Sunday, December 26, 2010

2.1

The alchemist and his Venetian lion squeezed down the narrow corridor together. They had rented the top floor of this Montmartre rooming house because it had good light and seemed relatively inexpensive (for Paris anyway). The workspace helped them overlook the other drawbacks, like this narrow passage, which was not really suited to a six-foot tall alchemist and a full-grown predator of Eduardo's size.

Another drawback appeared when they had descended to the ground floor.

"Monsieur Maggiormente!" The ebullient voice of their concierge, Mme. Gabore, struck the alchemist between his shoulders like a sharp knife. He stifled the impulse to sigh.

"Get rid of her," Eduardo whispered, "for I shall be very tempted to bite her."

"Don't be impossible," Maggiormente hissed back. "We need this flat." In a louder voice, he answered, "Signora Gabora, how delightful to see you."

"Oh, charmant!" The woman clasped her hands together while grinning at the lion. Eduardo did not return her look, but a low rumble echoed in his chest. "The little hat! So charming, monsieur!"

"Ah, merci, signora. I'm afraid we’re in a bit of a hurry—"

"Now now, what have I told you about Parisian life, Monsieur Maggiormente?" She batted her eyes at him coquettishly, the heavily kohled rims emphasizing the bloodshot red spiderwebbing the white around her brown irises. Paired with the heavy rouge on her cheeks, it gave her a seedy look at odds with her well-maintained figure and chic clothes.

She was a mystery, but one that the alchemist experienced very little curiosity to investigate. "Ah, yes, that was, erm—"

Her laughter was like a peal of bells—large bells, like those in a sturdy cathedral. The sound could frighten a less well-prepared man, but having heard her laughter before, Maggiormente had already braced himself.

"Oh monsieur! There is always time, always time. Enjoy every step, embrace every moment." She leaned close to the alchemist, bringing to him a whiff of tobacco and cherries that always seemed to linger near her. Mme. Gabore squeezed his large arm with a familiarity he did not share. "You must savour life in Paris!"

"Indeed, Signora, indeed." Maggiormente edged away from her toward the freedom of the door where Eduardo waited, tail lashing. "Well, au revoir!" He pried her fingers from his arm. He could not help thinking that the glossy varnish of her nails looked as if she had drawn blood.

Safely out in the bustling streets, Eduardo grumbled, "This would not have happened if you had not made me wear this ridiculous hat."

"Don’t be foolish. She would have found some other reason to speak to us."

"To you." Eduardo sniffed. "Why does she smell like cherries?"

"It is probably some kind of liqueur," Maggiormente said, stroking his beard absently, wondering the same thing. "What kind of liqueur does one make from cherries?"

"Something horrid," Eduardo said, spitting his contempt at the pavement and inadvertently frightening a young woman who leapt backwards, knocking down a grocer with a box full of turnips, which rolled into the street frightening a pair of carriage horses who reared up, whinnying loudly, then charged away down the street, loosing the barrels of wine that had been their cargo, which then rolled away down the street in the direction of the Seine as people leapt out of the way, shouting in alarm.

Eduardo watched the scene unfold with a look of pleasure, but turning to his master, he found the alchemist continued lost in thought.

"You missed it," Eduardo said, pacing along beside him.

"Hmmm, yes," Maggiormente said, nodding and ruffling his beard.

Eduardo rolled his eyes. There was no talking to him at times like this, so he amused himself glowering at passersby who, unlike Mme. Gabore, were not charmed into complacency by the fez.

I am a wild beast after all, Eduardo thought with admirable satisfaction. People should fear me and respect me. I am the king of the beasts!

"Can we get cakes?" he asked Maggiormente, who muttered to himself indistinctly.

"What?"

"Cakes. I want cakes."

"Where are we going to get cakes?" The alchemist frowned.

Eduardo sighed. "The café, remember? We are going to the café." He lifted a paw to point and flapped his wings for emphasis.

"Ah." Maggiormente recalled their errand as he looked up at the familiar façade of the Cossack Bistro. "Shall we stop for some food?"

Eduardo blinked. "Yes, why not. Let us savour Paris cakes." He laughed.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

2.0

Alessandro Maggiormente frowned. There was something wrong with the formula but he could not locate where he had gone astray. He looked up at the array of beakers and frowned more.

"You've missed an important ingredient," Eduardo said, the languor of his voice conveying a sense of unutterable boredom.

"That is apparent," Maggiormente muttered without looking over his shoulder at his familiar. "If you could actually pinpoint the missing element, that would actually prove useful."

"I suppose," Eduardo said, raising his face to the warming rays of the sun, "but I have not been able to pay attention today. This is the first sun we've had since we came to this wretched land."

Maggiormente looked up. "Is that so? I had not noticed."

"You never do."

The alchemist ran his finger down the page, mentally ticking off each herb and tincture. Perhaps it was something in the order of elements—oh, if he had to start over again! How tiresome. He rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he had been at this for too long today.

"Yesterday," Eduardo said, stretching.

Maggiormente looked up at that. "What?"

"You've been at this particular round since yesterday. You're too tired to think straight. I bet you're hungry, too. I know I am." His big green eyes blinked. "Very."

"You're always hungry," Maggiormente said absently, but rubbing his eyes he realised he was famished. "Do we have something left to eat?"

"No, we need to go out." Eduardo became mobile instantly, shrugging off the sunlight-induced indolence with shocking ease. "Let's go out!"

Maggiormente looked down at him. "Remember what happened last time we went out."

"That was not my fault."

"You frightened that woman very badly."

"Some people frighten easily."

"She had every reason to be alarmed. You roared at her most inexcusably!"

Eduardo snorted. "You'd think the woman had never seen a lion before."

Maggiormente put his hands on his hips and glowered at the cat. "You are the last of your kind, Eduardo. No one has seen a Venetian lion if they have not seen you."

"I'm sure there must be some others around," Eduardo said, flexing his wings a little with a shake. "They just have better things to do."

The alchemist sighed. "I hope your presence does not overshadow my own experiments at the Exposition."

"I can't help it if I am beautiful," Eduardo said.

"Not to mention insufferable," Maggiormente muttered.

The cat pretended not to hear him. "I smell duck. Wouldn't duck be just the thing? And maybe some chicken afterward. And a cow."

"Maybe you should wait here while I go get some victuals."

"I promise to be on my best behaviour," Eduardo said, raising a paw as if to swear.

"Why don't I believe that?" the alchemist said with a snort.

"I will, you'll see. I shall be genteel and nod politely and say 'please'."

"Perhaps you ought not to speak at all."

Eduardo looked affronted by that. "Next you'll make me wear a hat."

"Not a bad idea."

"I am not a monkey."

Maggiormente sighed. "You would be easier to manage if you were."

"Monkeys are no help at all when it comes to alchemical workings. And they smell."

"True enough. But they look very smart in hats."

Eduardo narrowed his eyes at the alchemist. "If you absolutely insist, I will wear the fez. But I will not be pleased."

"Done."

Sunday, December 12, 2010

1.9

"I forbid it," Rochester announced with finality.

"You cannot forbid it," his daughter said with equal fervor.

"I am your father!"

"And I am an adult. Don't be ridiculous, papa."

"Adult? Who's being ridiculous now? Why, you can't be more than—than—" Rochester turned to his wife. "How old is she anyway? Fifteen?"

His wife smiled gently at him. "She is nineteen. I was on my own at a younger age."

Rochester looked at his wife with disbelief. "Surely not." She nodded. "Well, those were…extraordinary times. I am not about to let my only daughter go gallivanting about in the sky with an Italian on the way to France to meet another Italian whom none of us know."

"Father," Helen said, "You can't be serious. This is the modern world! You have to move with the times."

"I realise I may seem utterly ancient to you, daughter, but I assure you I have not lost all my faculties."

It was that moment Tuppence chose to appear outside the window, resting on the rhododendrons and making her hoarse croaking that sounded very much like laughter. Rochester scowled. His wife, however, hid a smile.

Helen regarded him with folded arms. "I am flying to France next week, papa. There is no use arguing. I have a career to build and a new technology to demonstrate. I can make this scheme a successful one if I can collaborate with Signore Maggiormente. You can't stand in the way of progress!"

Rochester got up to stalk before the fire, hands clasped behind his back, muttering words that his wife knew she did not wish to hear aloud. At last he stopped to address his recalcitrant offspring once more. "I am not standing in the way of progress: I am merely voicing the necessary concerns of propriety. It's not as if he were English, after all," he added, gesturing toward the injured Italian.

"Signore," Romano said. "I am an honorable man." He winced with the effort but went on. "Your daughter is safe with me. Further, I am engaged to a beautiful woman in my hometown. I have no designs upon your daughter."

"Not good enough for you?" Rochester barked at the young man.

"Papa, leave him alone. First you think he's going to compromise me, then you're afraid he won't. It's irrelevant. I am quite capable of handling myself. You taught me to shoot, you should know. I'm a better shot than you."

"I don't think your father is only worried about fisticuffs," her mother said, walking over to lay a gentle hand on his arm. "It's only natural that we should be concerned for your safety. I realise you have ambitions and we do wish to support them, but we must be have certain safeguards in place to be sure that you will come home to us in one piece."

"But mother—!"

Mrs. Rochester continued, "Which is why I have suggestion that will suit both your scheme to travel and your father's concerns about your safety. Quite simply: your father shall accompany you."

All three stared at her. Tuppence croaked again from the window, flapping her wings against the window panes to punctuate the silence.

"Madness!" Rochester sputtered.

"You can't mean it!" Helen said, but she was already recalculating the fuel resources that would require.

"Darling, listen: you want to watch over our daughter? Do it yourself. You've been kept too close to home for too long. You haven't been as far as York in months. When's the last time you were in London?"

"Well, I haven't had much to do, what with Fairfax handling all the business dealings…"

"Exactly. You're beginning to wear on my nerves somewhat, so I can only imagine that you are feeling fractious as well." She tapped her husband's arm. "Admit it."

"Well…"

She looked up at her daughter. "And wouldn't your father make an excellent addition to your crew?"

"What's he going to do? Shout at poor Signore Romano? Curse at my airship?" Helen smiled as she said this and her mother knew that she had won. "Well, as long as he is part of my crew."

"Meaning?" her father demanded.

"You must obey me."

"I'll do no such thing." His wife elbowed him gently. "What? You don't really mean I should obey this chit?"

"My ship, my rules, papa."

"Infernal nonsense!" He stomped over to poke the fire.

"That means he agrees," Helen's mother translated for her.

"I know." Helen threw her arms around her mother. "Thank you!"

Sunday, December 05, 2010

1.8

Helen's father stared at her. "Don't be ridiculous. Look what happened today."

"That's exactly my point. Look what this kind of penny-wise pound-foolish economizing has led to." Helen warmed to her topic, pacing in front of the fire. "If I weren't trying to make do with less than optimum equipment, we wouldn't have had this accident today."

"What do you propose to do?" her mother asked.

"I will beg, borrow or steal enough money to patch the tear near rudder and make the renovations to the engine assembly that we have been discussing for some time. I shall see the ironmonger in the morning."

Rochester made as if to wave her words away. "None of this is relevant. You are certainly not going to fly to France in that contraption."

"You needn't worry, papa," Helen said with a smile at her father's frown. "We shall be safe as houses."

"Houses! If an infernal house took a notion to fly, it would end up just as disastrously. I will not countenance such a journey." He threw himself into the large armchair and glowered from its depths.

"Father," Helen said, her voice taking on a tone distinctively similar to his and a look of determined stubbornness, "I will be flying to France next week as soon as I can get the ship repaired. Signore, you will doubtless be able to pilot again by then, too, I expect."

Romano nodded, but groaned a little as he did so.

"Helen, perhaps you should take a little more time to assess the damage," her mother said, her tone as placating as the words. Her eyes were on her husband who still mumbled from the depths of his chair. "Surely a short delay will lend you the opportunity to go over all the mechanicals thoroughly."

Helen shook her head. "We don't know how much longer the good weather will last. We cannot wait more than a week or we risk that being a factor."

"Fine, then you can put off the journey until spring and use the winter to tinker away at that contraption," her father announced with satisfaction. "Or find other interests," he added in a low voice.

Helen folded her arms and regarded him. "This is not a whim, father, this is my passion and I will not retreat one iota from this goal. Air travel is the future! I plan to be one of the trailblazers."

There was a commotion in the hall and Mrs. Hitchcock's voice could be heard distantly.

"I expect that's the doctor at last," Helen's mother said, patting Romano on the shoulder gently.

However, when the housekeeper appeared at the door to the library, she appeared alone. "Miss Helen, I have a letter for you."

Helen walked over to take the letter and tore it open to devour the contents. Her parents exchanged a puzzled glance. When she finished reading, Helen let out a cheer and said to Romano, "He is in Paris and will be glad to work with us!"

"Wonderful news, signorina!" Romano said, wincing a little with the pain of exertion.

"He is attending the Exposition Universelle, he says," Helen continued, rereading the missive. "I wonder if he is exhibiting? He does not say."

"Who are you talking about, my dear?" Helen's mother prompted her gently.

"Alessandro Maggiormente," Helen said grandly, a broad smile across her face.

"Of course," her father grumbled. "Him."

Helen looked at him with amusement. "The premiere alchemist in Europe, papa. Signore Maggiormente has been responsible for some of the most exciting developments in alchemy for this century."

"What the devil do you need an alchemist for?"

"Edward," his wife tutted. "Do be more temperate in your language indoors. You are not addressing your dog."

"Alchemists are little more than hucksters and mountebanks," Rochester insisted. "There's not one whose work holds up under scrutiny."

"You confuse the sensational trials with the quiet accomplishments. Maggiormente has been responsible for some exciting developments in fuel sources."

"And what is it you propose to do with this charlatan?"

"I will be consulting with him in the hopes of securing his assistance with a new undertaking that will revolutionise the flying experience!"

"You don't mean to say—"

"Yes," Helen said with satisfaction as she took in her father's dismay. "I will be flying to France to collaborate with Signore Maggiormente."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

1.7

Helen stifled her irritation at her brother and his penchant for wasting inordinate amounts of time rehashing the endless bickering that was politics and hurried toward the library, her father stumping along in her wake. She feared to see her pilot looking even more peaky than he had looked upon the moors.

"How are you, signore?" Helen said, her voice gentling as she took in the pale figure on the sofa. "Are you feeling better?" It was worth asking. Romano didn't actually look much worse than he had just after the crash. Besides, the library fireplace was crackling merrily and Mrs. Hitchcock had tucked a nice tartan rug around the Italian, which looked very snug.

"I-I am trying to hold on, signorina," Romano said, his words sounding more persuasive than his voice did. "I am feeling rather faint, I think."

"Well, at least you're already lying down," Helen said, hoping the comment seemed helpful. The bandage around his head had a large red stain on it that appeared to be slowly growing. "The doctor will be here soon. I think you may have a concussion."

"Concussion!'

"It's serious, signore, but it's not life threatening. We'll know more when the doctor arrives."

"Perhaps I should rest," Romano said, closing his eyes with evident weariness.

In the back of her mind, Helen remembered something about head injuries and keeping the patient from drifting off. "Not just yet, signore. I think we should keep you awake until Doctor Ponsonby gets here. Besides, I want to go over the last part of the flight."

"Signorina, I am not certain that can be fruitful at this juncture," Romano muttered. "And if I close my eyes for just a moment, I know I will feel much more vibrant."

Helen pulled up a chair and took the pilot's hand in hers. Then she began to slap it with her other hand. "Come now, Signore Romano, stay awake!"

"Signorina!" He stared at her with surprise in his eyes. "This cannot be proper."

Helen heard a bark of laughter as her father entered the library. "Proper! The day my daughter recognizes propriety—"

"What?" At the sound of this new voice both Helen and her father started. "What will happen on that momentous day, Rochester?"

"Mother!" Helen leapt up and rushed over to her. "Have you seen Signore Romano? Do you think he will survive," she asked, lowering her voice precipitously for the second question.

"Signore Romano has an extraordinary constitution," Helen's mother announced. Patting her daughter's hand, she added in a more confidential tone, "Although he would benefit from a head as hard as your father's."

"Don't pretend you didn't mean for me to hear that," her father grumbled as he poked the fire. Looking over her shoulder, Helen saw that a small grin lit his face, making his rugged face nearly handsome.

While her mother's face could not be called handsome in any sense, it was so full of lively intelligence that one could not help liking it. Helen had admired her since she could remember, eagerly shadowing her about the house. Her mother's will had such firmness that Helen could not imagine ever getting the better of her in a disagreement, even though she towered several inches over her.

"Mother, do you think Fairfax will get the doctor here soon?"

"Don't worry, he knows this is important. I'm sure he'll be back directly." She took the seat Helen had brought over and took up Romano's hand. "We'll have you up and about in no time, signore, but you need to stay awake. If you cannot keep your eyes open lying down, I'm afraid we're going to have to make you sit up, painful though it may be."

Leaving the pilot in her mother's capable care, Helen turned back to her father. "I'm going to need some more funds for repair, papa. I don't know if Fairfax will give me enough. He was rather meanly inclined the last time around."

"Your ship requires a lot of funds."

"But I desperately needed those upgrades to the motor and vent system. And the payoff will be enormous when I show how beneficial cross continental travel can be."

Rochester turned to regard her with a raised eyebrow. "Beneficial? To crash into the sides of mountains, to drown your passengers in the Channel? I supposed you could round up superfluous relatives and have them disposed of quietly." He laughed at his own wit.

Helen did not allow that to discourage her. "I am going to fly to France."

"Someday my dear, surely." Her father smiled indulgently as he poked the fire.

"I am going to fly to France next week!"

Sunday, November 21, 2010

1.6

"Let me anchor the ship and we'll race down to the house," Helen offered. She took her father's bark of laughter for assent and cast about for a likely anchor for the ropes.

"It doesn't look likely to go anywhere," her father remarked, frowning at the damaged gondola.

Helen grimaced as she pulled on the rope leading from the port side of the ship. "It's losing air through a rift near the rudder, but there's an awfully good chance of it floating off if the winds pick up."

He grumbled something unintelligible, but picked up the other rope. "What do we tie this infernal machine to?"

"We're going to have to see if we can fasten it to this rock. It's the only thing remotely useful in that way." Helen looped the rope around the stone and tied a couple of half hitches to tighten it. Her father tossed his rope around the stone in like manner, tying his knots as well as he could.

"Doesn't look very secure." He tugged at the knots, which held nonetheless.

"We haven't much in the way of choice up here. I'm going to have to work on some kind of mobile anchor, something that could help lock rope into place on unusual surfaces." She looked at her father. "Why are you grinning like a monkey?"

"You will make a good little tyrant. I like seeing you so self-sufficient, makes me hopeful I won't have to house all of my children when I am decrepit."

"Papa," Helen scolded. "You won't have to worry about taking care of me. I can take care of myself. Come, Tuppence!" The raven flew down from the rudder and croaked as it lighted on her shoulder.

"How are you, you murderous old bird?" Rochester greeted the raven with jolly laugh. "When are you going to settle down and find a mate?"

"Shall we race back to the house?" Helen said.

"Don't be ridiculous. You could already run faster than I when you were twelve. Even with all those skirts, you'll have the advantage."

They hadn't gone more than half a mile when they spotted riders heading their way. "I take it your Italian friend made it back in once piece."

"That's encouraging," Helen said, waving at the group. She could see that the lead horseman was Thompson, her father's head groom. As pleased as she was that they were coming to retrieve the airship, she found herself even more pleased that Thompson was leading two more horses for them to ride home. It was no hardship to walk the rest of the way, but she was eager to get back and discuss the failures of the flight and possible fixes.

The men pulled up, all of them approximating some level of bowing from horseback which led to an awkward and stilted performance that made her father glower. "Thank you, Thompson," Helen said, taking the reins of her dapple grey mare. "Is Signore Romano all right?"

"He were bleeding a good bit, miss," Thompson said, "But he seemed to be right enough. I don't think you have to worry about him."

"Thanks, Thompson. That sets my mind at ease. Ready to ride, Papa?"

They parted from the crew and galloped homeward. At the last stile, the dark mass of Cerberus waited, barking loudly once before he leapt up to greet his master. "Down, you devil," Rochester growled, but Helen saw that he was smiling. At the house, the young stableboy waited, his cap too big for his head, his hands shaking as he tried to take the reins.

"Don't shilly-shally, boy," Rochester cried as the timid lad once again missed the reins.

"Papa, don't frighten him. It's all right, you're doing fine," Helen reassured him. Turning back to her father she gave him a severe look, which he pretended to ignore. Trotting inside the house, Helen found a harried looking housekeeper wringing her hands. "Mrs. Hitchcock, what's the matter?"

"Oh, Miss Helen! I had hoped the horse I heard was the doctor. I am so afraid for your Italian friend. He is in a most alarming state."

"Nonsense," her father said as he barreled past the housekeeper. "He's just got an excitable nature. Where have you put him?"

"In the library sir."

"Good god, you haven't got him bleeding all over my surveying maps, have you?" Rochester stalked off toward the library.

"I'm sure he'll be fine," Helen reassured the harried looking woman, but then she noticed the bloody shirt in the housekeeper's hands. "Who went for the doctor?"

"Your brother. He didn't want to go, but all the men had to set out for your balloon thingee and there was no one else to go."

"I hope he doesn't stop to talk politics," Helen said, annoyance sharpening her tone. Curse that Fairfax. He did nothing in haste. Her father joked that he would even fall off a cliff slowly.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

1.5

"Well, come on then!" Helen's father shouted at the poor Italian. "Mount up!"

"Papa," she hushed him. "Give him a minute. He's been injured."

Romano rose on unsteady legs, giving a baleful look at Belial, who stamped his feet as if to emphasize that he was no horse to be trifled with -- as if his size and fierceness had not already conveyed that information to the injured pilot.

"Let me lend you a hand," Rochester said, his voice genial and a look of amusement on his craggy face. "Up you go."

Romano lifted a foot tentatively and Helen's father grabbed it and tossed him aboard the stallion. Belial immediately shied to one side, as if testing the rider for soundness. Romano clapped his legs tighter and grabbed for the black tendrils of his mane for security.

"Right as rain!" Helen said to encourage the Italian, though she couldn't help looking askance at the horse's dancing.

"The reins, curse you," her father rumbled, his always short patience already gone. "Damme, man. Have you not been on a horse before?"

"Ah, signore, not since I was a little boy." He fumbled with the reins, unable to let go of the hair that seemed to feel more secure in his hands. "I always take carriages."

Helen frowned. "Perhaps I should ride with him, help hold him on the horse."

Her father guffawed. "I'd like to see your mother's face if she saw the two of you riding in on Belial. You want her to skin me alive? No, this will do."

"Perhaps the signorina has the right idea, I think I would feel more secure if -- "

"Nonsense!" Rochester stepped back and slapped the stallion's hind end. "Home, Belial!"

The horse was off like a cannonball, hurtling away down the moors -- thankfully, Helen noticed, in the general direction of the house. She glanced at her father who still laughed raucously at the flying black shape.

"Father, stop laughing," Helen scolded. "You are most unkind to my friend."

"Friend!" He threw back the tousled hair that struck her as far too similar to the demonic horse he rode. "The man was actually going to allow you to ride with him on that horse. Most indecorous. Even I know that. Your mother would have my guts for garters."

"Oh father, you've been reading novels again."

"Braddon is quite bracing and I've got the next Dickens waiting in my library for a pipe and some leisure. Will you read to me tonight? I must know what happens."

"Where's Edmund?"

All the laughter disappeared from his expression. "That jackanapes! If he knows what's good for him he'll stay out of my sight, such as it is," he added with a bitterness that was more habit than feeling.

"It's true then? He's been sent down?" Helen frowned, too, unconscious how much it made her look like her father.

"Sent down indeed! A waste of money as I knew it would be from the start."

"Father, you must be patient. Edmund has yet to find his feet -- "

"Well, he will find mine applied to his posterior if he does not figure out something useful to do with all his talents and energies. Something other than gambling and carousing."

"Papa, it's not as bad as that. A few youthful indiscretions -- I wager you were not without a few of them yourself." Helen looked at her father out of the corner of her eye to gauge his reaction to that.

"Your mother has been telling tales, eh?" Rochester smiled grimly. "I paid for my mistakes. Your brother should avoid having to do the same. We're not a family with a great deal of luck."

"Mother would disagree."

"Your mother is a singular person and makes her own luck. We can't all do the same." Nonetheless, his looks softened. "There's no person on this earth like your mother."

Monday, November 08, 2010

1.4

The stallion's legs pounded along like pistons, its nostrils wide from the exertion. The magnificence of the animal was echoed by the black rider who looked as if he had ridden from the flames of hell to this desolate place. The powerful beast rapidly closed the distance between them.

Helen looked down at Romano who seemed to have become rather nervous. "It's only Papa," she said, patting his shoulder.

"This is your father?" Pietro shook his head in wonder.

"Yes," Helen murmured, standing up once more. "I hope he hasn't come to interfere."

The hooves beat a staccato across the expanse of the moor. Helen noticed that her father was hatless. Whether he had left the manor that way or not was uncertain. It was not unknown for him to ignore such niceties. At least that beast Cerberus was not with him. The black wolfhound recognized no master but he. Helen decided she ought not mention the dog to signore Romano.

Helen took a few steps forward and waved wildly. Her father raised a hand in greeting, corrected his trajectory slightly, and seemed to increase his pace. The great black horse was upon them and her father swung down from his back as the horse snorted and danced.

"Darling Papa, how kind of you to come all this way." Helen stepped up to kiss her father on the cheek.

"Your mother demanded I find out whether you were dead," her father said, his voice gruff though his expression revealed kindness. The scars on his face suggested a past tragedy and his left eye showed a milky blindness. "Is he dead then?" he continued, pointing at Romano, one eyebrow raised.

Pietro coughed and tried to stand. "No, signore, I am just a little bruised, but I shall be on my feet in a moment." However, he staggered immediately and sat back down on the hard ground, holding his head and wincing.

"Don't be a fool, signore!" Helen cried. "Papa, we must take him back to the house to wait on Doctor Ponsonby. I shouldn't like to find he's had a concussion."

"Sit down, you Italian nincompoop." Helen's father leaned in to take a closer look at Romano's wound. "It doesn't look that bad," he said at last. "Best to be certain."

"He shall take Belial and be back in no time," Helen said, giving a quick nod of her head.

Her father laughed. "I'd like to see that."

"Papa! You must see it is the best thing."

"Signore, how are your riding skills?" Helen's father narrowed his good eye at Pietro. "This horse is a veritable devil. You'll have to be a better one to stay on him."

The Italian looked alarmed. "I don't know—"

"You must," Helen said. "You'll be perfectly fine."

Her father laughed.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

1.3

There was a deep cut in his forehead, doubtless caused by the impact of the helmet with the rock. Its edge had a dent that must have bit into Romano's skin. There was a good deal of blood now that the metal hat had come off.

Fortunately Helen was untroubled by the sight of it, unlike most women or so she was told. Her mother had once bandaged up her father from a nasty wound caused by an eccentric family member, and thus thought it wise to prepare her children for such emergency duties. Attempts to get either of her parents to elaborate on that adventure had proved fruitless, though she often thought it might have been the mysterious cousin Rivers who had died in India.

Helen shook out her good handkerchief and applied it to the wound with some pressure. "Do you feel disoriented or faint?" She examined his eyes to see if his gaze wandered, but while they were slightly bloodshot, they did not seem dazed.

Romano said, "No, signorina, but it is rather painful. Here, let me hold that in place." He moved his hand up to the handkerchief and Helen leaned back to look at him more critically.

"Any other pains? Do you think you might have injured yourself elsewhere?"

Romano laughed gently, wincing a little. "No, my head softened the fall for me."

Helen smiled. While Romano might laugh in the face of danger, she was certain he could not be badly hurt. "Do you think you're ready to stand?"

He took her offered hand and staggered to his feet, the reddening handkerchief still sopping up most of the blood. "Look!" he cried, pointing at the dirigible.

Helen turned to see Tuppence perched on the rudder at the rear of the ship. The raven croaked now that it had an audience. Squinting, Helen looked closer. There was a rupture in the frame. "Looks like my bird found something." She looked at her pilot. "Perhaps that hole has something to do with our losing altitude."

Pietro peered where she was indicating. "How strange! I shall have to investigate, at least now I know where to start looking." He groaned a little, rubbing his head.

"You should sit down," Helen said in a voice that brooked no opposition. "I'll go get help."

The Italian shrugged. "It's not so bad. I can walk."

"Nonsense," Helen barked. "You will have to move too slowly. I can get back to the house and get some of the men together to carry the ship back and a horse for you. We need to have Doctor Ponsonby look at that cut on your head."

"Per favore, it's nothing. A little alcohol to clean it and voilà."

Helen chuckled at his mosaic of languages. "Nonetheless, we should have your head examined, as we say. My pilot must be in tip top shape."

Pietro sighed. "And your airship, too. We must put off the voyage until we are certain it is safe."

Helen blinked. "What? Nonsense! I intend to keep to our timetable."

"But signorina—"

"I intend to keep to our timetable, Signore Romano." Helen's voice was not loud but there was little doubt of her resolve.

Romano sighed then looked startled. "Who's that?" he cried pointing at a rider on an immense black horse who was rapidly approaching.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

1.2

Helen tore at the ropes with fumbling fingers. How could they have gotten so tight so quickly! With effort she finally pried her finger into the midst of the knot and loosened the bonds. Must remember to invent a knot for quick release, she thought, or some kind of device to keep passengers safe in rough landings.

"Signore!" Helen heard no responding call. Making her way between the detritus that now filled the gondola, Helen looked around her quickly at the rough face of the moor. Romano was nowhere to be seen.

She gazed with dismay at the smashed bow of the gondola. The impact had been enough to splinter some of the wood. The control panel, however, seemed sound, though the shrieks of the motors were still indicating some difficulty. That would be easy enough to repair given Romano's facility with gears -- assuming he had survived the crash, she added grimly.

The envelope seemed to be continuing to lose loft. The guide ropes were slack. That was a much bigger problem. One problem at a time, she scolded herself. "Romano?"

A groan came off to her left. Helen crossed over the edge of the gondola, sat on the wooden frame, grabbed her voluminous skirts with one hand and maneuvered her feet over it to drop to the ground. Curse, these hideous fashions for women! Madame Sand had the right idea. If it weren't for her mother, Helen might well don breeches as well. Surely they were much more practical for this kind of endeavour.

"Romano!" she cried again, this time answered by another groan that seemed to come from beyond an outcropping of limestone. She bustled over. Her pilot and engineer lay on the ground, holding the helmet, which now had a large dent in it.

"You're alive," Helen said, stooping to take a closer look at the Italian. "Any broken bones?"

"No, no," he said at last, "but this helmet! I can't get it off. Prego, signorina."

Helen gripped the edge of the helmet and gave it a pull, but the thing wouldn't immediately budge. "Did you hit the rock?"

"Yes, I think so. It all happened so quickly." A trickle of blood ran down his forehead and he tried to blink it away.

Helen felt alarm at the sight, but redoubled her determination. Taking a better hold of the helmet, she leaned back and tugged as hard as she could and suddenly it popped off.

Blood, as she would be reminded later, proved to be a good lubricant.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Airships & Alchemy 1.1

Yes, at last -- the new serial begins! I should also mention 'Kit Marlowe's' first publication, the Jazz Age novella The Big Splash is available from Noble Romance. Try it! And now without further ado, the steampunk-themed tale of intrigue and mysteries!

Helen Rochester ripped the goggles from her eyes and gaped at the controls. "Signore Romano, why are we losing altitude?"

The Italian whirred the wheel around with haste, grabbing for a lever above it. "I am not certain, signorina. Everything appears to be in order, I cannot explain --"

"Well, do something!" Helen leaned over the side of the gondola. The moors were yet a comfortable distance away, but this would not remain so if they continued to drop as they were. It was as if some kind of weight had landed upon them. "We're going to be upon Cringle in no time."

Pietro continued to frantically check the dials and wiggle the levers, but the airship dropped inevitably lower. Helen did her best to quash the fury that began to rise in her breast and instead listened carefully to the engines. They were chugging along as usual.

Helen's scrutiny was interrupted by a flurry of black feathers as a large raven perched on the side of the gondola and began croaking at her as if issuing orders from Odin himself. "Tuppence!" Helen cried, her irritation plain, "If you can't do anything useful, do get out of my way."

The raven continued to croak at her, flapping its wings to keep its balance on the edge of the frame. Helen looked more carefully at the bird. "Did you see anything up there? Can you see anything?"

Pietro looked up from the flight controls, a look of alarm on his face. "The raven -- she is a bad omen!"

"Stuff and nonsense," Helen said, watching the great black bird rose aloft to fly over the craft. "I've had Tuppence since I was a child. My father claims the ravens have always favoured our family. He had a pair of them when he was a boy, too." She looked over at her engineer, who did not seem comforted by this family history. "They are connected with royalty in this land, Signore. We are proud of our ravens."

Pietro did not seem immediately convinced, but that may have been because he had caught sight of Cringle Moor and Round Hill looming ahead of them as they continued to sink ever lower. "Signorina! You must make yourself safe. We cannot possibly ascend quickly enough to avoid the hills. Please!"

Helen pursed her lips, but had to admit he was correct. She grabbed the goggled that hung around her neck and put them back over her eyes. With staggering steps, for the airship's downward trajectory had begun to pick up speed, she fought her way back to the seat at the back of the gondola and used the rope to tie herself into it.

Pietro strapped a metallic hat on and wrapped goggles around his head as well. In the distance, Helen could hear the raven croaking yet, but its message -- whatever it might be -- was no use to them now as the ground rose to meet their ship. They braced as well as they could for the impact with the harsh limestone of the moor, but there was no way to really prepare.

The gondola made a horrible bounce upon contact and Helen gritted her teeth as the ship continued to make its ragged progress forward until banging against a cliff, the forward motion stopped and they floated downward to finally come to rest.

But where was Romano?!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Good News


Tease Publishing is going to release The Mangrove Legacy this November or December. Initially it will be an ebook, though there is the possibility of a print release if sales are brisk enough. Of course that means that I will not be able to post the end of the story here, but for long time readers, I will happily send you the final chapters to tide you over until that time. The book will appear under the byline "Kit Marlowe" which is the name I will be using for stories that fall in the romance genre. Stephanie Johnson has created this lovely portrait for my nom de plume, a combination of vintage fashions and my own puss.

This also means a new serial! I'm going to take off the rest of August to contemplate the possibilities (and attend to a few other pressing matters) but I will be interested to hear what you would like to see: more Gothic? Regency? Victorian? Steam punk? Modern? I just don't know! At this point I am undecided -- take the opportunity to sway me :-)

Sunday, August 01, 2010

19.5

Alice could not stifle the laughter that bubbled forth from her lips. In fact, the exquisite tension of the perilous journey from her room to this spot gave power to the merriment and her chortles took wing and grew very swiftly into guffaws, which made her clutch her middle because of their force. It had been many a year since the carefree young woman had laughed quite that hard and it made Alice quite giddy.

From the floor below, Judith extricated herself from the sputtering kidnapper with as much decorum and dignity as she could manage. She seemed puzzled to see his arm pass through her skirts without effect, but drew herself up to her full height once more, the better to express her disapprobation.

"You, sir," Miss Wychwood said with a strong tremor of emotion, "are no gentleman."

The fellow in question, however, seemed to take no notice of her severity, continuing to mutter nearly inaudibly and pat the parquet around him in search of something. "The fiend seize it! If I have lost my sliver of Edmund's tree—"

A strange sensation seized Alice. Her body went rigid. A flush painted her cheeks. I know that voice! She hurried down the steps toward the figure on the floor and the bewildered Miss Wychwood and snatched the kerchief from the man without the slightest blink of fear.

"I knew I recognised that voice!" Alice announced with triumph.

Arthur Boylett cowered back in surprise. "Miss Mangrove, I—I—" but there he stopped for Miss Mangrove had never looked so very much like her mother, though towering at least a good half a foot higher, which made her a rather imposing figure indeed.

Alice had never imagined herself to be capable of so much indignation. It flared through her veins like a fire, as if she had swallowed a large spoonful of laudanum, the sort Miss Travers used to give her on particularly warm summer afternoons when they had both gravitated toward a internecine peevishness that had no outlet in propriety. "Arthur Boylett, I demand you tell me what on earth you have been doing! Deceiving me! Holding me captive—and with what possible purpose?!"

Miss Wychwood's face shone with admiration for her friend and she, too, rounded on the would-be kidnapper. "You mountebank! How dare you treat the lovely Miss Mangrove with such roughness and ill-will! I am shocked and appalled by your inconsiderate behaviour." The latter phrase gave the young insubstantial woman a real sensation of quickness and she appeared to grow a trifle more tangible.

For his part, Arthur had continued in vain to locate the lost saint's relic—a sliver of wood upon a wood floor after all being much in the same position as a jade earring in a clover field, he was not having much in the way of success—while gaping with growing irritation at his would-be fiancée. "It is really most provoking, Alice—"

"Miss Mangrove," Alice corrected, her voice reaching a register of frigidity unheard of below the polar regions.

"I mean to say, Miss Mangrove," he said with due emphasis on the latter two words, "that give your mother's recalcitrant nature and downright hostility to me, I feared that she would not allow our engagement."

"Hostility!" Alice said, straightening her back even further as her indignation soared. "How very rude you are being, Arthur."

He halted his fruitless search and looked up at her with patent affront. "You did not hear the unkind words she decided to fling at me that day."

Alice closed her eyes and did not deign to regard him. "My mother would not be anything but the soul of propriety. If she used unkind words, as you say, they were doubtless required by the situation." She looked down at Arthur then, folding her arms across her chest. "It makes me wonder what unseemly language you used." Alice hoped that her look was as severe as her mother's could be behind her best lorgnette. The surge of pride she experienced for her remaining parent suddenly filled her with an exquisite mixture of anger and loss. "How dare you insult my mother!"

Arthur grimaced as he strove to rise to his feet. "She did shoot me, you will recall, Miss Mangrove."

"That's no excuse!" Miss Wychwood squeaked with acute indignation, for she felt the pangs of Alice's distress most heartily.

"Who's there?" Arthur asked with some consternation and not a little fear.

"That's Miss Wychwood," Alice said with a sigh. "She tripped you."
Miss Wychwood gave a stiff curtsey, acceding to politeness but making her disapproval evident.

Arthur stared. "Where?"



Sunday, July 25, 2010

Begging Your Indulgence

Your humble narrator implores you not to think badly of her, but finds herself unable to supply the normal update to the exciting narrative that generally appears at this time of the week.  The Herculean task of bringing together the disparate threads of the narrative in these few remaining episodes -- and the oppressive heat of recent days -- must serve as her excuse. Very soon the next thrilling episode will appear and you will once more gasp with surprise and alarm at the revelations to come.

If you should require reading material in the interval, may we suggest Pelzmantel?

Monday, July 12, 2010

19.4

The steps grew louder. Alice cast her glance around vainly hoping for some avenue of escape, but the cpacious hall revealed little in the way of concealment. The large size of the entry door suggested a need for more force than the two young women could provide. There was not a single piece of furniture behind which they might crouch. Unladlylike as that may appear, the idea held some certain appeal for Alice at that moment.

Judith Wychwood's ethereal arms wrapped tightly around her, which gave Alice some reassurance. She straightened her back. As her father would no doubt bark, she was a Mangrove and there was a legacy to that name of proud and haughty daring. Had not her grandfather faced down the savages of Orkney? Had not her uncle single-handedly triumphed over a gaggle of recalcitrant chimney sweeps in the midst of Mayfair? Had not her own father once stunned a trumpeter swan with a blow of his badminton racket? She had much to live up to and live up to that legacy she would.

"Be not afraid," Alice whispered to her friend. "I shall face him down with the courage of all the Mangroves dead and gone." Judith squeezed her hand as tightly as she could, but Alice felt a whisper of fear at the thought that she too might become a Mangrove dead and gone.

However, she straightened once more with the succeeding thought: "What would Lizzie do?"

Alice lifted her chin and tried to make her eyes blaze as heroines' eyes in novels seemingly did.

She had composed herself just in time. The repugnant shape of Gilet de Sauvinage appeared from the gloom and started suddenly. "What are you doing out of your room?" he snapped.

Alice drew in a breath, the better to calm herself. "We have decided to escape!"

"We?" the dark figure said, pausing in his forward motion.

Alice and Judith exchanged a look. "He cannot see me!" Judith crowed.

"What's wrong with you?" her captor said in a remarkably not-French accent.

"He can’t hear you either," Alice said, the triumph in her voice evident.

"Can't hear whom?" the kidnapper said, beginning to strut forward once more, his step impatient now.

"I have an idea," Judith said, then shot away with ethereal speed until she crouched most indecorously in the very path of Gilet de Sauvinage. Alice gasped. That her dear friend would go to such lengths to assist her. She pressed her hand to her heart, impossibly moved, tears springing from her eyes as if from a fountain.

Her captor stared incredulously until the very moment that he fell over Miss Wychwood and went sprawling!

Sunday, June 27, 2010

19.3

Alice looked up from her embrace with Judith Wychwood. The corridor appeared to be empty, its dark silent and untroubled by any presence, spirit or flesh. The way to escape was clear.

"Quick, Judith," Alice whispered, suddenly feeling the need to restore the cloak of secrecy to their actions. "Let us make our way toward the entrance. Surely we will be able to slip out that way."

The two joined hands and began to walk as quickly and as quietly as they could manage, most of the worry on the side of Alice, who was after all the only one who made any sound. At any moment, Alice feared, someone might pop out and rudely demand where she thought she was going. She very nearly worried that her heart might give them away, pounding away as it did in her bosom very like a little hammer.

It put her in mind of the blacksmith in the village, which set up a kind of metallic clanging echo in her head that in turn fueled the sense of panic even more, like coals on a fire.

They paused at the top of the stairs. "Do you hear anyone, Judith?"

Miss Wychwood bent her insubstantial frame toward the foyer below. "I do not hear a peep," she whispered to Alice, though the sound would not have been much should she have chosen to speak aloud.

Cautiously Alice began to tread down the stairs, hoping there would not be much in the way of creaking. The whole process suddenly reminded her of the stairs that led down from the nursery and how the third one, no matter how carefully she might step, would always give a lamentable groan that alerted her tutor Miss Travers (as she then was, Alice reminded herself, finding she had a kind thoughts in absentia even of the disappointing Mr. Martin who had married that tutor), who would then recall a new lesson that Alice ought to be learning while she tried to nap a little longer or whatever it was that her tutor did when not occupied in tuition.

Sometimes Alice suspected her of writing a three-volume novel, but it was only in mischievous fits of mild unkindness.

The two escapees could be forgiven for their growing confidence that their flight would remain undetected. After all they had made it nearly to the bottom of the considerable staircase without mishap when at last the penultimate step groaned heavily beneath Alice's dainty foot.

Pausing mid-step in an attempt to curtail the unfortunate sound, Alice was alarmed to hear the groan turn into a horrendous crack and leapt to the parquet as the rotten wood gave way. Miss Wychwood and she embraced once more, their faces masks of horror.

"Oh dear!" Miss Wychwood said helplessly.

Alice gasped, for in the same moment she heard footsteps coming from a not inconsiderable distance. "I fear we have been discovered!" The two young women clasped hands and turned to face the danger together. Whatever might happen, Alice thought with a surge of grateful warmth, they were not alone.

Monday, June 14, 2010

19.2

Miss Wychwood's touch was wispy and uncertain, but it was indeed palpable. Alice could not believe her delight in having her friend even this slight bit tangible. It was so wonderful to feel the affection of a friend, one whose words and advice had already proved a comfort.

"Judith, my dearest friend," Alice said, tears filling her eyes. "How delightful to feel your hands in mine." She took her friend's hands between her own as if to demonstrate the delight.

"Oh Alice, it has been so long!" Judith cried ghostly tears of joy and relief. "I do not feel quite so bereft now."

"It must have been awful for you," Alice said with feeling. "I do not know how you had the courage to manage."

Judith blinked her tears away and smiled. "You are so very kind, Alice, dear. I'm sure you would have figured out the secret much sooner."

"It was the crisis," Alice said, nodding her head sagely. It was the first time she had been able to carry off such a gesture. She was certain it improved her appearance markedly. "Under extraordinary circumstances, one is able to accomplish remarkable feats." Alice worried that her tone sounded entirely too brash and softened the statement by adding, "I believe my cousin Lizzie once told me that."

"Alice, I am quite certain you are correct," Miss Wychwood cried, doubtless impressed whatever the source of the knowledge. "What shall we do now?"

Alice looked around them with a sense of mild alarm. The balcony had been their goal, but now that they had achieved it, what were they to do? Alice looked carefully at the French doors that led to the balcony. It was entirely possible that they would be locked. "We need to get inside again," Alice said, her voice losing a bit of cheeriness as the difficulty of doing so squashed her confidence a bit.

"Do you suppose it is locked?" Miss Wychwood inquired, anticipating Alice's own thoughts.

"We can but try," Alice said with a confidence she did not feel. She stepped forward and tried the handle. It proved immobile. Oh dear, Alice thought. This did not bode well. Alice leaned down to peer in the keyhole, but it was too dark to see anything.

"Perhaps I can pop inside and see if there is a key in the lock," Judith suggested.

"Excellent," Alice said, but there was not much hope in her voice. If there were a key, it would nonetheless be on the wrong side of the door.

"The key is here," Miss Wychood's muffled voice announced.

Alice perked up. "Can you turn it?"

Judith's face lit up with excitement. "Let me see!" She bent at once to her task, concentrating on grasping the key with her ethereal fingers. Her brow furrowed with concentration, but she did not seem to be able to get a firm grip in the key. Doubtless it had sat idle in its place for some time.

Alice felt her hope sinking. There was a sudden clatter and the key fell to the floor.

"Oh dear!" Miss Wychwood said, her dismay apparent in both her voice and her face.

Alice had a flash of inspiration. "Judith, dear, can you push the key under the door?"

Judith clapped her hands together. "I believe so." With stately grace, she leaned down and pushed away at the rusty key. Gradually it inched its way under the door until the teeth poked through where Alice's eager fingers could grip it. With a flourish, she brandished the key and set it to the lock. After a moment's hesitation, the key turned with a click and Alice was able to pull the door open.

"Oh Alice!" Miss Wychwood cried and the two confederates embraced happily once more.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

19.1

"Miss Wychwood, er, Judith," Alice whispered, although it was unlikely that anyone would over hear them. "Is the balcony getting closer perhaps?"

The disconcertingly ethereal voice of Miss Wychwood hovered somewhere off to Alice's right, not quite on the same ledge, but then again, ghosts did not require even the insubstantial support of its narrow width. "Only a few steps further," came the encouraging reply. "Just don't look down."

Now Alice had certainly had no intention of looking down. When she had begun her perilous journey out the window, one promise she made herself was that she would certainly not look down. Alice knew what lay below, as she had glanced out the extremely untidy windows many times, but she had no real desire to remind herself of that geography without the safety of a dirty windowpane between her and it.

But a funny thing happens to the most obedient child when told not to do something.

Alice looked down and immediately dizziness overwhelmed her. The ground, which had seemed so near by from the safety behind the glass, now seemed perilously distant. After all the falls I have taken, after all the adventures I have survived, Alice thought somewhat nervously, perhaps I should think nothing at all of falling into the garden below.

"Miss Alice!" cried Miss Wychwood. "Take my hand!"

Alice craned her neck around to the side where Miss Wychwood hovered anxiously. Without a thought she stretched her hand out to her friend and clasped hers. The two inched along the ledge without drawing another breath it seemed, but Alice could feel the dizziness that had attacked her subsiding.

The balcony loomed ahead like a shimmering oasis in the desert. Alice found herself as thirsty for it as a camel who had been on a very long holiday indeed and had only had a very dry bread for tea with no butter at all.

"Just a few more steps," Miss Wychwood encouraged.

Alice tried to think nothing at all and concentrated only on the sound of her friend's voice and the touch of her hand. Step, step, step. Minute movements, but progress, surely, Alice told herself.

"We're there!" Miss Wychwood cried. "Alice, you're safe!"

Alice looked down and they were indeed at the balustrade for the balcony. She let go of Judith's hand to grab the railing and ever so carefully boosted herself over it. Trembling, Alice nonetheless found herself filled with triumph. "We did it!" she cried with a voice that very nearly sounded like a sob.

Miss Wychwood clapped her hands with joy. "Indeed!"

"Judith!" Alice said, her eyes wide and mouth open. "I could feel your hand!"

They both gasped with surprise and delight and embraced at once.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Spirited Away

A roguish charmer has lured your narrator away for some faro and lemonade. Let us hope his intentions are not going to lead to scandal.

Monday, May 17, 2010

18.10

Stephenson looked at Lizzie with a rather uncomfortably penetrating gaze. "Yes. A young English woman named Alice whom we met under the most remarkable circumstances and then almost as quickly, ah -- " he paused, searching for the right word.

"Then we lost her," the one called Bertie said with a jolly laugh that did not suit Stephenson's sudden look of consternation. "We had barely gotten to know the two delightful young ladies when poor Alice was whisked away most precipitously."

"And we had every reason to suspect foul play," Stephenson added darkly, his eyes flashing anger. "One minute she was there, the next -- poof!"

"Well, we gave that suspicious little man Tricheor a good natter," Hugh said with a decided nod. "A bit of the havey-cavey about him, but he was trembling so, it was not possible he could have been behind such a daring caper."

"And this Alice," Lizzie said as calmly as she could manage. "She was English?"

"Indeed," Hugh said, but Stephenson broke in.

"Yes, a very nice young English woman, a bit over her head, but quite plucky for all that."

"Did you learn her last name?" Lizzie asked, her tone as careless as she could manage.

"You did, did you not?" Hugh said, turning to Stephenson who looked somewhat careless himself.

"Yes, I think so," Reggie continued to look as unconcerned as possible, infuriating Lizzie, who nonetheless sought to not betray that feeling.

"And?" She managed to keep her question succinct. She could not help noticing Tilney's close attention to her, however.

"I believe," Reggie Stephenson drawled, "that her family name was -- Mangrove."

Lizzie could not contain her gasp. "My long lost cousin!" she exclaimed.

Tilney gaped at her in surprise. "Your cousin?"

Stephenson's eyes seemed to want to burn through her words into her very brain. "You know the young lady," he said with a coldness that seemed quite at odds with his previous excitement.

Bless him, Lizzie thought, he is quite smitten. "Indeed, I believe that sounds like my dear cousin Alice, daughter of the late Lord Mangrove. She and -- er, she had been kidnapped from her father's funeral and spirited away."

"She has been spirited away again," Stephenson said with considerable passion. "We were hoping to find her when we ran across word of Tilney's plight."

"Damme, man. We must rescue Bennett's cuz," Tilney broke in. "It's the only thing to do."

Lizzie shot him a grateful look. "Tell us what you know," she begged Stephenson as the others gathered around. "We must find Alice!" Her heart warmed with excitement at the thought they she might be reunited with her dear cousin soon.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

18.9

It was bad enough to suddenly be blinking in bright daylight after the darkness of the coach, but Lizzie found it impossible to bear Stephenson's scrutiny with equanimity. Fortunately a distraction occurred while she helped brace up Tilney.

"Reggie, we've brought him around once more," another young man cried from the front of the carriage where the horses stamped their hooves with what seemed to Lizzie's fanciful mind to be Gallic indignation.

Perhaps it was just her amplification of the bewildered scowl on poor Armand's face. As he hove into view supported on either side, she could hear him muttering a string of words that were unfamiliar to the young woman until he got to "fils" and "chienne" and then she turned away quickly to cough.

"Bertie! Brackley!" Tilney cried with delight. "I say, what a wonder."

"Tilney, old boy! 'Pon rep--did we shoot you? Heavens!" Bertie looked ready to drop the staggering Armand in his eagerness to see his friend, while Brackley gaped open-mouthed.

"Poor Armand!" Lizzie said. "How could you frighten him so?"

Stephenson looked at her rather more sharply. "I say, Bennett--"

"What the devil are you all doing here?" Tilney cut in, much to Lizzie's relief. "Aren't you all supposed to be on the sunny strands? Hugh!" he added, as another young man appeared leading their horses.

"Tare 'n hounds! Tilney, you've survived!" Hugh dropped the reins of the horses and made ready to clap his friend on the shoulder, until he noticed how Tilney winced. "Good god, man--did we wing you?"

Tilney laughed. "Anyone else along for the ride? I don't want to have to retell the tale each time."

"Eliot meant to come," Stephenson said with a familiar sort of lazy drawl, "But he caught a cold."

"He caught a Constance, you mean," Bertie said, crowing with laughter.

"As you have guessed, Bennett," Tilney said, the usual lopsided grin on his face, "All my friends are quite mad. You will have expected no less."

Stephenson laughed heartily at this. "That rotter Eliot has betrayed the brotherhood and fallen in love with a most unlikely lass."

"French, you mean?" Tilney said, an eyebrow arched.

"Luckily no," Hugh said. "Sir Eliot managed to come all the way to the land of the frogs and fall in love with an English woman."

"Reggie lost his heart, too!" Bertie said. "But fortunately he lost the girl as well."

Stephenson's looks glowered darkly and, for a moment, Lizzie thought he might truly explode in anger, but the look passed and he laughed genuinely enough, though the sound rang a little hollow in her ears. "Yes, the illness and the cure in one fell swoop."

"Right," Hugh sniffed. "That's why we had to set off in pursuit of her so quickly."

"I thought you were running to my aid," Tilney laughed.

"Well, we heard about you on the way," Stephenson admitted. "But we had set off in search of poor Alice."

"Alice!" Lizzie cried. Could it be--?

Monday, May 03, 2010

18.8

Lizzie could not tell what astonished her more: Tilney's peremptory announcement as he kissed her hand or the gang of miscreants who had appeared outside the carriage. It was impossible to see their faces as the sunlight behind them beamed brightly into the dark interior. The brigands' voices were a cacophony assaulting Lizzie's ears and she felt oddly bereft of breath.

Despite her confident words to Tilney, Lizzie feared that this was indeed the end of their extraordinary journey. They had been so fortunate -- dodging bullets and French magistrates, not to mention her daily charade. All good things must come to an end, Lizzie thought as she blinked into the bright light, waiting for her eyes to adjust.

Tilney's grip on her hand had not loosened and Lizzie felt a flush of happiness as she heard his words echo again in her memory. If we die at the hands of these brigands, she thought, at least I will have had one moment of truly exquisite joy. She looked back at Tilney's face and admired once more the familiar lines of it. Though still touched by his injury and loss of blood, there was not a more handsome face in all the world, Lizzie thought with sudden certainty. Every line of it captured her heart, every imperfection only added to her delight that this man should say he loved her. If this were the end, then it was all worth it. She had found the man who had won her heart.

To her surprise, however, Tilney was staring at the brigands crowded outside the door—and he was smiling!

Lizzie turned to regard the fearsome creatures and saw that they were smiling, too. Her jaw fell open. What could this mean?

"Tilney! 'Pon rep, but we had a devil of a time finding you," shouted one young lad who seemed not at all sinister now that Lizzie could see him clearly.

"Lawks, but you're the very last person I expected to see kicking up a lark among the froggers. Damme, Stephenson! We thought you were the worst sort of highway men." Tilney laughed heartily. "Bennett and I thought we were done for."

"I landed a facer on that devilish driver of yours," Stephenson said, his face glowing with pride. "A regular highwayman couldn't have done any better, I warrant. You should have seen us go at it wild."

"Oh, poor Armand," Lizzie said, her sympathy going out to the innocent driver.

"Well, I fear we have had a bit of a scrape and got the wrong handle on the basket, I think," Stephenson said rather confusingly. "Aren't you being kidnapped, old man?"

"Kidnapped?" Tilney said, exchanging a look with Lizzie, evidently as befuddled as she. "You're too ripe and ready by half, lads. We've had a few scraped of late, but never kidnapped."

"Come out here into the light so we can see you, Tilney," Stephenson insisted, grabbing hold of the young man's arm and making him grunt with pain.

"Leave him alone," Lizzie shouted, "He's been shot!"

"By one of us?" Stephenson said with alarm. "Good heavens, old man. Sorry about that."

Tilney laughed, but Lizzie saw the strain on his face. "No, this was another fiasco." But he leaned forward and with Lizzie's help, was able to step out into the sunlight.

"Now who's this friend," Stephenson said with evident curiosity as he scrutinized Lizzie's face. "Say don't I know you?"

Lizzie quailed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

18.7

The sounds of the struggle on the driver's box continued. Tilney and Lizzie trained their attention upon the unseen tussle, awaiting the outcome. They did not have long to wait. A cry of pain and then a loud thud came as a body fell from the carriage.

"But who has fallen?" Lizzie could not resist asking, though of course they could not know. The hoof beats surrounding them seemed ever louder, a sinister sound.

"We must have something with which to defend ourselves!" Tilney hissed.

"You are not even strong enough to do so and you must not endanger your health," Lizzie said with equal spirit. "Be sensible, Tilney."

"Sensible!" Tilney looked daggers at her, then turned back to rifling through the picnic basket in a vain attempt to find some kind of weapon. He hefted the wine bottle. It would have to do.
"We're slowing," Lizzie said.

Tilney's face darkened. "Stay behind me."

"If they open the door on this side—" Lizzie began.

"Lizzie, do as I say," Tilney said.

It was not so much the anger in his voice as the fear in his eyes that stifled her words of protest. They could hear the voices of men as the riders gathered around the carriage. The team pulling the carriage were slowing their steps with an abundance of snorts and seeming surprise as the driver shouted, "Ho!"

"Lizzie," Tilney said, his gaze on the door beside him, "I do not know what will happen next."

Lizzie touched his hand lightly. "It will be all right, Tilney. We’ve been in a tight spot before."

"I—I don’t know," Tilney said quietly. "Things are different now."

"How so?" Lizzie asked, her voice soft in the suddenly quiet interior.

"Oh, hang it, Bennett, don't make me say it."

"Say what, Tilney?"

Just then they heard a pistol shot. Lizzie clutched Tilney's hand. Tilney grabbed her hand and brought it to his lips. "Damme, Bennett. If I must die, I will not die without saying how much I love you."

The door of the carriage flew open and the two lovers gasped, their eyes dazzled by the sunlight.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

18.6

Lizzie turned round on the seat with alarm, frightened that the next shot might harm Tilney or herself. "I am not certain," she said, attempting not to sound as breathless as she felt, "but it appears that we may in fact be under fire."

"I supposed it might be so," Tilney drawled as another shot rang out. "Remind me not to travel again with a losel like you, Bennett."

Lizzie looked at him, aghast that he could be so nonchalant about another perilous situation. His crooked grin, however, charged her wits with much needed stimulation. "I have a terrible feeling that we have much more to fear this time. These must be brigands, judging from Armand's pace."

"We shall see," Tilney said, eyes closed once more. "There is little to be done until either we escape the peril or the brigands halt poor Armand's desperate measures."

"How can you be so cool," Lizzie asked, though her castigation was more habitual than actual. She craned her neck in vain to see if the furious hoofbeats were in fact coming closer as she feared. Out the curtained window she could glimpse the legs of an approaching horse.

"They're beside us!"

Tilney sat up then. "Damme! Why did I not carry a pistol?"

"No matter now," Lizzie said, trying to gather her thoughts into something productive.

"I must protect you!" Tilney's eye looked fierce. Lizzie had not seen such an expression on his face and while she worried that it would fatigue the poor man, she could not help feeling a sense of comfort that she had such a noble friend beside her in an hour of need. Gone was the extra burden of worry for her young cousin -- poor Alice! Where could she be now? Surely safe, Lizzie told herself with some guilt, fearing it had been far too long since she had given her cousin even the most perfunctory passing thought.

Yet oh, what a relief in such a dramatic moment to know that she did not face the terror alone, but with a stalwart companion by her side who thought as much to protect her as she did him. "What do we have to use as a weapon?"

"Fiend seize it, Bennett! Take cover, won't you?" Tilney said, his irritation plain on his face and in his voice.

"And where do you propose I take cover, Tilney?" Lizzie shot back as the drumming of hooves around them grew. "We are in the devil's own scrape this time and there's little chance of getting out of it. We shall have to play by our wits assuming they give us the opportunity."

Tilney looked at her, eyes wide. It was impossible to tell whether he was more astonished or angry. For a moment the decision seemed to hang in the balance and then he gave a sharp bark of laughter. "Damme, Bennett, but you are a larksome lass."

He looked ready to say more, at least it seemed to Lizzie there was a peculiar shine to his eyes, but just then they heard a loud thump as someone or something landed on the driver's box and the sound of fisticuffs emerged. The two of them exchanged glances.

The marauders were on the carriage!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

18.5

The coach bounced along the country lane. Lizzie sat deeply in thought, Tilney's head still resting against her shoulder. She would have to decide soon what to do. Perhaps this journey will last forever and I need never think again, Lizzie told herself as the fields rolled by.

The darkening of the day seemed to match the unbidden thoughts that returned to whisper that it could not be so. I shall have to leave him, Lizzie reminded herself. She looked outside and saw the gloomy light was not simply cloud cover, but the edge of a forest that drew them into its depths like a giant swallowing.

Just the place for hide and seek, Lizzie thought, then shivered for no reason. The sensation of having a goose step across her grave unsettled the young woman and she shifted a little under Tilney's weight.

What a thick forest this must be to shut out so much light! She had not thought that such woods grew in this part of France. As they approached the higher elevations, surely the trees would thin out. But it was impossible to deny that the forest grew thick hereabouts.

In another moment, Lizzie's sense of unrest grew. She turned her head. Surely that was a sound of hoofbeats behind them! No need to be alarmed, Lizzie told herself, but she could not help the fluttering of her heart. Another set of travelers, doubtless. That was all. It was a road after all and what were roads for but to travel.

Set your mind at ease, Bennett, she scolded. None the less, she wished Tilney were awake. It was not the time to feel on her own. But you're not on your own, Lizzie reminded herself. You have Tilney here beside you and stout Armand on the box. There was no reason to feel nervous.

Yet she could hear the hoof beats distinctly now.

They seemed to be making a speedy clatter on the hard earth. A carriage? She could distinguish no sound of wheels in the echo of the hooves, so that meant riders.

Why jump to the conclusion of brigands? After all, it might just be a group of young farm hands, traveling to the market or to a distant homestead. Perhaps it was a cadre of solicitors, traveling from one court to a higher one. Or soldiers, Lizzie told herself with some rising hope, keeping the roads of France safe from brigands just as the British navy kept the sea safe from pirates.

Well, Lizzie thought hastily, somewhat safe from pirates, that is.

She had nearly convinced herself that she would see the bright colours of the gendarmes as they passed by the carriage, nodding politely as they rode past. But with a jerk, the carriage began to travel more quickly and Lizzie felt her heart leap to keep pace with Armand's team.

"What?" said Tilney, waking with an irritable exhalation. "What are you gibbering about, Bennett?"

"Nothing, it's nothing," Lizzie soothed. "Go back to sleep."

That was when the first bullet rang out. "Lawks," Tilney said with admirable calmness, "Are we under fire again?"

Monday, March 22, 2010

18.4

"Monsieur," a familiar voice called.

Lizzie turned to see the kind landlord's cousin Armand, who approached quietly, seeing that Tilney had fallen once more into a slumber. "What is it, Armand?"

"Monsieur, I know that I am to take you . . . what do you say? A ways, no?"

"Oui, that is so, Armand."

"I need to get home soon, monsieur. My children, my wife—there is much to do at our farm."

Lizzie looked at the man and saw a simple farmer far from home. Her heart felt a stab of sympathy quite remote from her own troubles. "I know, Armand. I think we are near enough to the main thoroughfare to catch a mail coach to . . . ah, our destination." Best to remain cagey about that, Lizzie reminded herself.

"Oui, monsieur," Armand agreed. "Do you think your ami will be ready to travel such an arduous way?"

Lizzie had her doubts, but she covered them with bonhomie. "He is quite strong and will recover quickly. Why, he is already much more himself. We will be just fine, Armand. You need not worry."

Perhaps it would make things easier, anyway. If Lizzie needed to make her own escape and head toward Naples, then she could leave Tilney to make his way homeward once more and be safe. She would have to do it and silence her traitorous thoughts that whispered that she could not leave him not tomorrow, not ever.

What is the world, Lizzie thought, that allows us hearts and no way to express them? Allows us minds that must hold in their ruminations that might make this life less painful for many, that must leave to bland tradition the burning passions that wished to break free of such moorings and speak to authentic emotions and lives? What a world this is that gives us hearts to crack with longing and desire and yet no mind to comprehend the ways these hearts operate.

Armand took his seat once more, a hefty hunk of bread and some of the cheese beside him. The carriage rattled off and while the movement shook Tilney, he did not awake, but slumbered on, leaning comfortably against Lizzie's shoulder as she stared off into the space beyond the window.

The French countryside that passed her view remained unseen. Her thoughts were filled with obligations made, tragedies already unfolded and the warm shape of Tilney's head pressed against her shoulder. Lizzie could smell the scent of his hair, a fragrance she had come to know well as she cared for his injured body. Such a foolish thing, she told herself, a mere animal sensation.

But it did not stop her from inhaling deeply the musky smell of his head, nor caressing with her free hand the dark curls of his head as he lay slumbering beside her. Surely, she remonstrated with herself, surely the King of Naples had charms in excess of this modest English gentleman. Surely the King would make her laugh as much as Tilney did, surely. And his knowledge of insects was vast. Tilney could not with certainty identify more than a dozen species.

"I hate insects!" he had announced quite decidedly one day. Lizzie leaned her head upon his and felt a tear fall from her eye.

Monday, March 15, 2010

18.3

"If I were to make such a feeble escape from an argument," Lizzie said as she sliced off a little more cheese, "You would never let me hear the end of it, excoriating me for laziness and lack of aplomb."

"Bennett, if it weren't so unseasonably hot, I would stridently argue for the natural superiority of English men over English women," Tilney said pulling his hat low enough to cover his eyes from her gaze before yawning elaborately and sinking back. "Lawks, but I'm fagged to death all of the sudden."

"How very convenient for you. You're just in a miff because you can't defend your point. Concede, Tilney."

"Nothing of the sort," he muttered, sinking even lower and thrusting his legs out in front of him, the picture of perfect ease. "Swallow your spleen, old man. My point's been made for me by better men than I. You just need to open a book."

"You're too smoky by half," Lizzie said with malicious glee. While his hat concealed his eyes from her merry gaze, it did not stop her from admiring his fine profile. There was determination in that chin, but good humour and kindness in his mouth, however much he might scowl. Lizzie felt herself blush at the thought of her stare being noticed and turned her attention to what was left of their lunch.

She wrapped up the bread and cheese and corked the wine, trying to keep the thoughts from racing through her mind again. It was far too difficult to concentrate on anything other than the agreeable young man now snoring softly nearby.

With determination, Lizzie attempted to take command of her thoughts and turn them toward their proper destination: the King of Naples. Think of it, Bennett, she said with mock severity, a king awaits you -- one with a surprising interest in the habits and peculiarities of insects and arachnids, which certainly counted for much.

Tilney evinced no interest in such creatures. Indeed, Lizzie doubted whether he could tell a mosquito from a mosque.

Yet the fact remained all too vividly before her, that she had grown accustomed to his voice, to his slangy speech and moreover, the visage that slumbered before her now.

Lizzie frowned. She had never had a commonplace mind, but now she continually coloured up at the sight of Tilney, at his laughter, at his smile, at that warm voice she once feared she would never hear again after the duellist's bullet winged him. It was fortunate that she had been there to nurse him back to health from the terrible blow, but the idea kept fighting its way into her mind that he might never have been in the position of being shot were it not for her.

Stifling a tiny sob, Lizzie turned her head away from Tilney again. He was nearly recovered, certainly well enough for travel. Though he continued to tire easily, he was well out of danger. There was only one answer.

She would have to abandon him.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

18.2

"So, Italy is still our destination?" Tilney asked with elaborate carelessness.

Lizzie, who had been caught up in the high spirits of their conversation, frowned. She had managed not to think too much about the road ahead, instead thinking only of the vaguely southward course as further away from trouble rather than toward a particular location. It was the direction they gave to the driver, but time was approaching when they must make a change.

"Italy, in one way or another," Lizzie said with an equal attempt at a drawling casual air. "I think we may need to make some changes once we get nearer to Nice."

"Our fine charioteer will want to return home, doubtless," Tilney said, tearing off another piece of fragrant bread and leaning back on the seat with a yawn.

"Do you think he will take us as far as that?" Lizzie asked, glancing toward the man in question who at present was letting the horses feed, too. It was a rather lovely day and she closed her eyes, imagining if this were only a day of relaxing fun instead of a brief respite on a troubling journey with an uncertain outcome.

"There is no telling what the man might do," Tilney said with finality. "He is French, therefore inscrutable and unpredictable."

Lizzie laughed and looked at her companion. "You are ridiculously closed minded about our sometime compatriots."

"That is because they are our sometime combatants, too," Tilney said, waving away the proffered goat cheese and taking up his glass of wine. "While I cannot fault the French when they turn their hands to the vineyard, I am quite resolved that they only take up other endeavours with an eye toward disrupting the ease of all Englishmen."

"And Englishwomen?" Lizzie asked a little tartly.

Tilney waved away the comment. "It is terrible to think of Frenchmen appropriating English women. Or foreigners of any kind," he added with a dark look.

Lizzie simply laughed. "If Englishmen were more worthy of the love of Englishwomen, they would seldom have need to set out in search of more winning beaux."

Tilney raised one eyebrow in a censorious arch. "Beaux? This influx of vocabulaire français is most unnecessary. It is precisely the way things get quickly out of hand. French wines are one thing, but it beyond the pale to mix in so many superfluous words in a foreign tongue merely for effect or because you are thinking what to say in English."

"What if there is no more exact word?"

"There is always a way to say something," Tilney said, waving away her argument with his bread. "And generally a better and more concise Anglo-Saxon way to say it."

"Sprezzatura," Lizzie said, allowing the syllables to roll off her tongue with delight.

"Oh, Italian now," Tilney said, taking a bite of bread.

"Don't stall for time," Lizzie grinned. "What would you say is English for 'sprezzatura'? Hmm?"

"Oh, I think it's far too warm to think of Italian. We will soon be forced to think on it, but I would rather not do so before we must. Or do you think otherwise?"

Lizzie had to admit to losing that particular maneuver, but wasn't willing to sacrifice the queen yet.