Lieutenant James Marlowe watched a room full of grown, distinguished men act like young ladies at their first ball. Flustered, fidgeting, adjusting each others’ cravats, going back and forth from one table to another inspecting equipment and displays that were already perfect, they were exhausting to watch, and so he tried not to.
He had only ever been to three balls in his life, before he ran off to join the Navy, and this was a reminder of why he hated them. It wasn’t about the music and dancing—it was about all the other business around the dancing. Who had what fortune, who should marry whom, whose status was rising and whose was falling and what advantage could be gained from the movement. The situation at the University College London’s Laboratory of Aetherian Mechanics was different, but only by a little. This presentation wasn’t about the science they performed and the discoveries they made. It was about who could best impress their royal visitor.
Marlowe preferred his time on the front.
He resisted picking at the collar of his starched uniform. He had thought he would be able to work here. Assist in the development new discoveries, new principles that would advance the boundaries of Aetherian technology. He had so many ideas . . . but that hadn’t worked out so terribly well, had it? All he could do now was follow orders.
Sir Edward Rawlins of the Royal Academy was nominally in charge of the laboratory. The half a dozen scientists under his supervision might have argued otherwise, but for now, the roundish, middle-aged man with curling white sideburns and precisely tailored coat was at the center of the commotion.
One of the younger researchers, Doctor Thatcher, who was constantly pushing his spectacles back up his nose, said, “I believe the Directed Disruption Projector should be on the front table, not the back.” He had designed the Directed Disruption Projector, which had never been tested and which Marlowe believed should be located nowhere near anything else in the room. Preferably, it ought to be in an empty field, miles away. Or perhaps at the bottom of the ocean.
Sir Edward huffed. “Thatcher, that’s nonsense. We can’t even demonstrate the Projector without damaging all our other prototypes. Clearly the upgraded pistol energy cell ought to be our first—” Sir Edward had designed the improvements to the pistol.
“It’s a pistol,” Professor Montgomery exclaimed. “Everyone’s seen a pistol before. We’re supposed to be impressing His Royal Highness.” Florid Professor Montgomery was Sir Edward’s age, had held a position at the College for just as long, but had not yet been knighted. He would never admit so aloud but the slight infuriated him. He was most keen to impress the Crown Prince.
“Will you all stop fussing,” Sir Edward muttered. “I concede we might also display the altitude flares on the front table, alongside the pistol energy cell. Our best feet forward and all that.” This was met with assorted conciliatory grumbles. Sir Edward turned to where Marlowe had been standing quietly. He thought they had forgotten about him. “Lieutenant Marlowe, would you be so good as to shift the engine fuses to this table here, and replace them with the flare launchers?”
Marlowe had built half these prototypes himself. His official role here was to advise, bringing his experience from the field into the laboratory to help improve the empire’s Aetherian machinery and weaponry. A soldier ought best to know what was needed on the front, yes? Well, not so much as it turned out. Somehow, he was the only one who ever got grease under his fingernails.
The fine gentlemen of the academy continued fussing, directing him to shift a machine this way or that, adjust a wire or tube to better show off the quality of this or other device. When he grew frustrated, he thought, put any of these men in an airship over the Low Countries and then see who knew what they were doing . . . But that was churlish and unbecoming an officer in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy. He did as he was told and kept his own council.
He had just taken up his usual place, off to the side and standing at military ease, his hands clasped behind his back, when the laboratory door opened and a liveried footman stepped in, red coat starched and perfect, chin up, expression dutiful.
He announced crisply, “His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Her Royal Highness Maud, Princess of Wales.”
Marlowe was full of astonishment. He was not expecting this. Expecting her.
The pair came into the laboratory, followed by more footmen who stood unobtrusively aside. They all looked terribly out of place in the spare and practical room, with its tile floor and scuffed wood benches and cupboards and sinks, its smells of grease and formalin. A single picture decorated the wall: a small portrait of Queen Victoria.
Crown Prince George was an imposing, serious man, who took the military uniform he wore seriously, as he took all his duties. His beard hid his expression, but his eyes surveyed the room—his realm—with detached interest. Princess Maud stood just behind him, to his right. She was nearly as tall as he was, straight as a mast, moving as smoothly as the current of a river. She wore a walking gown at the height of fashion, dark blue, with ruffles gathered up behind, tightly corseted—she might as well have been wearing armor. Her curling dark hair was precisely gathered and pinned under a simple hat as elegant as the rest of her.
He really shouldn’t spend so much time staring at the Crown Prince’s youngest sister. It had been three months since their escape from the mechanical siege of Paris. If he were a vain man, he would say that he had rescued her, but that wouldn’t have been true. He’d been commanded to rescue her, but they had escaped together. She looked entirely different now, like a picture in the newspaper. Last time he had seen her, her hair had come loose, her skirts had shown the wear of fleeing through the streets of Paris, and she’d had a pistol in her hand.
She was very good with a pistol, he remembered.
They had corresponded exactly once, since then. During their fraught escape, he had expressed to her a desire to press forward research on Aetherian mechanics, the technology derived from the alien craft that had crashed in Surry in 1869. She had vowed to help him, and had written to suggest the posting here.
It hadn’t gone the way he’d hoped.
Though he wanted nothing more than to say a simple hello to her, it couldn’t be done. Clearly, she had done as much as she could to help him. She would likely rather forget the whole Paris episode, and so would not acknowledge him at all. And that would be her right. He continued imitating wallpaper.
Sir Edward greeted the royals. “Your Highnesses. Welcome, welcome. We have arranged a number of displays and demonstrations for you, representing the forefront of our explorations in Aetherian technology. Your interest in our work is most gratifying, of course. Please, if there’s anything we can do, any questions—”
Prince George looked past him to Lieutenant Marlowe. “Lieutenant Marlowe! How very good to see you! I must thank you again for the service you did myself and the Princess in Paris.”
Marlowe blinked a moment, startled, and then recovered.
“It was my honor, sir.” He bowed with military precision, and the prince’s thin smile indicated appreciation.
Princess Maud’s smile was perhaps a bit more open. Less official. “It’s good to see you again, Lieutenant.”
“Your Highness.” This second bow was perhaps not quite so precise. He was fairly certain he didn’t blush.
The scientific gentlemen glared at him, fiercely and unreservedly. Even the usually decorous Sir Edward sputtered. As Their Highnesses moved to study the exhibits, Marlowe took the opportunity to murmur at his colleagues, “Gentlemen, that is what field work can get you.”
“Really, Marlowe, you’re too much.” Sir Edward stalked off to attend the Crown Prince.
The lectures began.
Sir Edward had a clear objective: to obtain royal patronage and unlimited funding for all future projects. He had decided the best way to do this was to convince Prince George that the key to defeating the Germans lay here, among his and his colleagues’ inventions and discoveries. Better guns, faster engines, more destruction. All entirely necessary for the war effort, of course. The roomful of men was most eager for royal favor.
The problem was the two armies were evenly matched. Each side kept inventing wickeder weapons based on similar technologies—the fast and maneuverable British airships versus the autonomous German killer drones. Aetherian cannons versus Aetherian scatter bombs. Marlowe suspected—no, he knew—that victory would not lie in brute strength, but in finding something new. Using Aetherian technology in a way it hadn’t been used before. Discovering some new principle that would serve a clear advantage and leverage the other side’s surrender.
Marlowe wanted to go into space. The Aetherians had come from beyond the Earthly atmosphere. Why not go back there, and discover what could be found? Britain had not maintained supremacy of the air—could they achieve supremacy beyond the air?
Men like Sir Edward scoffed whenever Marlowe raised even the hint of such an endeavor. Men like Sir Edward controlled, well, everything. And Marlowe had quite pointedly rejected ever becoming a man like that when he left his family and changed his name.
Sir Edward held up a series of pistol batteries, small cylinders glowing with faint Aetherian light. “We are constantly seeking refinements and improvements in the energy cartridges for the rifles used by Her Majesty’s army, both to increase the number of shots fired and the range of those shots. We are especially interested in the ability to adjust the energy levels of shots fires, meaning one might choose to simply stun an opponent, or destroy an entire company, if you take my meaning.”
Prince George nodded and huffed appreciatively, but Princess Maud took the cartridge out of Sir Edward’s hand and studied it, her brow furrowed. “What of the problems with the cartridge casing? It is my understanding that the difficulty was never with modulating the power output itself, but doing so in a way that does not cause the casing to explode.”
Sir Edward stared. “Ah . . . well, yes. Her Highness will notice the reinforced alloy and the elimination of seams . . . here, sir, would you like to look?” He offered another of the batteries to the Prince, who declined to take it. The Princess gently set hers back on the table and followed the group to the next display.
The next table held a box with a parabolic dish that could be raised and lowered on a telescopic arm. The tubes and wires that ran from the box to the disc made it seem almost organic, like veins and nerves rather than machinery.
“This device is a weapon,” Sir Edward explained while the other scientists jostled to be in the front, leaning in to catch the royals’ notice. “A bomb of sorts, you might say, that releases a pulse of energy that will neutralize all other Aetherian machinery and power sources within a certain radius. For obvious reasons we have left the item without power while in the laboratory—”
“Although we very much hope to run a full-scale field test of the weapon in the near future,” Doctor Thatcher interjected, his gentleman’s polish undermined by his eagerness. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
Princess Maud again asked a question. “Have you given any thought as to how such a weapon would be deployed? It obviously can’t be delivered by airship or tank. It would have to be left, I suppose.” Hand on her chin, she considered.
Again, Sir Edward seemed nonplussed by the Princess’s interest. “Er . . . I suppose Lieutenant Marlowe would have some idea on that score . . . Your Highness, if you would come around this way.” He addressed this last to the Prince, guiding him around to the next row.
“Wait just a moment,” Prince George said. “Marlowe, do you have an answer for that?”
“Ah, yes sir,” Marlowe said. “Such a device would have to be delivered clandestinely to enemy territory, by a small group or even an individual infiltrator.”
“Sounds dangerous,” the Princess said.
“Indeed, Your Highness.” He bowed his head, trying to be formal. “It’s my thought that such a device has too great a risk of being turned on our own equipment and ought to be considered a weapon of last resort.”
“And do you think we’re there yet? Needing weapons of last resort?”
“Well, not as such. But we certainly could have used a device of this sort to disable that swarm of drones in Paris.”
“Oh, yes, that would have been brilliant!”
The gentleman of science stared at her, agape.
Marlowe didn’t follow society and didn’t much read newspaper gossip, but he understood that the three royal princesses, the Crown Prince’s sisters, had a reputation for reclusiveness, for not appearing much in public and leading something of a sheltered, cloistered life. Marlowe began to wonder if, at least in Princess Maud’s case, the gossip was meant to deflect from the fact that she was neither sheltered nor reclusive. She had opinions. The gentlemen were shocked. He was delighted.
Sir Edward could not bear to have his presentation disrupted in such a manner and continued his attempt to ignore her by directing all his speech to the prince. “Your Highness, you might be most interested to hear about our next invention—”
This next device was the one Sir Edward planned on demonstrating for his royal audience. Mostly because it was the least likely to cause damage if something went wrong. Marlowe was skeptical.
“—this most useful device would attach to a soldier’s person, like so—”
Sir Edward used Doctor Thatcher as a model here, forcing the man to stand with his arms out while he slipped the leather harness over his shoulders. The device itself was a small box, roughly the size and shape of a tea tin, that lay centered over the man’s breastbone. Looping wires ran from a battery cartridge at the back of the box to a series of short antennae in front, projecting out in a circle.
“All right, Doctor Thatcher, let’s see it work.” Sir Edward rubbed his hands together with unbecoming glee.
Thatcher pressed a switch on the side of the box. The other researchers all took a step back.
There was a click, an abortive hum that fizzled to silence—and nothing happened. Thatcher pressed the switch again, and again, nothing. The third time he tried, the whole thing became embarrassing. Marlowe was about to step forward to say what was wrong. Princess Maud beat him to it.
“Doctor Thatcher, I believe the connecting wire between the battery and the fuse has become detached. Just there. Around the side.”
She might as well have been speaking a different language, the way they all stared at her.
“Left side,” she said gently, trying again. “Just under the battery casing.”
Marlowe stepped toward Thatcher, leaned in to study the device, and found exactly the wire that Her Highness referred to. Showed Thatcher where it was, but he couldn’t quite see it and muttered, “What? Well then, my goodness—”
Marlowe made the repair. “Try again, sir,” he said.
This time when Thatcher pressed the switch, the battery cartridge lit up, and a green Aetherian charge ran through the wire to the projecting antennae. With a snap and a static hiss, a glowing fog of energy emerged and enveloped Thatcher. He seemed calm and perfectly normal inside the shimmering bubble of light, though his smile might have been a bit strained.
“Ooh, that’s rather pretty,” Prince George exclaimed, and his sister nodded. “Very good, Harry.”
“Thank you, George,” she answered.
Sir Edward explained, “This personal dispersion field will deflect any bolt of energy that comes toward it, thus protecting the wearer from most weapons discharge. As you can imagine, such a device will prove a great boon to our soldiers.”
“Oh yes, indeed!” the prince seemed most excited, and Sir Edward beamed proudly.
Then he picked up one of the energy pistols from the next table and handed it to Marlowe. “Lieutenant, if you will be so good as to provide a demonstration by firing upon Doctor Thatcher.”
Marlowe raised a brow and considered the weapon in his hand.
“Now wait just a moment—” Thatcher stammered, backing away. The energy field made the trembling movement of his raised hands seem blurry.
Lieutenant Marlowe checked the pistol, its battery. Both seemed in good working order. He did not trust the same of the personal dispersion field currently worn by Doctor Thatcher.
“Has this device been fully tested?” the princess asked.
Sir Edward sputtered a bit. “Well, mostly it has.”
“Never on a person!” Thatcher declared. “Shouldn’t we get a common soldier for this?” He looked beseechingly at Marlowe.
“It’s for Crown and Country, Thatcher,” Sir Edward assured him. “Carry on, Lieutenant.”
“Ah,” Marlowe said. “I think perhaps I should decline to fire a weapon in the presence of Her Highness’s delicate sensibilities.” Marlowe hoped she would forgive him for using her as an excuse like this.
Instead, Princess Maud said, “Oh no, by all means, fire the weapon. Please.”
Sir Edward seemed oblivious to the problematic nature of the situation. Thatcher had squeezed his eyes shut. And Marlowe set the pistol on the table. “I believe, sir, that we are not in compliance with military protocols for a demonstration of firearms.”
Since Sir Edward knew nothing about military protocols, he couldn’t argue, though he looked as if he might. Perhaps if Marlowe had explained that discharging a weapon at unproven Aetherian technology, within just a couple of yards of the Crown Prince, was a horrendous idea, the scientist wouldn’t have appeared quite so put out. Ah well. Now, if it had been Sir Edward wearing the dispersion field . . .
With Marlowe’s help, Thatcher quickly divested himself of the dispersion field harness while Sir Edward continued on to the next display.
He lectured, with occasional interjections from the others, and the prince regarded them with only dutiful attention. The princess squeezed in beside him and craned her neck for a good view, while the rest tried their best to pretend she wasn’t there. Marlowe tried to run interference, planting himself near the lab bench, blocking Sir Edward and ignoring the man’s glares while giving the princess a clear view of the proceedings.
And how horrified were they all, after the long explanations and polite laboratory demonstrations, when His Highness turned to his sister and asked, “Well, what do you think?”
Her brow was furrowed, her lips pursed, as if she did not think very much of it at all. Then, her expression settled into a formal mask, like what she might wear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during some official function. “It’s all very interesting, I’m sure. Thank you, Sir Edward, gentlemen.” She turned and walked back to the door.
“My pleasure, Your Highness,” Sir Edward managed to reply.
The man wasn’t aware of how badly this had gone, was he? Marlowe ought to feel disappointed, but he was fascinated, and he very much wanted to know what she would have said without the weight of propriety on her.
Prince George nodded smartly, surveyed the tables and devices while not really seeing them, Marlowe was sure. “Well then. It’s all very impressive, I’m sure. I have great confidence that with your help, gentlemen, our troops cannot help but be victorious. Eventually.” He turned to follow his sister out.
“Your Highness—” Sir Edward called, and George’s look when he turned back around was not so patient. “Might I suggest . . . that is . . . I had hoped to bring to your attention that with more sponsorship—with royal patronage, perhaps—we might make advances that will bring us even more quickly to victory?” They all gazed on so hopefully. Marlowe, with his military training, didn’t twitch a muscle.
“Ah yes,” the prince said. “I had assumed that’s what this was all about. I will have to consider. Good day, gentlemen.”
The liveried footmen closed the door behind him, leaving the room in silence.
Sir Edward clasped his hands, donned the proverbial stiff upper lip, and announced, “I do think that went reasonably well, all things considered.”
Thatcher sneered. “That was a disaster. I don’t think he paid any attention to a word you said. He never asked a single question.”
“She did,” Marlowe said, and the words dropped like an anvil. They turned on him like predators, and he smiled thinly. “I would suggest that you should have directed your appeals to Her Royal Highness, and not the Crown Prince. After all, she is the one who advises him in Aetherian matters. I suspect she might have been the one to request the tour.”
His colleagues stared at him as if he had gone mad. In fact, Sir Edward said it out loud. “Marlowe, that is outrageous. Are you mad?”
“Not in the least, sir,” he said.
“You would have me appeal to sentiment—”
“I assure you, Her Royal Highness is not at all sentimental. She is quite practical, in fact.”
“And you presume to know a Princess of Wales?” Sir Edward was trembling in his fury, and Marlowe finally blushed, just a little. It was either that or yell. “I must remind you, lieutenant, that you are here at my sufferance, and your contributions to our work thus have far been most inadequate indeed—”
Marlowe started to ask Sir Edward if he had ever been fired upon by an energy weapon and if perhaps he’d like to be, so as to gain a better appreciation of his work. But then the door opened.
The footman stepped in and announced, “Lieutenant Marlowe, His Royal Highness requests your presence.”
And that, Marlowe reflected, was his position at the Laboratory of Aetherian Mechanics finished. The way Sir Edward regarded him now, Marlowe might as well have been the Kaiser himself, stepped in to piss on his work. The fine upstanding gentlemen all glared at him with such envy . . . ah, but if they had only asked Marlowe at the start of all this how best to proceed with the demonstration. Without a word, Marlowe turned on his heel and went to follow the footman out of the room.
Outside, a few yards down the corridor by a window overlooking a circular drive outside the building, it wasn’t His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales who waited for him, but Her Highness, Maud. She held one gloved hand in another, and the bit of light from the window illuminated her face.
The footman indicated he should go to meet her, then stood back out of the way.
“Marlowe,” she said in greeting.
“Highness,” he answered softly. He was unsure of his footing here, as if he stood in an airship that was losing altitude and canting slightly. He looked around for the missing prince, brow raised inquiringly. “Um . . . ”
She smiled. “George has stepped out for a bit of air. I am to give him my opinion of the laboratory’s work when he returns.”
“I must apologize, Lieutenant. Based on our previous discussion I thought this would be the right place for your ambitions. That you would be able to do some . . . good here. That you’d be able to do anything.” She gave a small shake of her head.
“You have nothing to apologize for.” She could not have known how entrenched the establishment had become. He had suspected . . . but, well. Even royal attention could not overcome some barriers, it seemed.
“I thought I was doing you a favor, recommending you for that position.”
“I . . . rather suspect my frustration in that room was only exceeded by your own.”
“Yes, I am quite used to being overlooked, but that was . . . excessive.”
Anyone with an ounce of wit ought to be able to look into her eyes and see the intelligence there, the interest, the consideration—and really, he should not be looking so deeply into her eyes.
Marlowe scowled. “They will not listen to me because I didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, and they won’t listen to you because you’re a woman. This country will sink under its blasted conventions.” He took a breath. “My deepest apologies, Your Highness. I have lost my temper.”
“And so here we are, where we might speak and actually be heard. That presentation—I could not help but notice that nearly every device there was a weapon, and all were derived from previously established technologies. I noted a distinct lack of innovation.”
Marlowe said, “Sir Edward was one of Dr. Carlisle’s original assistants. He has a great deal of faith in . . . established technologies. Do you know he has access to the classified archives and won’t look at them? And won’t allow anyone else to look at them besides. He assumes he already knows all he needs.”
“And the others? Those are meant to be some of the best minds in the Empire.”
“They are all beholden to Sir Edward,” he said matter-of-factly, and marveled at his frankness. He really ought to have a bit more propriety, speaking to a princess. Although he didn’t quite think of her as a princess, but as the person with whom he’d escaped the siege of Paris. They had saved each other’s lives, and that meant something, didn’t it?
“If you had a laboratory and no limitations, what would you study?”
“You know the answer to that already. The altitude problem,” he said instantly, then glanced away apologetically. “The Germans have begun to innovate—you saw the machines in Paris. I have a nightmare of ships filled with those drones, landing on English shores by the thousands, overrunning us—”
“The only thing that has prevented them from doing so thus far is their lack of resources and our blockades,” she said. “Yes, I know. But you would—”
“Get above the problem, so to speak.”
“Occupy the high ground. The highest ground.”
“Indeed, yes,” he said, excitement growing. If she could explain this to Sir Edward, if she could persuade him—but Sir Edward wouldn’t listen to her any more than he listened to Marlowe. “Well. That’s what I would do, Your Highness.”
A commotion announced itself at the other end of the corridor, where a staircase led down to the next floor. Prince George and his attendants, returning. The nearby footman straightened. Marlowe drew away from the princess, donning his own rigid military stance. All very proper.
Princess Maud leaned in to murmur to him, “You really are his hero, you know, after Paris,” she said.
He blinked with surprise. “I only did my duty.”
“Ah yes. So do we all. Stay alert, Lieutenant. Wait for news.”
She walked off to join her brother, and Marlowe’s breath deflated out of him. He felt as if he had just come out of battle and didn’t know if he was victorious or not. As with other battles, he was uncertain what to do next. Return to normal duty, he supposed, however ordinary that duty felt after such an encounter. He went back to the laboratory, where the gentlemen were yelling at each other about who was to blame for the prince walking out without a word of support.
When he appeared, they fell silent. At that point they all knew exactly who to blame.
“What did he say to you?” Sir Edward demanded. “What could the prince possibly have to say to you?”
Marlowe stood calmly, hands clasped behind him. “I merely received thanks for a small service I did for him some time ago.” That seemed the simplest thing to say.
“And the laboratory? What did you tell him about the laboratory? About patronage?”
“Why, nothing, Sir Edward. I was sure that was your job.”
“Get out!” The man flushed red and jabbed a finger at the door. “Serving here should have been a privilege but you have squandered it and I will see you drummed out of the service, just see if I do! Get out!”
So much for the decorum of the upper classes. Marlowe congratulated himself once again for fleeing such a life. Gladly, he left the room, grinning.
He supposed he was off duty now, for at least the next little while. Feeling suddenly older than his thirty years warranted, he left the building, opened the collar of his jacket, and hied himself off to the nearest public house to take a very long time to sip a dram of a very good whiskey.
• • • •
In a hangar at the Woolwich Dockyards, Marlowe stood on a ladder, reaching up to the underbelly of an airship gondola locked in a ground-dock frame. The bladder was deflated, making the ship seem naked. It was only temporary. Once the engine upgrade was finished, the bladder would be inflated again, the roof opened, and the craft would be back in the air where she belonged.
The industrial warehouse wasn’t a laboratory, but at least the work he did here had some direct good. Tuning Aetherian engines on coastal patrol airships certainly wasn’t glamorous, but it was useful. The faint green glow suffusing the room, and the hum of idle engines was as comforting to him as the sound of waves against a wooden hull to a sailor of a hundred years ago.
He didn’t see a company of people enter through the doorway, but he heard the footman announce, “Her Royal Highness Maud, Princess of Wales.”
Much to his chagrin, Marlowe dropped the wrench he’d been using. It clattered to the paved floor below, and he decided not think on it further, but scrambled down the ladder to stand at attention before Princess Maud and the footman attending her. It might have been the very same footman from the college the other day. Marlowe had thought he’d been paying attention, but between their coats and precise wigs, they looked too much alike. That was the point.
“Ah—Your Highness,” he said and bowed, conscious of the disarray of his coveralls and the grease possibly streaking his face.
Princess Maud wasn’t looking at him, but gazing longingly at the airship gondola parked above them. She might have sighed wistfully.
He waited until she straightened a little, seeming to remember why she was there.
“Lieutenant,” she started. “I have something here that might interest you. Transfer orders.” She held her hand to the footman, who passed over a cream-colored sheet of paper, folded, which she then offered to Marlowe. “If you please.”
Uncertain, he stepped forward to take it. He read the orders, which were brief and pointed. Then he read it again. They were signed by his commanding officer, by the head of the admiralty. And by Prince George himself. Only after reading a third time did he find his voice.
“I’m being given my own laboratory,” Marlowe said wonderingly. “And access to the Surrey Archives.”
“Yes,” Princess Maud said. “But on one condition. Unofficially, of course. George wouldn’t allow me to commit the condition to paper. Something about propriety.” She rolled her eyes, and Marlowe hid a smile.
“What is the condition?” he asked, trying to decide in advance what he’d be willing to do, give up, or suffer for this opportunity. Very nearly anything, he decided. Except Sir Edward Rawlins. If that man had anything to do with this—
“I must be allowed to visit whenever I like,” she stated. And for all her poise and outward show of confidence, there was a look in her eyes that hinted at uncertainty, that she was afraid he would refuse.
He tilted his head. “Visit, or help?”
“Yes, quite,” she said primly. Her look of uncertainty deepened.
“I rather expected as such,” he said. “I most heartily accept.”
He nodded. “Of course I do, Your Highness.”
“Excellent,” she said, beaming. “Except. Well. I have thought of another condition.”
“Oh?” His heart sank. Such addendums must be expected with royal patronage, he assumed—
“Please call me Harry. That is, when you can.”
When propriety allowed it, in other words. She seemed very aware of propriety, likely because she kept running up to the limits of it.
“I will. Harry.”
“Very good. To the future, then, Lieutenant Marlowe.”
She offered her hand to shake, and he started to take it, then hesitated. His hand was covered in grease, and wiping it on his coveralls would likely only make the mess worse and make him look like a fool besides. He could not possibly win in this scenario, and this frustrated him. Best to just come out with it.
“Ah . . . I appear to have quite a lot of grease on me.” He showed her the damning evidence.
The Princess’s smile never faltered. “I don’t mind, Lieutenant. That’s why we wear gloves,” she said, and took hold of his hand.