded the canoe with the last of the supplies and climbed on board. Harry checked and yes, the strongbox was there. She didn’t look inside to see if the artifacts were intact—she had to show her own trust. And besides, if the box was empty, she couldn’t do anything about it. She and Marlowe were going home, and that was enough.
The two men paddled the canoe past the breakers and out beyond the island’s last spit of land. There, they set the mast and raised the square sail. No Aetherian engine or alien structure here. Just wind and fabric, technology thousands of years old. If it was the only technology one had, it was certainly the best.
Harry turned to watch the shore recede. Moea raised her hand, and Harry matched her, a lingering farewell.
When the Aetherian shield was disengaged, the world beyond came into view. This island was part of a chain, spots of land hulking like turtles’ backs in the distance, ancient volcanoes that had weathered into jungle-covered hills. The canoe reached the first of these in an hour. After leaving Harry and Marlowe and their boxes on the shore, the men offered polite farewells, and shoved the canoe back into the waves.
“Thank you,” Harry said for what felt like the millionth time.
Long after the canoe had traveled too far to see, she and Marlowe watched the place on the ocean where they had gone. The great cone of Ahomana was there, somewhere, but the shield had been restored, and it was invisible once more.
Marlowe said, “And we are alone again.” His words seemed to echo, even over the sound of the waves. “I certainly hope the Navy got that message.”
Harry knelt in the sand and opened the strongbox: All its treasure was intact, nothing had been touched. They had their artifacts, and each other, and she was sure the Navy had gotten the message.
And there was the box Moea had given them: two hands’ width on a side, the lid secured with simple cord. She opened it. Inside was the wood and cloth mask, the device the doctors had used to supply Marlowe with oxygen during the worst of his illness. Tubes coiled underneath, along with the valves that regulated the flow of air.
He reached around, touching the mask’s fabric. “That . . . would you believe, I think I remember that.”
“It saved your life.”
“Is that why Moea gave it to us?”
Harry smiled. This wasn’t a gift—it was a lesson. “Medical application. Just the sort of Aetherian research we haven’t pursued as we should have.”
He held the mask, studying the valves and how they attached. He had that look in his eyes, turning a problem over and over again.
“Air pressure,” he said. “It regulates air pressure.”
As altitude increased, air pressure decreased. There wasn’t enough oxygen to breathe. That was the problem they had to solve, to fly higher, to break into the space beyond. To follow the Aetherians.
They looked hard at each other, the future rising before them.
“We can do it,” she murmured, and closed her hand over his. “Build a pressurized cabin and air supply, like a diving suit, but for the upper atmosphere.” They would not even be breaking their promise to Moea—this was just another artifact they’d found, like all the others.
His gaze went up, to the horizon beyond the water. “Harry, look,” Marlowe said, pointing. He squinted—his eyesight was still weak. But the shape of an airship against the sun was clear. The Aetherian hum traveled even this far over the water, a higher-pitched shushing than the waves. At this distance, the glow pulsed. The airship displayed British Navy flags.
Harry’s heart started pounding. Soon, the ship would throw down a ladder, haul them up, and they would be back in the world. Wasn’t that what she wanted?
“James,” Harry breathed. She took hold of his shirt, pulled him to her, kissed him, knowing this taste of him would have to last a good long while. She hoped to remember every second of it, the way his lips moved against hers, the way his hands dug into her hips, as if he hoped to weather a storm against her. When she pulled back, she saw so much longing in his gaze, her heart broke a little.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “Somehow.”
Apart now, they went down the shore and waved at the approaching vessel.