The next morning, Clare elected to stay home while Jack and Graveworthy visited Sir William again; she didn't mind learning about chemicals and gases and things, but the previous day had been tedious and she wanted to spend the time packing for the return trip to Cambridge that evening and checking Jack's math.
There wasn't much to check yet, but his formula seemed all right, at least what she understood of it. She gave up when he got into dissipation and variables; she left her notes for Jack to see and took a book from the not-inconsiderable library of the townhouse, curling up with it in the sitting-room.
She heard the doorbell ring about an hour later and assumed the men had forgotten their keys before going out; serve them right if one of the servants had to let them in. Then she heard the door open and close and a light male voice in the foyer, and she put down her book.
"Miss Fields," said a servant, stepping into the room and closing the door, "There is a visitor for you. Are you in?"
Clare blinked. "Yes, obviously."
"Ah. Miss Fields, I should advise -- you may be in without being 'in', if you prefer," he said, offering her a tray. There was a calling card on it; Arthur Conan Doyle, Edinburgh.
"Oh, it's Mr. Conan Doyle! We met at the dinner. No, show him in," she said, and the servant nodded hesitantly before disappearing again. Claire stood up and smoothed her wrinkled clothing.
"Miss Fields," he said when he entered, beaming. "So good to see you again."
"Likewise, Mr. Conan Doyle."
He ducked his head. "Very few people get the name right. Thanks."
"Jack and I have to be pretty particular about manners over here. We're not used to the kind of company Mr. Graveworthy keeps. Not that Jack pays any attention, but I try," she said, taking his hand. "I'm afraid if you've come to see Mr. Graveworthy, he's out for the morning."
"Indeed not -- well, I never avoid his company, but I was hoping you'd be in," he said. "I've interrupted your reading, I see."
Clare picked up the book, closing it, and shook her head. "Not really. Mr. Graveworthy's first try, I was going to tease him about it. Have you read it?"
"Of course. Not for a while, though. I don't get to read as much as I should anymore."
"Sometimes. Mostly with my medical studies, though," he said, and then looked a little nervous. "I wonder if you'd like to go for a walk. Have you seen much of London?"
"Hardly any. I'd love to. I'll get my coat," she said, and he hurried to do it for her, helping her into it.
There was a little park not far from the townhouse, and they ended up strolling there, Clare listening while Conan Doyle pointed out the people around them and made the most outrageous statements about who they were and what they were up to.
"My teacher, Dr. Bell, says observation is the start, and it all continues from there," he said, as she laughed at his latest conclusion. "I've made a great study of it since. I've been thinking of writing a story about deduction; something in the lines of Poe, you know. Dark mysteries and foreign adventures. I was going to set some of it in the American West, after reading Ellis's essays about his travels."
"Speaking of, we should turn back," she said. "He'll probably be annoyed if he and Jack come back for lunch and I'm not there."
"Bit of a hen with two chicks?"
"Something like that. I know why he does it, but..." she shrugged.
"Well, then I'll escort you back."
"Either way, you should stay for lunch," she said.
"I can't, regretfully. Back on the train to Edinburgh this afternoon. Medicine is an impatient wife."
"Well, we'll be sorry to see you go."
"I'm very sorry to go, myself," he said, with an odd look at her. Clare took his arm again, and they started back for the townhouse in comfortable silence.
Ellis was about to summon the servants and interrogate them about Clare's whereabouts -- she wasn't anywhere in the house, and he was beginning to worry -- when he heard footsteps in the front hall, and leaned out to look at who was arriving.
"There she is," he said to Jack, who was helping himself to some fruit in the kitchen.
"Told you," Jack replied, setting the fruit down. "Hey, Clare! Ellis was about to mount a search party, and I wanted to see if you were done checking my math -- "
He burst into the hallway with his usual ebullience, and Ellis watched in amusement as he stopped dead. Arthur was in the middle of helping Clare off with her coat, bending to say something in her ear.
"Mr. Baker, isn't it?" Arthur said cheerfully. "And Ellis! Miss Fields was worried you'd fret."
"I wouldn't say worried," Clare replied.
"Well, here we are, anyway," Arthur continued. Ellis nudged Jack out of the way and shook Arthur's hand. "I thought Clare might like to see some of London. We've been walking."
"That was good of you -- perhaps next time Clare could leave a note," he added, with a significant look in her direction, "but good of you all the same. Jack, your manners."
"Oh!" Jack looked stricken. "Sorry! Hello, Mr. Conan Doyle. Clare, do you want some fruit? Did you finish the math? I didn't know you were going to look at it but I think you found something I missed..."
Their voices faded as Clare, with an amused look at the other men, followed Jack into the kitchen.
"I have to apologize for Jack, he's the original mad professor," Ellis said. "Won't you stay to lunch, Arthur?"
"Can't -- train," Arthur said. He was looking past Ellis, down the hallway, and then he smiled and turned to him. "I don't stand a chance with him around, do I?"
"Better men have probably tried and failed," Ellis said, laughing. "They're not sweethearts, at least not as far as I can tell, so a persistent man might make some headway. But Clare knows her own mind very well, so even persistence isn't enough, I expect, unless she takes a shine to you."
"That's certainly part of her charm." Arthur shrugged. "No harm in trying, I suppose. How long will you be in London?"
"Not long, but you're welcome at the house in Cambridge anytime. Good to see you again," Ellis said. "Faint heart never won fair maid, and all that."
"Right then. I'll write next time I'm free?"
"Very good. Off you go," Ellis said, patting him on the shoulder, and went into the kitchen to see what his wayward charges were up to. Jack was talking around a mouthful of food when he entered, Clare listening with faint amusement.
" -- calculate the size of the balloon we'll need," he said, as Ellis stepped in.
"Experiments go well?" Clare asked Ellis, who nodded.
"I'll work out the math on the train," Jack continued. "Sir William says he'd be happy to make me as many canisters as I need, and as soon as I get the boiler and propeller parts I can start installing those while we find someone to make the balloon. Are you sure this isn't too expensive?" he said, turning to Ellis again.
"These things cost," Ellis said carelessly. "We have the money."
"Well, that's good. So what was up with you and slinky back there?" Jack asked Clare. "He looked like we were interrupting something."
"I think you were," Clare replied. "I don't mind. Mr. Conan Doyle's nice. Very clever, reminds me of you."
"Aw," Jack said, looking pleased. "Then I'll tolerate him for your sake."
"That's big of you, Jack," Clare drawled, and Jack laughed. Ellis sat down and listened to them dissect their respective days, Jack flinging chemistry and math around, Clare recounting some of Arthur's funnier observations from the morning. Arthur was a nice young man, Ellis knew, very driven and quite smart, but he couldn't see Clare treating him as anything much more than an entertaining friend.
He remembered being nineteen, and the emotional urges that went with it, but Clare had a level head, and Jack seemed uninterested in romance. Or – not exactly uninterested, but for all Clare's joking about Jack's passion for machines, Ellis suspected that Jack had turned the usual energy of youth into creative energy, and had probably barely even kissed a girl.
Clare seemed like the kind of woman who would have suitors, and probably had fallen in love a time or two. Ellis wondered why Jack hadn't. After all, you could be a genius and still notice a pretty woman. Or, he supposed, an attractive man. Perhaps that was why, though he hadn't noticed Jack paying any more attention to men than to women if said people weren't scientists or engineers.
If Jack's design worked, and he had no doubt it could, Ellis wouldn't have that much more time to study the children. Once the ship was away, the danger to the pair of them would lessen considerably; they could spend the rest of the year in Cambridge, and return to Boston in January. He'd have to find someone trustworthy to look after them. Anderson was coming with him; Nicholas, as excellent as he was, had too many duties already. Perhaps Annie would take them under her wing. She was something of a civilian, compared to himself and Anderson, but she knew enough of intrigue to understand what was needed and she was clever enough to keep them safe.
He discovered, to his surprise, that he was likely to miss Jack and Clare.
Four days later, back home from London, Clare sat on the bank of the Cam and picked idly at the remains of lunch. They were picnicking, ostensibly, just below the university where the river widened enough to satisfy Jack's experimentation and was private enough to satisfy Graveworthy's (perhaps justified) paranoia. She was free from classes for the day and had agreed to meet Jack at the river and keep Graveworthy company while the maiden flight of the Model Airship was set to take place; it was the perfect afternoon, though a little cold for sitting outside so long.
Jack had carted a large box to the river: a jar of helium Sir William had given him, a model boat weighted to simulate the real thing, and a rather larger balloon than his initial experiments had indicated. He'd determined the best material for the job through extensive and incredibly boring testing, while she'd been in classes all week, and poured them out at the dinner table every night. He'd sent for more silk from London and stitched a large, oblong balloon, then knotted a makeshift net over it and ran the strings down to the boat.
His only regret, she thought, was that he had no steam engine or propellers small enough to fix to the ship and test the propulsion speed. He was calculating propulsion based on a complicated adaptation of how boats moved in water, and had officially left Clare behind mathematically.
It was nice to be out of the house, with its burned walls a constant reminder of the threat to their lives. Jack's room had been all but destroyed, along with the hallway leading up to it, and Clare's had been covered in smudgy smoke residue when they arrived home. They both slept upstairs now, Jack in the room next to Nicholas and Clare in a funny little dormer over the kitchen.
"It's rare to have such sunny days so late in the year," Graveworthy said, shaking her out of her thoughts. He was leaning against a tree, eating a plum from the picnic pail as they watched Jack fill the balloon using a small spigot mechanism he'd concocted.
"It's nice, I guess," she said, from where she sat in the grass. "Chilly, though."
"Are you cold?"
"No, I'm fine. We'll be done soon anyway, I expect."
"I expect so." Graveworthy flung his plum pit into the water, startling Jack. "Sorry!"
"It's almost ready!" Jack called back.
"Very exciting all round," Graveworthy said, and then to Claire, "He placed an order for propeller mounts yesterday. If it goes well, I think he should have it built by mid-November."
She tilted her head. "And then you disappear?"
"A traveling holiday across Europe," Graveworthy said. "Anderson, my fellow passenger, is going to be officially taking a leave for family reasons and is not to be disturbed."
"What about your actual family?"
"My mother is quite content in Scotland at the moment and not likely to shift or need me anytime soon; Anderson is an expat like yourself, and has no family here in England."
"Yes. He's much more open about it; he left when he was ten. One of the oldest children to leave, I think. Late bloomer," Graveworthy said with a grin.
"What happens to us?"
"You continue on at Cambridge until the year's end. Dally with Arthur if you like, he's utterly taken with you."
"I got a letter from him yesterday. He's not very subtle, but I guess he writes well."
"He's a nice boy."
Clare rolled her eyes.
"I'm obligated to talk him up, he's a friend. At any rate, dalliance or no, once the school year ends you ought to be safe, and off you go home again. Unless you decide you like it here; arrangements could always be made."
"How long will you be gone?" she asked.
"I don't know. I can't really tell you more than I have. Probably some time. Shall I write when I return?"
"I suppose so. We'd like to know you're safe in England again."
Jack had finished inflating the balloon and checking all the tie-points; he waved at them for their attention, then pulled a ripcord attached to the buckles holding the ship in place, giving the ship itself a shove at the same time. It leapt into the air and sailed forward, out over the river.
"Bravo!" Graveworthy shouted, applauding. The ship snapped backwards as it reached the end of a tie-line Jack held in his hand; for a moment it teetered almost on end, and then with a silky movement, like some sea animal shedding its shell, the balloon slipped from under the makeshift net.
Clare watched in horror as the ship plummeted into the water and the balloon, freed from its leash, floated upwards into the sky. Jack's eyes followed it up, and then he looked down at the string in his hand. Graveworthy had his own hand over his mouth.
"Bigger net!" Jack called.
"I should think so!" Graveworthy shouted back. Just then the boat, which had sunk initially, bobbed to the surface and turned over onto one side like a dead fish. Clare began to giggle. Jack hauled it in and carried it to where they waited.
"It works!" he said, eyes alight. "The gas math was right, which means the balloon size is okay. We can start work on the balloon -- might want to hire someone to sew it," he said. "And I can tell Sir William how many canisters I need. It all slots into place."
Clare saw Jack tuck the boat behind his back and turned; standing behind them was an out-of-breath young man she vaguely recognized from one of her classes.
"They said you might be walking along the river, sir," the boy said, offering him a letter. Graveworthy looked down at the hasty fold of paper, accepted it, and handed the boy a coin in return.
"Thank you," he said, as the boy disappeared. He unfolded the paper and studied its contents.
"What is it?" Clare asked, seeing his face turn pale.
"Anderson's been shot," he replied.
Ellis wished he could have said later that he didn't remember going to the train or the long ride to London or anything until they reached Anderson, but the truth was that he recalled all of it. He recalled hating himself for stopping to think that Anderson's shooting might be designed to separate him from Jack and Clare or from the airship; likewise he remembered in detail the interminable wait at home to see that Nicholas had reinforcements should someone try anything at the house again, and the excruciating state of his nerves the entire way down from Cambridge with Jack and Clare -- the way his hands would not stay warm and the jolting of the train made him feel ill.
He tried to keep calm, because Jack and Clare were uneasy and needed to be shown that there was nothing to fear, but inside he was certain he would arrive in London to find a corpse awaiting him. The note had not said where Anderson was shot, or if he was still alive.
His first inkling that they may have escaped the worst came when they alighted in London. Asma's daughter, whom Anderson had said was fast becoming his favorite courier, passed him in the station and pressed a second letter into his hand with the subtlety and skill of a seasoned pickpocket. Someone, at least, had anticipated his hasty arrival; few people other than Anderson himself would have known to send the girl.
He waited until they were outside in the darkening evening to open and read it.
"He's alive," he said, and Clare hugged Jack in relief. "Someone else is writing for him, though. He's at our club -- Baker, give Clare your cap. Put your hair up," he said, as he shoved them both into a cab and gave the address.
"What?" Clare asked, holding the cap in confusion.
"Put your hair under the cap. Thank the Creator you wore trousers today. The club doesn't allow women on Fridays. If you think they'd make an exception for an assassination, you don't know the Athenaeum. This is no time to argue with me, Miss Fields."
Clare raised her eyebrow at him, but to his relief she wound up her hair into a tight rope and coiled it at the back of her head. She tucked the cap over it and patted away the stray wisps.
"When we enter the club, don't speak, don't make eye contact, and don't stray. This is no time to get lost or draw attention," he said, tucking his hands into his coat-pockets to keep them from shaking.
They were met at the club door by the attendant on duty, who apparently had been warned to expect them.
"Graveworthy to see Anderson," Ellis said, and the man nodded. "The young men are with me."
"Jack and Chris Parsons," Ellis said impatiently. "For God's sake, let us through."
"Just so, sir. He's in the North Library."
Curious faces looked up as they passed, but Ellis had no time for the usual common decencies of the club; he led Jack and Clare up the staircase and through the little lobby to the small library on the north side of the building. There were two young men lounging outside the door, but they let him pass without question.
The anxiety drained out of him as he entered the room -- Anderson was lying on a chaise moved in from the drawing room, one leg splinted, bandaged, and propped on pillows. His right arm was heavily bandaged as well. He looked pale but whole, and not in any immediate danger of dying.
"Gregory," he breathed, relief making him dizzy.
"Come in, come in," Anderson said, gesturing him forward. Ellis glanced back at the children and stepped inside, pulling a chair alongside the chaise and sitting down with an exterior calm he didn't feel.
"Sorry I couldn't write myself," Anderson said, nodding at his arm.
"Well, I do blame you," Ellis heard himself say.
"As you should. Foolish accident. This is Doctor Ludlow," he added, gesturing with his left hand to the man standing nearby, placing medical tools in a small black satchel. "He's given me something quite glorious for the pain."
"You'll be paid well," Ellis replied, and the man gave him a conservative smile. "Well enough that you needn't tell anyone about this visit -- are we understood?"
"I am always confidential," he replied. "I'll return tomorrow to transport Mr. Anderson to his home. He is not to be moved until then."
"Fine by me," Anderson said cheerily. The doctor snapped the bag shut and gave them a curt nod as he left. "How are you, El? Miss Fields, you look darling in that cap."
"Shut the door, Baker," Ellis said. He heard Jack close the door from the lobby.
"The airship is protected, and you can see the children are with me," Ellis said quietly. "What happened?"
"For all the doctor knows, a careless accident with a loaded revolver during some merriment downstairs," Anderson said. He didn't look even vaguely unhappy; the drug must have been very good indeed. "A bit of lost blood. I'm afraid I won't be walking for a while. The bone's snapped clean through. Hurt like buggery when they set it."
Ellis ran his hands through his hair. "I'm glad you're alive."
"So am I! Dying with all my sins on my head's a terrible way to go."
"Who shot you? Did you see him?"
Anderson smiled, a little condescendingly. "He's in the writing room. Directly below us."
"Don't worry, he won't go anywhere. A few men from the club are with him."
"Gregory. What on earth happened?"
Anderson's smile turned lopsided. "Thought he'd catch me going into the club, I imagine. If I hadn't stood aside for someone to come out he would have had me straight through the heart, from the back. As it is, he hit my arm first; I suppose that blasted his aim, or he would never have got me in the leg with the second shot. He shouldn't have tried a second shot; the men coming out as I was going in made it across the street before he could run."
"Who is it? A German?"
Anderson shook his head. "Ellis, promise me you won't do anything rash."
"Who is it?"
"Promise me, El. Promise you won't hare out of here as you love to do."
Anderson rested his left hand on Ellis' sleeve, fingers plucking at it. It was a little helpless, and it took the indignant, furious wind out of Ellis's sails instantly.
"I promise," he said. Anderson's eyes darted to the children, who were standing near the door, quietly holding hands. He leaned forward a little, as much as he could, and spoke quietly.
"Benneton knew he was second for the mission if one of us couldn't go," he said softly.
"He's always our second choice if one of us is injured," Ellis said, confused.
"Well, I suppose this time he wanted to be first."
The implication washed over him and it was probably just as well Anderson had made him promise to stay; as it was he nearly left his seat anyway.
"Benneton shot you?" he asked.
"I've told them to..." Anderson coughed, wincing a little. "I've told them to hold him for you. I didn't know who else to send for. If we can't trust Benneton, I don't know who we can trust."
"You did right. Has he spoken to anyone?"
"He'd better have not. I said it was over a woman."
Ellis smiled a little at this. "Always thinking, Gregory."
"These are the times that try men's brains," Anderson answered. "That's Thomas Paine, isn't it?"
"Close enough," Ellis assured him.
"We'll have matched scars now, anyhow," Anderson said. "Did it burn when you were shot?"
"Like the devil."
"It's odd...the first thing I wanted to do was sleep," Anderson murmured.
"That's normal enough. You probably ought to," Ellis added.
"Think I might. There are men on the doors?"
"For what they're worth. I think you're safe in the club. I'll leave orders with the attendant not to let anyone in. As you say, if we can't trust Benneton..."
"Just so. Are you going to see him?"
"I am," Ellis said. "I'll go now. I promise not to do anything rash," he added, when Anderson looked anxious again. "I'll leave Jack and Clare here, if you don't mind."
"Not in the least. Miss Fields, do come here. I'd like to know where you had your waistcoat tailored."
Ellis looked over his shoulder at the pair, who seemed hesitant. He beckoned them forward, vacating his chair for Jack.
"I have business to attend to downstairs," he said. "Don't leave this room, for any reason, even if he asks you to. Don't let anyone else in."
Clare nodded solemnly, her eyes huge and worried. Jack's hands formed loose fists.
"Good. I'll be back."
He stepped through the swinging doors into the lobby and cast an appraising eye over the men standing guard. They were large and seemed fairly alert, a good sign.
"Please don't let anyone else in," he said. "Anderson is resting."
"Right-o, Graveworthy," one of them said with a smile. "Going down to see the defendant?"
"Something like that," Ellis said as he descended the stairs. He stopped at the entry to speak to the attendant briefly, then continued on, trying to avoid the large rooms where men had gathered to discuss the shooting in hushed tones.
The Writing Room was more heavily and alertly guarded than Anderson's makeshift sickroom, and the door was open; inside Ellis could see three clubmen sitting with Benneton. He had his head in his hands, his posture slouched in an attitude of utter defeat.
"Have you called the police?" he asked. The men shook their heads. "Just so, and much appreciated. This is a club matter, I think you'll agree."
"Bad for the club's image," one of the men said. He was high-ranking Creationist clergy of some London temple or other, and was probably the one who had put the Consolations of LaRoche at Benneton's elbow.
"Could I have a word with Mr. Benneton? Anderson's sent me," he said. "Alone, if you don't mind. We'll straighten this all out quickly."
The men exchanged uneasy looks, but they didn't question him. As the clergyman left, he placed a revolver in Ellis' hand. With a start, he realized it must be the gun that Anderson had been shot with. He shut the door before he checked the cylinder. There were four bullets remaining.
"Climbing the hierarchy through murder? I'm ashamed of you, Benneton," he said. He felt oddly calm; Benneton was a smart man, but he wasn't much of a liar and was something of a coward when it came to confrontation. "You could have simply said you wanted more time out of England."
Benneton didn't reply.
"Anderson's going to live, by the way."
Still no reply.
"Look at me when I speak to you," he snapped, and Benneton slowly dropped his hands, raising his head with reluctant obedience. He stared at the door, just behind Ellis.
Their eyes met. He had been weeping; there were tear-tracks on his face, and his nose dripped.
"Why did you shoot Gregory?"
Benneton looked away, drawing a hand slowly across his face to wipe away the damp there.
"Be a man and answer the question, Benneton."
"I'm so sorry, Ellis, I never wanted to -- "
"I didn't ask if you were sorry, Benneton, and if you weren't I can assure you that you will be when we're finished. Why did you shoot Gregory?"
"I have debts," Benneton whispered. "My investments -- "
"I could give a sweet damn about your debts!"
"They offered me money," Benneton said. "Enough to pay off what I owed."
"Money to assassinate Anderson?"
"It was the only way to be sure you took me instead of him. They told me what you're really doing!" Benneton burst out. "You lied to me too!"
"I lied to you?" Ellis asked. "I told you all this about our mission, in case you needed to come in, and then I lied about why? Does that sound like me, Benneton?"
"I don't know -- I don't -- "
"Who was it? The Germans? The Italians?"
"I don't know. They used a go-between, I never knew..."
"And they told you what -- that I was going to broker a treaty between Australia and England? That there'd be another war, and you'd be a hero for stopping it?"
Benneton nodded wretchedly.
"Were you supposed to destroy the airship, or just shoot me once we reached Australia? Were you going to offer them a deal from someone else instead?"
Benneton shook his head. "They gave me the revolver. They said they'd tell me once Anderson was dead."
Ellis looked down at the revolver in his hand. It was Swiss-made, but that didn't signify anything; plenty of gentlemen carried foreign arms.
"You were bribed to shoot a man, take his place, sabotage a commission from the government, and work as an agent of a foreign state...and how much did they pay you, Benneton?"
"My debts are paid off," Benneton said. "My family is safe. It doesn't matter."
"No, perhaps you're right. Money's the least part of the game, until it buys your loyalty."
"I'm so sorry, Ellis, tell him I'm sorry!"
"I don't think that matters now. Did you speak to the men who were with you?"
"Not a word, I swear. Ellis -- "
"Anderson's put it about that you shot him over a woman. That will stay within the club. No police will be called. So, you have two options, I suppose."
Benneton looked at him fearfully. Ellis held out the revolver.
"You can take our way out, and we'll consider it a misfire. Or you can try to leave London and see how far you get before we find you. Maybe you'll make it, who knows; but you won't be safe in England, and you'll be a traitor your whole life. It's a jackal's life, defecting. Then again, you seem to fit the bill."
Benneton's eyes flicked to the revolver, then back up to Ellis' face.
"Go on. Take it. You don't have the courage to shoot me as you face me. If you tried to leave through the front door with that, the club would stop you. So..."
He tilted his head at the windows, latched against the cold but not locked from the inside.
"Go out the window, or just...go out," he said. "It's your choice."
He left the room and sent the guards away, shutting the door firmly behind him before he continued on through the ground floor and into the coffee room.
Easily a dozen men were there, reading and speaking in quiet knots. Most of them looked up when he came in and seated himself, accepting half of a newspaper from the man next to him.
Very few flinched or looked surprised when there was the sound of a gunshot from the Writing Room. Ellis turned the page of the newspaper before he looked up.
"Send for a doctor," he said quietly. "I believe Benneton's had an accident."
He folded the paper, set it on the chair, and walked upstairs. When he opened the door, he saw Anderson was asleep, but Clare and Jack were facing the door with pale, worried faces.
"Did you kill him?" Clare asked, her voice hushed.
"No," he said. He watched to be sure she believed him, then came forward. "It's likely he's shot himself. He was...remorseful."
"Why did he do it?" Jack asked.
"He was paid. Everyone has a weak spot; his was his debts, just now. He tried to trade Anderson's life for the livelihood of his family. He wouldn't be the first." He steepled his fingers and studied Anderson critically. "Fortunately, their goal was not to harm either of you -- or the airship, I suspect. He was after Gregory alone."
Clare sat down next to him. "Are you all right?" she asked. He glanced at her, surprised.
"Yes. I think so," he admitted. "Someone ought to stay with Anderson tonight, but three is more than the club will tolerate, I expect. Either we must find somewhere for you to stay, or someone to keep watch. Jack..."
He reached into his pocket and took out the paper he'd been given in the train station, tearing off a blank section and scribbling on it. "Take this to the attendant, and have him send it by courier. Ask him to hold the cab for us when my guest arrives. We'll stay in a hotel tonight."
Jack nodded and vanished through the doors. They heard his boots on the ornamental grand staircase.
"We know where you're going," Clare said quietly.
"Not now, Clare," he answered.
"You're going to Australia. That was why Mr. Anderson would never have given up his place. He wants to see his family again."
Ellis rubbed his eyes, but he also nodded. There didn't seem any point to lying, at the moment.
"The ship will be finished before his leg knits," Clare continued.
"Long before. And this can't wait any longer. It took me enough time to find you and Jack. On the other hand...changes are afoot in the world. I don't know that in ten years or twenty years Australia will still be a closed continent. In fifty, it almost certainly won't be -- through their own force of arms, if nothing else."
Clare nodded, apparently lost in thought. They sat that way, in silence, the rasping of Anderson's breath filling the room until Jack returned.
"Thank you," Ellis said to Jack. "Sit down. When our reinforcements arrive, we'll find some dinner and a place to stay. It's just as well, in a way; tomorrow we can return to the warehouse for your silk."
Jack smiled hesitantly, but he was quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the evening.
The next morning they bought hot pastries from a cookshop near the hotel they had stayed in, bringing them to the club and breakfasting with a slightly hung-over and rather wretched-sounding Anderson. Jack noticed that he didn't ask what happened to Benneton; presumably all these secret agents knew what happened to men who shot other men in the back.
They were shooed out when the doctor arrived to take Anderson home and, though they offered, Anderson told them he was going to sleep all day and they should amuse themselves instead of standing vigil. Jack was unhappy that Anderson had been hurt, of course, and he had a dim inkling that he should feel guilty that his work was causing so much fuss, but he couldn't help being just a little glad that they had the morning to themselves. As soon as he felt it was appropriate, he suggested that they should go to the silk warehouse.
Graveworthy's smile told him he probably hadn't been as suave as he wanted, but he didn't seem upset, so it was all one in the end. They bought a truly mind-numbing amount of silk in the weave that seemed to work best, and Miranda thought they were some kind of angels sent from heaven to buy up bolts of cloth that not many people found very attractive.
"Tell me, can you recommend any good stitchers?" Jack asked, as Miranda was fussing over filling out the bill. "I need someone who can sew very tight, very even seams."
"I think we've all figured what you're doing," Miranda said, pausing to smile at him. Jack felt cold.
"What...?" he asked hesitantly.
"You're making a big-top! Industrialist indeed -- you're like those men who run the circuses, aren't you?" she said. Jack heard a muffled laugh behind him from Graveworthy.
"That's right," Jack said. "I suppose you've caught me."
"Reckon you're going to put it on as some kind of curiosity, eh? The only hand-made circus-tent in the world? All the others use Creationists, you know."
"Mr. Parsons is quite an innovator," Graveworthy said, leaning on the counter. "But he wants to surprise the people back in the states -- don't tell anyone, eh?"
"Silent as the grave, sir," she said, charmed. "Just think. My silks in a circus! In America!"
"I can guarantee, your silks will be involved in one of the most unique sights of the age," Graveworthy said. Miranda turned pink.
"Those stitchers..." Jack said, for once the one to guide the conversation back on track.
"Well, my cousin's father-in-law runs a shop that makes umbrellas and dress trains," Miranda said thoughtfully. "I could speak to them for you."
"Please," Jack said. "Until then just hold the bolts here. If we can't find someone in London we'll have you send them on."
"Just so, Mr. Parsons. Now don't let any of this near those lions and acrobats!" she said, laughing as she bustled away.
"I should have thought of that as an excuse," Graveworthy said. "A circus tent's the same general shape, just a little more tucked in. It needs the same long seams."
"You sound like an engineer now," Jack said, as they left the shop.
"Always learning," Graveworthy replied. "Miss Fields, what were you talking with the shop attendant about in the corner?"
"He wanted to interest me in ascots. I said no," Clare said loftily.
"Should we go see Anderson again?" Jack asked, as Graveworthy checked his pocket-watch.
"Indeed; he ought to be settled by now. I hope you don't mind spending another night in the hotel, but I'd like to remain until tomorrow afternoon. And Miss Fields really should attend a service at the London Grand Temple," Graveworthy added. "I've been there myself. It's quite impressive."
"I don't mind," Clare said. Jack shrugged and smiled.
"There's not much I can do at the moment anyway, except maybe look in on Sir William," he said. "The steam engine and propellers are on order and the coal for the engine can come up with the helium when we're ready for it. This is the part I never like," he added, kicking a stone down the dusty street. "When you can't do anything even though there's so much to do."
"Enjoy it while it lasts," Graveworthy replied. "I'm certain you won't shirk when there is something to be done, Mr. Baker. Let us proceed to the house of Anderson and entertain him, shall we?"
Anderson welcomed them with the quiet decency of a good host and had delicious food brought up to his bedroom where he was resting, sipping on beef broth while Jack and the others ate new potatoes and roasted chicken. He prattled about the doctor and the strange looks from the club until they were finished and the coffee had been brought in.
"Miss Fields, Mr. Baker, I don't mean to be rude or to be a bad host, but Ellis and I have things to discuss," he said finally, sipping weak watered coffee with his left hand. "There's an excellent library downstairs, with a few game boards and plenty of books -- he says you're fond of reading. If I could ask for half an hour or so..."
"You're going to talk about Australia," Clare said. Jack stared at her. Anderson glanced at Ellis.
"I didn't tell them," he said. "They figured it out. Baker mentioned it a week ago, and Clare, I think, knows that we're going to discuss your successor."
"How did you know?" Anderson asked Jack.
"It was Clare," Jack said, before she could talk. "Where else would you need to go that you couldn't get to by land or boat, and couldn't use anything Created?"
"Mr. Graveworthy told us you're carrying supplies and people into dangerous territory. And that others think you're going to make a pact, which means you're not, or you wouldn't bother mentioning it," Clare said.
"She'd make a good spy," Anderson said to Graveworthy.
"She doesn't want to be," Clare said sharply.
"Then it isn't any business of yours, who we choose, is it?" Graveworthy asked.
"I don't want to be a spy. That doesn't mean I don't want to come with you," she said. Both men looked startled; Graveworthy hid it better, Jack thought.
"Come with me?" Graveworthy asked.
"Jack and I both. You'll need someone to keep the airship up," she continued. "Two men isn't enough to run something like that, not for days at a time. With three, we'll be safer. And you could use me -- I'm like you, I'm immune," she said to Anderson. "Australia doesn't affect me."
Anderson leaned forward a little. "Ellis said you were an expat."
Clare glared at him. Graveworthy looked unapologetic.
"Which means you want to go to Australia for the same shallow, self-serving reason I did," Anderson continued with a smile. "You want to see your family. You want to see your home."
"It's not shallow -- "
"Not to you, I suppose, but in the eyes of Her Majesty...well. We serve a higher purpose, Miss Fields, and those who stray from that purpose end like Benneton -- betraying the ones they love for the things they want. You know, it occurs to me," he added, turning to Graveworthy, "that it's possible Benneton did me a favor in keeping me out of this affair."
Graveworthy tilted his head. "You're grasping at reasons not to mourn, Gregory."
"We take what we're given. Miss Fields," Anderson said, turning back to Clare, "I know what you feel, and I've felt it a good deal longer than you have. You're hardly grown -- and as brilliant as you are, which Graveworthy assures me is the case, you and Mr. Baker are still young with bright futures. You should not risk them on this."
"There won't be any 'this' unless Jack builds your flying machine -- and you know he's the only one who knows how it will work."
"Hey!" Jack said, turning to Clare. "Don't blackmail them with my ship, Clare."
"Your ship," Clare said.
"Paid for by my government," Anderson said. "As are the clothes on your back and the crossing to England."
"Children," Graveworthy said, and his gaze took in not just the pair of them but Anderson as well. "Miss Fields and Mr. Baker are technically under the auspices of our organization. Jack is building our airship, and Miss Fields' remarks are not entirely out of line, if ill-timed," he drawled.
"You can't be serious, El."
"Why not? They've shown themselves to be extraordinary individuals and assets in more ways than simply the technical," Graveworthy continued.
Anderson pursed his lips.
"Miss Fields, Mr. Baker, I really do think you might enjoy a game of backgammon," he said. Jack took Clare's hand and squeezed it, hoping she would keep quiet.
"We'll go," he said, standing and picking up his coffee, leading her away. He held the door for her and shut it behind them, but not before he heard Anderson's voice, quiet but not quiet enough.
"El, you can't give these children everything they ask for."
"They aren't stupid, Gregory, and I've already given Jack what he wants. Clare deserves to see her family again."
When Ellis came down to the library an hour later, Jack was flicking backgammon tiles across the room like tiddly-winks, apparently going for distance. Clare stood at the window, looking out at the dark sky and the moon. They were waiting for him, of course, but they looked also like some scene from a book he hadn't written yet -- a handsome, lazy boy with keen eyes, toying with a children's game while the beautiful woman at the window watched the stars come out.
Then he pushed the door open fully and the scene broke apart; Clare turned, her face catching the light of the fire, and Jack looked up with a red backgammon tile still in his hand. He wasn't certain how he could have come to care so much about them in such a short time; perhaps it was the charm of youth, or the fact that they reminded him of his own young self. Or perhaps it was just because they were worth the affection, and so few people seemed to be worth it, or willing to accept it if they were.
"I've spoken with Anderson," he said slowly, pulling out a chair and seating himself at the table with Jack. "Miss Fields, will you sit down?"
She came with odd obedience, as if she thought at this late stage she could impress him with her ability to take direction.
"You're both clever and driven and young enough to believe you're immortal," he said. "Which is the sort of man or woman we look for. If it were Jack petitioning to go as an Engineer, as a pilot, there would be no trouble -- " he held up his hand to forestall Clare's objection. "Hear me out, please."
She closed her mouth and nodded.
"Jack has no family -- he only has you," he continued. "There is no one to be concerned with his welfare as a parent or a wife. Nobody keeps count of him except you."
He glanced at Jack, and saw the pain of it written on his face. It was hard to touch a person's truths, Ellis knew that; sooner or later you had to, but it hurt the person deeply. Jack was young enough to recover himself.
"I know your situation is similar, so that's not a concern in your case, but there are other concerns. Propriety, for one; flying alone with two men to Australia, gone who knows how long...I'm not saying this is right, but unlike Jack you do have a reputation to ruin, and this would be a fair start on that. This is not a step you can go back from, not in the way he can. And you'll be subject to more scrutiny, because you're not the engineer. Would your parents want you to throw away other opportunities just for the chance to see them again?"
Clare's face was pale too. "I don't know," she said. "Because I haven't seen them in sixteen years."
"Anderson understands that -- as much as I can, so do I," he said. "There's no answer yet, certainly not in the negative, but I feel, and Gregory feels also, that this is not something you've thought about as carefully as you ought. You must allow us to guide you in this if you want to have your way, Clare, and you must believe that, being older than you, we do possess wisdom you don't." He drew a deep breath. "You don't have every piece of information that you need to decide this, and that was necessary until now."
"So tell us," Clare said.
"I'm trying to. You aren't aware that this project is the culmination of years of work -- months alone spent studying star charts for navigation, speaking to other expats to try and gather information. They aren't easy to find. They don't want to talk when we do find them."
"Why?" Jack asked. They both looked at him. "Why is it so important to get to Australia secretly? Can't you just...send someone to negotiate with the government? Why do you need...?"
Ellis sighed. "Reports have been coming in for years, reports of activity in Australia that threatens the strength of the Empire and the safety of our colonies and sister governments. Even if we tried to open official channels, we'd be cut off. Recently we've had more disturbing communication that tells us there's no more time to waste. We need to know what they're building with all that scrap metal they buy -- whether it's trains or tools or warships. There are several foreign governments who think the Empire wants to ally itself with Australia, but I think they overlook the fundamental truth that even if we did, there's no guarantee the Australians would have us."
"You're not going as a diplomat," Jack said.
"No. I need to see the country, to understand what's going on. Someone has to go and come back, and neither are easy. It's impossible to smuggle people in from ships; we've tried. The waters around Australia are prime pickings for pirates, and a ship small enough to slip through to the coast would be destroyed before it got close. It has happened. Men and women have died."
"That's why you needed to get above the water?"
"Precisely. Even intelligence sent by those friendly to our interests rarely makes it here -- letters are often stolen by the sailors. We don't really even know if it's a democracy or a militant state -- but the ports are run as if it were the latter. This is dangerous work. You're not trained soldiers or spies -- you're hardly even adults. You're very smart, and very resourceful, but that's not all you need. It took two years to train Anderson out of his Australian accent when he was a boy, and his wasn't that different from an Englishman's. You would stand out like sore thumbs."
He saw Clare bow her head. Jack was looking down at the tile in his hand.
"I...hesitantly believe that these are troubles that can be worked round, and that you would both be a benefit to the mission," he continued. "But I want you to make sure this is what you want. And..." he added, lightening his tone, "I think perhaps we'll leave it there for now. The night is fine enough to walk to the hotel. Come with me?"
Both of them were silent and thoughtful as they walked, and he didn't bother to break it. It had been a hard day, running into the night before. They'd all had a shock, after all.
When they reached the hotel -- a room for him and Jack, one for Clare -- he took off his jacket and waistcoat and unshouldered his braces, while the children apparently had a hushed conference in the other room. When Jack didn't immediately return, he sat down and took out his notebook; just because he was about to take the first ever hand-built flying machine to the Dead Isle was no reason to fall behind on his writing. His publisher would expect a novel when he returned.
If he returned.
It was madness, of course, advocating that he bring two students, two Americans, to Australia with him. He couldn't quite believe he'd done it, that he'd said to Anderson what he'd said when they discussed it.
But after all, Clare was intelligent and level-headed and keen to discover what people didn't want known. Jack, even if he were a fool -- which he wasn't -- would be an asset as a pilot and if anything went wrong he was the only one competent to repair it...
Ellis laughed a little. It hadn't occurred to him that Jack would finally be a ride-along mechanic, just not in any way he could have dreamed of.
He bent to his work, trying to shake off the sense of unreality by burying his mind in fiction.
When the door opened, some indeterminate amount of time later, he hardly came up for breath from the work; everything seemed to intrude too much, so he simply stopped writing for a moment and said, "I can put out the light if you're tired," before he began to write again. He expected a sleepy grunt from Jack or perhaps the sound of the bedsprings on the cot nearer the door; instead, he heard the quiet rustle of a blanket being taken off the bed, and the shuffle of stocking feet.
"I'll stay up a little while, if you don't mind," Clare said, and then he did look up. The world in his head receded and died away; uncertainty rushed back in its place.
"Where's Jack?" he asked.
"He fell asleep on my bed. He was tired." She sat down in the chair, tucking the blanket up under her chin. "You hurt him today," she added.
"I'm aware," he replied. "It was necessary. He had to know that these were the practical considerations on my side. This is not a student lark in Boston, Miss Fields. There are lives at stake. He needed to know. You both did."
"And now that we know?" she asked.
"Now, think carefully about what it is you want. There is time," he said. He closed his notebook and sat back in the chair, rubbing his eyes. "Not much, but there's always time. Jack will not drag his heels on the building of the airship, however burdened by indecision he may or may not be, but he can only work so many hours a day."
Clare yawned, tucking her feet up on the chair. "He isn't indecisive."
"Perhaps not. Difficult to know, with him." He tilted his head back. "His parents died only a few years ago?"
"When he was seventeen."
"How did they die?" he asked, turning to look at her.
"That's really something you should ask Jack, if you want to know."
"Indulge my cowardice," he said. She sank deeper into the chair. "Tell me a story, Clare."
She tilted her head onto her shoulder, sleepily. "His mother was a ride-along mechanic. He didn't see her very often -- his father used to joke that she stayed away from the engine just long enough to get Jack on solids."
"You knew them."
"His father more. He raised Jack -- after a while, he pretty much raised me as well. I was always over from the orphanage to play with Jack. Before that, he was a musician -- well, a Creationist, but mostly a musician."
"A musician," Ellis mused. "That's unexpected. Does Jack play music?"
"Not anymore. He wasn't like this, you know, before they died. He was bright, and he loved steam engines, but he wasn't so..." she shook her head. "There was a time he would have chosen a pretty girl over an engine any day. Now it's like...if he doesn't have a distraction, it's hard. That's why he invents things. At least that's what I think." She rested her cheek on her hand, or perhaps covered her face; it was hard to tell. "His father wanted to go on some ride-along job his mother had. She'd ride-along and he'd do a tour. He played the piano...he Created pianos very well."
"They say when a musician Creates an instrument it has a little of their soul in it," Ellis said.
"The Church would say that's blasphemy."
"Perhaps so, but that doesn't make it untrue," Ellis replied. "Do go on."
"They said Jack and I could look after each other, he was old enough and I'd always been independent. They went away on the train. And they just...never came back. There was a derailment near Chicago. They both died."
"And Jack doesn't play music anymore," he said.
"No," she said softly.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"Hardly the first in my life. It was harder on Jack. Much harder on him."
He looked down at the desk, at his notebook resting there with the pen on top. He had never thought of engineering as a way to escape the world; after all, engineers didn't build stories or other worlds.
Or, well, perhaps they did; perhaps, late at night, huddled around the boiler with the driver and the conductor, they told their own stories. Famous robberies in the west, derailments, perhaps even ghost trains or passengers long dead who still prowled the carriages.
Either way, Jack had turned his profession into his escape, which Ellis could respect.
"I'll go wake him up if you're not going to write any more tonight," she said. "I think you should tell him you're sorry."
"I'm not sorry," he answered.
"People like to hear it," she said, and left the blanket on the bed as she passed. In a few minutes the door opened again and Jack stumbled in, sleepily crawling under the rumpled blanket with most of his clothing still on. Ellis stayed at the desk, looking up at the room's single light.
"I never meant to upset you, Jack," he said. The fair mop of hair moved slightly. "I know this hasn't always been easy for either one of you."
"It doesn't matter," Jack said, voice muffled by the blanket.
"It's easy to say that."
"I'd like to sleep."
"Perhaps that's best." Ellis doused the light, unbuttoning his shirt and hanging it carefully on the chair. He felt stiff as he turned down the covers on the bed and climbed in; not entirely comfortable, he rolled his shoulders and turned onto his side, watching Jack's regular breathing in the bed across from him.
"Do Engineers have stories, Jack?" he asked.
"What?" Jack said, without moving.
"Stories. Myths. Things to keep the boredom out on a long shift."
"I think they play cards, mostly," Jack answered. It was a lie, but he told it with surprising deftness; not a waver in his voice or a hesitation in his words. Only the tightening of his shoulders told Ellis he was lying.
Before he could think of another question to ask, Jack was asleep, snoring, a low and unvarying noise. It was a sound he'd become accustomed to on the passage to England, and he paid it no mind as the world darkened and he slid down into sleep himself.