Previous: Philip Tennant: Wrath of the Gods
Arrival at Ipswich – Who will think of the children? – Appropriate attire for a lady – The Rifle Club Reborn – Mother, what big teeth you have – Two ladies – An old acquaintance – Return to the scene of the crime
From Alexandra L. Tennant, on board airship Lady I, Moored
at Kodok, Date ______
To whom it may concern
The airship Lady I is about to set out for a location in the
Sudanese desert, coordinates attached. On board: Philip Tennant
(captain), Alexandra Tennant, Carl Tennant, Fatin Tennant,
Raage Tennant, James T. Riley, One guide, unnamed by request.
One month ago, an organisation named, as far as we know,
Prometheus, led by a Mr. Nicholas Slate (believed to be an alias),
kidnapped, or convinced to join him, a number of scientists from
the Jules Verne restaurant. Information has reached us that
these scientists are being held at the abandoned camp site of
the Hammond expedition of one year ago. They are being forced
to lend their aid to experiments of a disturbing nature, that
could potentially affect the lives of all of Humanity.
Prometheus is a dangerous organisation. They will stop at
nothing to keep their operations secret. Their influence on
local government cannot be determined, which prevents us from
contacting the authorities. We have no other choice but to
investigate the situation ourselves.
If the Airship Lady I does not return to Ipswich in three
months’ time, or no message is heard of her or her crew, you
must assume the worst, and proceed with all possible caution
to the site indicated on the map.
— Alexandra Tennant, Last message from Airship Lady I.
I was sitting at my table on board Lady I, writing my journal, when Margaret stirred in bed and woke up. I put down my pencil.
“Morning Margaret. Sleep well? You were out like a light when we came back from the Eiffel Tower. Must be the healthy air in the upper atmosphere. You were moving about quite a bit. Bad dreams perhaps?”
Margaret gave me a long look, then chuckled.
“Do you think I was born yesterday, young Miss Tennant?” Margaret stuck her feet out of bed. “Sweet of you to try, though. Bah! I wish I could just keep quiet about what happened. They’re most likely going to try marrying me off to Dr. Schmidt again. Deep joy.”
Margaret got out of bed and started rummaging in her suitcase for a dress. “When Gerald died, they sent me to him to make sure I wasn’t going to take an axe to my Biology class or something. Spent more Fridays talking about my father than any sane person should.”
“That sounds like tremendous fun.”
“Mm. To give him credit, it probably did do me good. I just hate to sound like a massive bucket of whinge.”
“Given what happened, I’d say you should be allowed to whinge a bit. That bastard Riley could have got you killed.”
Margaret stood still, looking in the mirror, a pair of stockings in her hand. “Möller. I just don’t get it. He was with us on the Sudan expedition. He doesn’t take sugar in his tea. Right grumpy sod in the mornings. I talked to him about Bremen. And then the bastard sticks a gun in my neck and threatens to kill me.”
“Nichts persönliches,” I said. “We are professionals.”
Margaret held up two pairs of shoes, her walking boots, and her presentable school shoes. She dropped the presentable shoes back in her suitcase and started to lace up the comfortable and well-worn boots.
“How long until we get to Ipswich?”
“About an hour and a half. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat a small metaphorical horse.”
“How does bacon and eggs and toast sound?”
As soon as we touched down in one of the fields of Algernon University, Margaret, Wadcroft, Mr. Pike, Riley, and I disembarked. I found myself walking with Mr. Godfrey Pike. We were walking past the shooting range. Nobody was practicing. I sighed. The girls and boys had enjoyed shooting. There is something about handling a deadly weapon that gives you a sense of realness. I still had no idea who to ask to supervise the club. Then, the answer was dropped into my lap. Pike pointed.
“I remember that place. It’s where I first learnt to shoot with a pistol. A very useful skill, I’m sure you’ll agree. Is it still in use?”
“Until recently, yes. I taught a few willing boys and girls what to do with a Smelly. But I’ll be leaving again shortly. I don’t know what will become of them. They’re smart enough to govern themselves, but they need an adult to supervise them.”
“What were you teaching them?”
“Mostly safety procedures, how the sights work, basic stuff. And breathing technique. Meditative techniques.”
“Not much time for meditating in my line of work.” Pike laughed quietly to himself. “My old line of work. If you want, I can supervise them. Probably teach them a thing or two about rifles, too.”
“That would be splendid, but won’t that interfere with your, um, other duties?”
“Malcolm, Chancellor Munroe that is, promised me an honorary doctorate if I’d take the job. Doctor Pike. It does have a ring to it, don’t you think? But that will hardly take up all of my time. I’ll also be reading History as a cover. It’ll help me keep my weapons skills up.”
“In that case, see me tonight, I’ll introduce you to the Club.”
I looked at the bank notes in my hand, then held it out again. “It was more expensive than that, dear brother of mine. In fact…” I snatched his wallet from his hand. “The clothes your poor wife is wearing are a disgrace to womankind. You can hardly see she has a figure. I’m taking her clothes shopping.”
“What? You’ll bankrupt me!”
“You should have thought of that before you used my favorite blouse as a signalling torch. Why didn’t you use your own jacket?”
“Precisely. I’ll tell you when I run out of money.”
Ipswich isn’t London, but still you can find a few reasonably well-stocked clothing stores. I’d asked Margaret, and she’d immediately offered to come along. We left Raage in Carl’s care and took a cab to the town centre. Margaret, having lived here for years, drew up an itinerary that would allow me to pick up the most gorgeous blouse, and get Fatin some decent dresses. Given that we would be going into danger, a few outfits more suited to adventuring in bad places wouldn’t hurt either.
The first stop was a rather large clothes store, where we we picked up a few practical dresses for everyday use. We took her to the fitting rooms. It turned out to be fairly easy as Fatin looked good in almost all of them. One of them was a bit too tight round the hips, one of them was almost the same colour as her skin, making her look like she was walking around naked, which after a little thought we decided against.
“These dresses are good,” said Fatin, handing me a few, “And these are the ones we don’t want.”
“Um.” I said.
Fatin had come out wearing almost nothing more than on the day she was born. I positioned myself between her and the eye of the world and gently nudged her back into the fitting room, while Margaret gave the evil eye to a gentleman in another fitting room who had suddenly got more of a view than he’d bargained for.
Fatin looked at me quizzically for a moment, then remembered. She smiled at the gentleman. “Sorry,” she said, and went back inside to put on her ugly beige homespun dress.
“Why are the English so afraid of my skin? Is it because it is brown?”
“Oh no,” said Margaret. “It’s just that we’re used to covering up here. The only time you take your clothes of in front of someone else is either when you’re with a group of women and you’re changing for swimming or something, or when you’re alone with your man.”
Fatin raised her eyebrows at Margaret. “So that man thought I wanted to make babies with him?”
“No he didn’t,” said Margaret. “You’re not his woman. We’ve got very strong rules against doing the blanket hornpipe with a woman who’s not your woman. But for us, showing more skin shows you want to…” Margaret looked away a moment, no doubt going through a long list of euphemisms we civilised people use for copulation, none of which would mean anything to Fatin. “Let’s say mate.”
Fatin thought about this. “There were women in the Tower who were showing their arms, shoulders, part of their breasts. They wanted to mate?”
Margaret laughed. “And that’s where it gets complicated. They weren’t really saying that they wanted to mate. They were saying that they were the kind of woman men would want to mate with.”
“You know how male kudu will stand up, make a lot of noise, show how strong they are.” Margaret puffed herself up. “Do you want to fight?”
“They don’t really want to fight, just show that they can if they want to.”
“Yes. So when women here dress like they want to mate, it’s a display. For the men. For the other women. Look at me, I can have any man I want.”
Fatin gave a little nod. “Sometimes, kudu do fight.”
Margaret smiled. “Sometimes, people do mate.”
We walked to the till, Fatin with an armfull of dresses, me with Carl’s wallet. Fatin was looking miles away, snickering to herself.
“What?” I said.
“Back by the White Nile, all the women were only wearing their girdles. All the white old men with Carl were looking the other way. They thought…” She put her dresses on the counter. “We all wanted to…” Fatin broke out in giggles.
“Well, they were not entirely wrong.”
Fatin looked at me over her shoulder in a way that suddenly made it perfectly clear to me what Carl saw in her. “Kal only looked at me, nobody else. So I walked up to him, and looked into his eyes, and took his hand, and took him away into the woods. You English make things too hard.”
Next up was Mrs. Peabody’s shop. I must, regrettably, admit to a certain amount of sadistic glee in taking Carl’s wallet into such a place. Mrs. Peabody’s face shone and she air-kissed me.
“Miss Alexandra Tennant! What a pleasure to see you again! Is the all-environment suit to your liking?”
“Splendid, Ma’am,” I said. “Which is why I’m coming here for another adventuring outfit. Mrs. Peabody? Please meet my sister-in-law Fatin. Fatin? This is Mrs. Peabody.”
Miss Peabody looked Fatin up and down, and I could almost see the outfit for her taking shape in her mind. She warmly shook Fatin’s hand.
“Delighted, Mrs. Tennant. What are you looking for?”
I thought for a moment. “We’ll be mostly travelling by airship, so a comfortable indoors outfit, trousers, shirts, one or two warm jumpers for going outside, do you still have those Deluge raincoats? One or two nice sturdy pairs of boots. The rest I leave up to your superior experience.”
Mrs. Peabody always looks very happy with an assignment like that, partly because she genuinely loves making people look their very best, partly because she is about to take every last penny in your pocket.
“Come with me, darling. I’ll have the girls measure you up. And do take off that horrible dress and burn it. I’ll throw in a better one.”
We spent about an hour sitting in comfortable chairs sipping jasmine tea, while Fatin stood in the middle of the room in only her underwear, with a rather dazed expression on her face, while a flock of Mrs. Peabody’s girls fluttered round her with measuring tapes, fabric samples, and other instruments. Pieces of clothing were applied to her, considered, taken away again. What makes it worthwhile to go to an establishment like Mrs. Peabody’s is that she has the ability to see the person underneath the clothes, and bring that character out in the clothes she puts you in. It would have been so easy to turn Fatin into a European lady who just happened to have a brown face. But Mrs. Peabody somehow contrived, through choice of colours, materials, and shapes, to keep Fatin’s African origins alive, even bring them to the fore. She ended up in brown leather trousers, an off-white shirt, and a soft leather waistcoat with brightly coloured embroidery.
“And how is this, my darling?”
Fatin looked at herself in the mirror, turned this way and that. Her expression as she put her hand on her hip said it all.
“This is beautiful, Mrs. Peabody, thank you.”
Mrs. Peabody gave her a final once-over, then nodded. “Yes, I think we’ve got it. Well, take it off my dear. Careful with the stitching. I’ll get one of the girls on it and you can pick it up at five.”
After that, there was only one place left to go: Pickwick’s tearoom. We sat down to cups of coffee and tea, with chocolate cake of course. I paid for this myself, because there is such a thing as unusual cruelty, and Carl’s wallet was nearly empty anyway. Fatin was wearing a new dress and looked lovely in it. We had a few hours to spend, so we sat and chatted and watched the people. An interesting competition emerged between Margaret and Fatin. Fatin might not know the intricacies of English society, but she was an excellent judge of body language.
“I say that’s his sister,” said Margaret.
“Men do not look at their sisters like that.”
“They do if they are talking about their lady friends.”
The man leaned over and kissed his ‘sister’.
“Ah,” said Margaret. “You may be right.”
I saw Fatin look over my shoulder, turn back to her empty plate, and then her eyes turned to me.
“There is a man in the corner, about Carl’s age, wearing clothes the colour of sand. He is looking at you. Then he looks away.”
“Hmmm.” I started looking this way and that, looking for the ladies. “Fatin, I’m going to the restroom. Want to come with?”
We got up and headed towards the ladies. A few moments later, the man in the sand-coloured suit came walking into the corridor. He found Fatin waiting for him in front of the door. I quietly stepped up behind him, wrapped my arm round his throat and put a textbook perfect wrist lock on him.
“Hello,” I said. “Why are you following us?”
“Following you?” He tried to pull himself free, but the nice thing about these wristlocks is that they hurt more, the more you struggle. I had practiced them extensively with Carl and was rather good at them.
“Yes. You were watching me. Then we went away, and here you are. Hence following.”
“I’m not following you, you bitch, I need to take a piss.”
I put a bit more pressure on.
“Why were you watching me back at my table?”
“Why not? You’ve got a nice arse. Aaah!”
“How is Mr. Slate these days? Did he manage to put out his dirigible?”
“What the bloody hell are you talking about?”
“Prometheus,” I whispered.
“Damn it, let me go!”
I looked at Fatin, who was watching me with mild concern. She shrugged. I released the man. He turned round and stared daggers at me, bending his wrist back into shape.
“Jesus Christ woman, what got into you? I should call the sodding police on you.”
I looked at Fatin. “He came right at me, don’t you agree? I was only defending myself. I’m a weak and feeble woman. I can get away with murder.”
“Sod you,” said the man.
He gave a kind of grunt and disappeared into the gents. Fatin and I rejoined Margaret.
“False alarm,” I said. “Let’s get out of here before he charges me with assault.”
We left the tearoom.
“Are we getting paranoid?” said Margaret. “We’re seeing Prometheus agents behind every tree.”
“Are we paranoid enough?”
We went back to Mrs. Peabody’s. Fatin put on her new adventuring outfit. Then, we took the cab back to the University. I stepped on board, and found Father and Carl in the mess hall playing cards with Navigator Nerandzic. I struck a pose and turned round.
“How d’you like my new blouse?”
“It looks… expensive,” said Carl.
“Oh it is.” I said. “We also picked up a few little things for Fatin. By the way, Mrs. Peabody sends her greetings.”
“Mrs. Peabody? Oh dear Lord… Is there anything left in my wallet?”
I pulled it out and gently dropped it into his hand. “It put up a brave fight, but alas, it’s fully spent.”
Carl started to open it to look inside, then thought better of it and resignedly put it back in his pocket.
“I think it’s money well spent, though.” I called over my shoulder. “Margaret? Let her in.”
Fatin came in, and Carl’s eyes glued onto her. The silly smile on his face was a sight to behold.
“Hello, my love,” said Fatin. She put her arms round Carl’s neck. “Thank you for my clothes.” She kissed Carl, and kept on kissing him for a long time.
“Well,” Margaret said, “I wanted to see Carl’s face when he saw Fatin, and now I have. I’m off. Bye!”
Fatin waved at her without breaking the kiss and Margaret disappeared. I picked up Carl’s poker hand and sat down. Might as well start earning him back some of his money.
I knocked on the door of the freshly-minted Doctor Pike, lecturer of Recent History. He was in the same corridor as I had been, with the other blow-ins and interlopers. Riley had left without a word. Pike opened the door, nodded at me and walked with me in the direction of Room 2B. I’d stuck my head round the corner of the girls’ dorm and uttered a brief rallying cry. Jocelyn had run over to the boys’ dorm and rounded up the boys.
“I hope I’ll live up to their expectations,” said Pike.
“You’re Secret Service,” I said. “How can you not?”
“Ah. I haven’t mentioned that to anyone but you and your friends. I’d appreciate it if that knowledge travelled no further. To the Porters I am simply a consultant, in charge of Security. Oh by the way, Mr. Wainwright said to give you his regards.”
“The gentleman you accosted at Pickwick’s this afternoon. He’s a former protegé of mine and I asked him to keep an eye on you ladies just in case.”
“You sent him?” I gave Pike an incredulous look. “Then why didn’t he just say so?”
“Orders from me. I firmly believe in letting people live their lives even when they are being guarded.” A little smirk passed over Pike’s face. “He told me that he said you had a nice bottom, and you let him go. Silver-tongued devil. He went so far as to volunteer for future surveillance duty. You must have made quite an impression.”
“Huh,” I said, never short an answer.
“One thing though.” Pike looked at me earnestly. “Please refrain from dropping the name of Mr. Slate or the Prometheus organisation. Loose lips sink ships. I’ll tell Professors Enderby and Wadcroft. If you would, please pass it on to your family.”
I pushed open the door to room 2B. The Algernon Rifle Club were there already, even Andrew Parsons. I was actually cheered, and I confess I had a lump in my throat.
“Good news everybody! I’ve found you a responsible adult so you can keep up your rifle practice. This is Dr. Pike, reader in History and head of Security. So if you point your weapon where you shouldn’t, he can throw you into the dungeons. Take it away, Dr. Pike!”
I sat down next to Andrew and Pike sat down on the teacher’s desk. “This is absolutely true. Good evening ladies, gentlemen. I have just been given the key to the gun locker by Miss Alexandra. Together, we will overthrow the Scottish dictator who now holds sway over our beloved University. In the Pleistocene Era, I was a student here, as was Mr. Munroe. So I know all his weaknesses.”
There were giggles all round, except from Andrew, who looked puzzled. He started to raise a hand, but I took his arm.
“Dr. Pike is joking,” I whispered.
Andrew stared, then lowered his arm.
“I used to be a Lieutenant in the Army,” said Pike, “So I know all about rifles of all kinds, even the ones you have here.”
I could sense Rina two tables behind me starting to take notes for the Clarion article. I looked round the classroom as Pike started to lay out the schedules for range sessions, filled out with some army stories that might or might not be complete fabrications. They seemed to like him. Good. That meant I could go on my adventures without leaving my friends to their fate. Still at the front of the class, laughing at Pike’s stories, was Florence, the girl who started this all. She noticed me looking at her and smiled. I smiled back.
It would be allright.
Andrew Parsons barely fitted in the aft gun deck. I was assisting him with a lantern as he mounted a repeater gun of his own invention in the space reserved for it. I was in two minds about the whole armament situation. On the one hand, I associated our airship with my mother. She had been the kindest woman I had ever known, and to see her now carrying weapons that could kill many people at great distance, disturbed me a bit. On the other hand, I hadn’t forgotten how Prometheus’ airship had tried to shoot us down while we were only protected by our camouflage. We were lucky to be alive, and the knowledge that we could bite back if the need arose gave me some kind of comfort. Andrew had modified his original design so that the gun could now fire almost continuously without overheating, which had not been in the original design. We would be test-firing the guns over the North Sea that afternoon.
Navigator Taras Nerandzic would be leaving us in a few weeks time. Carl and I had put in a lot of practice at the wheel. Either of us could now perform all the maneuvers and signalling needed to dock at all the airports in the world, great and small. We were due to sit the theoretical exam for our navigator’s papers next week. Fatin had earned a place in Nerandzic’s heart by flying Lady I with more precision and subtlety than either of us. Where we Westerners thought of Lady I as a collection of technology, Fatin saw her almost as a living creature, with her own wiles, needs, hungers, and moods. She still took off her boots at the helm, to feel through the deck the humming of the engines and the subtle changes in attitude. The only reason she was not joining us is that she didn’t have the English yet to complete the exams. Given how fast she was learning at class, that would not be long.
That afternoon, Fatin flew us out over the sea. After making certain that we wouldn’t be shooting innocent ships with our experiments, we dropped down till we almost touched the sea, and dropped two dozen barrels over the side, painted in bright colours, to use as targets. I manned the front guns, Carl aft, and Fatin steered us over the long line of buoys. I aimed the gun using two handles that were twice as large as they needed to be because Andrew had dimensioned them for his own hands. The gun made a frightful noise. Cartridges were fed to it on a long belt. One round in every five fired would be a tracer round so that I could adjust my fire as bullets turned the sea to froth. It went against everything I had been taught. I was a precision instrument, not a ‘spray-and-pray’ gunner. Suddenly an image came to me of Jocelyn, eyes aglow, firing rounds as fast as she could. She would love this. I channeled my inner crazy girl and turned the barrels into splinters.
We emerged from behind our guns, ears ringing, out of barrels, and almost out of ammunition. I made a mental note to get some ear plugs. Fatin steered us back to Ipswich as we all stuffed our faces with cheese sandwiches.
We moored in our usual field. As Lady I lowered herself onto her roost, we could see the small figure of Dr. Pike standing there to meet us. He walked up the gangplank almost as soon as we extended it. He was waving a piece of paper.
“Just had word from Mr. Riley. From Kodok. How he got there, I don’t know, but he has information regarding our Titanic friends that he won’t send me even by cipher. I’m offended. My ciphers are nigh-unbreakable. He did say that he needed to be flown into the Sudanese desert.”
“And left there?” I said. Margaret was still seeing Dr. Schmidt, and I was not in any mood to be sympathetic. “Does Mr. Riley have a good reason why we should serve as his personal flying service?”
We walked into the corridor to the bridge.
“He says he has a way to get Prometheus off all of our backs,” said Pike. “That might be worthwhile.”
“Hmm. Prometheus just made off with a dozen scientists. Wouldn’t the authorities take an interest in that? I still don’t see why we have to get involved. We do have people to take care of this. Her Majesty’s Secret Service springs to mind.”
I opened the door to the bridge. Father wasn’t there, leaving the somewhat married couple alone, with predictable results. Fully clothed results I hasten to add, but results nonetheless.
“Where’s Father Captain?”
“In the study,” said Carl, in a tone of voice one might use if there were no woman sitting on one’s lap.
“Thank you,” I said, in much the same tone. “We’ve had word from Riley, and he wants us to come to Sudan. When you have a moment, please join us.”
We were heading for Sudan, by way of Cologne, where Taras Nerandzic’s next assignment would be waiting for him. He spent most of his time at the helm, giving us time to ourselves. I took the opportunity to catch up on my reading. Fatin was in the kitchen cooking dinner. We all took turns cooking, except for Father, who had managed to turn fried eggs into charcoal and was banned until he could demonstrate requisite skills. Carl was in the cargo hold with a punch bag practicing his punches and high kicks. Father had taken his typewriter into the mess hall so he could spread out his notes all over the dining table. He was making the final changes to the account of his Meso-American adventures. Upon our return, Prof. Wadcroft would include it in the whole report with everyone else’s accounts.
Carl came walking up, hair still wet from the bath after his practice. He walked into the kitchen to see and taste what Fatin was doing, and maybe to distract her from the more important business of feeding us. There were some firm words spoken in Fatin’s language, and Carl came walking out with a large pot of soup, followed by Fatin with a tray of flat bread and bowls. As Father quickly gathered his notes to keep some semblance of order in them, the picture of the heathen priestess fell out. Carl picked it up and looked at it.
“Is this your work Father?”
Father held out his hand and took it back from Carl.
“It is,” he said. “I drew that in Anctapolepl. It got stuck in with the expedition reports.”
“Who is it? She looks very pretty. Interesting hair.”
“One of the priestesses,” said Father, putting down the picture. “What’s that soup?”
“Priestess,” said Carl, looking at the picture over Father’s shoulder. “Aren’t they the ones that rip people’s hearts out?”
I could see Father’s expression darkening. “Most certainly not. She is the one who took care of me after they amputated my leg. It is due to her good care that I can walk at all.”
“What’s her name?”
“Who wants soup?” Fatin held up a bowl. “It’s chicken soup with tomatoes.”
I passed my bowl to Fatin, who filled it. I grabbed a spoon and shot Carl the look that since our early childhood had meant ‘Shut up, dear brother of mine’. He missed it completely.
“Come on, Father. A gorgeous creature like that, and you don’t know her name?”
“Itzel,” said Father, through clenched teeth. “Her name is Itzel. She was the most beautiful and intelligent woman in that whole blighted city, until they sacrificed her. They did cut open her stomach, and then they pulled her beating heart out of her body.”
“Itzel,” said Carl. “Lady Itzel.”
“Lady I,” said Carl. “We are not sailing in Lady Iris. We are sailing in Lady Itzel.”
Father thumped the table with his fist. “We are sailing in both! This ship is named after both!”
“After Mother, and her… her replacement!”
“My love,” said Fatin, with more than a little sharp edge to her voice. “Would you like some soup?”
“I’m not hungry anymore,” said Carl. He stomped off into his cabin and closed the door behind him. Fatin looked at Father, then at me, then followed Carl, a grim expression on her face.
Father sat with his head in his hands, shoulders hunched, looking at the picture of the Lady Itzel. He reached out to grab and crumple the picture up and throw it away. I caught his wrist. He glared at me at first, then his expression softened into a deep sadness.
“I’m sorry Alexandra, I…” He looked back at the picture. “She was…”
I sat down next to Father, put my arm round his shoulders.
“I taught her the words of Jabberwocky. Those words saved my life. I owe this woman my life. If it wasn’t for her, there would be no airship. There would be no… I’d be dead.”
“You loved her,” I said, quietly.
He said nothing for a few moments, then nodded only once.
I picked up the picture. “She is very beautiful.”
Father made no comment. I pulled him a bit closer to me.
“Father. ‘As long as you both shall live.’ You loved Mother until the very last moments of her life, and beyond. I know that you still love her, but she was gone. You fell in love with Itzel, because she was beautiful and kind, and she loved you.”
Father’s eye turned to me. “How would you know?”
“Instinct,” I said.
The cargo bay door opened and Taras Nerandzic came walking in.
“This is smelling good! Miss Fatin is a treasure! Can I have some?”
I pointed. “Go ahead. I should have brought you some already.”
Nerandzic looked at me, at Father. Then, he quickly filled a bowl, grabbed some bread and walked off.
Father looked at the door to Fatin and Carl’s cabin.
“I have made him very angry, and he is right to be.”
“He’ll simmer down,” I said. “If I know Fatin, she’s telling him not to be an arse as we speak.”
I took the picture for safe keeping. Later, I had it framed, and put it in Father’s cabin, next to Mother’s portrait. And there they are now, two women who never met, and still are connected across two worlds.
We reached Cologne in good time, and Nerandzic steered us to within an inch of the mooring pole. The propellers slowed down, and stopped. We were all standing round him.
“Well done, Navigator Nerandzic,” said Father.
Nerandzic ran his hand over the controls, as though he was saying goodbye to a good friend. He turned to Father.
“Now I am leaving,” said Nerandzic. “Take good care of this Lady. She is a good ship. Do not let any of these mu’dak shoot at her again.”
Father handed Nerandzic a brown bag with a very good bottle of Wodka. “We will make it out first business, Mr. Nerandzic. Those who mean us harm will find that we have sharp teeth, and those who mean us well, like yourself, will always find a warm welcome on board Lady I.”
“Spasibo,” said Nerandzic. “If ever you need someone to steer this vessel, I am always willing.”
He picked up his duffel bag, touched his cap and walked down the gangplank in the direction of the port authorities.
“Let’s go,” said Father. “Next stop, Cairo.”
It was my turn at the helm. I pumped more hydrogen into the envelope. We rose slowly. I pushed forward on the port collective control and Lady I turned in a slow curve towards the South-east. At standard cruising speed, we would reach Cairo in about two days. About half a day to take on coal, then another twenty-four hour flight to Kodok. From there, we would fly to some place in the Sudanese desert known only to our good American friend Mr. Riley.
We arrived at Cairo without incident. Cairo was an unrelenting torrent of airships coming and going, a test for any navigator, let alone a couple of wet behind the ears beginners like us. Fatin was at the helm, Carl and I were on lookout. We turned on the Aldiss light and signalled the port authorities. We were directed to a mooring post near the main fuel station, where we topped up our condensers with water and our bunkers with excellent high-energy coal. We also took the chance to buy some of the local provisions. It was late in the evening when we set off again. Father himself was at the helm this time, with Carl to relieve him in four hours’ time. Four hours after that, I would take over from Carl and finally, Fatin would navigate until the morning. I went straight to my cabin for perhaps a little reading then sleep. As I reached for the door handle, there was a male voice, almost making me jump out of my skin.
“Good evening, Miss Tennant.”
I turned round in a vaguely martial crouch. By the door to the study I saw the dark form of a man. He was wearing a dark business suit, and a dark blue turban. His long thick beard was black with flecks of grey. His arms were crossed in front of him. He bowed to me.
“It pleases Nazeem to see you again, Miss Tennant, and to see that you are well with my Earthly eyes.”
“Nazeem. What brings you here? You left rather… abruptly the last time. In fact, we thought you’d fallen overboard.”
Nazeem’s laugh was quiet and deep. “That was unfortunately rude, but Fate compelled Nazeem to move quickly, so as to prevent events that would have been ruinous to the Order of Cross and Moon.”
“Well done, Nazeem. Why are you here? Mr. Riley said not to trust you.”
“Riley is a man to whom trust does not come easily. It was given Nazeem to know that you will be meeting Riley. Nazeem must speak with him also, to guide his footsteps. A great evil is afoot. The organisation named Prometheus has gathered unto itself a score of learned men and women. It is the fear of the Order that these will unleash the lightning that dwells in the cursed stones, to the ruin of all that draws breath. That purpose must not prevail.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, Master Nazeem, you’d better explain that to the Captain.”
It was morning, and we were all sitting round the breakfast table, staring at Nazeem. He would not partake of the flesh of pigs, nor the eggs of chickens, so he was helping himself to a bowl of porridge.
“This afternoon, we will arrive at Kodok.” Father put another piece of toast on his plate, added scrambled egg and bacon and a scoop of baked beans. “We don’t actually know where to find Mr. Riley, but he said in his letter that he would find us.”
“Nazeem will seek him out. It is well that Nazeem knows the colour of Riley’s soul.”
“Pink with spangles,” I said. Nazeem looked at me darkly, as he always did when his supernatural powers were made fun of.
“Or just maybe he knows what Lady I looks like,” said Carl. “Having been on board and all. And the name painted on the sides.”
“As you say,” said Nazeem, putting his spoon in his empty bowl. “Nazeem humbly begs your permission to move to a quiet place, that he may meditate.”
“Cargo bay is lovely and quiet,” said Carl. “Just don’t sit on the bomb bay doors.”
Nazeem got up, bowed, and strode out of the door with slow regal steps. Carl watched him disappear down the cargo bay stairs, then turned to me.
“You’ve known him longer than I have. Is he genuine?”
I shrugged. “I saw him snatch a bullet out of the air, but that could have been a trick. And he set his hands on fire. That was definitely a trick.”
“Witch doctor,” said Fatin, her mouth full of bacon and eggs. She swallowed, had some milk. “They make you stop thinking, and then they have you. We had one once, and he took all the men into a tent, and made fire in it. Geedi saw him throw mushrooms in the fire, and then the witch doctor flew up like a cloud. All the men said they saw it with their own eyes, but Geedi knew what mushrooms they were so he knew not to believe it. Everybody’s head hurt the next morning so they didn’t do that again.” She pointed at the plate of bacon and Carl handed it to her. “Anyone else for more bacon?”
We all shook our heads. Fatin dropped the rest of the bacon on her plate. The Ajuru had never had pigs, and Fatin had completely succumbed to the temptation of Sus scrofa domesticus.
“He was fun to watch,” said Fatin, spearing a rasher with her fork. “But his advice was very bad, so elder Hanad lost him to another tribe at the Great Gathering.”
When everybody had stopped eating, Carl picked up the plates to wash up and Father disappeared in the direction of the bridge. They still weren’t talking to each other. I felt the ship move as Father put in a course correction and set Lady Iris, or Lady Itzel, in motion again.
Due to a headwind, we arrived at Kodok only in the late afternoon. We had made Lady I ship-shape. The engines were running slow, and we almost stalked the small port to the south of town. Fatin sat curled up in one of the observation chairs, feeding Raage. She was looking south with a sad expression on her face. I put a cup of tea where she could reach it and looked forward. Our mooring cables came down and two of the port assistants hooked them onto the poles. We slowly reeled them in, putting Lady I down on the ground so we could extend the gangplank. We almost expected Riley to be waiting for us, but were sadly disappointed. I looked at Master Nazeem, but he said nothing.
The next morning, Riley still hadn’t shown up. Nazeem went to the place in the cargo hold where he had put down his mat and his incense, and meditated. Whether he was trying to deceive us, or whether he deceived himself as well as us, I couldn’t say. He had sat without moving for exactly two hours, when he opened his eyes and got to his feet.
“Nazeem has seen. He will lead you to Mr. Riley. Bring weapons.”
Carl and I looked at each other, shrugged, got a pair of revolvers out of the gun cupboard on the in-envelope deck, and followed Nazeem into one of the suburbs of Kodok. With me and Carl on his heels, he walked straight to one of the sand-stone brick houses and knocked on the door. He called out with his dark voice.
There was no answer. Nazeem knocked again.
“Open the door. Nazeem is come to lead you to safety, as have Carl and Alexandra Tennant.”
There was the sound of a bolt being drawn back. Then, nothing. Nazeem pushed open the door and stepped inside.
“See, Friend. It is truly Nazeem who has come to your place of hiding, and not an imposter. Show yourself, that we may take you to safety.”
Out of the dark came Riley’s voice. “Get inside, and close the door.”
We all stepped inside. The stench was incredible. The smell of death came from every corner of the house. How anyone could endure it was beyond me. Nazeem lit a candle, and we saw Riley sitting at a table. He had a heavy pistol in his hand. He waved it in the direction of a man who was lying on the floor, flies swarming over him.
“Pardon the smell,” said Riley. “Skippy there can’t help it, being dead.”
“Good Lord, Riley,” said Carl. “What are you doing in this hole?”
“Breathing. And let me tell you, that ain’t no picnic, but still better than the alternative. Where you moored?”
“The south port,” I said, trying to breathe through my mouth only.
“Good. We wait till dark, then we make a run for it.”
We endured four more hours in that little piece of Hell on Earth. Riley explained that the dead person was a Prometheus agent who had pursued him until it had come to a head in this very room. Riley had shot him, but could not risk going out on his own with nowhere to go to. I shuddered at the thought that he had been in this place for over three days. I might not like him, but nobody deserves that. Finally, Carl looked through the cracks in the wooden shutters and announced that the sun had set.
“Nazeem will entreat the Spirits to put us beyond the perception of our foes.”
“You do that,” said Riley, too tired even to argue.
Led by Nazeem, and half carrying Riley, we made our way back to Lady I. We immediately sent him to the bathroom. He stayed there for nearly two hours. Before he immersed himself, though, he had given us a set of coordinates in the south Sudanese desert. I wrote a quick message for Algernon University, encrypted it using Mr. Pike’s Vigenère cypher, and posted it in the South Port post office. We cast off the lines, filled the envelope with hydrogen, and sailed off towards an uncertain future.
Lady I, Captain Philip Tennant, Alexandra, Carl, and Fatin will return in the next expedition: The Fire of the Gods.