Sunday, February 27, 2011



Helen looked at her father with consternation. "There is no need for that kind of language, Papa."

"Hang it, I don't intend to go flying ass over teacup into the great beyond." He clutched the ropes and grimaced. "Can't your pilot do something about this?"

Helen laughed. "It's only a bit of wind, Papa. You'll soon get used to it."

So far her father's first airship journey had not impressed him favourably. The man who was accustomed to riding a horse that had terrorized grooms for the whole of his life and commanded a dog that kept even well-intentioned guests from their door was having a very difficult time of it keeping from looking terrified.

Another gust of wind set the gondola swinging again. Helen swayed with the movement, but her father tried to will it into submission. "Move with the gondola, Papa. Like on a ship. Get your air legs!"

"Air legs!' Her father shouted, making a desperate grab for the side of the gondola. "Utter nonsense!"

Helen sighed. "I told you we could give you a chair." She held onto the sides of her seat as another gust lifted the ship up and then dropped it just as suddenly. "But no, you insisted you needed no such thing."

Rochester grimaced again and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the ship's hull. "I could have miscalculated there," he muttered at last.

"I'll say!"

"When is this damn thing going to dock again?"

"Signor Romano," Helen called out. "How far shall we travel today?"

"Signorina," the pilot called back, "We ought to go at least as far as the sea, eh? I thought we would go up to Whitby and circle back around."

"We bloody well will not!"

"Father!" Helen said, truly scandalised this time. "Such language!"

Rochester looked apoplectic. "There's no one to hear us up here," he shouted across the ship. "No one but Tuppence, I suppose. And the bird's heard me say much worse."

As if to agree, the raven croaked loudly, floating in the air beside where Helen sat. Despite her shock, she couldn't help smiling. Her father's insistence on accompanying them on the first flight of the repaired airship struck her as odd at first and then suspicious. Once they were in the air, however, she had been too busy checking their progress and the workings of the motor to worry too much about it.

"We're nearly there any way, Papa," she soothed. "Look—isn't that the sea now?" Helen pointed off ahead of them where the horizon deepened to the dark gray of the North Sea.

If her father had been pale before, he had now turned white as parchment. "We're not going out over the ocean in this clattering, poxy growler!" His tone indicated the utter impossibility of such a thing occurring.

"You know we will have to cross an ocean to get to France, Papa!"

His stricken look suggested that the thought had not crossed his mind. "Not today!"

"No, Papa. Not today. We just need to see the ship handling in variable winds to test the rudder assembly and the new pulley system."

"Could we do so a little closer to the ground?" Her father started as Tuppence began squawking behind his head, as if trying to strike up a conversation. "Get that infernal bird away from me!"

"Tuppence!" Helen called, beckoning to the bird. "Signore, can you bring us a little lower? My father is alarmed."

"I said no such thing," Rochester muttered, his expression darkening. "I just don't think it's necessary to soar with the eagles."

Tuppence flew into the gondola and landed in the middle of the deck. She hopped toward Helen's father, croaking animatedly.

"What the devil is that bird screeching about?"

Helen smiled. "I think she's just entertained by your being up here."

He aimed a kick at the bird, who had no trouble dodging his foot. "That bird should have something better to do than to mock me."

Without warning, the ship lurched, seeming to drop in the sky a good measure.

"Heavens! Look!" Helen cried.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


"It's gone!"

Manet sounded so woebegone, even the alchemist felt a twinge of pity for him. He struggled to find comforting words. "Well, the sky is certainly very blue here above your house, monsieur."

The firmament merited that observation. Manet could be forgiven for finding its overarching presence a bit dejecting, as the top of the house was completely gone and with it everything that had been in the top storey.

"Well, what's gone is gone," Berthe said with a shrug. "It is fate!"

"Fate," Manet muttered. "How Germanic. It is an evil conjunction of stars. The work of envious enemies. A cruel act by a cruel deity. But not fate."

"It looks like carelessness to me," Eduardo said with a yawn. The sunlight added to his full belly and the exertion of the afternoon made him feel decidedly sleepy. "If you had not used the linseed oil in a precarious location, perhaps this would not have happened."

"I was experimenting," the painter said, pulling himself up to his full height. "Without experimenting, art will not move forward."

"He has a point you know," Maggiormente muttered as he began wandering around the blackened remnants of the attic space. "Experimentation must be the key to advancement."

Berthe snorted. "The fact remains that he was careless. You have to use a little common sense when you're working with fire." She frowned at the blackened walls looking for something worth saving.

The alchemist nodded, rubbing his beard as he took a closer look at the burnt remnant of frame, poking at the charcoaled remains as if to determine their chemical makeup. "Fire must have your respect. The salamander must be watched."

Berthe raised an eyebrow at the bearded gentleman. "Salamander?"

Maggiormente rubbed his face absently, unaware that he was covering it in black soot. "Yes, the salamander who quells the fire before it can run amok. But he must be invoked, so one must be vigilant for fire's excesses."

The two painters exchanged a look.

"You've never met an alchemist, have you?" Eduardo said, sitting down on his haunches and licking his paw thoughtfully. "He's not so unusual as alchemists go."

"Unusual?" Maggiormente frowned. "What is unusual?"

"Well, we must get busy determining the extent of the damage," Berthe said, rubbing her hand together as if she were cleaning them.

"Oh my yes," Manet said, avoiding the alchemist's puzzled gaze and turning to the debris in the corner. "So very much to do."

"Don't let us keep you," Eduardo said with purr that could easily have been mistaken for a growl. "Ever so much to do." He rose, stretched and slowly ambled toward the precarious stairs. "Coming?" he called to Maggiormente over his shoulder.

"Oh, yes, I suppose so," the alchemist straightened up and brushed off his sleeves where he noticed some ash had landed. "Best of luck to you," he added doffing a non-existent hat, realizing mid-gesture that he had no hat, and opening his hand in a vague wave. "Do let me know any further developments you have with the explosive qualities of linseed oil."

He caught up with the lion on the stair. "We must get some. I'm sure it may prove useful if it can cause this kind of damage."

Eduardo busied himself looking in the rubble at the bottom of the steps. "Ah ha!" He pounced and pushed aside a broken bit of furniture. There lay his fez. "Oh dear!"

Maggiormente joined him. "I think it's just a bit of soot. We'll put it right." He picked up the hat and gently flicked away the worst of the black schmutz. "Not bad, not bad at all." He set the hat gently upon Eduardo's head. The fez was not in perfect condition, but the damage had been minimal.

"Is it all right?" the lion looked around for any kind of reflective surface but found none.

"Perfectly so."

He frowned. "It cannot be completely clean."

The alchemist thought for a moment. "Well, perhaps not, but there's only the faintest smudge of soot on it. If someone were to notice it, you would simply have to regale them with the tale of how it got there."

The lion mused. "It would make a good story."

"Full of explosions, painters and heroism," the alchemist agreed.

Eduardo grinned. "Let's go home. I need a nap and I have the feeling you need to write all this down."

"I have a new idea for our fuel experiment," the alchemist muttered, stroking his beard as they headed down to the front door.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


The explosion had piled debris from the attic above in a smoking heap on the next set of stairs. They would not be able to climb higher without removing some of it, but the smoke suggested that the materials were going to be hot yet.

"What do you suggest?" Eduardo murmured to the alchemist.

Maggiormente frowned and answered his lion, "We must find something to shift the debris. At the very least, we need to be certain the fire is out completely. To be safe." The two exchanged a look. It wouldn't do to find themselves in the midst of a re-energized conflagration.

"Have you any tools or implements?" Eduardo asked the painters.

Manet shrugged. "Brushes?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Berthe scolded. "Something sizable." She tapped her chin for a moment. "The fire irons!" The woman strode across the room, shoving furniture from her path until she reached the fireplace. Grabbing the poker, Berthe grimaced and let out a sudden exhalation of breath and dropped the object.

"Hot?" the alchemist inquired.

She nodded. "I should have thought first."

"It's not every day you sift through the aftermath of a fire," Eduardo said with unusual kindness. The alchemist lifted an eyebrow at him, but the lion ignored it.

The painter gingerly picked up the poker again, shifting it in her hand, seeking to find a comfortable grip. She brought it over to the alchemist and handed it over. Behind her Manet had grabbed the ash shovel and joined the others at the stair to the attic.

"I had feared the attic gone," Manet said as he prodded at a black chunk of rubbish from the steps.

Maggiormente poked away at the rubble while Eduardo pawed at the wreckage standing on the stair. Were it not for his tail whipping back and forth, it would have been impossible to guess that he remained ready to spring away from danger at a moment's notice. His wings flapped gently back and forth as they always did when he was concentrating intently. The movement did help to dispel some more of the smoke, too.

The four continued digging away a the wreckage for some moments in silence, clearing a path up the stairs and beginning to loosen some of the larger pieces to move them aside.

All of the sudden there was a groaning noise from above them. Maggiormente stopped poking the black debris and looked up with a frown.

"Move," Eduardo barked, his wings suddenly folding tight as he reached forward to bite the trouser leg of his alchemist and wrench him backward. All four turned and leapt from the steps and the groaning turned into a hideous screech. An avalanche of soot-covered lumber and plaster fell with a tremendous sound.

The air filled once more with a thick cloud of smoke and they all began choking as they backed away from the corner of the room that led to the roof. Squeezing together the four pressed their faces out the remaining window, gulping down fresh air by the lungfuls.

"That was close," Manet said at last, his voice half-choked with smoke.

"You were very brave, Monsieur Lion," Berthe said with evident admiration.

Maggiormente threw his arms around the lion's neck. "Grazie, amico mio!"

"It was nothing," Eduardo said with stiff dignity, trying to ignore the alchemist's embrace. "Only my duty."

Maggiormente kissed the lion's head. "I am grateful, nonetheless."

The lion shook him off and flapped his wings a little as if to shake away the display. He looked over his shoulder. "Well I suppose that tells us all we need know about the attic."

The others turned and Berthe gasped. "It's—it's gone!"

Indeed there was only blue sky visible through the hole at the top of the stairs.

"Do you suppose there could be anything left up there?" Manet asked, the sorrow plain in his tone.

"We should at least look," Maggiormente said with a shrug. "Perhaps it is not as bad as it looks."

"Careful," Eduardo said with a little growl in his tone. "Mind that little saying about the frying pan and the fire."

Maggiormente waved away the lion's words. "The worst of it is over. There was no fire in the debris, eh? It was merely unstable. I'm sure we'll be fine. Let's explore."

The lion looked unconvinced, but the two painters were eager to see what remained of their belongings. Carefully the little group negotiated the stairs, stepping over the largest chunks of blackened wood as they crept to the top. Once there they looked around with surprise at the sight before them.

Sunday, February 06, 2011


"Édouard!" A voice coughed the word into the gloom, but for the moment the three could only see a vague outline of a form.

"Berthe! Is that you?" The painter cried, his alarm plain in the tone of his voice.

More coughs and then a woman emerged from the shadows. She was clad all in black—perhaps her clothes had not been black before the fire, but they certainly were now. In her hands she clutched a small bouquet of violets. "I hid in the pantry while the fire raged on. What on earth caused it?"

"Berthe! You are all right!" Manet grabbed the woman and embraced her. The lion and the alchemist looked on nonplussed.

"Yes, yes, of course."

Manet leaned back and glared at his friend. "But what were you doing in the house?!"

Berthe laughed. "You did invite me here, Édouard."

"But you were supposed to be out! You might have been killed." Manet reached up to wipe away some of the soot from her cheek.

"I had a wonderful idea for the portrait," she said, holding up the violets. "Just the right touch of colour, a fine counterpoint to the black."

"Good idea!" Manet nodded.

"I don't mean to interrupt," the lion said at last, "But shall we go see how the rest of the house has withstood the damage? There were some paintings, I believe."

"My apologies!" the painter replied, looking flustered. "I forgot in the excitement of seeing my friend. We should look upstairs—"

"Why look upstairs?" Berthe asked.

"Well, I'm afraid that's where the explosion happened," Manet said shrugging.

"Hold on a moment, mon ami. You caused this conflagration?!" Berthe's expression looked considerably less happy.

"Well, I'm not certain about it," Manet said, his face suddenly sheepish. "It may have been my attempt to make a new colour…"

"A new colour?!" Berthe slapped her forehead. "Again?!"

Eduardo laughed. If you have not seen a Venetian lion really laugh, you cannot image the extraordinary mirth it conveys. In the midst of a smoke shrouded house, the laughter had a most peculiar quality like a crocus poking through the snow. "Burnt sienna?" the lion asked once he had stopped laughing.

Manet drew himself up. "Burnt amber. It would have a richness that mere amber could not hold a candle to!"

"Perhaps you could call it 'burnt house' instead!" The lion threw his head back and laughed all the more.

"Well, heavens," Berthe said trying not to show her amusement, "Do let us go see if any our paintings remain."

"Some I carried outside," Manet said, an edge of irritation creeping into his voice. "I did not forget duty."

"My grain field?!" Berthe said, clutching his arm.

"Yes, yes, it's all right."

"Let's go look upstairs," Maggiormente urged. "I am accustomed to explosions. I will be happy to go first." The truth was that the alchemist had become bored by all this talk of painting. He had a notoriously short attention span when it came to subjects that were not alchemy. Indeed he was already thinking about how the burning of amber might provide a useful reagent for some distilling work that was in the back of his mind as something to pursue once he had knocked this fuel experiment on the head.

He turned and headed toward the narrow stairs visible across the room. After a moment, Eduardo padded after him, muttering darkly but making no definite arguments against the venture.

"Careful, monsieur!" Manet cried, but the two were already climbing the stairs gingerly.

The two painters exchanged a look. Berthe shrugged. "Why not?"

In a moment all four launched themselves up the stairs with careful steps as the blackened wood creaked.

The air on the next floor remained filled with smoke. "Is there a window we can open?" Maggiormente asked the painters.

Berthe nodded and stepped across the floor. In a moment she had thrown up the sash and the smoke began to escape, clearing the air somewhat.

"Oh dear!" Manet cried. "Look! How horrible!" They all turned where he pointed.