Finally, Harry arrived at the Royal Albert Hall in Kensington with her mother and her older sister Victoria. Once they entered through the great gilt doorway, a friendly attendant waited to show them to the royal salon. Harry glimpsed, through another ornate archway, the main hall and the exhibition installed there. She stopped and stared, holding up the whole party.
Harry had thoroughly studied the Aetherian craft from the Surrey crash—as much as she could, as a woman who wasn’t a scientist and whose position in the royal family curtailed her activities to a surprising degree. She knew the exhibition contained machines and devices, photographs and drawings, the evidence and discoveries brought about by the crash of the alien spacecraft twenty-five years before. Given that, she thought she was prepared, but to see it all in one place, on public display, was astonishing. Struts, pipes, twisted wires, and glass bulbs lit by a glow that cast Aetheric light over the gathering, turning the floors and walls green, the upturned faces sickly. Two dozen mechanisms—engines, pumps, generators, weapons—devices that would guide the Empire into a new, even greater technological age than the Age of Steam the Aetherian Revolution had supplanted.
The reception had been organized by the Royal Society to display the latest developments in Aetherian technology made to assist in the war effort. A show to increase public morale, to prove British superiority over the German foe. We shouldn’t have to prove it; it ought to be assumed, Harry thought testily. But the war had been on for over a year now. A year longer than anyone had predicted.
Harry had made her own contributions to said developments, but her involvement was kept very much secret. The scientists on hand would only speak of new discoveries gleaned from Doctor Carlisle’s files, or how long study finally resolved the purpose of mysterious artifacts retrieved from the Surrey crash. No one would say—and only a handful of people knew—that Harry had been instrumental in revealing Doctor Carlisle’s secret experiments in Aetherian biology, and that some of the mysterious artifacts hadn’t been retrieved from the crash at all. She’d been the one to prove that Aetherians had visited the planet previously and left artifacts all over the world. That information was being kept very secret indeed. She did not mind the subterfuge; not really. She didn’t work for fame, but for understanding of Aetherian technology and what it had wrought upon the Earth. Of course this was how it had to be.
Harry had a mental exercise where she thought of all the things she could not speak about, folded them into a little box in her mind—and then forgot about them, at least until the moment she could safely draw the box out again. For now, her tightly laced corset and high-necked gown, her quiet expression and royal demeanor, were her armor. They reminded her that here, she was Maud, Princess of Wales.
A swarm of uniformed guards made a good show of the realm’s military might, guarding the exhibit against any nefarious goings-on. She wondered if Marlowe was here . . . probably not. Last she heard, he was with the aerial fleet out of Portsmouth.
“Monstrous! It’s all so monstrous!” Mother—the Dowager Princess Alexandra—quickly averted her gaze from the exhibits. “I’ll have nothing to do with those machines.” Harry did not mention the engine-driven carriage that had brought them here.
Their conversation up to that point had been predictable and relentless, and it still hadn’t ended.
“George will be here, yes?” Alexandra asked.
“Yes, Mother,” Harry sighed. She’d answered the question five times already.
“It is the only reason I’d dare go out, as weak as I’ve been, but I will not be calm until I see George. He hasn’t been the same since he married. He never should have married, he simply doesn’t have the disposition.”
“He’s the heir to the throne, Mother,” Harry said. “He couldn’t not marry.”
“It’s all so troublesome,” Alexandra stated, rearranging her handkerchief in her hands.
“Come, Motherdear, we’ll manage somehow,” Toria said. This family had dozens of Victorias and the need for ever more creative nicknames was paramount. Hence, Toria.
The royal salon was comfortable, with sofas, tea service, and an attentive maid. The family could gather, and Motherdear would have as much company as she wished and not have to move a step.
From across the room, a man standing tall in a starched naval uniform, his beard trim and his eyes alight with pride, caught her gaze and gestured to her. The Crown Prince—George, her older brother. He’d just dismissed a pair of very important-looking men in suits and high collars.
“Harry! Very good of you to come.” He was the only one who still called her by the childhood nickname. Him, and Marlowe, that is.
“Your Highness seemed most insistent.”
“And how is Toria? Motherdear?”
“You could go and see for yourself. Toria survives and Mother is desperate to speak with you, so you’d better make time for her.”
“Ah, yes. In the meantime—might we have a word?” He captured her arm for what looked like a turn about the room, the prince harmlessly conversing with his beloved youngest sister. “Have you had a look at the exhibit yet? What do you think?”
“Just a glimpse. It’s astonishing. Seeing it all together, it’s like art. Or a nightmare. Does this have anything to do with the siege breaking?”
“Indeed, our first group of official visitors has arrived from the continent, hoping for a council of war. The Home Office fully expects they have, however inadvertently, brought more nefarious elements with them.”
“Spies, you mean,” she said.
George looked as if he’d eaten something sour. “We’ve known for some time we’ve had someone—or a collection of someones—leaking information to the Germans. This display is partly to prove our strength—and partly to draw them out. I know it’s quite a lot to ask of you—but do keep an eye out, won’t you?”
“Surely the large quantity of guards present could better ferret out spies.”
“Yes, but my dear, you have a good eye for this sort of thing. And I trust you.”
God, they were doomed. The gathering of scientists, government officials, soldiers, and society gawkers took on an ominous cast, everyone looking over their shoulders, gazes narrowed.
He steered them around to deposit her close to Motherdear and the other women. She nudged him, and he obligingly went to give their mother a peck on the cheek. The dowager princess turned on him a particularly forlorn expression of abandonment.
Before Harry could flee, May took her arm, the one George had just released, and led her off. May—Princess Mary—was a poised and clever woman whom Harry looked forward to seeing become queen someday. Normally Maud quite liked speaking with her—easier to be Maud with her than with nearly anyone else in her family—but May was wearing a wicked expression that put Harry on guard.
“He forgot to tell you, didn’t he?” George’s wife said.
“Tell me what?” She couldn’t have meant the search for spies—
“Leave it to George to forget something like that. Carl is going to be here.” Her smile was delighted.
Carl. The Prince of Denmark—her cousin—as most royals from the continent these days were cousins. And in this case, her friend. The kind of friend that made her female relations put that suggestive arch to their brows, oh yes.
Dear Lord, she couldn’t be thinking about that and looking for spies at the same time. Because as soon as May said the name, she stopped looking for suspicious figures and started looking for Carl.
“Just thought I should warn you,” May said, patting her arm before leaving to return to George’s side, taking her place in a receiving line, managing to stand perfectly on that boundary between aloofness and personability required of the crown. It was a skill Harry—or Maud, for that matter—could never manage.
She should have known this wouldn’t be a simple family outing to view an enlightening and educational display of modern technology. Nothing about this family, this display—this entire modern world—was simple.
Immediately, she was pulled back toward the sofa where her mother had settled. This time it was Toria who lay claim to her, squeezing her hand with undue desperation.
“Poor May,” Toria exclaimed. “Look at her, so pale. She shouldn’t be out so soon after her confinement; she’ll make herself ill. She really isn’t up to so much public attention, I think.”
Having already produced two little princes to continue the line, May looked better than ever, Harry thought. She rolled her eyes. “Toria, do be quiet.”
“No, dear, Toria is right,” Motherdear, observed. “Women must be so, so careful. So very careful. You can never be too careful.”
Harry had rappelled down the sides of buildings, hooked on to the outside of an airship flying at its highest limit, traveled to the far reaches of the North Atlantic. All in the company of the dashing aeronaut Lieutenant Marlowe. Her mother would die if she knew. Harry wished she were back there now. She could do more good there than she was doing here.
Toria added, “You’ve seen what’s happened to Louise. Poor Louise!”
Their eldest sister, Louise, had escaped into marriage several years previous, and Mother and Toria went on and on about how terrible it was and how lonely she must be and how awful it was that she would not bring her children to visit more often. In her letters to Harry, Louise seemed ridiculously happy, and why shouldn’t she be? She was lady of her own house now and could do as she pleased. Much like being on an airship over the North Atlantic.
Louise had been one of the people Harry was supposed to be visiting during her weeks’ long absence from society, when she and Marlowe made that expedition to Iceland. George had told Louise of the necessity of the lie without giving details, and their sister was good-natured enough to comply. But goodness, there were secrets inside secrets, weren’t there?
Harry leaned in close to say, “Motherdear, I’ve got to go, George asked me to look over the exhibit. I’ll return shortly, Toria will look after you—”
“Oh, George! He’s looking quite ill since he married, don’t you think? It’s so difficult, seeing him like that! You won’t leave me again, Maud, will you? I hardly lived through your absence this past summer, I won’t last through another.”
The dowager princess was still lamenting. She’d lost Eddy, then Father, all in the same year. Harry ought to be more sympathetic; her whole world upended and nothing left but to worry about her remaining children. Harry had done exactly the opposite: ran from the grief and found a million other worries to occupy her.
Harry patted her mother’s hand and left for the exhibit hall.
The first display presented a complex mechanism a foot and a half or so on each side and crammed full of organic-looking tubes and coils tangled together, like an octopus stuffed into a glass box. A neatly printed placard described the machine’s function, but Harry didn’t have to read it. A cone-shaped vent on one side took air in, separated it into its composite molecules, and fed the resulting gases through slender tubes on the other side. The gaseous byproducts might be used in various specialized pneumatic processes, including filling the bladders of airships. As always when she examined Aetherian mechanisms, she felt uneasy. Yes, this was built by human hands and yes, it was human ingenuity that interpreted the alien wreckage and developed such machines from it. But the principles behind this device, the underlying features—they were not human, and she could never forget that, no matter how much she might ride trains driven by Aetherian engines or use hand torches lit by Aetherian luminescence.
Crowds bunched up before marble pedestals topped with steel coils, swimming through the green glow of light and the low hum of Aetherian generators. Overhead, a miniature airship drifted, demonstrating the latest developments in propulsion. Shivering with a sudden chill, she crossed her arms and moved to the next display.
Once or twice she thought she saw Marlowe among the soldiers standing watch—his wry smile, disheveled hair pressed under a cap. But she was mistaken—the soldiers all looked so similar with their uniforms and military demeanors.
She needn’t have worried about looking for Prince Carl; he found her first, came straight to her. He was a refined-looking man, with a pleasing form and polished features. He wore his Danish naval uniform well and not a hair on his head was out of place. He had every reason to be vain and arrogant, but he was not. He had a bashful, studious, kind look about him. Her smile lit when she saw him, and she reached her hands to him without thinking.
“Carl, your highness,” she said, squeezing his hands.
“Maud, your highness,” he answered. He kissed the knuckles of her right hand, then released her to keep a more polite distance between them. They had known each other since they were children; they couldn’t be completely decorous with one another. But if she kept hold of his hands, people would think they were already engaged. It was enough to make her run off and hide behind Motherdear.
“How are you? The journey wasn’t too difficult?” she asked. “We were all so worried about you during the siege, and Grandmama and Papa.”
“Everyone is fine, I assure you. But I confess, it’s a relief not facing German gunships on a simple Channel crossing. We took the navy’s fastest airship; we were in no danger.”
She was sure he made light of it for her sake. As a naval officer he might very well have taken part in maneuvers to break the siege. If she asked, he would brush off the question as unimportant. It would be hideous, to lose him in battle. She bit her lip and clasped her hands to suppress the chill the thought inspired.
“I’m very glad to see you,” she said simply, and he beamed at her.
“You look very well. You’ve been spending time outdoors, I think.”
She could not tell him of her other life, not under any circumstances. “It’s true, I’ve been keeping quite busy.”
“Good—you should distract yourself from the awfulness of events. I feel better, knowing you’re safe.”
What a terrible conversation this was turning into. “Have you had a chance to look around? The exhibition—it’s quite marvelous.”
“Why don’t you show me? Oh, but first—Maud, some of my officers have accompanied me; I would be honored if you would allow me to introduce you to them.”
Lieutenants Holm and Clausen were close to Carl in age and obviously friends as well as fellow officers. If I marry Carl, if I live in Denmark with him, I’ll see these men often, she thought. It felt like another life. The two men bowed smartly, mentioned that they had heard much talk of her and how the reality was even more brilliant, and so on. She blushed mightily.
Holm had a small, black leather box slung over his shoulder by a strap. It instantly drew her attention. “Pardon me, Lieutenant, but is that one of the new Kodak cameras?”
“Why, yes it is, your highness.” He proceeded to explain to her not only the workings of the camera—a simple button worked the shutter and exposed a roll of celluloid film, which must then be sent back to the factory to develop—but the principles of photography as well. She murmured polite encouragement rather than tell him she already knew.
If she had had such a portable camera in Iceland, she could have photographed the murals and symbols in the Cult of Egil’s temple. She’d acquire one for next time. But she could not assume there ever would be another expedition.
“Would you mind terribly,” Holm continued, “if I took your photograph? Both of your highnesses, to commemorate the event?”
She smiled. “You might have a care, Lieutenant. Rumor has it this regiment of soldiers is here looking for spies, and they might not take kindly to your photographing the wonders of our Aetherian technology. And I’m not sure they would distinguish a Danish accent from a German one.”
“Ah, quite right.” Blushing, Holm tucked the camera into a uniform pocket, which rested heavy with the weight. His pockets seemed stuffed with photographic equipment.
“Surely my men wouldn’t be suspect,” Carl declared, smiling to make it a joke.
“Alas, I am not the one making these judgments,” she answered. “As much as I would like to trust everyone, I certainly shouldn’t, don’t you think?”
“What terrible times, that make a blushing young lady so fearful.”
She had forgotten—she was supposed to be demure and sheltered. Drat it all.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Clausen regarded the nearby display. “Did the Aetherians have such things as cameras? Was there anything like photographic equipment found among the Surrey wreckage?”
“I don’t believe so,” Holm replied. “We have Aetherian lights and Aetherian engines driving locomotives and airships, Aetherian weapons and Aetherian wireless. But our cameras are still our own.”
Harry said, “There’s a hypothesis that the Aetherians had some means of capturing and storing images with electricity. Writing and sounds as well—some researchers believe it’s why we never found any written records in the wreckage. It’s all done by electrical means, but of course we haven’t any idea how to retrieve such information, since we’ve no idea exactly how it’s recorded.”
All three men were both staring at her. “At least, this is what I’ve heard,” she added, giving as sweet a smile as she knew how.
“Your highness seems to have quite an interest in the topic,” Holm said.
Indeed. “I was born the same year as the Surrey crash. It seems . . . relevant, to have an interest.”
Clausen gestured at the nearby display. “I’ve heard tell that scientists are working to improve such generators so they might produce enough power to destroy entire cities.”
“One can hardly call that an improvement,” Harry murmured.
“Certainly, but if anyone is to have such power, it should be us and our allies, yes?” Carl offered.
“Or we might think of working to prevent the need for such power entirely,” Harry offered.
“Really, gentlemen,” Holm said. “We shouldn’t bother a young lady with such talk of destruction. We’ve no wish to upset her, do we?”
Harry’s smile was vague and polite.
The two lieutenants wandered to the next display—to give her and Carl privacy, Harry expected. At Harry’s prompting, Carl spoke about conditions on the continent, how Germany was seeking out alliances and finding more than a few, and how Denmark was hoping to remain allied to Britain, but some factions did not believe the Empire could protect them. Germany wanted the technology Britain had, and if they had to occupy all of Europe to get it, they would. Their sceptered isle began to feel small indeed.
“George wants to change the family name to Windsor,” Harry said. “Being named to the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha seems politically inexpedient of late.”
“House of Windsor,” Carl said. “It sounds lovely. Very English.”
“Yes, that’s the idea. But it will never happen while the Queen is alive. Saxe-Coburg and Gotha is Prince Albert’s house, you see. She will never abandon it.” Holm and his camera reminded her, she was meant to be looking for spies as well as being polite. “Lieutenants Holm and Clausen seem like fine young men. How long have you known them?” she asked innocently.
“We trained together. Had our first airship cruise together. I trust them with my life.”
“That’s exactly what I thought. I feel better then, knowing they’re looking after you.”
“You’re very sweet, my dear.”
It would be easy to marry Carl. Easy, and hard. Her mother and Toria were right on that score: Marriage would be the death of her old life as well as the start of a new one. She, too, could give birth every year, like May, like Louise, like her own mother . . . It was another world, as much as Iceland was.
And why should she think of Marlowe in that moment? Lieutenant Marlowe, aeronaut, Aetherian engineer, adventurer, who’d gone along with her Iceland scheme, who was her access to another life entirely. An impossible life. Prince Carl was in the circle of men she could entertain romantic notions about. Marlowe was not, and that was all there was to it.
She needed to distract herself from such wool-gathering.
She surveyed the room. She’d done a bit of clandestine work, certainly, but she didn’t know that she’d recognize a spy on sight. Anyone looking at her at the moment, lurking, hands clasped, her expression creased with worry, might assume she was a spy.
Her gaze passed over a corner by a display of experimental spotlights that could illuminate the skies over London, then returned to it. And why should she think of Marlowe? Because he was standing there, looking back at her. She wasn’t mistaken this time, it was definitely him. The tightly sealed mental container of things she could not speak of burst open.
“Are you all right?” Carl said.
She must have frozen in place when she spotted the aeronaut. When she looked again he was gone. He would be, wouldn’t he?
“No, it’s just—this is all very overwhelming.”
One of the liveried footmen arrived, which could only mean Harry was about to be drawn into some minor domestic turmoil. The young man, blushing, bowed apologetically and stammered that she was required in the royal salon. She politely took temporary leave of Carl, struggling to compose herself.
“What is it, Mother?” Harry asked, arriving at the salon and taking Alexandra’s reaching hand. Her mother gripped her hard. “Maud! Oh, thank goodness, I have news, I must tell you, I’ve just heard it myself—Carl is here!”
Harry managed a calm expression. “Yes, Mother, I know. I’ve already spoken with him.”
“You have? Well—” She leaned in and whispered conspiratorially. “Has he asked you yet?” That was a very suggestive lift to her eyebrow.
“When he does, I suppose you must tell him yes. Even though I’ll be bereft without you.”
“I’m going back to the hall now,” Harry said. “Will you be all right?”
She waved herself with her handkerchief. “I suffer, but I’ll live.” Harry glanced at Toria for her opinion. Her sister shrugged.
Before she could flee the salon, George sneaked up to intercept her. “Anything?” he demanded curtly. He meant the search for spies, she assumed, and not Carl.
“Lieutenant Marlowe is here, did you know that?”
“Why, yes. He’s just back from Portsmouth.”
“And you didn’t tell me! I can’t speak to Marlowe here, do you have any idea—”
“Why not? I thought you liked him.”
“George!” She shook her head. “Never mind. May I go?”
After dipping the Crown Prince a rather rude curtsey, she marched off.
She failed to find Carl again right away. Holm and Clausen were across the hall, standing close to an Aetherian cannon modulator.
When Marlowe stepped out from behind one of the pedestals, she should have expected it. Nevertheless, she jumped, biting back a startled yelp. Hand to her throat, she glared at the man who stood sheepishly regarding her.
“I beg your pardon, your highness. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Marlowe!” She lowered her voice, collected herself. “Lieutenant—I thought you were at Portsmouth.”
He was in uniform, and she had never seen him so polished, all his brass buttons shining, propeller insignia of the aeronautic corps pinned smartly to his breast. He was not in a civilian disguise, or in the field in his coat and fatigues. He’d even trimmed his hair.
“I was worried about you,” she finished.
She had never seen him smile quite like that, either. Not out of exhilaration or glee or triumph. This was a gentle smile. “Thank you, your highness. You’re looking well.”
He had probably never seen her quite so polished either. He had never really seen Princess Maud in her element. Self-consciously, she tugged at her sleeves, resisted patting at her curls.
He said, “Might I ask . . . who was the very fine gentleman walking with you earlier?”
The arch in his brow was similar to the expression May had given her earlier, but without the warmth. She was suddenly uneasy because she couldn’t read this Marlowe like she could read the one she thought she knew.
“His Highness, Prince Carl of Denmark,” she said. She walked on, and side-by-side they strolled along the row of displays.
“Oh. I see. He seems . . . nice.”
“What are you saying, Lieutenant?”
“Not a thing, highness. It’s just that the two of you seem—”
“We’ve known each other since we were children.”
“Then I shouldn’t be suspicious of him—a gentleman recently arrived from the continent, from a country that borders Germany . . . ”
She turned away to study an ornate pumping mechanism, copper tubing and wires protruding at unlikely angles.
“I expected you to deny the possibility,” he said.
“I trust Carl completely. But events have become muddled.” She ought to just tell him that she and Carl were all but engaged, had been decidedly matched by all their relatives. She ought to, but couldn’t.
He followed her gaze to the arch formed by tubes and wires, a gaseous bulb glowing with the green of swamp gas. “It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, what the Academy has been able to hide while seemingly putting so much on display?”
“To tell you the truth, seeing all this together in one place—I’m horrified. We’ve worked to advance human knowledge, to expand our abilities, and yet we keep dragging ourselves into destruction. Half the machines here have weapons applications, and all anyone can talk about is how we might destroy Berlin. As if an Aetherian death ray that could be used to force Berlin to surrender could not also be used to smash London.”
“Once the war ends, we’ll pursue other interests than weaponry. I hope.”
They were standing too close together. Another inch and her silk sleeve would brush his uniform. Natural, because they were speaking in hushed tones and needed to hear each other. But it wasn’t proper. She made herself take a step away, walking on to the next display.
“But isn’t all of this the reason we’re fighting a war in the first place?” She gestured to encompass the room, the unsettling devices, the circling model airship loaded with model armaments. All weapons, when they should be doing what Marlowe always spoke of—breaching the atmosphere, sailing the highest altitudes. Discovering where the Aetherians came from and why they had ever come to Earth in the first place.
They had returned to the first display: the pneumatic pump, the octopus in a box. But something about it had changed. A hundred people might walk past and not notice—a hundred people had. A tiny coil, no bigger than a pocket watch, was now attached to one of the machine’s exterior bolts. Made to look like simply another component, its color was nevertheless wrong. The curl of the wire was a bit too tight. A hair-like filament, not entirely hidden by the other wires, glowed an ominous red.
“Marlowe, do you see that?” She nodded at it.
“That . . . isn’t British, I think.”
“And I swear to you it wasn’t there an hour ago. I stood here studying this very display—it’s been placed here since.”
A myriad of possibilities occurred to her. Sabotage—it was a bomb, or it would release poisonous gas or set the hall on fire. It was some kind of wireless communicator that was even now transmitting their voices. A location beacon—
“Pardon me, miss? Sir?” A short, dapper man with dark hair, a full moustache, and a lively gaze intruded. He ducked his head apologetically, but his gaze was insistent. “Please forgive me for eavesdropping. You were speaking of the war, of the Aetherian Revolution, and reservations you have about the same?”
Deftly, in quite a guard-like manner, Marlowe stepped around to interpose himself between her and the stranger. “Quite right, sir, and as an officer in Her Majesty’s Navy I must point out that such talk might be considered treasonous.”
The man was undeterred. “But you are not worried—oh, you’re Maud of Wales! Your highness, this is an honor!” He made a bow with arms spread wide. “And you, Lieutenant, must be her . . . bodyguard?”
She would have preferred that he not recognize her at all—especially now, when all she wanted was to look again at the odd device attached to the pneumatic pump. But his apparent lack of chagrin at addressing a member of the royal family, not to mention his complete lack of trepidation at Marlowe’s suggestion of treason, intrigued her.
Hoping she behaved with as much dignity as May would in such an encounter, she answered, “Thank you, sir. And if I may inquire—what is your name?”
“Wells, ma’am. Mr. Herbert Wells. I’m a writer of sorts, if I flatter myself. You seem to have strong opinions regarding the exhibition?” The hint was obvious.
She spoke as broadly as she could, to draw him out—perhaps this was the spy? “I simply wonder where it will all end. Aetherian technology has given us so much more power than we were ready for, I think.”
He donned a keen examining look, indicating she had just become even more interesting to him—far more than one of the “Royal Shynesses,” as she and her sisters were sometimes called in the papers.
“I am writing a novel, your highness, if I may be so bold as to tell you of it. It’s about the crash, about the Aetherians, though I’ll most likely dress it all up with other names. It’s meant to be allegorical, you see. A story of an alternate outcome. Suppose for a moment that the Aetherian craft had purposefully landed rather than crashed. And then suppose that there had been more than one of them. That there had been an invasion, you might call it.”
Not a spy but a novelist. Almost as bad. Did she believe him? Had he also heard the rumors that the Surrey crash was not the first time Aetherians had visited Earth? She had approached the question as an archaeologist might, as a search for artifacts and long-dead evidence requiring excavation. This author answered the question tactically, and with a paranoia she had not considered. The Aetherians came to this planet on more than one occasion. Of course this begged the question: What did they want here? Would they come again? And what would they think when they found that perversions of their technology had overrun the planet? She wondered if Mr. Wells could see her unease.
He made an expansive gesture toward the displays. “You see what weaponry we’ve cobbled together from their machinery, without knowing where to start, just using common sense and good English know-how. But we’re like children playing with a loaded pistol. Imagine what Aetherian machines—Aetherian weaponry—must be like in their fully functional forms? Now imagine them traveling across the countryside, laying waste, conquering as they go? What would we do in such a case, your highness? How would we even hope to resist?”
“This is an allegory, you say?” she asked. “That you fear the technology may thus be destroying us, without its masters to control it?”
“I could not have stated it more clearly myself. Would you be terribly offended if I sent you a copy of the novel, ma’am, when it is finished?”
That was a crowded street she did not want to step into, but fortunately Marlowe bowed his head and murmured, “Beg your pardon, ma’am, but I believe you’re wanted.”
He gestured, and there was Carl approaching. But what about that bloody anomaly on the machine? She cast a pleading glance at Marlowe, who only shrugged.
Quickly she said, “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Wells, my duties claim my attention. Good luck with your writing.” She turned away as he gave an awkward bow and departed.
“Was he quite serious?” she said to Marlowe. “About writing a book? What would you call it . . . an alternate future?”
“I’ll certainly be looking into his credentials.”
“What are we going to do about that thing?” she hissed.
“Hold off, your friend is here.”
Her smile was strained as she tried not to let on that anything was amiss.
“Hello again, my dear! Is everything well?” Carl said as he eyed Marlowe. And what must it look like, this military man lurking so close to her for no apparent reason?
“Carl, this is one of the Crown Prince’s valued Aetherian engineers. Lieutenant James Marlowe, this is His Highness of Denmark. Lieutenant Marlowe was answering some of my questions about the exhibit.”
Marlowe bowed smartly, as he could do very well when the situation warranted. “Your Highness.”
“This must all make perfect sense to you then.”
“Not entirely, sir. There will always be mysteries.”
Carl said, “Lieutenant, would excuse her highness and I for a moment?”
“But of course,” Marlowe said and moved away, because he would follow orders, wouldn’t he? He moved behind the velvet rope setting off the exhibit to examine the anomaly. She was desperate to get a better look at it herself, but Carl had taken up her hand and squeezed, rather hard. She couldn’t get away.
Harry said, “Where are your friends, Carl? Shouldn’t you be looking after them?” And not here, when she was trying to solve a mystery . . .
Another matter seemed to occupy him entirely. “Maud. I had hoped to speak to you this afternoon. This . . . this isn’t the setting I would wish. If I were a cleverer man I would arrange some scene in a garden spilling over with flowers and musicians—”
“Carl, what is it?” Her heart was both sinking and racing.
“I spoke with your brother. He said . . . he said I’ll have to speak to your grandmother as well and win her approval, but he said he would arrange a meeting. In the meantime, I can’t bear to spend another moment without asking you. Maud, will you consent to be my wife?”
She adjusted her grip to fold her hand over his. She didn’t know what to say. She truly didn’t. If they stood in the garden he had mentioned, she would likely give an enthusiastic yes. But here, she could not help but think of the war that would carry him away again sooner rather than later. The future was uncertain, like Mr. Wells’s alien machines of war bearing down on them all. And that damned thing stuck to the pump—
“Oh, Carl . . . ” She didn’t know what to say, so she said nothing. “I’m very sorry, but an emergency requires my immediate attention.” She pulled away from him and crossed the velvet rope to join Marlowe next to the exhibit.
Guards that hadn’t blinked at Marlowe approaching the display shouted at her. Probably, she could have found a different way to accomplish this, but the moment overtook her.
Soldiers rushed from every direction. “You there! Get away from there! What do you think—”
“Sergeant, this is Her Highness Maud of Wales, do step back please.” Marlowe used a sharp, commanding voice that pulled the soldier up short.
“Her Highness?” one of the guards sputtered. “What? But? I mean—”
“Harry, look at this,” Marlowe said.
A closer study of the thing made her believe it presented no immediate danger. No critical wires connected it to the pneumatic pump. It wasn’t warm to the touch, it made no ticking noise. A bug, she thought of it, with a pair of flat receivers like wings, the coils like legs, the glowing filaments like antennae. All of it no bigger than a half-crown piece. It was attached by a magnet, nothing more. She popped it straight off, and waited for some dreadful consequence—
“Ma’am, highness, please, I must ask, if you would please—” That same soldier pleaded with her. The poor man was sweating under his cap, obviously restraining himself from reaching out.
“Is she really Maud of Wales?” another of the guards declared plaintively.
“What on Earth is going on here?” Carl added his own commanding voice to the mix. Other onlookers had been drawn over by the commotion. She and Marlowe probably should have kept quiet and alerted the guard regiment commander later on. Nothing Harry could do about that now. She handed the device to Marlowe. He drew a loupe from his pocket, and held the strange device up to the light to study it better.
“Maud, what is this, what’s all the fuss?” Carl was hovering and glaring accusingly at Marlowe, who took a moment from his examination to glare back. These two never should have met. Never should have been in the same room together. She never wanted to have to explain her two lives to each other.
“I’m afraid there’s a serious problem,” she said, pained.
Someone had finally gone to fetch George, the ostensible patron of the exhibition, who marched over, flanked by a veritable army. Or maybe it only seemed that way.
“What is it?” the Crown Prince demanded. “What’s going on here. Harry? Marlowe?” He saw them and was quite taken aback, as if he, too, had never expected to see them both standing together in public like this.
“It’s an ultra-compact listening device,” Marlowe declared. “There’s a phonic receiver here, and this is the wireless transmitter. We should assume that we’re being listened to even now.”
An abrupt quiet fell over the gathering.
George glowered at the thing in Marlowe’s hand, blustered a moment. Harry recognized the simmering anger in his eyes.
“Well. This was the whole point,” the prince said. “A spy would learn nothing from these displays. This is all readily available, public technology. And now we’ve drawn them out.”
“Yes,” Harry said. “But we expected them to try to steal something. To take photographs or make drawings,” she said, nodding at Holm and his camera. Holm and Clausen had both come to stand near Carl. “But these exhibits would all be taken back to laboratories and workshops after the exhibition, where new experiments are taking place, and our enemies could listen at their leisure.”
“There will be more,” Marlowe said, just as Harry made a dash for the next display, copper tubes wrapped around bundles of wire, a capacitor for airship engines. After only a moment of searching, she found what she’d expected to find and reached in to pry free another of the glowing red bugs.
She might as well have held up a rat she’d discovered in the royal kitchen. “I think we will find these on many of the exhibits.”
Her gaze immediately went to Holm and his heavy pockets, which she had assumed were filled with photographic equipment. But it was all a distraction, wasn’t it?
“Lieutenant Holm?” Harry said. “Might I ask what’s in your pockets?”
The Danish lieutenant took a step back. The guards moved up behind him.
“What is this?” Carl demanded again, and he had such a look of betrayal on him, part of Harry’s heart broke. But only part of it.
“Oh, Carl,” she murmured. “I don’t know how to resolve this without dragging you into it. I’m sorry.”
“Wait a moment, what is your concern in all this? How can you possibly be involved—”
Then Marlowe shouted, “Harry!” and Lieutenant Holm lunged for her over the velvet rope. Grabbed her hand, twisted her around, locked his arm across her neck. Someone screamed—Motherdear, Harry thought, but that couldn’t have been right.
A hard piece of metal pressed against her cheek. Peering down, she was able to see the nose of the Aetherian pistol Holm held to her; the faint green of its battery glowed.
“Stop! Everyone stop where you are! I will shoot the princess!”
She didn’t think, except to imagine that later on George and Marlowe would both tell her she was an idiot and she should have stayed quiet and let them take care of all this. But they both knew her. Not staying quiet had gotten her into this situation, and it would get her out.
She grabbed the man’s wrist and shoved it up as she dropped her weight. Oddly, her corset and heavy skirts supported her as much as they restricted her movements. She did not tip over when Holm yanked away from her. She kept hold of his wrist, grabbed the pistol to keep him from turning it back on her. He never had a chance to fire.
By then, Holm was restrained by soldiers, who also surrounded Clausen and Prince Carl. And it was over.
“Her Majesty approaches!”
The crowd parted, and the tableau was struck in time for the queen to see it all. Soldiers, finely dressed members of society, the Crown Prince—and his youngest sister, holding a pistol and still confronting the man who’d tried to take her captive. Everyone stopped, held a collective breath, and dropped into instinctive bows and curtseys.
The queen was an old woman, small and round, a miniature warship in her black mourning gown with its high collar, draped sleeves, wide skirt. Her face was as pale as the lace veil under her cap. Pale as the face on a photograph. Sadness pulled her expression into an eternal frown. She took her time reviewing the scene, gaze passing over them all, lingering a particularly long moment on her granddaughter.
Finally, the queen made a gesture, and they all rose. Marlowe’s military training kept him straight as a pole, unmoving as a statue. Harry felt like she was five years old and being presented, then scolded because her pinafore was crooked. Even George seemed chagrined.
“Lieutenant Marlowe,” the queen said. “Be so good as to tell us what you find in the Danish gentleman’s pocket.”
Marlowe quickly patted down Holm’s uniform coat—and found the secret pockets on the inside, containing just two more of the transmitters. Holm’s expression went still and cold. Harry looked at Carl, and did not know what to think when he didn’t seem particularly surprised.
• • • •
The authorities interviewed Carl, Prince of Denmark. But they interrogated Holm and Clausen.
The exhibition closed for the day. Harry sent her mother and Toria home in the carriage, claiming that George and May needed her help with social duties that evening. Really, though, May returned to the palace and her boys, while George retreated to the now empty salon with Harry and Marlowe. She perched at the edge of an armchair while George sat heavily in his own chair, rubbing at his beard like an old man. This is what he will look like when he is king, she thought. Marlowe did not sit at all, but stood at attention like a guard.
George explained, “Carl is likely blameless, according to the initial assessment. His friend abused his connection to the prince, knowing Carl would give him access to the highest levels here. Any potential engagement between him and you . . . need not be impossible, Harry.”
But it might as well be. She saw the way Carl looked at her, there at the end. She was not the ideal princess. Everyone had seen that at last. She might find a way to make it right—convince them all, and Carl, that she could be lovely and demure and certainly not caught up in intrigues. If she wanted to.
“I forgot to give him an answer,” she said simply, sadly. She hadn’t meant to hurt him.
A royal footman entered and bowed at the doorway. “Her Majesty, the Queen.”
They stood. The queen entered and regarded them with a stately lack of emotion before turning to the far wall and the portrait there, of Prince Albert. Harry had paid it little attention when she first arrived. Pictures of her grandfather were like the very air among the royal palaces. So ubiquitous, they hardly required mentioning. And like the air, utterly necessary.
The Queen said, “Albert has become a symbol of the old Britain, from before the Revolution. Dignified, more contemplative. My Britain.”
“Ma’am,” they all murmured in quiet agreement.
“You favor him, Maud, I think. You have a certain refinement in your features that reminds me of him.”
This was likely the deepest compliment Her Majesty was able to give. Blushing, Maud ducked another curtsey. “Ma’am.”
“I wish you could have known him. Both of you.”
If they were any other family, any normal family, she would give into the urge to rush forward and embrace the woman, who was still so stricken with grief some fifty years after her husband’s death.
“So do I, ma’am,” Harry said softly, and was rewarded with the flicker of a smile.
The queen drew herself from the painting and her thoughts to address them. “Maud, Lieutenant Marlowe: His Royal Highness has told us of your expedition to Iceland and the great success it brought our realm. We ourselves have witnessed your . . . aptitude for discovering the plots of our enemies. We are convinced, then, that we are justified in encouraging your further expeditions.”
This was not at all what Maud expected of this meeting. She resisted an urge to glance at Marlowe.
“You have the skills and the knowledge, and your Empire is in need of your abilities.”
The queen was the great defender of propriety and decorum. Could she possibly know what she was asking? Did she truly realize what Maud had already done? “Ma’am . . . Your Majesty. I thought you would be scandalized—” She would never forget it, the looks on all their faces after she had wrestled herself from her captor, holding the pistol as though she had always held one.
“Maud. These times are strange. You should stay at home, marry Carl, and be a good wife, a good lady. But George is right, I fear. You have already proven yourself, and we trust you as we cannot trust anyone who isn’t close to us. So we must send you off to learn what you can. Bring back what you can. And you—” She turned to Marlowe. “We charge you with protecting our granddaughter and bringing her home safely.”
“Ma’am,” Marlowe said, nodding.
“We bid you good day, then.”
They repeated their obeisances while the queen made her slow way out of the salon, flanked by her footmen.
Maud stared after her, stunned.
“Our grandmother is a very practical woman,” George said, almost cheerfully. “Don’t you agree?”
“I think I may faint,” Marlowe said.
“You don’t have time for that, Lieutenant,” George said. His amusement was gone, and now he was another self—not Crown Prince, not elder brother, but officer preparing for battle. “You’ll have an airship and all the resources you need. You’ve seen today how determined the Germans are to overcome us. Therefore, you must track every lead you have on every possible Aetherian landing or artifact. You must return with all you can find as quickly as you can. The realm depends upon it.”
This was a massive undertaking. And finally, she felt as if she had a role to play, a proper job besides wearing lovely gowns and comforting her mother. George ordered them to meet with him tomorrow to make further plans, then left them standing in the foyer, blinking at one another.
“Well then,” Marlowe said finally. “You have your wish. You’ll learn everything there is to discover about the Aetherian presence on Earth.”
It was all she ever wanted, to do some good, to help her country. To learn the secrets of the crash that had irrevocably altered the world, that had ensured she would never know an Earth without alien technology. What she had not considered, what she had not realized until the fact stood directly before her, was how this road, in all ways, led to a destination that lay in complete, unknowable darkness. When she shone that light ahead of her, she did not know what she would find staring back. But she must shine that light.
“Your Highness,” he prompted, after a stretch of silence. “Harry—”
“Marlowe. We have plans to make.”