[identity profile] copperbadge.livejournal.com posting in [community profile] originalsam_backup
Chapter Ten

The airship didn't seem to have sustained any damage from its rough landing -- not as much as Jack felt he himself had, anyway. Clare didn't let him so much as lift a wrench that day, but they did manage to get a brace installed for the helium canister, which they mounted right next to the pilot's seat with the pressure dial and wheel in full view.

Even with Clare doing the work, by the time they were done moving the canister Jack was tired and ready to go back to the house. He spent most of the day in the sitting-room, sketching in his notebook while Clare read and Anderson worked on a thick sheaf of papers with official-looking government seals on them.

"Are those about the airship?" Jack finally asked, when he'd run out of things to draw.

"Good lord no. That kind of thing doesn't go down on paper," Anderson said, without looking up. He signed one document, laid it aside, and folded the one under it, tucking it into his pocket. "This is the work of the government in a strictly public sense. It's what I do when I'm not running about getting shot."

"Will you go back to London when we leave?" Clare asked.

"Not immediately; I'll stay in Cambridge for a few weeks. I could do with a holiday. Why?"

"Just curious," Clare said.

"Hal-lo?" called a voice from the foyer. "Anderson?"

"In here," Anderson called. "I thought you were simply going down to the shop to get -- I'm sorry," he added, as two figures appeared in the doorway. Graveworthy was accompanied by a woman in a black student's cloak, a hood half-obscuring her face. "We didn't realize El was bringing company home."

"It's quite all right, Mr. Anderson," the woman said, easing the hood back onto her shoulders. She was a too old to be a student, Jack thought, but from Anderson's expression and the way he rose to his feet, he suspected she was probably in disguise. "Lovely to see you again."

"This is Helena Christian," Graveworthy said, as she came forward. Jack eased himself off the couch and offered his hand. She looked amused, but she shook with a firm grip. "This is Jack Baker, our resident Engineer. And this is Clare Fields, who keeps us honest," he added, as Clare came forward to shake as well.

"Quite a feat, I'm sure," Mrs. Christian said. "Mr. Graveworthy has told me much about both of you."

"Mrs. Christian is by way of being my superior," Graveworthy continued, "And she has come up from London to see the airship and speak with both of you. Would you prefer...?"

"Oh, by all means, the airship first," she said. "Mr. Baker, would you accompany me?"

"Um," Jack said, looking anxiously from Graveworthy to Anderson and back again. "Sure...this way..."

He led her into the hallway and through the kitchen, offering her his elbow when they left the kitchen and stepped out onto the path to the garden house. She took it with a smile and held it loosely, serenely silent. Jack wasn't certain if the others were following, but he sure as hell hoped so.

"In there," he said, as they crested the hill that looked down on the old building.

"A clever place to keep it," she observed. "Mr. Graveworthy tells me you designed and built the ship yourself."

"Well, I built it, but Clare helped with that, and something like this is never just one man's idea," he said. He heard Anderson's crutch behind them and felt a small surge of relief. "Sir William Grove -- "

"Yes, I heard you two had met. What do you think of Sir William?"

"He's a great scientist," Jack said, confused. "He's been very helpful to us."

"Was he at all curious what you were doing with all this -- what's it called, helium?"

Jack had the suspicion this woman was acting a lot dumber than she was.

"Yes, helium," he said. "He must have been, but he didn't ask. We gave the impression it was an experiment. Which isn't untrue," he added.

"No indeed. A great experiment. A great journey, as well. Aren't you at all nervous?"

"Nervous?" Jack asked. "I built it. I know it won't fall apart."

"I meant about your destination," she said.

"Oh. Well, it's not like I'll be alone. Besides, I'm just the pilot. Graveworthy'll do all the heavy lifting once we arrive, the way I see it."

"You seem to be very sure of your place in the world, and in this...voyage."

Jack pulled away from her gently, reaching for the ring on the enormous sliding door.

"Jack," Clare called from halfway down the hill. "Don't you dare!"

"I'm not allowed to do anything strenuous today," he said apologetically.

"Well, then you shan't," Mrs. Christian said, taking hold of the ring. Before Jack could stop her, she'd pulled the door open and was pushing the other when Clare and Graveworthy arrived, Anderson just behind them. She stepped back, dusting her hands, and rested them on her hips.

"My goodness, it certainly looks regal, doesn't it?" she said.

Jack hung back as the others lit the gas lamps, watching Mrs. Christian run her hand over the smooth-sanded outer hull and the polished metal of the propeller housings. She stopped to gaze up at the edge of the engine, barely visible over the rail, and then gestured at the floor, drawing her palms upwards. A Created ladder appeared, solidifying after a moment, and she climbed it energetically, dropping down into the airship without so much as a heavy breath.

"It seems very solid," she said, and he heard her shoes thumping on the deck. "Does it really leave the ground?"

"I've seen it with my own eyes, ma'am," Anderson called. "It leaves the ground very...enthusiastically."

"Splendid. Where on Earth will you sleep?"

"Erm -- " Jack said, glancing at Graveworthy, who nodded. "The coal housing astern has two bunks built in, when I thought only two people were going. Mr. Graveworthy and I will sleep there. I'll be constructing a separate sleeping room for Miss Fields, of course."

"Very right and proper. Will it add undue weight?"

"No, we'll have crates and sacks for food and supplies, and I can build it out of those."

"Sounds rather snug."

"Clare's not very big," Jack said. Clare elbowed him, grinning. Mrs. Christian's head and shoulders appeared above the rail, and she climbed back down the ladder, nodding.

"I approve. I approve wholeheartedly of this device," she said. "Which leaves only my approval of your young charges, Mr. Graveworthy."

"Why don't we have dinner," Graveworthy said, with what Jack thought was a slightly strained look. "Nicholas is cooking lamb tonight; it ought to be just about ready for serving."

***

Clare was never more grateful for Jack's single-mindedness than during dinner that night. It began quite awkwardly -- everyone was nervous, and neither she nor Jack were used to a multi-course meal -- but once Mrs. Christian asked Jack about the construction of the ship, he held forth on engine technology in an informative and unintentionally hilarious fashion for almost the entire meal. His description of their trip to the silk warehouse brought Mrs. Christian around to London styles, which currently favored ruffles, and eventually to Clare's waistcoats and shirts.

"I would very much like to see them, if I might," Mrs. Christian said, as Nicholas carried away the last of the plates. "I understand you sleep over the kitchen, since the unfortunate fire."

"That's right," Clare said warily.

"Why don't we go look at your finery, and leave the men to take brandy in the parlor," she said, rising. Clare reluctantly stood as well and led the way up the stairs, pausing at the top for Mrs. Christian to catch up.

"I understand it was your idea that you and Mr. Baker should accompany Mr. Graveworthy on his journey," she said, as they walked along the hallway.

"Jack and I decided together," Clare said.

"After Mr. Anderson was injured?"

"I thought we should go even before, but we can't take too much weight. It's Jack's airship -- he's the only one who really knows how it works, so he should always have been a choice to go."

"Surely he could teach Mr. Graveworthy how to pilot it?"

"Anyone can pilot it," Clare said scornfully. "Not everyone can fix it if there's an accident, or one of the propellers clogs, or something goes wrong with the balloon."

"And you?" Mrs. Christian asked, as Clare pushed open the door to her small room.

"Me what?" Clare asked. She didn't even pretend to open the closet and take out her waistcoats.

"What purpose do you serve on the mission?" Mrs. Christian asked.

"I'm smart and strong. I'm useful," Clare retorted.

"Miss Fields, as I'm sure you're aware, Mr. Anderson is expatriated from Australia. Now, I am certain of Mr. Anderson's loyalty to the Crown, and I know that even were he to find his family, he would not forget his place as an agent of Her Majesty's government. You, however, are an American. You have no loyalty to my country. I am entirely unconcerned with Mr. Baker; his loyalty is to the airship, and the airship is controlled by Mr. Graveworthy."

"But you think I'm a spy," Clare said.

"You're a very blunt young woman," Mrs. Christian replied. "I think it's suspicious that a woman with no stake in the relations between the Empire and Australia is so dedicated to traveling to the Dead Isle."

Clare studied her face, wondering if she knew. Mrs. Christian's look wasn't entirely innocent, but she didn't seem to be baiting her.

"I'm a Creationist," Clare said. "I want to learn. Where Jack goes, I go. And I have no more loyalty to Australia or America than I do to the Empire. Less. The Empire paid for the airship."

"You are also an idealist. I must be certain that no matter what you see or understand in Australia, you will not impede Mr. Graveworthy in the execution of his duties."

Clare smiled. "If there's one thing living with him for all this time has taught me, Mrs. Christian, it's that nobody impedes Mr. Graveworthy when he doesn't want to be impeded."

Mrs. Christian's smile was slow to begin, but it was genuine.

"I can see why my men tell me you would excel in my employ, Miss Fields. Very well. Let us see what the gentlemen are up to."

Clare followed her, perplexed, trying to decide if she'd passed whatever unspoken test the woman was giving her. In the parlor they found Graveworthy and Anderson with brandy, Jack with another glass of cloudy water.

"Doctor's orders," Anderson said, indicating Jack's drink.

"Are you okay, Jack?" Clare asked, concerned. Jack always masked it well, but there were faint smudges under his eyes. He smiled at her.

"I'll go to bed early," he said.

"Not quite yet," Mrs. Christian said, settling herself into a chair comfortably. "How soon can the airship be ready for flight, Mr. Baker?"

Jack bit his lip. "I'd like to check a few more things, but once it's loaded it can leave any time."

"And how long would it take to load it?"

"About four hours," Graveworthy answered. "The supplies are packed; it's merely a matter of putting them on the ship."

"Are you prepared to fly, Mr. Baker?"

Jack rubbed the back of his neck. "Sure. I feel all right."

"Excellent. Stand, if you please -- here, in front of me. You too, Miss Fields. Is Jack your real name, or a diminutive?" she asked.

"It's my name," Jack said.

"Mr. Baker, Miss Fields, answer truthfully. I shall know if you do not."

Clare glanced at Jack, who looked pale and nervous.

"Do you avow that you hold no covert allegiance to the government of any country save that of Her Majesty the Queen?"

"Yes," Jack said.

"Yes," Clare echoed.

"Do you swear to defend the Empire and to protect the subjects under its care?"

"Yes," they said in unison.

"Say, I so swear."

"I so swear," Clare said. Jack swallowed.

"I so swear," he managed.

"Do you accept the gravity of the duties to which you are entrusted?"

"Yes," they chorused.

"Do you, Jack Baker, in the execution of those duties, accept Ellis Graveworthy as your superior and sponsor?"

"Yes," Jack said.

"Do you, Clare Fields, in the execution of those duties, accept Ellis Graveworthy as your superior and sponsor?"

Clare looked past Mrs. Christian, to where Graveworthy stood behind her. He winked at her.

"Yes," she said, beginning to become annoyed.

"With the blessing of Her Majesty, you are now chosen as agents of her service and defenders of her Crown." Mrs. Christian smiled faintly at them. "You depart for Australia tomorrow evening. I suggest you both get a very good night's sleep."

She picked up the cloak while Clare and Jack were both still staring at her in shock, swirled it over her shoulders, and walked to the door.

"No need, Mr. Graveworthy; I'll show myself out," she said, closing the parlor door behind her. Graveworthy put a finger to his lips as Anderson limped to the window.

"She's walking," Anderson said softly. "Past the steps, down the drive...all right. She's through the gates."

Graveworthy collapsed against the door, sliding down until he was sitting on the floor. Clare had never seen him so undignified. He covered his face and let out a sigh of relief.

"Very exciting. I've never seen anyone other than myself inducted before," Anderson said, seating himself. "Takes me back. Eh, Graveworthy?"

"Thank God she didn't want to stay the night," Graveworthy said, through his hands. "My nerves couldn't take it."

"She seemed pretty unnecessary to me," Clare said, still annoyed. "All that pomp and process."

"Clare," Jack said. "While you were upstairs they told me -- "

"Let me tell her," Graveworthy said, running his hands through his hair. "Miss Fields, that was not simply pomp."

"No, there was a little snide in there too," Clare said. "You should have heard what she said to me upstairs."

"You weren't rude, were you?"

"I am never rude. I'm direct," Clare retorted. Anderson burst out laughing.

"Well, Miss Fields," Graveworthy said, pushing himself up and dusting off his trousers. "You were just direct to Her Royal Highness Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein."

Clare stared at him.

"She's the daughter of the Queen, Miss Fields," Anderson said. "Helena Augusta Victoria when she's at home. You know...in Buckingham Palace."

"Oh no," Clare said, covering her mouth. "Oh. No."

"I'm sure she was very amused by it," Graveworthy said. "And she's given you her official approval; not many players of this game join under the auspices of a royal personage."

"Welcome to the family, Brother Fields," Anderson added, saluting her.

Graveworthy shot Anderson a look, but rested his hands on Jack's shoulders and nodded at him respectfully. A second later, Clare found herself gently embraced.

"Congratulations," Graveworthy said, stepping back. "You are officially spies."

"Great," Jack said wearily. "Can I go to bed now?"

***

Clare didn't sleep well that night, and she suspected Graveworthy didn't either. Jack was probably asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow, having discovered some inhuman immunity to anxiety required to survive first-year Engineering exams.

She woke early and was already dressing when there was a knock at the door; she double-checked her clothing and looked in a mirror quickly to make sure everything was in place before she answered it. Anderson stood on the other side of the door, propped on his crutch, looking as if he hadn't slept any better than her.

"Miss Fields," he said softly. "May I come in?"

She stepped back and gestured him inside.

"I'm sorry to bother you at such an early hour, but there's much to be done today and when I heard you moving about I thought I might try my luck," he said, shutting the door behind him. "I'd like to ask you a favor."

"Of course," she said, sitting on the edge of the bed. "You've done a lot for us, Mr. Anderson. I know Mr. Graveworthy's grateful."

Anderson smiled. "I owe Ellis a great deal. And it is my job, in a sense. Besides, who wouldn't want to be a part of this?"

"I can think of a few people. Me, a few months ago," Clare said with a matching smile. "What can I do for you, Mr. Anderson?"

Anderson leaned on his crutch and cut his eyes away, hesitantly. "You know that I'm an expat like you."

"I assumed some of the reason you wanted to go was to see your family again, if you could. Mrs. Christian -- the Princess -- told me as much. It must be hard for you to know you can't go now."

"Well, we must accept life as we find it," he said. "I won't say I'm precisely philosophical about it, but I wouldn't endanger all this work by being a liability when we land. It's just that it's hard to get mail through, and..." He reached in his pocket and took out a thick, well-sealed envelope.

Clare smiled and held out her hand, studying the names written on it when he put it into her palm.

"If you can," he said. "My father and sister were still alive, last I heard. Their last address was in Brisbane -- "

"I'll find them for you," she said.

"I'm grateful, Miss Fields."

She saw it for what it was: whether by nature or training, the more important something was to Anderson or Graveworthy, the less they wanted to fuss over it. She tucked the letter in her pocket and smoothed it.

"You'll see us off tonight?" she asked.

"I wouldn't miss it. Besides, Mrs. Christian will be returning to watch the launch, and I suspect she'll want a shoulder to lean on when it goes up."

"Shall we go downstairs, then?" she said, offering him her arm. He took it solemnly.

"Miss Fields, and I say this without ego or ambition, I believe you are a tremendous woman," he said, as they walked down the hallway. "Jack Baker is a dreamer and Ellis can be when he isn't careful; I'm quite glad you're going with them."

"Me too," Clare said, feeling the letter pressed against her ribcage. "Let's have some breakfast."

Chapter Eleven
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