Harry looked out the window and thought: At least I saw Paris one more time before it was destroyed in the bombardment.
The city was as beautiful, eventful, and astonishing as any young woman who’d read too many novels could wish for. She’d traveled here several years before on her grand tour and had thought herself quite worldly and jaded this time around. But the sight of the Seine, lined with magnificent buildings, palaces, parks, and galleries, with a promise of so many treasures and adventures waiting to be discovered, excited her beyond her expectation. Brought tears to her eyes, even. Eiffel’s new tower from the World’s Fair several years previous stood watch, lurking above the city, an iron skeleton. She understood that one could visit it, ride an elevator to the top and admire the views, perhaps buy a ticket for one of the airship taxis that moored there. She wished she had time and opportunity for such adventures. She hoped the tower would still be standing when the current troubles ended.
Another round of artificial thunder rattled the panes of glass, and she thought perhaps she ought not to stand so close to the window.
Pleasure had never been the purpose of this journey. She was here as part of the entourage of the Crown Prince, her brother. As Maud, Princess of Wales, granddaughter of Her Royal Majesty, Victoria, Harry was meant to be seeking out potential royal suitors. That was the public reason for her presence here. Privately, she was one of the advisors George trusted completely. They’d come to France on matters of diplomacy with wartime allies. Then the war had come to them.
She and George, along with the ambassador, Lord Dufferin, some members of his staff, and a contingent of guardsmen, had gathered in the embassy’s upper-storey parlor to discuss their response to the danger. Harry advocated immediate evacuation. George insisted such an evacuation would be cowardly, causing Britain to lose face before their French allies. Of course, Harry hadn’t wanted George to make the trip in the first place. German aggressions toward the city didn’t surprise anyone; the invasion had been moving steadily across France. The French had so far refused offers of military aid, which had infuriated George. He’d planned this visit to prove the strength and fortitude of the British people in the face of danger.
Well, they’d certainly have their chance to do that, by and by. However much one wanted to prove that the slavering beast posed no threat, sticking one’s hand in said beast’s mouth was perhaps not the ideal way to demonstrate one’s courage. They were firmly within the beast’s jaws now, and could only hope it didn’t decide to snap. And yet, George insisted, he wasn’t afraid. He would inspire the British people with his boldness. Very well, then. Harry had taken it upon herself to make sure the heir to the British Empire got home alive.
George paced, making the whole room nervous. “We have an entire naval fleet waiting in the channel, with airships to spare. We could stop this entire war with an afternoon of aerial bombardment!”
Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, Lord Dufferin, was an elderly man who had been granted this posting as a reward for a lifetime of service in the far-flung colonies, governing both Canada and India. He’d had decades of practice speaking gently and clearly to excitable royals.
“Yes, certainly, Your Highness. But we’re on French soil, and we cannot act without their permission, which they have not granted.”
“But they know very well the city will fall without British assistance!”
Lord Dufferin sighed. “And yet the French foreign minister assures me that the French troops are holding the line very well and we should reserve our forces for maintaining control of the channel.” He repeated the claim because it was his duty, but he sounded as if he had grown tired of duty.
“Clearly he’s lying!” George said.
“And so national pride will surely doom us all,” Harry murmured.
She thought she did not speak the words aloud, but George, the ambassador, and indeed everyone else looked at her. Pressing her lips together, she studied the seams of her gloves, reminding herself that she was supposed to be demure.
A particularly loud crash and rumble shook not just the paintings, but the walls themselves. George went straight to the window to look out, and Harry jumped after him to pull him back. A second rumble shook the glass.
“Get away from there,” she hissed, then tried to make the gesture look as if he had stepped forward to steady her instead of the other way around. She murmured, “That one was different.” George’s brow furrowed as he recalled the sound. It hadn’t been an explosive shell, Harry realized, but something else. An impact, an object falling without an accompanying explosion.
A speaker box sitting on a table near the fireplace rang a signal. One of the secretaries answered, and the young man’s face drained of what little color it had left.
“What is it, Michaels?” Lord Dufferin asked calmly.
“My lord, it’s the lieutenant from the guard post. I . . . I’m not entirely sure . . . what . . .”
“Out with it,” George glowered. Michaels quailed.
“Your Highness. The lieutenant says he’s never seen anything like it.”
Harry risked a look out the window, sheltering behind the heavy velvet of the curtain.
The far edge of the wide lawn leading from the front of the building had acquired a crater, a cloud of dust rising up from it. Soldiers swarmed onto the lawn, making noise but not accomplishing much. What had created the crater: some kind of armored container, the shape of a shell but the size of a carriage. After its flight and impact, the container had split open on a set of hinges. Smoke rose from the opening.
“Lord Dufferin,” Harry said, turning to the ambassador. “Perhaps you might notify Admiral Montgomery of the fleet about our situation?”
“Already done, highness. If you’ll wait just a moment—”
More squawking came through the box, then the disconcerting sound of ray blasts, and a scream from just outside the window on the lawn. All Harry’s fears were come to pass. She kept her breathing still, folded her hands before her, and considered the options. Unfortunately, their options rather depended on what George and Lord Dufferin did next. At times, she was grateful for her corset for keeping her upright and steady.
Another call came in on the speaker box, this time from the firm voice of an officer outside the immediate crisis. Without being close to the earpiece, Harry could only hear an occasional word: evacuate and airship. Good.
She put her arm through the crook of George’s elbow, and he clutched her hand protectively. His jaw was set in a determined frown, and—God help them all—he looked ready to storm down the stairs to face the trouble himself. It would be the brave thing to do. “It isn’t as if there aren’t enough other heirs to take my place,” he’d argue. That wasn’t the point, she’d argue back.
Lord Dufferin seemed distinctly relieved when he turned to them.
“Your Highnesses, the Navy has sent an airship to evacuate you. If you’ll proceed to the roof, we’ll have you to safety soon enough.”
“I still say it’s cowardly, running away,” George muttered.
He was more nervous than he let on, because he didn’t comment on Harry clutching his sleeve and dragging him after the ambassador.
“If you hadn’t insisted on appearing brave in the first place, you wouldn’t have to worry about appearing cowardly now, would you?” she chided.
He shifted her grip on him so that he appeared to be dragging her even though hers was still the guiding pressure.
In the next room—the antechamber to the ambassador’s parlor—a swarm of soldiers and embassy attachés joined them, surrounding them protectively, forming a clump of people trundling up the stairs. All of them tense, fearful.
This wasn’t meant to be happening. Their Crown Prince, in danger, and it could be that every one of them felt some responsibility. Really, however, it was no one’s fault. Though whoever among the General Staff had assured the Prince that Paris was safe would likely have a difficult time of it in the near future.
At the top of the stairs, a clerk threw open the door, revealing the iron struts of the mooring tower, and the crowd spilled through it and onto the roof. Soldiers raised rifles to the air while others blocked the Prince with their bodies, sheltering him against the base of the tower. Harry was caught up in the rush and unsure if their protectors even saw her as anything but an extension of George. As usual, and hardly worth commenting on.
“The rescue ship should be here any moment, Highness,” the ambassador huffed. The climb up the stairs had winded him. Harry was glad to see the secretary, Michaels, at his side, offering support.
Across the slate- and lead-tiled roof appeared open sky, and beyond the embassy’s garden lay the vista of Paris. Harry allowed herself a moment to enjoy the view, glimpses of the Tour Eiffel, Arc de Triomphe, the Seine and its beautiful bridges. All made heartbreaking by being partially shrouded in heavy billows of smoke and the tails of falling shells.
A green ray blast arrowed past the roof, and a swarm of guards pulled George and Harry out of the way.
“Where’s the airship? I don’t see it,” George said, shading his eyes and standing to look. Harry pulled him back down.
Harry also shaded her eyes, looking to the northern sky a bit more discreetly than George had done. “There it is,” she said, her heart sinking.
It wasn’t a proper airship but a scout, the smallest vehicle used by the aerial Navy, meant for courier duties, reconnaissance missions and the like. With only room for a pilot and passenger, it moved quickly and with great stealth—indeed, even when she was looking right it at, it seemed to vanish against the backdrop of the sun and sky. It was, in fact, the ideal craft with which to evacuate George without drawing the attention of enemy spotters. Harry approved.
Except, of course, it meant she’d be staying in Paris a bit longer, didn’t it?
Sinking to approach the embassy roof, the scout ship’s nature became apparent: a simple framework and motor mounted underneath a gas envelope that wasn’t much bigger than a carriage. The pilot and passenger, well bundled and goggled to protect them from the elements, wore harnesses that locked them into rudimentary seats. The arrangement made her think of an aerial tandem bicycle, which might have been a romantic notion under different circumstances.
Before the scout craft set down, the passenger unhooked his harness from the framework and jumped to the roof, carrying an anchor line with him, which he tossed to a pair of soldiers, not even bothering with the mooring tower. The two men braced the craft and kept it from rising again while the pilot pressed a lever that calmed the engine without shutting it off. The Aetherian glow of the humming motor cast a greenish light over the roof, even in daylight.
The craft’s passenger quickly divested himself of his harness, coat and goggles, and approached George.
“I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but will you put these on?”
The prince stood again in preparation of blustering. “I thought you said this was a rescue!”
When he didn’t move, Harry took the gear from the soldier. A lieutenant, by the insignia on his uniform. “Thank you, lieutenant,” she had the presence to say. “George, please put these on.”
She offered the coat, and long-practiced habit caused him to hold out his arms. The coat was on, and the lieutenant helped her secure the harness’s buckles next.
“But what about you?” George said to her.
“This is the most expedient way to get you to safety, George. Don’t concern yourself about me.”
Clear now as to what the arrangement of the craft meant, the prince turned to the soldier, to the ambassador, to anyone who would listen, and shouted, furious, “I’ll not leave my sister behind!”
By the way the lieutenant’s eyes went round, he clearly hadn’t recognized Harry by sight. She hid a smile at his shock. Poor man.
He sputtered, “Your Highness! We . . . we weren’t told of her highness’s presence and only accounted for . . .”
She touched the soldier’s arm. “It’s all right. Help me get him to the scout.”
He overcame his shock quickly and nodded.
“George, you have to leave now,” she said, keeping her voice calm, even as more explosions shook the air.
“If there’s only one spot, you should have it,” he said. “It’s the proper thing. The chivalrous thing.” He was a bulky man, and he let himself go heavy, dragging, even as they tried to pull him to the craft. The pilot’s eyes behind his goggles had gone slightly buggy with panic—he was running out of lift and power to get airborne again.
“George, you’re much too important. England has lost too many heirs of late. We can’t lose you, too. Yes?” Their father, who should have been Edward VII someday. Their older brother, Eddie.
Harry reached up to put the goggles on him. There was a brief, shared moment of grief as their gazes met. He knew she was right. Invoking their family ghosts convinced him.
The lieutenant’s skilled hands secured the harness to its brackets on the craft’s framework.
“Harry, promise me you will take care. Return home safe, do you promise me?” George commanded.
“I promise,” she said, feeling suddenly weak, as if she’d been robbed of her honor. She didn’t say the words out of any thought that she could really keep such a promise, only to calm her brother.
George held the soldier with his gaze. “Lieutenant, you must guard my sister with your life. Protect her, do you hear?”
“Yes, Your Highness, gladly,” he said, very earnestly. Firmly and confidently, even. Harry suddenly felt safer, for no good reason other than she liked this lieutenant’s voice.
The lieutenant retrieved the anchor line and tossed it to the pilot just as the craft shot up. The engine whined to a high pitch, and the scout dashed forward, a racehorse of the air. All that had gathered on the rooftop then sighed as one, because Prince George was now as good as safe.
The next shell hit the corner of the building, sending up a rain of debris, hard stone and burning shrapnel. Harry ducked, throwing up her arm to protect herself. The lieutenant had somehow gotten himself between her and the explosion, which had knocked half the soldiers off their feet. The rest managed to scramble to the jagged remnants of the side of the building and aim rifles outward, though what they thought they could hit at this range, Harry couldn’t say. A few fired off shots, green energy bolts flaring with the sound of an electric shock. They needed airships and heavy guns to mount any kind of offensive. Aetherian weaponry was all well and good, but a conventional bomb dropped in the right spot still trumped all.
“Oh God, what of the rest of us?” Michaels the secretary said, finally out of reserve.
“Get hold of yourself,” Lord Dufferin ordered. “We will make do, as always.”
The ambassador’s gaze landed on Harry and revealed resignation. If the princess, granddaughter of the Queen herself, could not be saved, what of him? She could think of no response. Her hat had slipped a bit, the pin coming loose, a curl of hair falling down to her cheek. But she also felt a rock-like calm, and not a bit of her expression wavered.
The ambassador bowed his head to her and made for the staircase.
This struck Harry as a not terribly wise choice. The building was groaning, bits continuing to crumble off from the hole the bomb left. The structural integrity was perhaps not entirely trustworthy any longer. But the man was one of the old type; he would go down with his ship.
She and the lieutenant stood side by side, watching where the ambassador had retreated, while the commander of the embassy guard, a Captain Smith, looked grim and shouted orders to form his scattered men into some sort of unit. Half headed downstairs, half remained on the roof, standing guard.
“What are we to do with Lord Dufferin?” Harry said, sighing.
“I don’t much care, highness. He isn’t my concern, you are,” said the lieutenant.
She blinked at him, finally able to have a good look at the man. He was average height, with an athletic build under the wool of his uniform. His collar was open, his boots scuffed, and he wore a belt with a pistol and holster strapped low to his thigh. Not regulation, not polished, but imminently comfortable. In his late twenties or early thirties, he’d lost any freshness he might have had as a youth; he was rough, weathered. She imagined he’d carried out daring rooftop rescues or the like quite often.
“Sir, what is your name?”
“Lieutenant James Marlowe, Your Highness.” He started to salute, started to bow, stopped both in the middle and scowled.
She nodded. “Right. We should be moving, Lieutenant Marlowe.” The scream of another bomb, one of the heavy kind like the one that had landed in the garden, approached. She looked up, searching for it, to see where it would fall.
“Your Highness, I hope you will accept my deepest apologies for this inconvenience.”
She gave him a baffled frown. “As if you had any say in the matter. Never mind, we don’t have time for formalities.”
The scream whined upward in pitch, and all of them on the roof ducked, sheltering themselves out of some vague hope that it would do them any good. The targeting on this bomb was off—it struck across the street, punching straight through the roof of the building there and blowing a wall outward. More debris rained down to the streets below.
Marlowe clutched her arm in a protective grip, and his tone was urgent, which made him sound a touch less comforting than he’d probably meant. “I will get us out of this, however terrifying this may seem—”
“Lieutenant Marlowe, I will not wilt, I assure you.”
They exchanged a glance. His startled expression—that one of the fairer sex would speak so confidently—was familiar; Marlowe’s surprise passed more quickly than it did with most people who encountered her.
He lifted his head and gazed out, through the smoke and debris still falling. Towers of smoke could be seen, surrounding the embassy. “Those last few shells weren’t part of a general bombardment,” he said. “They’re targeting the embassy.”
He was right; the damage was localized. “Because of George? They knew he was here?”
“It’s only a thought.”
She felt a cold fury, tempered by the thought that it wouldn’t have been hard to learn of the prince’s presence here. They didn’t make the journey public, certainly, and traveled with a fraction of his usual entourage. But the airship displayed his flag until just before docking at Calais, and anyone watching would have seen it.
“Lieutenant, however much I dislike the idea, there’s really only one way off the roof. I suggest we take advantage of the pause in the attack,” she said.
He nodded. “Indeed. After you, then.” He urged her toward the door leading to the stairs, and she complied.
But at the top of the stairs, she stopped. From three stories down on the ground floor, someone screamed. Then another. The pulsing shots of Aetherian rifles fired in rapid sequence, then fell silent. Another soldier screamed.
“Something’s down there,” Harry said. She stood braced across the doorway, Marlowe peering over her shoulder, into the darkness.
Movement finally drew her attention, telling her exactly where to look.
There were several of them, segmented, undulating bodies slithering along the walls in defiance of gravity. Spikes on their bellies dug into the wallpaper. Bits of powdered plaster rained down as the spikes drove into the wall, a constant spattering of dust, a destructive trail marking their passage.
Each mechanical creature was only a foot long. In themselves, they did not seem dangerous—no more deadly than a child’s clockwork toy. Each was powered by a glowing green pod nestled on its back, the size and shape of an egg. The devices provided power for the machines, but could also be triggered, igniting raw, explosive Aetherian power. A single one could destroy the building, if needed. A dozen of the beasties crawled up the walls of the stairwell.
But the primary mission of these machines seemed rather more direct: They had claws and spikes protruding from their bodies, and many of them were covered with blood. So this was what the capsule had contained, and where the true attack lay.
The bombardment was merely a distraction. The automatons would ensure that no one escaped.
“That’s different,” Marlowe said.
“No,” Harry said, because she’d seen this before, at least in drawings. “The design looks like one of the secondary mechanisms from the Surrey crash—part of a grappling system. It wasn’t developed because most of the research went toward the power source and aerial systems.”
He stared at her. “You’ve seen the Surrey Archives? No one sees the Surrey Archives, not without permission of the highest echelons of the Academy or royal dispensation—ah, just so.”
She blushed. “Which begs the question of how the Germans saw it, as they must have. George has to know this,” she said. “Command must know. We have a spy at the highest levels.”
“All the more imperative we leave. It’ll have to be down the outside, then.” With a great deal of purpose, he marched to Captain Smith, who had organized his men into a line but had no target to point them toward. “Captain, we’ve been invaded. Machines are coming up the stairs.”
“Siege engines if you like. Aetherian, mechanical, difficult to stop. I must get her highness to safety. You can safeguard our retreat?”
“Yes—of course. Godspeed to you.” The new mission seemed to bestow a solid resolve in him. He shouted commands, and the soldiers shifted into two staggered rows at the doorway leading to the stairs. The ambassador hadn’t reappeared. None of the embassy staff who’d remained inside the building had escaped up the stairs. There was a woman’s scream, probably one of the housemaids.
Harry froze. “We can stay and help. Give me a gun, I can help.”
Marlowe hesitated. The soldiers preparing to hold the stairs were doomed. With only ray-powered rifles and a few Aetherian grenades, they couldn’t hold back the swarm of machines. The building was a loss. “Your highness, think of the promise you made your brother. We must go.”
“I—I’m not comfortable with those men dying so that I have a chance—only a chance, mind you—of escape.”
He gave her a look that might have been pity, or perhaps exasperation. “Good men have died for your family for hundreds of years; you question it now?”
“My family,” she said bitterly. “I am the very least of my family.”
A sudden, crooked smile dawned on his wind-burned face. “Your brother was quite adamant. He must not agree with you.”
“My brother’s a bit mad, you know. Don’t tell anyone.”
Marlowe had already gone off to find a rope. Fortunately, he found a long mooring cable lying near the tower’s scaffold. He hauled coils of it out, checked for snags, found the end. Then, he secured the cable to the base of the tower with a smart nautical knot, ran it out, and threw the end over the edge of the roof.
The gunfire sounding in the stairwell grew fierce. The clicking and buzzing of the enemy mechanisms grew louder.
A familiar whine and descending crash sent them falling flat, arms over heads, praying. The foundations shook and debris rained, but since she was still breathing, Harry had to assume she’d survived. Except that every one of those non-exploding impacts meant more of the creatures would soon be upon them.
Marlowe was reaching for her. His hair had turned gray with dust. “You can climb, I hope? I didn’t think to ask.” His eyes took on a look of concentration, as if he was considering what he would do with her if she said no.
“I can,” she said, and demonstrated, sitting at the edge of the roof, adjusting her gloves and arranging her skirts, and taking hold of the line. Neither leading nor trailing was safer, and this would save him from having to decide which was the more dangerous of two untenable positions. She was already over the side before he could argue.
He grit his teeth and waited until she was well over before starting down himself. At the edge of the roof he kept watch, above and all around, for bombs or airships or any new terror. She couldn’t think about that, only about getting down. Then, they could worry about what came next.
It wasn’t easy, though she’d be the last to complain. Her trim boots braced well enough against the wall, and hanging on to the rope she was able to walk down the building, letting the cable play out, ignoring the strain in her shoulders. But her hands kept slipping, despite the gloves she wore. They were smooth kid gloves, soft and brown, not at all made for heavy work. This would ruin them; she could feel them stretching, close to tearing from the hard use. Small price, truly.
She looked down to see how much farther she had to climb. And was, on reflection, not surprised to see more of the snake-machines crawling up the outside. This was it, then. All their routes cut off. She stopped her progress and had enough presence of mind to call up to Marlowe before he ended up on top of her.
“Lieutenant, look down!”
They hung there, mid-building, too far down to climb back up . . . directly in the path of six of the undulating metallic creatures.
For a moment, Harry gave up. Just for a moment, her eyes stinging with smoke, breathing in soot and grit suspended in the air, ears ringing with the sound of firing rifles, she did not think she had the strength to hold onto the line. George was safe. The realm, too, would be—eventually—and there was nothing she could do about it one way or another. Those worm-like monsters, carapaces gleaming, spiked legs punching holes in the brick wall, didn’t seem inclined to turn away for her. They would crawl over her, punch her full of bloody holes, and she would fall.
No. She did not want to fall.
“Marlowe, give me your gun.” She wrapped one arm around the rope, braced her shoulder, and reached up with her free hand.
He hung on the rope, rooted against the wall. “Are you sure?”
She couldn’t tell if he was afraid or not. He might have merely been hiding it very well. He had to know they were trapped, but would he refuse to hand her the weapon on principle? For a moment, she thought he might. She could hear the gears and drive belts of the mechanisms below her turning, crunching.
He took his pistol from his holster, slid down the line a few feet until he was almost on top of her, and reached down to give it to her.
It wasn’t an old-style ballistic pistol, but a powered weapon, emitting a deadly, focused Aetherian beam. No recoil to speak of, but it required a steady aim to be most effective.
Harry’s aim was sure. She straightened her arm, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly as she fired. One bolt, two, three, four . . .
Each green bolt of energy struck, sparked, and suffused a segmented carapace in a crackling shell of lightning. The first one froze, its mechanism stiffening, spikes retracting into its body, and it fell, peeling back from the wall and toppling.
“Excellent,” Marlowe sighed. “Now, climb. Hurry.”
More of the machines were arriving, shuffling on the pavement, reaching the wall, spiking into the brick and beginning their ascent. Harry slid down the rope as quickly as she could, her boots skidding, firing as she went. Unable to keep her aim steady while she moved, she missed several times, snarling at herself every time she did. Marlowe never commented; he urged her on calmly, kept her moving.
The charge on the energy pistol faded, the shots firing more weakly until they sputtered, and the pistol failed entirely. But by then they’d reached the ground.
A line of the monsters was still traveling toward them, gears and drive belts whining, steps cracking along the pavement. “Come on,” he said, and they ran. Harry held her skirt and kept up with him, gratified that he didn’t seem to slow his pace on her account. Their first objective was simply away, and they turned north, away from the river and into the maze of streets in the tenth arrondissement.
After they ran for a spell, Marlowe slowed. They’d left the smoke and sulfur stink of the bombing area. This neighborhood was almost peaceful, though all the storefronts were shut up and not a soul was out on what should have been a busy afternoon. Finally, in a quiet square with a park and overhanging trees, they stopped to catch their breaths.
Now, Harry wished she could abandon the corset. She had to think about drawing breath into her lungs, expanding them as much as she could, which wasn’t much at all. But there was nothing to be done, and as long as she didn’t panic she wouldn’t suffer. Her one concession to the situation was unbuttoning the collar of her gown, giving her a little more freedom to breathe.
She handed Marlowe his pistol, grip first. “Lieutenant, your weapon. The charge is empty. I’m sorry.”
Grinning, he replaced it in its holster. “Nonsense. You’re a very good shot.”
“My father felt that shooting was in fact an appropriate activity for a princess. We shot grouse at Sandringham.”
“I dare say he was right.”
“Well, lieutenant. What’s next?”
“We get out of Paris. Refugees are making their way to Calais. We travel with them and rejoin the fleet.” Deftly, he unpinned rank and unit insignia from his uniform, the chest badge and collar tabs, shoving them in a pocket. They did rather draw attention to him.
If there were a way to disguise her upper class garments, she would have done so. She would have to hope her current state of dishevelment would distract onlookers.
Marlowe said, “You must not fall into German hands. With his highness out of reach, you’d be an attractive prize to them, if they knew you were here.”
An attractive prize—her lot in life. She must have given an audible sigh, because Marlow smiled wryly.
“A bit of old-fashioned medieval hostage taking,” she said. “It’s almost refreshing.”
“Let’s be off, Highness.”
Forget the titles, call me Harry, she almost told him. Propriety stopped her. He was just a soldier, and too much familiarity wouldn’t do. “To Gare du Nord, then?”
They resumed their flight.
Still, bombs fell. Harry might even have been growing used to the thunder, the shaking underfoot, except that every now and then one of the heavier impacts sounded, one of the jarring crashes not accompanied by an explosion. These made her shrink into herself and look over her shoulder for more of the monsters, which she knew must eventually appear.
She glimpsed it down the verdant enclosure of a garden as they hurried by. She might have thought it a stray cat or dog, except for the way the light glinted off its shell of a body. She hesitated a moment to stare, and the thing, incredibly, stopped to stare back, even without eyes. Some kind of apparatus told it she was there, and that she was a target.
“Lieutenant!” she hissed, and they backed away as the creature pressed toward them.
This one had the shape of a spider rather than a centipede. The power source and drive train balanced on eight segmented legs, pulleys and gears working to move them in sequence so that the creature moved easily over cobblestones and stairs alike, as well as contracting and contorting to pull itself through the bars of the garden’s wrought-iron fence after only a moment of scrabbling. An impressive bit of engineering, really.
Much less impressive on this side of the fence, however.
“Have you any other weapons?” Harry asked him, as the lieutenant put himself between her and imminent attack.
“We traveled light to gain speed,” he said, drawing a utility knife from a belt sheath. He might be able to defeat the creature with only a knife, but it would be messy.
She looked around for any makeshift weapons she might use, sticks or rocks or even broken glass. A row of flowerpots, full of soil and geraniums, sat in a window box at a nearby shop front.
Meanwhile, Marlowe and the mechanical spider approached each other like boxers in a ring. The aeronaut took a wide stance, his arms out, and the spider skittered back and forth on wooden-tipped appendages, as if taking the measure of his opponent. The metallic legs had blades protruding at each joint, and a row of spikes projecting from its belly. It would only have to leap at Marlowe to injure him. Which it did, of course, bending all eight limbs on wheezing gears, gathering itself, and springing.
Marlowe shifted out of the creature’s path and shoved away from it, shredding the sleeve of his uniform, but no blood appeared. The metal thing rolled, threw off a few green sparks, and untangled itself to climb back to its feet. Harry threw a flowerpot at it. Marlowe flinched as it sailed past.
As she’d hoped, the pot struck its middle and knocked the thing over. The clay pot broke into several pieces, covering the thing in geranium. Even better, soil sprayed over it and mucked up the gears and pulleys, which groaned and hissed as they worked over the grit, trying to pull the body upright.
Seizing the opportunity, Marlowe rushed the thing, grabbing its limbs and cutting its belts and cables with his knife, immobilizing it so he could reach the central body of the creature, where he dug the blade into a seam and pried open an access panel, exposing the cartridge of the power source: a solid block of green glass, like jade and starlight. Pulling wires, he forced it out of his casing and set the cartridge aside. Quickly, then, he drew a pad of paper out of his breast pocket and studied the spider’s lifeless carapace—then made notes and drawings, sketching the mechanism of the legs, diagramming the inside of the chassis, dissecting the creature, in effect. Harry watched him work, fascinated.
“What do you hope to learn?” she asked finally.
“I don’t know yet,” he said. He put the notebook away and drew out his drained pistol. This time, she thought she knew what he had planned.
“You think you can transfer the charge?”
“I hope so . . . there . . . yes.” He removed the cartridge from the pistol, connected a wire between them, reinserted the pistol’s cartridge, and bound the contraption together with cloth torn from his shirt. He aimed the weapon at the street and pressed the trigger. After a worrying, unhealthy-sounding whine and hiss, a green ray blasted out and left a burned streak on the cobbles. “Awkward, but it’s better than nothing.”
A now familiar clacking, grinding, whining noise approached from several directions, around one corner and down another street. More of the spider creatures, some of the snake machines, all seemingly intent on scouring the city’s streets of living souls.
“These things are overrunning the damned city,” Marlowe grunted, then glanced sheepishly at Harry. “Beg your pardon, highness.”
“Oh, don’t apologize, I was about to say the same thing. Shall we?”
They kept on, Marlowe holding the creatures off with his pistol until they escaped the worst of the swarm, and the clacking sound of the German devices faded into the distance. Before today, the war had been abstract to her, a game played with maps and markers. This, she decided, was what the end of the world must feel like.
“Wait a moment,” he said, gesturing her to the shelter of a brick wall, a three-storey townhouse with balconies overlooking the street. In the pause, a faint thundering sound approached. More artillery, she assumed, the cannons had come closer than ever. But no, this was rhythmic, continuous. “Marching,” she whispered.
“But whose?” he replied.
Best stay out of sight until they knew, so they waited, retreating into the alcove of an arched doorway.
It was a small unit that soon came marching past—in the blue of French uniforms, so technically neither friend nor foe, but they were clearly on the move against the Germans. With them came a wagon drawn by two stout draft horses, guarded by soldiers carrying both conventional and Aetherian rifles. The wagon carried a cannon set on a steel base, with a long barrel and the brass coils and glass fittings of an Aetherian weapon, the green glow of the alien mechanism emerging from within. The procession was a strange hybrid of mechanisms; the British army had Aetherian-powered vehicles to carry its artillery, but the French used what they had on hand. The horses kept flicking ears back to the hum of the Aetherian device.
Harry and Marlowe did not announce themselves, which seemed the only prudent course. The French were ostensibly allies, but they would happily use Harry’s safety as a bargaining chip as much as the Germans would.
They stood very still, waiting in the alcove for the long minutes the train took to pass, and by necessity they had pressed close together. Harry could feel Marlowe’s breath on her hair, and she was very close to resting her head on his shoulder. Perhaps, if he saw it, he would attribute the flush on her cheek to the brisk air.
Finally, silence fell; only then did they move again. Marlowe stepped carefully from the alcove without looking at her. Absently, she tucked her stray locks of hair behind her ears.
They were able to slow their pace to a walk. Thinking aloud, she said, “Our intelligence says the Germans don’t have the numbers or equipment to hold the city. Why are they invading now?”
“Does our intelligence say anything about those machines?”
She didn’t answer, because no, they knew nothing at all about such machines.
“They won’t need soldiers to hold the city, if they can use automated Aetherian guards,” Marlowe said. “I would guess a single officer can control a platoon of those and hold an entire neighborhood himself.”
“Just when we think we’ve seen all that Aetherian mechanisms can offer, someone finds a new terrifying use for them. This was exactly why the archives were kept secret.”
Marlowe said, “It was only a matter of time before nations on the continent stole the secrets of the Surrey crash. That’s what this whole war is about.”
“It’s not so simple as that. The Aetherian secrets may be the excuse. But war would have come eventually, with or without the crash. Dreams of European empire building didn’t end with Napoleon.”
“No, of course not. But now nations have the power to destroy Europe as well as conquer it. I fear those who do not see the difference.”
“Which is why Britain must not lose,” she declared, fearing her own frustration at her inability to do anything about the situation tainted her voice.
“Indeed. The archives hold plenty more secrets to be exploited, I’d say. We must look there.”
“You seem like a man who has ideas on that score.”
“I’m an aerialist, Your Highness. An engineer with the Royal Navy, though I occasionally volunteer for other duties.” He gave a smirk at this, indicating the oddness of an aerial engineer being stuck on the ground in Paris. “We’re all battling for supremacy of the air. Bigger airships, greater armaments. But I believe supremacy lies in altitude. We must go higher. We must conquer beyond.”
Currently, airships regularly reached fifteen to twenty thousand feet in altitude. Many had the capability of flying higher than that, but the safety of the crew prevented regular trips to more extreme altitudes—the air was simply too thin to breathe. But crossing that barrier must have been possible; the Aetherians themselves had done it.
She said, “You want to go where the Aetherians came from.”
“Yes.” After another long stretch of walking, Marlowe said, tentative, “Your highness, may I ask you a question?”
Here—bombs and smoke drenching the air, muscles aching, the embassy destroyed, their own preservation not yet ensured—her royal status seemed somehow irrelevant. Useless, really. If the status leant her any sway at all, she ought to be able to snap her fingers and have this all be done. Make it all stop.
“You may, lieutenant,” she sighed.
“The archives,” he said, then waited.
“That isn’t a question.” She glanced at him in time to see his smile flash. Lovely that he could smile in such circumstances.
“What did you find, when you examined the archives? Did you find anything that might save Britain?”
“Those are very large questions.”
“They’re the only questions.”
“Yes, indeed.” They walked another half a block. Bombs echoed in the distance, and she did not flinch. “Most of the Royal Academy scientists would disagree with me, but I believe the Surrey crash was not the first time an Aetherian craft has visited this planet.”
“That hypothesis has been circulated.”
“There are pieces from the Aetherian ship the purpose of which we haven’t yet discovered. Imagine taking apart a pocket watch, putting it together, and having pieces left over. Consider the civilization that built the Aetherian vessel—what other technologies might they have produced? If all you found was a locomotive, what might you deduce about British civilization? You might not even guess at the pocket watch. We don’t have everything that the Aetherians have. Perhaps, then, the mechanism that will save Britain hasn’t yet been discovered. However, most current research is concentrating on developing technologies we already have.”
“I’ve noticed. I believe the crash archives must contain the secret of reaching the highest part of the atmosphere. The Aetherians traveled in airless spaces, and the autopsy of the pilot suggests that they require some sort of respiration, which means they must have had a way to produce an artificial atmosphere. The technology is there, we simply aren’t recognizing it.”
“Or it was destroyed in the crash. Much was lost, I fear.”
“May I ask another question?”
“Yes,” she sighed, stretching her back to adjust her corset, which was growing damp with sweat. She would have enjoyed this discussion with Marlowe immensely had they been anywhere else—perhaps over tea at Kensington, not tromping around war-torn Paris.
“Why are you so interested in Aetherian mechanisms? It doesn’t seem . . .”
“Becoming for a young lady of royal blood?” she said, because she’d heard it before.
“I would think a princess has more pressing matters occupying her time.”
She said, “I’ve grown up with Aetherian machinery, quite literally. I was born the year of the Surrey crash. I was there with the rest of my family when Dr. Carlisle made his first demonstrations of Aetherian-powered locomotives. The Aetherian revolution has always . . . intimidated me, and I’ve sought to overcome my fears by understanding it completely.”
“Has understanding come to you?”
“I believe that if we do not control the Aetherian technology we’ve wrought upon the Earth, it will come to control us. That is my understanding.”
They were close to Gare du Norde, now. Finally, crowds appeared. All those empty streets and neighborhoods had emptied here: the population of Paris’s north half attempting to escape. No purposeful roadblock could have been more effective than the solid wall of people ahead of them.
Harry stopped and stared, frozen in a moment of unexpected panic. She had very likely never been so close to so many people in her entire life. At least, not without her family and her family’s guards present. She liked to think of herself as a populist royal. This surge in her gut, the jolt of—call it by its right name: fear—running up her spine was odd. Deeply unpleasant. Her mouth had gone dry.
Marlowe shaded his eyes and scanned the crowd. “Nothing for it but to plunge in,” he said. “Highness?”
“You might perhaps not want to call me that here,” she said, after swallowing to find her voice again. “Call me Harry.”
“I heard your brother call you that. A nickname?”
“A silly joke from when I was little, but it’s stuck. It seems to suit.”
“All right, then. Harry. Are you able to continue?”
“Yes, only I wonder if I’ve inherited a royal fear of mobs.”
“In this case, our safety might lie in numbers. This is the only reasonable route to Calais.”
“Indeed. Yes.” She took his arm, capturing the crook of his elbow, and held on. She was fairly certain he flinched back at her status and title rather than her personally. The gesture shouldn’t have made her the least bit disappointed. And yet.
His resistance lasted the barest second before he took firm hold of her arm and side by side, bolstered by one another’s presence, they entered the crowd.
After a long, loud, sweaty three hours, Harry and Marlowe were on an old-fashioned steam-powered train traveling north to Calais, and to the Channel.
Harry had worried about purchasing tickets—she certainly wasn’t carrying any money with her, and she doubted Marlowe had more than loose change with him. But the situation was long past money and tickets. Soldiers were present and loading as many people onto as many trains as they could to evacuate the city. Thanks to Marlowe’s persistence and his ability to force his way through rather than waiting for the crowd to move forward of its own accord, they reached a platform and got themselves aboard the very last carriage of one of the last passenger trains to leave Paris. Harry’s French was good; in the chaos she was able to ask one of the soldiers where the train was going. “Calais!” he called, and her relief felt like blood draining from her limbs.
The seats were filled. More than filled, many of them doubled up, three times as many people crammed into the carriage as should have been. The train seemed to move slowly, overburdened, clacking tiredly on its tracks, but that may have only been her impatience.
Harry and Marlowe did not sit; they stood together in the back, shored up precariously near the door to the next carriage. The clanking of the wheels on the tracks seemed loud here. Too loud for them to speak, especially without revealing themselves as English. Neither wished to draw attention to themselves.
She found she had grown used to leaning close to Marlowe’s body. He had a comforting solidness to him. Oh, the scandal of it. But considering her alternative was being crushed in the destruction of the embassy . . . even her grandmother could not argue with the situation.
Harry happened to look up and saw Marlowe looking back at her, lips pressed in a wry smile. He quickly looked away, though. Awkward, indeed, and she would likely never see him again once they reached the coast. What a sad thought.
“I’m sure George got to the fleet safely,” she said, for no particular reason at all.
“I’m sure he did. You’ll see him very soon.”
And everything would have to go back to the way it was. She sighed.
Night had long since fallen when they finally reached Calais.
“We’ll go to the consulate,” Marlowe said, taking her hand and holding tight as they let the crowd carry them off the train and away. He might not even be aware that he’d done it, but she didn’t argue. In this situation, it was security, nothing more.
The streets here were crowded and harrowing, refugees from Paris arguing with locals, soldiers milling, and everyone shouting for news: What was the word? What had happened? How soon until the Germans reached the coast? Harry bent her head, hunched her shoulders, and ignored it all. She had a job to do, and it was almost done.
At one point, they turned a corner, and Harry looked between buildings to see open space rather than more buildings. Water, glorious sea, lapping waves glinting with the reflected lights of the town, extending as far as she could see in the darkness. And above the water, miles away and barely visible, a row of lights hovered: the half dozen airships of George’s fleet. She might have wept, but she scrubbed her eyes, took another deep breath, and calmed herself. In the pause, she held her breath and listened for the comforting hum of the ships’ Aetherian engines, but they were too far away.
They reached the consulate at last, then spent half an hour arguing with a guard outside the front gate. They were English, they’d fled from Paris, could they please be let in. The flustered young man claimed that with all the day’s madness they couldn’t be letting just anyone in, could they?
Marlowe became a bit angry. “I am Lieutenant Marlowe with the Aerial Navy, this is Her Highness the Princess of Wales, and you will let us in.”
The soldier gaped. “Yes. But. Well sir. How do I know you are who you say?”
Marlowe showed his rank pins and kindly asked him to send for the officer in charge, who arrived shortly, did some gaping of his own, and let them in, escorting them to a comfortable parlor and calling for tea while he notified the fleet via the wireless.
The tea was divine. Harry had not realized how chilled she had become, even after the long, crowded train journey. The chill had come from fear, and she was happy to leave that fear behind. Through the reflections on the parlor window, she could see that a mist had fallen over the Channel, masking even the lights. At least there were no storms. And no bombs.
“I can’t tell anyone about this, can I?” Marlowe said, bemused, lips quirked in a wry smile. They sat across from one another in armchairs, the tea service on a round table between them. Maids hovered, and Marlowe kept his voice low. The real world was settling over them more quickly than Harry imagined it would.
She hadn’t thought as far ahead as to what she’d tell anyone about the day’s adventure. “You can tell them, it’s a matter of whether they’d believe you. I’m the one who can’t tell anyone about this.” Her clothing was not designed to wear while fleeing a city under bombardment. She was sure she’d ripped some seams, and her hair had become tangled, and she very much didn’t want to look in a mirror. Merely stepping inside the consulate in this condition would start rumors that the Home Office would diligently quash. Which meant she had to remain ever so quiet, lest she feed those rumors herself.
“Surely you won’t receive any blame for this,” Marlowe said. “You couldn’t help circumstances.”
“My brother won’t blame me, certainly. My grandmother won’t. She understands duty better than anyone I know, I think. But my mother? My sisters? Polite society in general? No, they will not understand, and so we will not tell them.”
His expression furrowed, as if he was trying to understand a difficult problem. “What will you do next, then, Your Highness?” He’d slipped easily back to the honorific. She smiled sadly, because along with not saying anything else about the day, she could not tell him she’d rather he kept calling her Harry.
“Whatever George and my grandmother need me to do.” She sounded so tired when she said it.
“May I ask you another question, highness? A favor, really.”
His voice had fallen to a whisper. The room had emptied of servants—Marlowe would have checked, before speaking so.
“What favor?” she said.
“Can you arrange for me to see the Surrey Archives?”
“It’s not for me to decide—”
“But you have influence.”
“You overestimate me.”
“This isn’t for me, this is for the realm. For the war. You’re right, you know—the Aetherian mechanisms will be the end of us, if we’re not careful. Those creatures that destroyed the embassy—do our enemies even know what they’re building, or are they mad scientists from a penny dreadful, trusting in machines they don’t understand? I want to understand Aetherian science, and I’m sure I can use it.”
“To do what?”
His gaze turned upward. “Do more than play tin soldiers. We have their ship—if we can piece together the puzzle, we can do what they did. Control the skies. We can reach fifty thousand feet, a hundred thousand, even. And what of this—instead of building a better weapon, what if we had a device that could neutralize Aetherian-based weaponry? Act directly on the power source. Think of how many lives could be saved. We could build generators to power entire cities, fully convert the transportation system to eradicate coal pollution—this machinery could change the world, were we not so distracted by war.”
They were caught in a bubble of soft light from the room’s gas lamps. Old-fashioned gas—what the world would look like without the Aetherian Revolution. This might be anybody’s parlor, and they might be any two people talking. Unless they were the two people who could change the course of the coming war.
Harry watched him wonderingly. His thoughts reflected so many of her own. The Aetherians had come from another world, for God’s sake. Why did the world’s governments insist on limiting their visions to this one? Aetherian technology might not just change the world, but destroy it, if humanity kept to its current course. Affecting that outcome was such a daunting task. But not if she didn’t have to face the effort alone.
“George can give us access,” she said. “Unfettered access, if you can win him over. And I can get you an audience with George. The Crown Prince will be most grateful to you for bringing me back safely, I’m sure. Eager to listen.” She’d convince him herself if she had to. “It occurs to me that all this time Aetherian research has been dominated by established scientists, set in their ways and unable to move forward.”
“Using the new technology for old purposes instead of looking for new purposes,” he said.
“Just so. Lieutenant Marlowe—”
She blushed. That was going too far, really, so she didn’t call him anything. “I want to help. Not just by talking to George for you. I can help you directly. I have researched the possibility of other, ancient Aetherian crash sites throughout the world. I’ve read the journals, I’ve seen the archives, and I may not be an engineer like you, but I know what I’m talking about. And I can shoot what I aim at.” He would tell her no. George would tell her no. They’d all tell her no, like always, and she was sick of it. On this, she would not accept no. She glared hard at Marlowe, daring him to deny her.
“Of course you must help,” he said. “I can think of no one better.”
She started when the consulate officer came into the room. Her teacup chimed against its saucer.
“Yes?” Marlowe said flatly, innocently.
“They’re sending a ship for you, it will arrive within the hour. You’ll be away before anyone even knew you were here.”
“That’s ideal. Thank you, sir,” Marlowe told him, and Harry remembered herself, nodding graciously to the man.
“Yes, thank you,” she said as evenly as she could. The man beamed at her. They’d probably put a bloody plaque on the wall, commemorating that she drank tea here.
The officer excused himself, leaving them to tea and assuring them he’d return when it was time to go.
“We’re agreed then?” she said, offering her hand for him to shake. Even her gloves were tattered. Ah well, she’d worry about that later. He did not seem to notice their sad state when he took her hand in his own for a brief touch before anyone noticed.
“Agreed,” he said.
So began the adventure.
© 2013 by Carrie Vaughn, LLC.
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