"Perhaps we should land," Helen's father said, the words tripping out a little too quickly. His voice sounded odd, as if slightly strangled in his throat. He gripped the railing of the gondola with both hands and his knuckles were white.
The rushing of the wind and the murk of the clouds conspired to make the scene a trifle nightmarish. They were no longer a good fifty yards above the perilous rocks; more like thirty.
Helen bit her lip. There was plenty of room yet, surely. "Signor Romano, what do you think would be best?"
Romano shook his head as he fiddled with the controls. "Too risky!"
"Because of the wind?" Helen's father shouted, his tense voice signaling the need to argue.
"No, signore," Romano said. "We are moving much too quickly and landing on this uneven surface could be quite dangerous."
"We just got the ship repaired from the last disastrous landing," Helen shouted across to her father as the wind tried to steal the words away.
"What the devil—?" He shouted back. "Do you reckon our lives less than this bloody machine?"
"Papa, don't swear."
"If there is a time for swearing it's when your daughter is trying to kill you by means of a damned airship," Rochester muttered, though he knew his daughter would not be able to hear the words.
Before he could formulate a more genteel inquiry, another bolt of lightning struck, blinding them all momentarily.
Helen fluttered her eyelids to remove the afterimage, then shook her head. A quick glance around the gondola did not reveal any damage.
"All right then?" she called to Romano.
"Nothing's on fire," he said which was something of a reassurance.
"Papa," Helen called, turning back to her father, "Are you—" She stopped and gazed dumbstruck.
"What?" her father barked, trying to decipher the look on Helen's face.
"The lightning hit very near."
"Doubtless, all the more reason we ought to—why are you smiling?"
Helen tried to smother the laughter that threatened to pour forth from her throat. "Nothing, Papa, I—"
"Out with it!"
Signor Romano turned and at once cried out with laughter, doubling over and slapping his knee.
At that outburst, Helen found it impossible not to laugh as well, though she tried to muffle it somewhat with her hand.
"What are you two idiots laughing at?" her father demanded, shifting his gaze back and forth between the two of them.
The hair, always unruly and rather long, had apparently picked up a charge from the lighting strike. It stood out from his head like the prickles of a thistle. To add insult to injury, Tuppence reappeared and added her voice to the general cacophony as if she too were laughing at the sight as she circled the airship.
Rochester raised a tentative hand to his head and felt the effects of the static energy. He glowered at his daughter and somewhat more effectively at the Italian.
"The devil take you all," he muttered as he tried to flatten the unruly hair into some kind of obedience.
"Papa, never mind," Helen said, "It's really a much greater concern than your hair." She had to swallow a smile once more. "Our best bet is to keep low, otherwise we stand an even greater risk of lighting, which could be destructive in all kinds of ways."
"I understand that, but if we were to land—"
"We'd be in even more danger."
"You're not just saying that to try to win the wager?" Her father seemed to have regained some of his humour.
"No, although I want to teach the Lintons a good lesson," Helen replied, throwing a glance back to her competitors, "There's no need to—oh my heavens!"
"What?" said her father as he turned to look behind them.