Here it was, lying on a bed of stone, inert. Such an innocuous artifact, one that would go unnoticed on any machinist’s workbench. A coil of copper wire wrapped around a steel cylinder just a few inches long, inset with an otherworldly crystal that seemed to glow faintly green with its own light, like a distant aurora. Truly otherworldly, as it happened.
Harry had searched for the object for more than a year, scouring ancient manuscripts, picking apart the threads of unlikely stories, tracking down reliable eyewitness accounts and separating them from fabrications, deciding which myths had a seed of fact within them and which were pure folly. Finally, she planned the expedition and arranged her disappearance from polite society for a month or more to embark on said expedition—leading to the moment that would make all the effort worthwhile. Or confirm that she had wasted her time utterly.
It would seem, she was pleased to note, that she hadn’t.
The Aetherian craft that crashed in Surrey in 1869—her entire lifetime, twenty-five years ago now—was not the first such visitor to this world, some hypothesized. This artifact proved that they were right, that another Aetherian being had arrived a thousand years before and left this mechanism behind. A spare part to the Aetherians, but worshipped as a trinket of the gods in this obscure corner of Iceland ever since.
Some would say the Cult of Egil was not far wrong, to take the artifact as a holy talisman. Harry couldn’t be bothered with the theology of the matter. She needed it for more mundane purposes. This was a piece of Aetherian technology that no one else in the world possessed. Britain had brought Aetherian wonders to the rest of humanity; by rights, it should have this as well, before anyone else. If she could convey it back home successfully.
Carefully, with gloved hands, she removed the object from its stone niche, where it had rested for centuries deep underground, inside the dormant volcano where the mysterious Icelandic cult that guarded it made its home. It hardly weighed anything. Surely the tingling she felt from it was her mind playing tricks. Merely the anticipation of finally having it in her possession. Nerves, that was all.
The artifact was hers. She set it safely inside the padded metal box she’d brought to transport it in, and slipped the box back inside her canvas rucksack, which she slung over her shoulder. Taking a moment to prepare for the next stage of the journey, she arranged herself and her tools. She wore a leather vest over a shirt, khaki trousers, and thick workboots. Along with her rucksack she wore a belt with several pouches, containing a rock hammer, lockpicks, compass, hand lantern, and a holster with her pistol. Everything was in place. Now, to get out before they ever realized she’d been here.
The Cult of Egil’s Temple of Sky Fire was located in an ancient lava tube, a twisting set of caves carved into the very earth by rivers of molten lava and searing gas. The air still smelled of sulfur, the reek of distant, burning stone. Heat rose up through the black rock, evidence that the fires that had once flowed through here still lingered beneath the crust. The tunnels had merged into a large cavern; oblique shafts had been dug to the surface to let in faint glimmers of arctic light. Polished squares of silver reflected the sunlight, directing the rays to strike a mural above the altar: a mosaic of bone and shell, in the shape of some inhuman god—an Aetherian pilot, Harry knew, with its plates of bone and curling tentacles.
The niche was one of dozens ringing the cavern and its altar, all containing carved stone figurines, polished jewels, elaborate gold ornaments. This niche didn’t seem any larger than the others, or have any significance of placement. Surely no one would miss this artifact, which must have seemed incomprehensible to them.
Just then, the shouting of a crowd, like the roaring of a wave, echoed from the main tunnel of the cavern complex. Well, then. She’d lingered too long. A dozen tunnels led out of the cavern; the only one she’d identified for certain was the one she came in through. Her exit, if she wished to avoid the wrath of the angry cultists, would have to be via a different route. She turned to the tunnel that sloped upward out of the chamber—to the surface of the mountain and not its depths, she hoped—and ran.
She wasn’t stealing, not really; she had so much more use for the object than these northern heathens possibly could. But clearly they would not understand her reasoning; a hundred voices raised in fury, shouting rolling curses in an ancient tongue, followed her. Harry didn’t dare stop, but risked a glance over her shoulder.
These men, this horde—descendants of a lost tribe of Vikings trapped under the Icelandic volcano—had degenerated to a level of barbarity that would have shocked even their own bloodthirsty ancestors. The first of the cultists appeared in the cavern just in time to see which way she’d gone. A caricature of an ancient Scandinavian warrior, the hide-draped brute wore a crude helmet, and carried a chipped stone spear. His hair and beard shrouded his face in a filthy mask. His fellows swarmed behind him, ant-like, one barbarian form almost indistinguishable from the next. Their blond and red heads of hair were unwashed, matted beyond rescue, but the cultists cared nothing for such civilized matters. Their only concern was the temple to their hideous alien god, and the artifacts they had made in worship of it, in imitation of the one they’d found, that had fallen from the sky.
Of course Harry ran for her life—and for the artifact in her pouch, which had damned well better be worth it. Marlowe had better be waiting for her, as they’d planned, as he’d promised. She had no reason to expect he would fail her; he hadn’t yet, not in all the years she’d known him. He wouldn’t now.
She ran in darkness, for a time, when the tunnel curved away from the silver glow of the cavern. Hoping she didn’t run smack into a wall, she had to fumble for the hand lantern in her belt pouch as she ran; she didn’t dare slow down to fish for it properly. Her vision swam, searching out the way in front of her, following the wall by the sound of her breath echoing off of it. Finally, her hand found the lantern, and she pressed the switch to activate its green Aetherian glow. By this light she could see only a few feet before her, but it was enough.
A hundred leather-clad footsteps pounded on the stone behind her.
Up ahead, a spot of sunlight shone—the tunnel entrance. Escape—or rescue, rather. The light ahead expanded, and the stink of sulfur in the basalt tunnel gave way to a touch of icy arctic air. When the tunnel opened, Harry skidded to a stop, balanced at the edge of a cliff that dropped away a thousand feet to a rocky, blasted landscape below.
Marlowe wasn’t there.
The mountain had dozens of caves, places where the volcanic heat steamed forth. Marlowe would be keeping watch on them all, searching for her. She still had time. An hour before he gave her up as lost. Shoving her lantern back in its pouch, she reached into another one for a flare, struck the flint on the fuel, pointed it to the sky, and launched the charge. A fiery missile, sparking green, arced upward, trailing thick black smoke behind it. If that didn’t work . . .
Before her was a long fall on hard rocks. Behind her, the cultists. She inched to the edge of the drop, keeping a hand on the tunnel wall for balance. If she had to, she’d jump. Slow her fall down the rocky slope as much as she could, and maybe Marlowe could pick up the pieces of her broken body. Or find and rescue the artifact, if there weren’t enough pieces of her to collect. The flare’s smoke hung in the air, a trail leading back to her—while it lasted.
She drew her Aetherian pistol from its holster, though it hardly mattered—the gun’s charge would only last long enough to stop a handful of the cultists. The fiery glow of torches preceded their assault. She prepared to slide over the edge.
Suddenly, the flare’s trail of smoke dissipated, scattered by a blast of wind that pressed Harry to the wall. Arm over her face, she chanced a look—and saw the airship drop down the side of the mountain, to the tunnel entrance. Its curved bladder and sleek gondola blocked the sun and threw a shadow over her.
Stone-filled bags fell from the gondola—ballast dropping, slowing the ship’s descent. Marlowe had timed this very close indeed.
The Aetherian engine in the back of the airship whined, throwing off green-tinted sparks behind it. When the gondola came alongside the mouth of the tunnel, the door to the cabin was wide open, and there was Marlowe, just like he was supposed to be. The pilot was obscured, made larger and more terrifying by the greatcoat and leather-padded goggles masking his features. He held his rifle at the ready.
Harry clutched her satchel, her pistol in her right hand, and didn’t look back, leaping from the cliff’s edge to the airship cabin. Marlowe stepped in behind her, slammed shut the door, and lunged to the airship’s controls. A Viking spear thunked against the gondola’s side. Out the window, Harry saw the horde reach the edge of the cliff—in fact, two of the fellows fell over, pushed by their enthusiastic brethren rushing too fast behind. Good riddance.
The airship sank a few more feet, then stopped, and with another bag of ballast gone, rose up again. The guidance propeller spun faster, and the ship jumped forward, wind whipping across the bladder above them. The ship raced away from the tunnel, along the slope of the shattered volcano, and soon the cultists’ berserker shouting faded against the sound of wind and rumbling engine.
They’d done it.
Marlowe turned another set of levers and the sound changed, drive motors coming online, whirring, moving the craft laterally. The mountain, its black crags and broken clefts, slid past, like a painting on a roller. In moments, the ship turned to the coast of Iceland, and open sky lay before them.
Settling her breathing, Harry took in lungfuls of cool clean air, letting its touch calm her. She slouched against the plush seat at the side of the cabin.
Marlowe turned in his pilot’s chair to face her, pulling the goggles down to hang around his neck. In his early thirties, he was weathered in a way that spoke of experience rather than hardship, his brown hair unkempt and his cheeks covered with stubble because he simply didn’t have time to bother rather than because he was sloppy. His clothing was simple, practical. His eyes shone, and his smile was playful. Butterflies fluttered in her stomach.
“If you’d misjudged the ballast you dropped by a pound, you’d have lost me,” she said, scowling.
“But I didn’t. You knew I wouldn’t,” he said.
“Bloody hell,” she sighed.
The motor droned, sending vibration through the cabin. The rattling soothed her.
“You got it,” he said, a declaration of fact rather than a question of her ability.
“Do you even have to ask?”
“I never doubted. May I see?”
Moving to the co-pilot’s chair, she retrieved the box from her satchel and rested it on her lap. Marlowe leaned forward, watching as she revealed the artifact. She smiled—he clutched his hands together in an effort to keep from grabbing the thing from her. She presented the cylinder to him cupped in her hands, and admired his flat, astonished expression. He sighed a quiet breath and picked it up.
“I’m not sure I even know what it is,” he said, holding it up to the cockpit window, turning it this way and that in the light. “Part of a generation coil, perhaps, or an amplification rod.”
“But it’s Aetherian. The stories were true.”
“Yes,” he murmured. “It most certainly is, and they were.”
The possibilities presented by this new artifact clearly entranced Marlowe, but Harry was taken by a larger question: The Aetherians had visited Earth before. Perhaps often, even. There might even be artifacts—new pieces to the Aetherian puzzle—scattered all over the world. No one had even known to look for them.
“Where do you suppose they found it? The cultists?” she said.
“The stories say they found it frozen in ice that had drifted from the north.”
“But there had to be another ship—another crash, even. Where is the rest of it?”
“It might be a tool left behind. Perhaps they didn’t crash at all.”
She stared out the window to a sun-bleached sky. “It rather begs the question, doesn’t it? This proves they’ve traveled here more than once. What do we do if the Aetherians ever come back?”
Marlowe looked up from the coil, and she met his gaze. Neither of them had an answer. In the twilight shadow of the volcano, the crystal gave off a faint glow.
“All this time, and the power source is still active. Weak, but active,” he said. He produced a jeweler’s loupe from an inside vest pocket and tucked it over his eye. “Usual switching circuitry here—we saw this sort of thing in all the shipboard systems of the Surrey crash. Used to route power. I wonder . . . Harry, my toolkit is under the bench, if you wouldn’t mind—”
“Are you sure this is wise? Shouldn’t you wait until you’re in your laboratory?”
“This will only take a moment.”
A little digging in the bench cupboard revealed the kit, a slim aluminum case containing the tools for manipulation of finer mechanisms. He chose a wire probe from the collection. When he tapped it against the alien cylinder, his hands were steady as a surgeon’s.
The device emitted a hissing noise—gas released under pressure.
“What was that?” Harry asked.
Marlow tapped the cylinder again, and the hissing stopped. Bringing the artifact close to his face, he sniffed.
“Smell that,” he said, offering it to her.
She hated to get too close to the coil, but she didn’t have to, to identify the reek. “It’s methane.”
“Some kind of gas exchange, I’d wager,” Marlowe said. “God, I really need to take this apart . . .”
“We’ll know more, once we’re back in London.”
“Oh. About that.” He handed the device back to her. “We may have a bit of a problem getting home.”
“Good of you to mention it,” she said, smirking, wrapping the coil again and securing it safely in the box. “What kind of a problem?”
“The Germans have established a blockade.”
She harrumphed. “We knew that was coming. We’ll simply avoid the Channel and approach from the north.”
“Ah, no. Not just the Channel.” She raised a brow, and he continued. “They’ve blockaded the entire British Isles.”
A bit of a problem, indeed.
The battle had been raging for a week—naturally, the Queen and the Empire could not let a blockade of the home country stand. Marlowe had spent the time, while Harry had been infiltrating the volcanic tunnels in Iceland, hiding the Kestrel in valleys and ravines, going aloft at intervals to intercept wireless transmissions to try and get some kind of news.
They were too far away yet to see signs of fighting. Knowing the respective strength of each of the forces, though, Harry was certain she and Marlowe wouldn’t be able to avoid the battle for long. They weren’t at all equipped for it—the Kestrel was a courier ship, built for speed and agility. She had no armor and little in the way of weapons. Perhaps they’d do better to find a safe port and wait out the blockade.
Except they had to get the coil to Prince George, and to Marlowe’s laboratory. The artifact could change everything. She thought through a multitude of plans—land elsewhere, make their way home by some other route. Make for the Americas and rendezvous with a more capable warship. Or did they dare attempt to run the blockade? She knew what Marlowe would say.
“So, do we go above or below the fray?” she asked.
“Above. They’ve got surface ships on the water.”
She went to the safe in the back, a square of thick steel tucked over the driveshaft, put her satchel containing the artifact inside, locked it tight, and tied the key to a cord around her neck. Even if the ship didn’t make it through, no one would be able to gain access to the box without destroying its contents. Not without her.
“What can I do to help?” she asked.
“Don’t jostle the boat,” he said. “Or if you’d like you can pour us some brandy.” He glanced over his shoulder and quirked a grin.
“I’m your maid, then?” she said.
“I stashed the bottle in the cupboard under the seat there.” He nodded to the bench by the hatch.
The bench seat was hinged, revealing the promised cupboard, packed tightly with boxes, slots, canvas bags, blankets and fur coats for high altitudes, provisions for an extended journey, and her own package of supplies. Good. In a slot that looked as if it had been specially made to enclose it, she found the bottle of brandy and a pair of glass tumblers.
She joined him at the front of the cabin. The dashboard had enough of a ledge for her to set the tumblers on it and pour. After, she tucked the bottle in a pouch on the wall to keep it from sliding or falling. Marlowe took the glass before she could hand it to him.
“Cheers,” he said, and they clinked glasses.
The liquid went down smoothly and warmed her blood in an instant. Marlowe always kept the good stuff on hand.
Before them, through the thick glass at the front of the cabin, the ocean extended. This had become the simplest part of the journey. Marlowe’s piloting would manage the ocean winds and unpredictable weather. She had no idea what awaited them once they reached home. Harry squinted, searching for the haze of gunsmoke and fires.
Best to drink up while they could.
“How high are we going to have to get to avoid it, then?”
He frowned. “They’ve got rockets that reach higher than anything that flies. We’ll do what we can, but it probably won’t be high enough.”
“They stole them, in the time-honored fashion,” he said.
She slumped in the chair. Had the entire journey been wasted? “It’s all been for nothing,” she murmured.
“If that were true, I wouldn’t have bothered coming for you.” He gave her that smile again. And it was true. She imagined herself waiting at the cave entrance, the horde of cultists coming up behind her. Having to jump . . .
She drained the brandy and poured herself another glass.
“I hate this,” she said.
“Amen,” he murmured.
The sun set, and the air grew cold. Below them, the ocean was the color of pewter and seemed still, frozen, like a painting. No moon shone.
Harry slept for an hour or so, then offered to watch over the ship while Marlowe slept. That he didn’t hesitate to take the offer, she took as a great compliment. He stretched out on the bench in the back of the cabin, rolled a blanket around him, and instantly fell asleep in the way only long-time soldiers could manage. He snored, softly, the noise like just another exhaust or gear on the airship. If she told him he snored, he wouldn’t have believed her.
They’d reach Ireland by dawn. Then, Marlowe would ascend as high as the Kestrel was able. Breathable air would fail before the engines did, yet they had to climb high enough to avoid the blockade and not draw attention from scouts; they had to skirt that boundary without crossing it and blacking out.
She wouldn’t have to touch the controls unless something went wrong—the winds changed, or they were attacked. She watched pressure gauges, altitude monitors, and compass readings. Their course remained steady; she had to add a little gas to the bladders to maintain altitude. Marlowe had left his goggles hanging on a hook above the window.
The cabin was dark except for a dim lamp near the control board, the faint glow of the engine in back, and a tea light for warmth near the cage where a pair of carrier pigeons slept. Too much light—a fire in the stove, for example—would make them a target. And it was only going to get colder, this high up, at night.
Once the sky darkened, the first signs of battle became visible. On the eastern horizon, tracers arced, distant shooting stars, orange, yellow, green. Fireballs rose up from unseen explosions and dissipated into raining sparks. At the moment, the scene was a remote tableau, an unreal moving picture. She could imagine the hint of pyrotechnics was a harmless show put on for her benefit. Except for all the thousands of people dying underneath it.
Dim lamplight turned the cabin ghostly, flat, unreal. She wrapped the blanket more tightly around her. For the moment, she could believe she drifted between worlds, and oddly enough the sensation came as a relief. In this suspended place, she could breathe easy, let down her guard, and pretend that all was well.
At dawn, Marlowe’s snoring stopped, and soon after he shifted, the blanket rustling as he pushed it away, the cabin shivering with his movements. He pulled a pair of heavy fur coats from the storage cupboard and brought them to the front.
“How are we doing, then?” he asked.
“Steady as she goes, captain.” She smiled at his crazily ruffled hair.
He gazed out the cabin’s front window. The sky had grown hazy with the smoke of battle. A particularly large explosion bronzed his face for a moment, even at this distance. That would have been one of the larger airships going down, hit by a rocket maybe, all its gas and munitions igniting. Debris fell after the initial fireball, flaming bits of fabric and metal plunging to earth, like diving birds.
He said. “God, would you look at that. I wonder if that was one of ours or one of theirs?”
“We’ve no way of knowing, and nothing we could do to help even if we knew.” She tried to sound offhand about it, but only managed bitter.
Marlowe put his hand on her arm, where it rested on the edge of the pilot’s chair. Warm, comforting, an anchor. They both looked at it there. The impropriety of it seemed very distant, and she imagined everything she might do—touch his cheek, turn his face toward her, kiss him—and her brother and grandmother would be none the wiser.
He quickly pulled his hand away—but not before she could catch it, squeeze it, then let it go. Just a moment of contact, gloved hand to gloved hand. It would have to be enough. They had more important things to think about.
“We’ve got to get over this before the scouts see us,” he said.
She moved out of the way so he could take over the pilot’s seat. They bundled up in the coats. He pulled back a pair of levers, the engines buzzed, and the cabin tipped back, pressing them into their seats. The Kestrel climbed, and climbed.
The battle climbed with them. It wasn’t just rockets reaching this height; airships climbed with them, exchanging broadsides. Harry was already panting for breath, using her whole chest to suck in too little air. She couldn’t imagine fighting like this. But they were headed for the thick of it.
“I thought coming in from the north would avoid most of this mess,” Marlowe said, the words punctuated with gulps for air.
“What must it be like on the Channel?”
He pointed. “See there, at two o’clock. Is it coming closer?”
The triple-motored airship wasn’t just coming closer, it was set to intercept them. “We can’t let them stop us, even if it’s one of ours.”
“Especially if it’s one of ours,” he said, giving half a grin.
“Do I dare hoist a signal flag?” she said.
“Give it a moment. Let’s see if we can outrun ‘em.”
Marlowe started throwing levers, and the motor’s humming changed in pitch. The ship rose, and the horizon tilted as they changed course.
Their ship was small and fast, but their opponent was an interceptor, all lift and motor and guns, specifically designed to stop ships like this one.
“It’s one of theirs,” she said. “Look at the flag.”
When the sun hit it directly, the red field with the black eagle painted on the bladder was clear. Marlowe would crash the ship rather than let them be boarded now. Though they’d most likely get blown from the sky before it came to that. They couldn’t risk letting the Germans take possession of the coil.
“You said all we have is a pair of rifles?” she said.
“I would never lie to you about my weaponry, Harry,” he said, eyebrow arched. And why exactly did she want to laugh at a time like this?
She grabbed Marlowe’s goggles and put them on, adjusting the strap. Then she found the rifle and checked that its charge was full. “Where’s the harness?”
“Hanging across from the door, there.”
She found the gear and hooked the leather straps over her shoulders and around her chest, checking the buckles three times. The straps and hardware were all well-oiled and in excellent repair—but of course they were, this was Marlowe’s ship, after all. One end of the line hooked to the front of the harness. The rest of it she hung coiled around her forearm while she opened to the door to cabin.
Wind tore at her. She hadn’t buttoned the coat all the way, and the collar flapped around her neck, sending a freezing draft across her skin, but that didn’t matter. The other end of the line hooked to the track ringing the outside of the cabin. Normally, the track and harness were used as a safety measure for mechanics making repairs. But she’d always thought it looked like fun.
She gripped the rifle, and jumped.
The line caught, and she swung out as the harness caught, dug into her shoulders and ribs, and arched her toward the cabin’s side. Sticking her feet out, she landed and ran until the line came up against the first bracket. Leaning forward, she had a view across the nose of the Kestrel. Bracing, she held the rifle steady to her shoulder, aimed along the barrel and waited for Marlowe to swing the ship around and give her a shot. She wished she’d thought of tying her hair back first; it whipped behind her, catching on the line.
Her best chance would be to rip a shot through the enemy ship’s air bladders. Even if she didn’t start an explosion that destroyed the airship, it would lose lift and maneuverability, giving Marlowe time to get them out of this. The Kestrel’s motor droned, increasing in pitch, and the craft lurched upward, the nose tipping down, as if the whole thing had been caught in an updraft. Harry shifted her feet to keep her balance.
There it was, the Kaiser’s black eagle staring at her with contempt, or so it seemed. Cannons mounted on the base of the cabin swung around. They were still too far away for Harry to bother firing at them. But soon.
An explosive scream cut through the air, and in spite of herself Harry flinched back. When she looked, she saw the long trail of black smoke, but never saw what made it. The trail led to the enemy airship, which transformed into a fireball a moment later. The heat of it washed over her, and she ducked, clinging to her line, pulling herself close to the cabin for shelter. The Kestrel rocked with the shockwave, but Marlowe increased altitude yet again and got them above the worst of it. Breathing was very difficult now; blackness flashed at the edges of her vision. It was all wind and no air up here.
Below her, gas from the German ship ignited in blue flames that quickly faded to yellow and dispersed, munitions vanishing in bursts of orange fire; the ship disintegrated and fell, pieces trailing arcs of smoke and sparks. Bodies fell. Harry saw one man, still alive, limbs flailing as he tumbled through air. She imagined she could hear his screams, but of course could hear nothing over the roar of the wind.
There was only the one fortuitous rocket, sent to destroy their enemy. She might never learn if that had been by chance or design.
Marlowe waved at her through the front window, his expression showing concern. He was too sensible to actually yell at her to come back inside. Clutching both her safety line and the rifle, she didn’t have a free hand to wave back. Carefully, she braced against the harness, freeing herself to signal back at him. He pressed his lips and nodded. He moved a lever. The nose tipped down, beginning a descent. She made herself stay still and focus on breathing, imagining she could tell that the air grew thicker. The goggles brought her eyesight to a narrow focus, and she sought to see beyond the edges of her vision.
The horizon was a distant smudge; the gray haze made it impossible to see where ground ended and sky began. She could imagine seeing the curve of the Earth from here. When she looked up, the sky became like night, shifting from pale blue to a deep indigo, then darker still, to the black of twilight. And beyond that, stars.
If man were ever to travel to the upper reaches, past the atmosphere and into Aetherian spaces, they had a serious problem to solve: They had to learn to bring their air with them. Or they had to learn to stop breathing. There was some debate about which alternative the Aetherians had used. Finding a solution for these reckless airship pilots venturing forth, as far as they could until they couldn’t breathe at all, that was the key to all. If only . . .
Marlowe knocked on the window this time, and she brought herself back.
Sliding the line along its track, she walked along the cabin hull to the door and tried to pretend that her legs weren’t shaking. Marlowe was waiting for her. Handing the rifle to him, she swung inside, unhooking herself from the track. When he shut the door, she finally breathed easy again.
“You all right?”
“I didn’t even get a chance to fire,” she said, pulling the goggles off, handing them back to him. Her legs were still trembling, and she lowered herself to the bench.
“Never mind that we’d never have gotten close enough before they blew us out of the air.”
“Oh, yes, indeed. You’ll have to find out who I ought to send a bottle of wine to for that rocket.”
“A bottle of wine? Seems this would be worth at least your first born.”
“I’m afraid my first born, should such a person ever exist, is already promised to my grandmother and brother.”
“Ah. Of course.”
She fumbled with the buckles, and Marlowe managed to pretend not to notice, but still helped, coiling the rope and pulling the harness off her shoulders once she’d finally managed to unfasten it. She sighed and rolled her shoulders—they were going to be very sore for a couple of days, and she’d probably have bruising around her ribs. Not anywhere that anyone would be likely to notice, so they didn’t matter at all.
“I think I could use another finger of your brandy, Marlowe.”
He was already reaching for the bottle.
They had managed to circumvent the worst of the blockade, and reached the shores of Scotland. There, they put up their flags and lit the cabin lights, to prevent any misunderstandings. In friendly territory now, Marlowe felt comfortable using the wireless. He posed as a standard military courier ship that had been damaged in fighting and was seeking the safety of a mooring in Liverpool. He used the coded phrase that would, in fact, get them permission to continue on to London.
Harry’s preferred choice of communication was more primitive, but less prone to eavesdropping than the wireless. This would go straight where she wanted it, and there was little chance someone could intercept She wrote a note on a strip of paper, using her and her brother’s code, rolled it tightly, and put it in the tiny canister that she then fit to the leg of one of the pigeons. She held the cooing creature gently to her chest, smoothing its feathers and whispering comforts to it, before throwing it out the open portal window, into the bright sun. Its white wings flashed as the bird dipped around the ship, then seemed to vanish as it raced on.
Harry went back to the front of the cabin, where Marlowe sat.
She sighed. “I don’t think I’m ready to be back just yet.”
“I could turn us around, head toward the battle,” he said.
“Do you really think that piece of metal will help us end the war?”
“Strange, isn’t it? So much hope in that little thing. But I do think it’s worth it.”
Not strange at all. Little things had often changed the world. Whatever it was worth, this was better than sitting at Marlborough House, waiting for something to happen.
They reached the Thames and followed it to the mooring station outside Windsor.
“Well then,” she sighed. “I suppose I ought to make myself presentable.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t got anything like a decent room for you—”
“Nonsense. We’ll make do.”
He blushed, pointedly turning away.
She retrieved her luggage from the bench. From it, she unfolded her proper lady’s attire and all its attendant architecture. She ought to have a good wash before putting it on, but there was no chance of that. She would have to make do. She stripped the old rugged shirt and trousers she’d been in for the last week and donned the crisp linen shift, smoothing out the wrinkles as best she could. She’d had the corset made with fasteners in front for just such occasions as this. Her sisters would be scandalized, to see her dressing herself. In front of a soldier, even. She had her back to Marlowe; he could have been sneaking glances at her all this time. Of course, the worse scandal was that she rather hoped he was.
Then came the gown, which she’d managed to pack well enough to prevent the worst of the wrinkles. The fasteners in back, however, presented some difficulty. She could feel the hook and eye at the back of her neck, but no matter how she contorted herself, couldn’t get them to catch.
She turned to the pilot’s chair. “Marlowe—”
He sprang to his feet, as if he’d been watching. Waiting for her to ask.
At her back, he fumbled with the tiny hooks, the tips of his fingers brushing along the bare skin of her neck. Closing her eyes, she reveled in the warm flush his touch inspired. The breath of his sigh tickled her skin. If she took a step back, she would be leaning against him, and she was very tempted.
If only they could only stand like this for the rest of the hour. The rest of the war . . .
He moved away, but only after smoothing away a lock of her hair. Back at his seat, he clasped his hands together and gazed at her with a look of blank innocence.
They both practiced that look.
“Thank you,” she said. He nodded.
She continued with buttons, hooks, earrings, necklace, arranging them all properly. Next she used the little tray of cosmetics with the tiny fold-out mirror. After some powder, some color on her lips and cheeks, and a few pins in her hair, she’d be able to pass in the most respectable society without comment. She saw the gown, with its corset, ribbing, and petticoats, as armor.
“All right, I’m finished. How do I look?” She gave her skirt a last brush.
He said simply. “Your Highness. Princess Maud returns.”
She ducked her gaze. She wasn’t ready for Princess Maud to return.
“It’s amazing how you do that,” he continued, when she didn’t speak. “You’re a chameleon.”
“I think you are the only one who sees my true form.”
His smile flashed, and fled. “Sometimes I’m not sure I’ve seen it yet.”
Marlowe steered them to an upper landing platform at the air port. He followed the signals of the tower controller, sending back his reply with the lantern at the window.
“I’ll get the line,” she said, intending to throw out the mooring lines to the deckhands.
“You’d better not,” he said, nodding at her current dress. “Why don’t you gather your things?”
She unlocked the safe and retrieved the prize, which she put in the valise that had hidden her gown, burying it in her dirty clothes. She tucked her pistol in a pocket in the side, and remembered to keep that side of the bag closest to her. Not that she expected to encounter any trouble here; rather, it was habit.
Marlowe and the deckhands got the ship anchored perfectly well without her, of course. But she felt useless, standing there, stiff as a statue in this clothing.
Out the window, she could see the street leading toward the village and castle, and the carriage drawn by a pair of large bay horses parked there. The carriage door would have her brother’s crest painted on it. The royal crest belonging to the Crown Prince. He’d gotten her message, then, and made it as easy as possible to bring the box straight to him.
Anchored and still against the tugging of the bladder above it, the ship felt like a rock instead of a bird. As soon as the door to the cabin opened, she’d have to leave. She and Marlowe stood together, regarding one another. She never knew what to say in these moments, when their missions ended. Whatever she said felt awkward and artificial, and as soon as he was gone she’d think of everything she should have said.
“You’ll come to the Royal Academy? To be on hand when they examine the artifact?” she asked.
“I hope to. But I suspect the general will send me and the Kestrel to Plymouth, to assist in the defense.”
That hadn’t been part of the original plan. The war had crept far too close to home shores; she preferred to forget.
“But I will see you again, soon?”
“As soon as possible, I should think,” he said.
They shook hands, as if they were familiar colleagues and not . . . she couldn’t decide exactly what they were. There was no civilized name for it. As she made her way down the steps from the platform to the street and Prince George’s carriage, she could feel Marlowe watching her, and was glad of it.