Parallel Universe - Julia456 - Leviathan (2024)

Chapter 1

Chapter Text

Maybe we are together in a parallel universe

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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In the spring of 1919, the king of England, flush with victory from the recent conclusion to the war, invites the emperor of Austria-Hungary to London on a state visit.

They've been allies for the better part of two years, ever since Aleksandar came to the throne and promptly removed his country from the war – an unpopular move with his granduncle's government, but certainly appreciated by the starving, battle-weary citizens. Austrian neutrality, to Britain, was well worth a few shipments of grain from India. And now, in the wake of the Versailles treaty, continued Austrian goodwill is worth a few weeks of playing host.

Alek hesitates in accepting: "There's too much for me to do here," he tells Volger.

"Go," Volger says, pragmatic as always. "Germany has gone to hell, Italy is gnawing at our borders, and God knows what the Russians will do once they get themselves sorted. We need to keep Britain as an ally. My advice, Your Majesty, would be to find Princess Mary appealing and open marriage negotiations."

Alek goes.

He does not find Princess Mary appealing.

There's nothingwrongwith Mary – she's close in age, pretty, well-mannered, pleasant in her conversation. But he knows straightaway that he's not going to make any overtures for her hand. (Her fondness for the fabricated dog-like animals constantly yipping at her feet has nothing to do with it, or so he tells himself.)

His state visit is otherwise a great success. He goes shooting with the king, attends dinners, receptions, balls, galas. He takes in theater performances, operas, symphonies. He tours the London Zoo and its collection of Darwinist oddities. Everywhere he goes he is unfailingly polite and diplomatic, and everyone bows and treats him with perfect deference.

But the formal events bore him, the creatures unnerve him, and he becomes restless, thinking of the thousand and one things he ought to be doing in Vienna. The reforms he's been championing – the ones his father first developed – need his presence to succeed against the hard-liners.

He begins to resent Britain for keeping him away from home.

He almost doesn't go to the last party, as he'll be leaving at the end of the week and could plausibly plead other business; but Lord Oxenford is a member of Parliament and one of the few Brits who's unabashedly pro-Clanker. It would be poor form indeed to slight the man.

Lord and Lady Oxenford are delighted by the emperor's presence. Alek accepts their gratitude, says complimentary things about their home, and drifts through the crowd of other guests, marking time.

Until.

Someone laughs.

It's a woman's laugh, loud and unselfconscious and cutting through the inane party chatter, and it makes heads turn – Alek's among them.

He's grown since he was fifteen, but he's no taller than his father was, and he can't quite see the woman through the screen of the other guests. People move, and he catches a glimpse of bright blonde hair.

"Who on earth is that?" he asks a nearby society matron.

She fawns and frets all at once. "Oh, Your Majesty, of course you wouldn't have heard… That's a certainMiss Sharp. She must have come uninvited; I can't imagine that anyoneherewould have asked her."

Unseen, Miss Sharp laughs again. Alek finds himself smiling at the sound and stifles the expression. "She sounds very scandalous."

The matron sniffs. "Oh, that she most certainly is, Your Majesty! They say," she adds, dropping her voice, "that she snuck aboard an airship at the start of that dreadful war, and stayed there, disguised as a boy soldier. Imagine! Why, it's almost too shocking to comprehend. She ought to be locked away. At the very least disowned by her family."

Alek tries to see Miss Sharp again. "Yes," he says. "Quite shocking. Excuse me, madam."

He makes his way across the room to where he last saw Miss Sharp, who sounds like the most interesting thing he's heard of in ages. She's still there, surrounded by a small circle of gentlemen and ladies listening to her tell a war story.

"-just barking lucky that rope didn't break, or I'd still be swimming home," she concludes, grinning widely, and her male listeners chuckle while the female ones merely look scandalized. Someone notices Alek, and a ripple of attention spreads through the immediate area. Miss Sharp turns to see him.

She's tall for a woman – they're of an equal height – and stands with her back straight and shoulders square. Confident. Her blonde hair is very short, and she would have made, he thinks, rather too pretty a boy to be believed.

Alek gives her a fractional bow. "Please, do not stop on my account."

"All right," Miss Sharp says, and launches into another tale without asking to be introduced or even why everyone is staring, shocked at this breach of etiquette. He's every bit as amazed – does she really not know who he is? Or not care to find out? – but soon becomes caught up in her story.

At first it seems almost fantastical, and he's certain she's exaggerating her involvement in some parts. On the whole, however, her account of the battle of Constantinople sounds remarkably accurate, and when he skeptically presses for details, she supplies them with no evidence of concern that she might be found out for a liar.

The others listeners drift away, but he remains, and soon they are deep into a discussion on the proper use of air power in a land engagement.

He is forgetting his manners – one does not allow one's self to be preoccupied this way; one should continue to circulate throughout the party – but he's too bewildered and amazed to care. A girl who can talk intelligently about military matters!

God's wounds, if she's done half the things she claims… and all while he was trapped in that Swiss castle, or struggling to sit through interminable government meetings. His skepticism begins to give way to something akin to jealousy. What he would give to have lived that life!

Finally she breaks off the conversation to glance around and say, "Blisters, everyone's gawking."

"At me, I'm afraid," he says, cursing himself for attracting the attention. This is the sort of thing that will be gossiped about in parlors across London – and even Vienna, if the news travels well.

She frowns. "Are you that important, then?"

He wants to laugh. "It would appear so."

He expects questions, but what he gets is a conspiratorial, "This party is pure dead boring, isn't it?"

Alek looks at her: Guileless blue eyes, boy-short hair, soldier's stance beneath her dress. "Yes," he admits.

She grins, and suddenly her face is alight with mischief. "I'd imagine you're too important to go skylarking."

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a concerned-looking Lord Oxenford beginning to come their way, and inwardly winces. "I can't leave early, if that's what you mean."

"Aye, it is. But you should come to Wormwood Scrubs tomorrow, first thing. I've a balloon there, and I'll take you aloft, if you like. It's a brilliant way to see London."

Again, not a politic idea. But far, far too intriguing to pass up – and for once in his life, he puts caution to the wind and does what he likes.

"All right," he says.

She sticks her hand out. "Deryn Sharp, by the way."

He finds himself shaking her hand, not kissing it as he would have done with any other lady at this party. He also finds himself saying, "Alek," instead of his proper title. There's something appealing in the idea of remaining anonymous with her... at least for a while.

"Alek," she says, grinning. "Tomorrow, then. And bring a coat – the wind's barking cold up there."

Then she bows – bows! like a man! – and walks away.

Alek stares after her for a moment, then turns to meet Lord Oxenford. "I hope you're still enjoying the party, Your Majesty," the man says, somewhat anxiously. "That – er – that young lady was –"

"An interesting diversion," Alek interrupts, with his own conspiratorial smile. Lord Oxenford looks heartened. Alek puts a friendly hand on the man's shoulder and gently, literally, steers him further away from the subject of Miss Sharp: "I understand that Lord Pirrie is here; perhaps you could introduce us."

He drifts through the rest of the party. Polite. Imperial. Marking time.

He wonders what London will look like from the air.

Chapter 2: cross twice

Chapter Text

Maybe our paths are not supposed to cross twice

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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"I don't know why you go to those things," Jaspert's wife says, a touch accusingly, as Deryn pauses to take a drink of coffee.

Deryn makes a face. She's too tired and she's got too much to do today to tolerate Emma's blether. In fact, she ought to be out at Wormwood Scrubs already, readying the balloon, instead of recounting last night's party to her brother over a much-too-early breakfast. "I went because I was invited."

"No you weren't," Jaspert says around a mouthful of food. He's amused, not reproving. "You snuck in with one of those suffragettes."

"She invited me, then. And shewasinvited - so there." Deryn takes another slurp of coffee, wondering how much she'll have to drink before she stops feeling as though she's been keelhauled. "Anyway, it wasn't half bad. There was a Clanker bloke there who talked to me like I might have a brain, and not just two legs to spread."

Emma pushes back her chair and sweeps out of the room with all the righteous indignation she can muster. Deryn doesn't bother watching her go; it's an old performance at this point.

But Jaspert is another matter. "You could watch your bloody mouth!" he says in a low, aggravated whisper, leaning forward over the table.

She copies the posture and the tone. "You'rethe one who taught me how to swear!"

"But not around Emma! Barking hell, d'you know how hard I had to work, convincing her to let my disreputable little sister live here?"

"You're a hypocrite and a coward, Jaspert Sharp," she says, stung by the bit aboutdisreputable. Well, so she is; but that doesn't mean she wants to hear her brother say it.

"Aye, and I'm in love with my wife and want her happy." Jaspert stands and points at her, warning, "Mind your manners, Deryn, or you'll be home again with Ma."

He leaves to go placate Emma; Deryn sticks her tongue out at his back. She finishes her coffee and rinses the cup, then goes in search of her heavy airman's jacket. She hadn't been lying when she told Alek it got cold aloft, even now in the spring.

Alek. She never would've offered to take him up if it hadn't been for the look of sadness that hung around him. Sadness and loneliness, for all that he's obviously barking rich. It's daft of her – she just spent four years fighting Clankers, after all – but she can't help feeling sorry for him.

And liking him. No one ever takes her seriously anymore, not even the suffragettes.Theyonly want to use her for their cause; everyone else just points and whispers, like she's some sort of defective beastie. But Alek took her seriously.

And he was pure dead handsome, too.

She catches herself smiling like a perfect looby and shakes her head.

The jacket is right where it oughtn't to be, hanging in the cloakroom, and as she's dusting off the fabricated leather, the doorbell chimes.

"Get that!" Jaspert shouts from elsewhere.

Deryn glares at nothing, but gets the door. A man in some sort of uniform is standing on the other side, more shadow than not in the weak light. At first she takes him for a policeman, but then she realizes his insignia are military: not Air Service, though.

"Good morning, sir. I have a message for a Miss Sharp," the man says, and Deryn suddenly remembers she's wearing her trousers.

"Aye, that's me," she says, as girlishly as possible.

The soldier looks bewildered, then repulsed, but eventually hands over an envelope, adding, "I'm to wait for a reply."

She lets him in, but no farther than it takes to shut the door again. Then she tears the envelope open and, full of curiosity, reads the note inside.

Miss Sharp, it begins, handwriting clear and firm and graceful. Somehow she knows it's from Alek before she goes any farther.

Miss Sharp,

An urgent matter has been brought to my attention, and I must return to Vienna immediately to see it resolved. I deeply regret any inconvenience that this may cause to you; I assure you that I was quite looking forward to our expedition and would not have missed it for anything less than this current difficulty.

Yours, etc.

Alek

"Who are you? What's that?" Jaspert asks, making her start. He plucks the message out of her hands while its deliverer explains himself. Jaspert waves the man to silence and reads, brow furrowed in concentration. "What the bloody hell does he mean, 'our expedition'?Deryn!"

"That's none of your concern," she snaps, face burning, making a grab for the paper and missing.

"It is while you're living here!" Still holding the message out of her reach, her brother turns to the soldier and demands, "Who sent this?"

The soldier stops just short of a derisive sniff. "His Majesty the Emperor of Austria-Hungary."

Jaspert gapes. Deryn is equally poleaxed, but has the presence of mind to snatch the message back while she can. She stuffs it into her shirt pocket quickly, the better to keep it away from her brother.

Why she wants to keep it, she has no idea - it's bad news, presented in as stilted a manner as could be. Perhaps it's because it's from a barkingemperor.

…who is handsome, and lonely, and sad.

Who took her seriously.

Who is going home to Vienna.

Today.

"Is – has he gone yet?" she asks the soldier.

This time he doesn't bother to hide the sniff. "That's hardly your affair,miss."

It's the condescending "miss" that does it. Deryn sees red.

"Aye, it is, you stuck-up bag of clart!" she says, advancing on the man and doing her best impression of an angry Mr. Rigby. "And you'll remember I'm friends withAlek, so take that tone with me, lad, and I'll have you tossed out on your bum before lunch today!"

The last was more her ma than the bosun, but the effect is the same. The soldier blanches and gives her a shallow bow. Suddenly he can't talk fast enough: "I beg your pardon, ma'am, please excuse me. The emperor is leaving from Hyde Park in an hour or so. Just as soon as the King's own airbeast arrives. Ma'am."

Deryn calculates hurriedly. Hyde Park is hard on Buckingham Palace – of course that's where Alek would be staying (barking spiders, anemperor!) – and she can get there in time, if she leaves right away. "Jaspert," she says, turning to her brother.

"Right, right," he says, sighing, holding up a hand. "But I'm going with you. Ma will kill us both if I don't."

Jaspert goes off to inform Emma, and Deryn wonders if she should swap her trousers for a dress… but no. There's no time, and besides, she hates wearing dresses.

Her blood is singing. At last: anurgent matterof her own.

Blisters, but she's tired of being useless, tired of having no purpose. Sneaking about, talking to emperors – this'll be the most fun she's had since the war ended. She'll just have to make certain she doesn't get shot by the royal guards.

"Ma'am," the soldier says, still mindful of her ire, "what reply am I to give the emperor?"

"Nothing," Deryn says, grinning fierce. "I'll tell him myself."

Chapter 3: where you are

Chapter Text

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I wonder where you are and how you feel

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty Aleksandar is not looking forward to his flight.

He could hardly decline King George's kind offer of transportation: it's the fastest way to reach Calais. So fast, in fact, that by the time he arrives there, his own airship – setting out from Vienna – will still be at least an hour away.

But he is not thrilled at the idea of actuallyridingin one of those monstrosities. Perhaps it's only that he would have preferred the company of Miss Sharp. And perhaps not. He finds the Darwinist mania for turning sea creatures into aircraft positively grotesque, not to mention incomprehensible.

And that is why, when the carriage at last arrives at Hyde Park, he takes two steps and stops, though he can see the king's airbeast is moored and waiting in the pre-dawn light, airmen scurrying around and aboard, and the words of Volger's telegraph are drumming an urgent tattoo in the back of his mind.

Simple disgust. That's all. He has certainly not been dragging his feet in hopes of receiving a return message. Unrealistic to expect it; the address produced, magically, by one of the Palace staff – it's rather far from Buckingham Palace. And ridiculous to delay the business of an empire for a girl.

"Your Majesty," his bodyguard says behind him – the only part of his retinue that Alek consented to bring along today. The rest of them can catch him up in Vienna, or desert as they please; he has little patience for them in the best of circ*mstances. These are decidedly not the best of circ*mstances. "Sir, if you're to make Calais –"

"Of course, Lieutenant," Alek says, rather crossly. He straightens his jacket and strides across the grounds towards the airbeast, exhausted and unhappy and unreasonably irritated with Lieutenant Ackermann.

Ridiculous. Idiotic. What could he have done with her? A commoner, not rich, not beautiful, infamous, scandalous, disgraceful. A blonde Lola Montez. God's wounds, it's bad enough that his empire is tearing itself apart at this very moment; he does not need to add fuel to the fire by befriending wayward Darwinists.

And yet…

He meant what he said in that message.

He sighs and scowls at the world – or at least the portion currently visible, which is mostly filled with bleary-eyed men holding mooring lines.

Fate seems to delight in conspiring against him. In stealing his few moments of joy.

Think about something else, he admonishes himself.Your empire, for one.

The situation in Hungary must be dire indeed for Volger to cable him the news at such an ungodly hour. He'd hoped it wouldn't come to open rebellion; he'd also hoped that it wouldn't happen while he was playing the diplomat with King George.

Secure one ally, lose another.

The captain is standing at the base of the boarding ramp, crisp and sharp-eyed despite the hour. An older man, to judge by his white hair and beard, and one with considerable experience, to judge by his bearing. Of course. Only the best for the king.

"Your Majesty," the captain says, bowing. "The King has placed us at your complete disposal. To Calais at once, is it, sir?"

"Yes," Alek says. It sounds curt, and he regrets that; but at the same time, he hasn't the energy or desire to be polite.

"Excellent, sir." The captain bows again, brisk rather than obsequious. Alek boards, followed by the captain and then Ackermann.

The gondola is a relief: it looks much like that of a proper airship, though the wood is undoubtedly fabricated. The king has fitted it out with as much luxury as possible, given the weight restrictions. The lights are dimmed, presumably to preserve the vision of the crew assisting with take-off. A few officers snap to attention as Alek enters the main corridor. He nods and makes a half-hearted salute of his own, more interested in the bottom of the ramp.

No messenger.

No return message.

"Show His Majesty to a cabin," the captain instructs one of the officers, who gives a sharp salute.

"This way, Your Majesty," the officer says, gesturing. His voice sounds both out-of-breath and vaguely familiar, but it's difficult to make out his face in the poor light. Perhaps it's one of the House Guards from Buckingham, pulled from his regular post.

Alek allows himself to be directed down the corridor, half of his mind occupied with the problem of Hungary, and the other half wondering if there isn't any message because Miss Sharp refused to send one.

The officer stops and opens a door for Alek. The room beyond is a sitting room of some sort, rather than a standard cabin. It's smaller than what he's used to on his private airship, but probably quite large by common standards. There are three portholes studding the curving outer wall. Outside the sky is just beginning to redden.

He eyes the sofa. It looks to be the perfect size for a nap.

If only he could sleep.

Well, he can make certain that others enjoy Providence's mercy, even though it's denied to him.

"Are there other cabins?" he asks the officer. They haven't taken off yet. There's still time for the messenger to arrive.

"Yes sir."

"Lieutenant Ackermann," Alek says, turning to his bodyguard. "I shall be safe enough once we're away. You should rest."

Ackermann's brow furrows, but as he opens his mouth to protest, he yawns. He'd been at the Oxenfords' party, too, though he'd kept to the background. "Very well, sir," he says. Yawns again and looks a trifle chagrined about it.

The officer takes Ackermann away, shutting the door with a soft click and leaving Alek alone.

Outside, there's a great deal of shouted commands, and the airship begins to lurch about. The rustling leaves visible through the portholes seem to slowly sink as the vessel rises.

Time has run out.

No messenger.

Alek sits on the sofa, opens his jacket, loosens his tie, and slumps forward, elbows on his knees and hands rubbing his aching head.

Dear Miss Sharp,he thinks.You were the first truly interesting person I've met since becoming emperor. Or even before that, in fact. I wish I could have –

Someone raps at the door, quick and confident, and before Alek can do more than turn his head in surprise, the helpful officer lets himself into the cabin.

"Your man's sorted," he says, closing the door behind him again and pushing a hand through his short blond hair. He grins at Alek. "Just in time, too – take-off's the best part."

Alek blinks. Suddenly the pieces tumble into place, and he rises as one ought to do in the presence of a lady, blurting, "God's wounds, youdolook like a boy," before he can stop himself.

Deryn Sharp laughs. "Oh, aye. Wouldn't be much of a disguise if I didn't, hmm?" She tugs the lapels of the officer's jacket, contemplating the insignia, perhaps, or the fit. "But you can thank Captain Wells for the uniform. I saved his nephew's life during the war, you see. Twice, in fact. He thought this was a daft way to repay the favor, but I convinced him -"

He scarcely hears the words. For some reason, his pulse is sounding loudly in his ears. "You received my message."

"Aye. My brother Jaspert was properly gobsmacked, too. You might've said you were the Emperor," she adds, with a touch of reproach.

I didn't want to be the Emperor, not with you.The thought flicks across his mind, shockingly traitorous, and nearly trips off his tongue as well. He swallows it and coughs into a fist. "Yes, well, I hardly had a chance to get a word in last night."

Miss Sharp shrugs, one-shouldered and careless. "D'you still want that tour of London from the air? We'll be away before much longer."

He does indeed want to see London, so he crosses the cabin to stand beside her at one of the portholes. As promised, she points out several locations of interest as they gain altitude, then turn southeast. Alek is somewhat unsettled to find that the most interesting aspect of the tour is how the small diameter of the porthole forces them to stand in close proximity.

Their arms and shoulders brush several times. He tries to ignore the electrikal jolt that each touch generates. He's less successful at ignoring the warm, clean smell of her.

Finally, with the sun rising, they leave the great city behind them. She remains at the porthole for several moments, a small, pleased sort of smile lingering, before she turns to him.

They are very close indeed. His eyes drop to her mouth without meaning to, and he hastily corrects himself. God's wounds. He hopes she doesn't think he wants her here forthat.

"Nothing much to see now until Dover," she says. Then her brow furrows and she looks at him more closely. Her eyes are blue – and bright in the morning sun now streaming in through the glass. "I could fetch you some coffee, if you like."

"That would be greatly appreciated," he says, relieved that he looks fatigued rather than lecherous.

She nods, moving towards the cabin door, though she pauses before she opens it, the better to look back at him with a grin. "Those parties are pure dead exhausting, aye?"

Talking about it brings his exhaustion to the fore once again; he covers a yawn. Chagrined, he says, "I thought to get a few hours' sleep before our expedition, but I suspect I would have done better to stay awake."

She makes an amused noise. "Back in a squick, Your Majesty."

It's the first time she's addressed him by rank, and he finds he likes it. It sounds… it sounds very like a private joke, instead of a formal title.

Alek sits on the sofa and watches the dawn fade into blue. He is unreasonably happy – so much so that he catches himself smiling.Smiling. While Rome burns all around him.

He scrubs his hands over his face and prays that, at this moment, his father isn't watching him from some heavenly vantage point.

Miss Sharp raps at the door again, then breezes in with a pair of cups in one hand and an aluminum coffeepot in the other. "Captain says they've no breakfast," she reports, deftly placing the cups onto a side table, "but you're welcome to whateverisin the galley."

He shakes his head. "I'm afraid I haven't much of an appetite, Miss Sharp."

She glances up from pouring coffee into the cups, her nose wrinkled. "Blisters, don't call me that. 'Deryn' will do fine."

No. Too casual, too familiar. Darwinist girls in trousers shouldn't be on a first-name basis with emperors.

"Then you must continue to call me Alek," he says.

"Aye, I will," Deryn says, pleased. She brings him a coffee cup, which he accepts with all the gratitude of a drowning man presented with a life buoy.

It's hot enough to scald the tongue and strong enough to chip away at the thick, muzzy feeling in his head. "This is quite good."

Deryn takes a cautious sip from her own cup. "Mm. It's the King's. I reckoned you wouldn't care for the Air Service muck."

"Indeed," Alek says drily.

Aside from the sofa, the cabin boasts a chaise longue in fabricated wood and silk; Deryn crosses the cabin and rather carelessly drops down onto it, then swings her legs up and settles back.

Alek tries not to watch. He truly does.

He thought she was pretty in last night's dress. There's something about the way she carries herself in trousers – the air of confidence, of ease, ofmastery– that makes his breath come short.

Ridiculous, he tells himself. Idiotic. And:You haven't the time for this.

He drinks his coffee and looks, determinedly, at the sky.

"What's got you running home?" Deryn asks. "If you can say, that is."

"Why not," Alek says, exhaustion crashing down upon him again despite the bracing effects of the coffee. "It will be in all the papers soon enough."

He sets his cup aside and draws the telegraph message from the inner pocket of his jacket. He doesn't need to read it; the words are burned into his memory. "Volger – that is, my prime minister – has informed me that Budapest is in open revolt. My men are trying to hold the city, but it seems likely to fall. Once that occurs, the rest will be lost, too. I shall have to give up Hungary altogether or fight a war to gain it back."

"Barking spiders!" she exclaims. "That's half your empire! And the other bits – they'll try to splinter off too, won't they?"

Her quick understanding is both gratifying and depressing, as it's the conclusion he himself has already drawn. If he cannot hold on to Hungary, the Empire is doomed.

"Yes," he says. He turns the telegraph paper in his hands, though his gaze remains fixed on the blue sky visible through the porthole. His throat constricts, but he says, "Yes, they will. And they'll succeed," with tolerable equanimity.

Deryn says nothing for a moment. Then she curses loudly and jumps up from the chaise longue, beginning to pace the room. "Aye, you can't count on any of the Serb troops, or the Hungarian ones," she says, obviously thinking aloud. "They're just as likely to desert as not. And your Austrian lads took most of the damage during the Great War, didn't they?"

"We incurred heavy losses," he allows.

"Germany can't do anything to help, not under the treaty. And Britain…" She grimaces. "We took some bloody large losses ourselves."

"I won't ask your king for assistance," Alek says. He tucks the telegraph message away again and briefly presses the heels of his palms to his eyes – a vain attempt to ease the headache behind them. "There won't be another Great War because of Austria-Hungary, I can assure you ofthat."

"So you'll just let it fall to pieces, then?"

He lets himself look at her, hands on her hips, feet spread, short golden hair a saint's halo in the sunlight, ready to conquer the world in her borrowed officer's uniform, and wonders at Providence's sense of humor: perhapssheought to have been the emperor. Goodness knows he never wanted the job. "I don't know that I have any other choice."

"Bollocks," she says, and, to his astonishment, not only sits beside him on the sofa, but claps a hand on his shoulder. She leans towards him a bit, blue eyes urgent. "You're the Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Alek. You can do soddinganything."

He stares back at her, no doubt wild-eyed. Her hand is burning through the fabric of his jacket and shirt as though neither are there, and the electrikal sensation has returned tenfold, and he suspects the dryness of his throat has nothing to do with the grief of losing his empire and rather more to do with her.

"Can I," he says. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, but that may be because his pulse is hammering so fiercely.

Her hand is still on his shoulder.

"Aye," Deryn says. Her eyes flick downward, and when they meet his again, her breath catches slightly.

It is the most intoxicating sound Alek has ever heard.

But what may have happened next – if he would have developed the audacity to close the distance between them and kiss her before she, perhaps, could – he shall never know, because she abruptly drops her hand away and stands again.

"Airships," she says, a bit too loudly and briskly, returning to her coffee cup and taking a large drink. "And aeroplanes. You still have plenty of those, right?"

"Our air fleet came through mostly intact," he says. One does not give details of one's military forces to a foreign girl one has just met.

And right now, with the scent of her skin in every breath, he would be hard-pressed to remember if Austria-Hungary evenhasan air service.

"There you are, then," she says, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand. He must look blank indeed, because she elaborates, "The side that controls the air is the side that wins the sodding war. What sort of air service has Hungary got?"

Alek doesn't answer immediately; instead he looks at her. He is, he thinks, very stupid.

He's been so blinded by – byattraction, he has utterly failed to notice what Providence has gifted him: an expert on air warfare, a thoroughly unconventional mind, someone who will think about combat in ways his generals – all raised, as he was, on cavalry and swords – will never be able to match.

Someone who is loyal and courageous.

"Miss Sharp," he says, then shakes his head and corrects himself, using the rank she gave at the party. "LieutenantSharp. What are your plans after we reach Calais?"

Deryn blinks, taken aback. "Back to London, I expect. Why?"

"Have you ever considered working for the Empire of Austria-Hungary?"

Chapter 4: ruthless

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

And the spirits are ruthless with the paths they choose

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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Deryn's never been much for church – or even religion at all – but at this moment, she's pure dead certain that someone up there is having a laugh at her.

Just a few hours ago, she was wishing to be useful. Now she's got the Emperor of Austria-Hungary himself asking her to help save his kingdom.

And she's going to have to say no.

Not because it's a Clanker country; she's not against all Clankers, just the ones that had a habit of shooting at her. Not because she nearly kissed him; she's rather of a mind to get back to that, in fact. And it's certainly not because she isn't up to the challenge. She knows she could win a war for Alek, the same way she knew she could be theLeviathan'sbest middy. She practically won the Great War for Britain, really.

No. She'll have to turn him down, go back to London, and continue to be a waste of hydrogenbecauseshe won the war for Britain.

Deryn takes a mighty gulp of coffee, trying to burn her mouth or drown herself. Either one will do.

Alek leans forward, green eyes ablaze with his grand idea. "I can't give you command of theLuftfahrtruppen, of course. It would be an insult to General Uzelac. But I would rather have you acting as – as my unofficial advisor, I suppose, in any event."

He gestures with his hands while he talks. A walker pilot's hands. Always busy.

She catches herself wondering what those clever fingers would feel like, running through her hair.

Blisters.

And it's dawning on him that she hasn't said anything yet. He clears his throat and adds, more hesitant, "If you need to consult your brother – or your, ah, father –"

"My da died years ago," she says, her mouth finally coming unstuck. "And I reckon Jaspert's given up trying to mind me."

The hope on his face is difficult to look at, so she stares at what's left of her coffee. How does she get into these situations?

"So you will…?"

She tells herself to stop being a spineless ninny and look him in the eye. "I'd like to, but I think it might be a wee bit scandalous, aye?"

It takes a heartbeat, but understanding dawns. She can tell by the way the pink flush spreads from the tips of his ears.

"Scandalous," he says. He sounds faintly strangled, as he had right before she nearly sodding kissed him.

If she thinks too much about that… "Aye," she says, loud, to drown out what's rattling around her attic. "Too much egg on the Admiralty's face."

He takes a rather deep breath and picks up his coffee, then sets the cup down again almost immediately. His face settles into an impassive mask – a royal mask, the sort that stares out from coins and banknotes. "Of course," he says, his voice also royally neutral. "It would be quite a scandal to have a disgraced former officer of the British Air Service serving as a military advisor to Austria-Hungary."

She nods and takes another drink.

Something sparks in Alek's -Emperor Aleksandar'seyes. Something very much like a dare. "There is of course no other reason."

Even sitting across the cabin from each other, they're almost too close. Her muscles twitch, trying to get her to stand up and go kiss him.

She could do it. It'd be a matter of a few steps: over to the sofa, bend down, grasp that royal tie and tug him upwards…

Somehow she keeps her face straight. "None at all, Your Majesty."

"Well," he says, still with that royal blankness, "you are to be commended, Miss Sharp, for keeping Britain and Austria's best interests foremost in your mind."

Now she has to smirk. "I'm pure dead patriotic, Your Majesty."

He laughs, taking them both by surprise - and as lovely a sound as it is, it does sod all for her state of mind.

At that moment, there's a brisk rap on the cabin door, which opens without more than a cursory pause.

"Ah, Your Majesty," Captain Wells says. He's one of those fellows whose eyes are hard but whose hearts are soft, despite everything life's tossed at them. A good man, in other words, and quite grandfatherly with his white hair. "How are you faring, sir? Is there anything you require?"

Deryn quickly attempts death by coffee again. At least that way she'll have a reason for her red face.

"Nothing, thank you," Alek says. Most of the blue-bloods Deryn's met would have left off the nicety, but it sounds easy and unaffected from him. Somehow he's pulled his banknote mask back on in mere seconds.

The captain nods. "We've clear skies across the Channel, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid there will be a spot of bad weather waiting for us in Calais."

"Will you be able to land?"

There's no uncertainty in the captain's bearing: "Yes, sir."

Alek nods, looking tired again. "Please have a seat, Captain - unless you must return to the bridge?"

"TheBacchantehas an excellent crew, sir," the captain says as he takes a seat. "I can be spared."

"Yes, even your temporary officers are most helpful," Alek says with a glance at Deryn. A smile lifts the corners of his eyes, though it doesn't touch his mouth.

"Miss Sharp," the captain says.

"Captain Wells," Deryn says. Then, while she's thinking of it (even though it's no longer entirely true), she adds, "Thank you again, sir. For letting me sneak aboard."

Judging by the icy and affronted reactions of the officers, it hadn't been a popular decision. She wonders, now, if his keen eyes saw through her motives. Blisters, she hopes not; she wants him to go on thinking her a war hero, not some mooning twit of a girl.

The captain gives her an amused look. "My nephew would have me keel-hauled if I hadn't. Holds you in the highest regard, you know."

For some reason that makes everything sit a little easier. "Oh, aye? I haven't seen him since I left the Service."

"He's gone into the family business. All wrong for it, of course. Ought to have stayed aloft."

Newkirk was rubbish at being aloft, too, but Deryn doesn't say it. Instead she says, "Coffee, sir?"

"And freshen His Majesty's cup as well," the captain says, and because he's a captain and Deryn is an airman, off she goes.

In the galley, she spends a minute with her arms crossed, slouched against the wee counter, scowling at the floor, telling herself that it's only because she's tired that everything's in such a muddle.

There's no future in wanting an emperor.

But she does.

She wants to save his empire, she wants to find out what that electrical crackle feels like at closer range, she wants to find more things that make him laugh. And she can't.

Sod it all.

She makes a fresh cup of coffee for Emperor Aleksandar and one for Captain Wells, and obediently fetches them back to the cabin, where the captain is spinning a war story and Alek is politely listening.

"Here you are, Your Majesty," Deryn says, giving it over. Their fingers brush as he takes the cup. It puts shivers down her spine.

His ears go faintly pink, but his "Thank you" is a royal blank.

The captain thanks her as well, then invites her to sit and tell a few war stories of her own. Alek heard the best of them at the party, but of course Wells urges to her to tell the ones featuring his nephew.

So Deryn finds herself sitting between a decorated captain and an emperor, in a luxury cabin on the king's own airship, recounting the two times she saved Eugene Newkirk's helpless bum.

She likes telling Alek stories. He watches her as though she's the only person in the room – he did that last night, too – as if the yackum and blether she's spouting is worthy of his whole focus.

Emperor Aleksandar. Bollocks.

After she's done, they talk a bit about the ship's engines and those of the Clanker airship coming to retrieve him in Calais. Or rather Captain Wells and Alek talk. Deryn mainly listens, trying to fix this scene in her memory: the sunlight slanting in, the creases in Alek's trousers, the glint of bright copper in his hair when the sun touches it.

She wishes she had her sketchbook.

Sooner than she'd like, one of the disapproving officers raps on the cabin door and says, "Approaching Calais, Captain."

"Ah," the captain says, rising. "I'm afraid I must return to the bridge, Your Majesty. It was a pleasure."

"It was indeed," Alek says, rising as well, and shaking the captain's hand after the older man bows. "I trust we shall continue this conversation on the ground."

"Of course, sir. Miss Sharp, if you would make certain that His Majesty's bodyguard is ready…"

"Aye sir," she says, though she's starting to feel like the bloody maid. With that, the captain leaves, and she's alone again with Alek.

Emperor Aleksandar.

"Not the expedition I'd reckoned on this morning," she says, clearing her throat, trying to make light of things, "but I hope it wasn't too awful."

The sadness is back. For a moment it seems to swallow him whole, but then the ship changes its heading slightly and sunlight washes over him, sending the shadows away.

"I only regret that you won't be accompanying me further," he says, smiling ruefully.

She matches the rueful smile with one of her own. "Aye, me too."

"I can't help but think… we might have done great things together," he says. Then he frowns. "Does that sound mad?"

"Not a squick," she says. "Best make our goodbyes now, Your Majesty."

She puts out her hand; he hesitates for a moment, then shakes it. His grip is firm, and there are calluses that she didn't expect.

"The offer stands, Lieutenant Sharp," he says quietly, and with such gravity that before she knows she means to do it, she leans forward and brushes her lips across his.

It lights a bright coil in her guts and sends electricity crawling over her skin. She draws back quickly, but not before she hears his small, sharp inhalation.

"Aye," she says. "I know."

Heart thudding, she goes to wake his bodyguard.

.

.

.

Landing is dead boring when she's not topside. Deryn hangs back, watching the captain and Alek disembark into the dull grey rain of the private airfield. There's a hangar with a waiting room of sorts tacked on to the side; not the proper passenger terminal of a commercial airfield, but likely something a fair sight better than the dank, dingy sheds she'd found herself in for most of the war.

The bodyguard - Ackerman - hunches his shoulders against the rain and trudges after his emperor, head swiveling around. There's nothing to see but the unhappy ground crew securing mooring lines.

Deryn imagines she'll be wearing the same sour expression when she rings the bell at Jaspert's flat.

So will Jaspert, probably.

I could do it, she thinks, crossing her arms over her chest, watching Alek reach the hangar.I could save Austria-Hungary. I'd be bloody brilliant at it, too.

A disapproving officer pushes past her with a dark look; Deryn gives him one of Mr. Rigby's best glares in return, and the bum-rag's expression falters. His steps are a bit more hasty after that.

Shecoulddo it. Shewouldbe brilliant at it. And if she happened to find time for a wee bit more kissing along the way… why not?

Why not.

She frowns harder. And what's stopping her? Fear of what people will say?

When have you ever letthatkeep you from anything, you great ninny?she thinks. Barking spiders, she's getting old if she doesn't go after this only because people will disapprove.

Her decision's made.

Deryn walks briskly down the gangway and jogs through the rain towards the hangar, though it's not until she hears a Clanker shout and the distinctive cough of a compressed-air pistol that she begins to soddingrun.

Notes:

General Emil Uzelac was made commander of Austria-Hungary's Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops in 1912. In real life, he switched over to the Royal Yugoslav Air Force in 1919 before retiring in 1923.

As a prince, King George V served as a midshipman aboard the HMS Bacchante. (He also got a super awesome dragon tattoo in Japan.)

Chapter 5: in a foreign country

Chapter Text

Six weeks in a foreign country, how the time flew

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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.

.

There is no warning.

Alek, Lieutenant Ackermann, and Captain Wells have entered the small waiting lounge, which - being meant for the occasional royal visitor - is fitted out quite as nicely as King Edward's airship.

Captain Wells is saying, "I shall check on your ship's progress, Your Majesty," while Alek is pondering whether or not it would tarnish his imperial dignity to sleep on the divan, and Ackermann is closing the door behind them.

Not fast enough to keep out the assassins.

Both men, both dressed like the ground crew, both armed. They slam the door open, compressed-air pistols drawn.

One of them immediately shoots Ackermann in the stomach; he grunts and crumples against the wall behind him. The other shoots Captain Wells, who is reaching for his own weapon. The shot takes the captain high - in the shoulder, in the head, Alek can't see. The old man drops to the floor and doesn't move.

Alek has a second, perhaps less, before the assassins turn their pistols to him. They mean to kill him, of that he's certain.

It's a perfect, clockwork piece of planning: They've removed the trained military men from the equation at the first. Now they may dispatch the young, untried emperor at their leisure.

He doesn't have his sword, or the knife he normally wears concealed in his overcoat's lapel, or even the small pistol that Volger and Ackermann recommended he carry on his person at all times. Two of those weapons are in his luggage aboard theBacchante, and the third is presumably still at Buckingham Palace.

He has a second, perhaps less. In that second, it all becomes clear:

There was no telegram from Volger. There is no uprising in Hungary. This has all been a ruse, and he has jumped straight into it, so distracted by a wayward British girl in trousers that he couldn't perceive acoup d'etat.

Well. At least he will die knowing the truth.

He wishes he had time to pray properly.

Still on the floor, Ackermann suddenly lifts his arm. There's a gunshot, a real one, and one of the assassins reels back, pistol falling from lifeless fingers, head a bloody mess. He's dead before he hits the ground.

The remaining assassin shoots Ackermann again. The bodyguard cries out and slumps.

Alek moves forward - to do what, he hasn't the slightest notion - but the assassin swings his pistol back, and Alek arrests the motion.

Stupid. He's going to die anyway; what does it matter? But he draws himself up, squares his shoulders, clenches his fists.

"Enjoy hell, Your Majesty," the assassin says in German. His finger tightens on the trigger, but just as it does, something strikes his temple and he jerks his arm up with a cry of pain and the shot goes hopelessly wide.

Alek flinches and is instantly ashamed for doing so.

And then a wayward British girl in trousers barrels into the man, shoulder first, knocking him down, falling with him, punching at his face as he tries to punch at hers, yelling, "Someone bloodyshoot him!"

Alek can't. He doesn't have a pistol, and besides, he'd hit Deryn.

Instead he rushes over and kicks the man in the head as the wrestling match continues. That appears to do the trick; the assassin goes limp.

Deryn scrambles up, grabbing for an object on the floor as she does so. A knife, Alek sees as she returns it to her boot. She must have thrown it at the assassin.

"Are you hurt?" she asks him.

"No, but Ackermann - and Captain Wells -"

Deryn looks over at the motionless Wells, grief crackling across her face, then crouches to see to Ackermann, whose chest is rising and falling in ragged intervals. "Aye, you alive then, lad?"

Alek also crouches beside his bodyguard, gently shaking his shoulder, and says in German, "Johann! Can you speak?"

Ackermann groans and grasps Alek's wrist. "Sir, you must leave," he says in English, half-gasping the words. Blood flecks his lips. "There may be more."

"He's right," Deryn says. She and Ackermann have a brief, silent conversation with their eyes. Then she stands, retrieving the assassins' fallen pistols and tucking one of them - most unsafely - in the back waistband of her trousers. The other she hands to Ackerman. "Come on, Your Majesty."

"Keep him safe," Ackermann tells her. He coughs and groans. More blood.

"Aye sir," she says, though they are both lieutenants.

And then Deryn's hand clamps like iron over Alek's wrist, and she is tugging him forward, and they are running into the chill, grey spring rain of Calais, running away from the outcry rising in the hangar and across the airfield, running away from potential assassins, running until his lungs burn and his legs ache and they slow at last.

By then they are in a street with houses on one side and shops on the other. This part of the city has begun its day; they dodge a few carts drawn by Darwinist beasts, a few workingmen out on errands. Everyone is hurrying through the rain. No one spares them much of a glance.

"This way," Deryn says, and pulls him down an alley behind the row of houses. The alley is completely deserted, which is good because Deryn tries every back-garden gate.

"What are you doing?" Alek asks.

"Looking for a place to - oi, here's one." The gate opens under her hand, and they duck inside. She shuts it quickly, looks around the walled space, and says, "The shed. Brilliant!"

Which is how His Imperial and Apostolic Majesty Aleksandar finds himself stuffed inside a small, dirty garden shed, trying to make sense of the senseless events unfolding today.

"We ought to be safe in here," Deryn says, keeping her voice low. "Now - who's trying to kill you?"

Alek lets out a difficult breath, suddenly grateful for the dim light. There is only one window in the shed, and it's a pitiful, begrimed thing. "My ministers."

"Blisters, are you sure?"

He nods. "The telegraph came from my Prime Minister's office, but anyone could have sent it. Volger is in danger as well. Most likely he's already been forced to leave Vienna."

There's a moment of silence, and then Deryn says, softly, "Are you sure?"

He squeezes his eyes shut against the dull fire of doubt that springs up in his chest. "Yes," he says, voice full of imperial steel. "I trust him with my life."

"Aye, all right," she says, audibly dubious. But she moves on: "What's next?"

"I have to get to Vienna - immediately, if not sooner. But I must assume that any official channels are part of the conspiracy." He takes another difficult breath, overwhelmed bydéjà vuand the absence of his loyal House Guards. The absence of Volger. This was a tricky enough proposition when he was fifteen and merely fleeing to Switzerland. Now… "I shall have to do it secretly."

Deryn strips off her sodden Air Service jacket, thrusting it at him with a brisk, "Hold this, then," before donning a stained flat cap and an even filthier apron that someone has left in the shed.

"What are you doing?" Alek asks. Again. Although it is a bit of a comfort, he supposes, that one of them has any idea of what do next. He hasn't.

"D'you know about Bonnie Prince Charlie?" she asks. She rolls up her shirtsleeves and smudges some dirt on her face.

He knows every head of every royal house in Europe, all the elected heads of state, and the most important members of various governments and nobilities. He folds her jacket over his arm. "Ah - not really, no."

"Tried to take the British throne and lost, the ninny. One of my aunties is always blethering on about him." She cracks open the shed door and peers out, then flashes him a broad grin. "Stay put, Your Majesty. I'm off to fetch you a disguise."

And then she is gone, and he is quite alone.

He listens for a long minute, straining to hear sounds of alarm or danger. More gunshots, perhaps. Shouts. Running. But aside from the rain drumming unevenly on the roof of the shed, there is nothing.

Alek lets out a breath and looks around the shed. The walls have shelves crammed with rusty tools, holey buckets, broken pots, ripped gloves. A large burlap bag of fertilizer occupies most of the floor space.

Nothing, in other words, that could aide him in escape.

He still has Deryn's jacket on his arm. He carefully lays it atop the cleanest-looking section of clutter, then checks the pockets of his own jacket.

Emperors do not, as a rule, carry money. They haven't any need for cash at hand; even if they cannot purchase something on credit, there are always people with them who can handle any such transactions.

He expects his pockets to be empty, and they are.

He sighs. Having done this before, one might assume he'd be better prepared. He hears Volger's lecture already.

Eventually, he tires of standing, and extracts the sturdiest-looking of the buckets, flipping it over and sitting - cautiously - on the bottom.

Alek does have a pocketwatch. He consults it. Puts it away. Leans his head against one of the shelves and closes his eyes.

It occurs to him that Deryn might have been captured.

She may have been killed.

She may have abandoned him.

For some absurd reason, that last possibility seems the worst of all. Cold doubt clutches at his chest.She wouldn't, he tells himself.She's a soldier, and Ackermann gave her clear orders.

Former soldier. Never in his military.

Though it must be said: hedidoffer.

He tries to stay awake, but succeeds only in limiting himself to a half-doze as he waits for her to return. He should have some excuse ready, should the occupants of house venture out to their garden shed - unlikely as that might be, given the weather. It seems too much effort.

Exhaustion is a physical weight. He can feel himself being ground down beneath it, ever smaller, ever more helpless.

He hopes Ackermann is still alive. Captain Wells, too. Darwinist doctors are quite good with such wounds; if the men were taken to hospital immediately…

The shed's door creaks open, and Deryn shoves a bundle of cloth inside. "Put those on," she says in a rather loud whisper. "I've one more thing to fetch, then I'll be back to help if you need it."

Gone again, before Alek can do more than blink.

So. Neither captured, killed, nor a deserter.

Buoyed, he retrieves the bundle and unties the knot holding it closed. If he hadn't known about her Air Service background, the knot would have communicated it: deft, tight, as well-constructed as a knot can be, and yet easily undone.

The cloth is a large, triangular shawl with a garish paisley print. Inside is a shirtwaist that used to be white and is now the same color as the rain; a long skirt that used to be black and is now faded to dark blue-gray; and a straw hat that has been sadly mashed.

Women's clothes, all of them.

Does she actually mean forhimto wear women's clothes? God's wounds, she probably does. After all, she wears men's clothes with some regularity.

And looks quite good in them, but that's beside the point.

It's a brilliant plan, now that he thinks about it. The assassins will be looking for an emperor and an officer - two men of rank and distinction. Not a dirty young man and an impoverished young woman. On balance, however, he'd rather play the part of the dirty young man.

How badly does he want to escape this trap and retake his empire?

Very badly, he decides.

Accordingly, he sheds his jacket and braces and unbuttons his shirt, adding to the stack he'd begun with Deryn's jacket. He pulls on the woman's shirtwaist over his vest; it's not too dissimilar from his own shirt, except the fit is laughably poor and the pitiful bit of lace around the high neck is itchy.

That done, he retrieves the skirt and holds it up to the weak light, trying to determine how it's to be worn. Contrary, perhaps, to the expectations that might be held of a young emperor, he has no experience with the workings of womens' clothes. He's spent every moment since his accession to the throne trying to preserve it; he's had no time for courtship, let alone assignations.

He hasn't solved the mystery before Deryn returns, this time with a carpetbag in her arms. She pulls the door shut behind her, and the two of them are once again crowded into the tiny space.

"Blisters," she says. "What's taking you?"

His eyebrow lifts of its own accord. "Not all of us are accomplished cross-dressers."

She snorts. "Take off your trousers and I'll help you with the skirt."

It's a startling statement, so he thinks he can be forgiven the expression on his face. "Pardon?"

"I've seen boys in their knickers," she informs him, smirking. "Never an emperor's knickers, but I don't reckon they'll shock me."

"No - I - why am I to remove my trousers?"

She steps over the bag of fertilizer and balances nimbly, one foot on the bucket, one on the floor. The position brings her so close that she is practically standing on his shoes. "It won't fit right with them on, aye?"

"I see," he says.You want to escape and avenge yourself, he thinks sternly, and with that admonition, he is able to unfasten his trousers without betraying himself with anything so cliche as shaking fingers. To distract both of them, he asks, "You mentioned Prince… Charlie? What is he to do with this situation?"

"Bonnie Prince Charlie, aye." She arranges the skirt in her hands. "The English tried to capture him after he lost. But he escaped to the Isle of Skye - there's a whole bloody song about it. Anyway, it was Flora MacDonald who saved him."

He has to remove his shoes before he can remove his trousers. Deryn puts a hand on his shoulder to steady him. He's ashamed to note that, despite everything, her touch still feels electrikal. "And how did she do that?"

"Dressed him as her maid," she says. She grins, abruptly mischievous. "So you're part of a grand tradition now, hm, Your Majesty?"

"It does make one feel better," he says, dry. The trousers finally come free, and before he can feel too bashful about standing in, as she put it, his knickers, she's holding out the skirt and helping him step into it, then turning him around to do up the back.

That accomplished, she drapes the shawl over his head and knots it beneath his chin, then puts the hat atop the shawl and adjusts the angle just so. "There we are. D'you know how to pack a bag?"

Many aristocrats of lesser rank do not, but Alek's formative years were unusual. "I do."

"Brilliant," she says. "Get our clothes into that bag while I change, then."

It's only then that he notices the second bundle of clothes lying behind her, with the carpetbag. "Ah. Because they're looking for two men."

"Not two working girls taking the Paris train on holiday," Deryn confirms.

It's impossible for him to turn his back while she changes, but he does try not to look. He truly does. He feigns total absorption in folding and packing their men's clothes, because to acknowledge that he has seen that flash of long, bare leg would mean he has to acknowledge his reaction to it. God's wounds, he is carrying enough guilt already; he needn't add to it by leering at his makeshift bodyguard while she's trying to save his life.

A girl again, Deryn ties off her shawl and leans over to inspect his work. "That's well done."

There's no reason to explain, but he wants to. "I spent the better part of four years in a castle atop a glacier with only two Household Guards, a mechanic, and my fencing tutor. I daresay I'm more accomplished at menial tasks than any emperor has been or shall be."

She doesn't grin, as he expected her to; instead she regards him with a steady, careful gaze, as if she can see deeper than the surface. "No," she says quietly, after a long moment. "Just more human."

He lets his wry retort die unspoken. It is rather too solemn a moment for humor. Instead, he holds out his hand. "Thank you," he says.

She takes his hand and squeezes it tightly. The reassurance is badly needed, especially as she collects the valise and opens the garden shed door. It's time for them to resume their flight.

The rain has not slackened, and he finds himself grateful for the hat and shawl. Alek also quickly finds that skirts are more difficult to walk in than he expected. They swish most disconcertingly around his legs.

They gain the alley without incident. Deryn sets a course, walking with deliberately moderate speed - a headlong rush would only draw suspicion. "Now comes the tricky part, aye?"

"Reaching the train undetected?"

"Teaching you to be a girl."

There follows an unending stream of instructions: how to hold his shoulders, how to move his hips, the importance of looking at the ground just in front of him rather than gazing straight ahead. Use a soft voice. Ask, don't tell. He is to be small. Unnoticed.

And indeed, when Deryn demonstrates, she seems to shrink inward. She becomes nondescript. A poor girl with an ugly carpetbag, trudging toward the train station on a long-awaited holiday.

Alek mostly feels like a Darwinist airbeast stuffed into a skirt.

"More side-to-side," Deryn says, critiquing his walk. "And smaller steps."

"Gott im Himmel," Alek says under his breath as they turn onto a larger road. This is impossible. "I see why you prefer trousers."

"Aye, being a boy is pure dead easy." She moves closer and loops one arm through his. It's an informal gesture, the kind of thing two friends might do. It also, he realizes, does a great deal to hide his inability to walk like a girl. "Let me do all the talking," she adds.

"Do you speak French?" he asks, unable to hide his surprise.

"Bien sur que oui," she says, and continues on in that language: "And I don't sound like an emperor when I speak it, either."

He's offended - but she does have a point. His French is meant for state addresses. Formal greetings. Diplomatic conversations. Meanwhile, her accent is Parisian, and excellent.

"How did you learn?" he asks, also in French. There are more people around now, hurrying about on business, chatting beneath shop awnings, leading fabricated beats and their wagons through the puddles and muck of the streets; it seems prudent to abandon English for the time being.

"The Air Service," she says, shrugging with one shoulder. "That's also where I learned Turkish. I didn't have time to pick up Japanese or Spanish beyond aeronautical terms and cursing, but those are the most useful words anyway."

"I suppose they are," he says. "In that case, I shall have to teach you to curse in German."

"Teach me all of it."

He pauses, causing her to stop as well. "I would be happy to. But why?"

Another shrug. She starts walking again, and tugs him along with her. "If I'm to be your military advisor, I should be able to understand what your soldiers are saying."

Joy clutches a tight fist inside his chest, setting his heart to racing. "Do you mean that?"

She leans in, close to his ear, as though they are two girls sharing secrets. In English, she whispers, "That's what I was coming to tell you, laddie. Before it all went pear-shaped. If you'll have me, I'm yours."

Her breath puts shivers down his spine.

Providence enjoys laughing at him, he decides. How else to explain the madness of the day?

.

.

.

They buy tickets and board the train without incident. Deryn does all the talking.

The seats are little more than hard wooden benches, but it's not the physical discomfort that keeps Alek alert on the long ride to Paris. It's the fear that at any moment, he will be noticed for what he is. An imposter. A fraud. An emperor fleeing assassins sent by his own ministers.

He will have to get word to Volger. He will have to gettoVolger.

But these are difficulties for a later time.

Now, he leans against Deryn's shoulder, and she leans against his, as the elephantines drawing the train plod onward through the rain-soaked country.

By the time they arrive in Paris some hours later, the rain has ceased, but the sky remains grey. Alek follows Deryn as she threads her way out of the Gare du Nord train station. She finds a cheap hotel and flirts gaily with the grumpy clerk until he begrudgingly agrees to lower the price for their room. After they trek up four narrow, dusty flights of stairs, she deposits Alek and the carpetbag and disappears to procure dinner.

The room is reasonably clean. Certainly better than the garden shed in Calais.

He removes his shoes and lays on the bed. There's only one. Of course he shall let her have it, but until she returns, he intends to enjoy it.

He presses the heels of his palms to his eyes. Prays for Ackermann and Captain Wells. Prays for Volger, while he's at it.

Prays for himself. For his empire.

For the wayward young woman in trousers - the only one that might save them all.

He's asleep before Deryn returns.

Chapter 6: foreign country, pt 2

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Six weeks in a foreign country, how the time flew

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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For a moment, Deryn's certain that the still form on the bed isn't breathing, and cold panic zips down her spine.

She locks the hotel door behind her and walks forward, squinting in the fast-fading light from the room's lone window. Thoughts racing. Heart thumping. She was gone less than an hour - checked for men tailing them on the train, in the station, and on the way here - Alek would've fought - surely someone would've heard -

Another step brings her close enough to see his chest rise and fall. Blisters. She heaves a relieved sigh.

He's not dead. She hasn't failed.

Yet,a nasty wee voice whispers in her head.

She tells it to sod off. She's too tired for that sort of unhelpful blether.

There's a washbasin and pitcher on a rickety stand, and a small table where she drops the dinner he's too asleep to eat. Against the other wall is a chair; she sits down and removes her boots. It gives her a chance to stretch and flex her toes - and to hide the francs she'd lifted from unwary blokes in the Gare du Nord station. Pickpocketing and laundry theft. Not the worst crimes she's ever committed, but possibly for the worthiest cause.

Her rigging knife, safe in its sheath, gets tucked into the waistband of her skirt; the assassin's compressed-air pistol gets pulled out. She tugs her shirt loose of the same waistband and undoes the top few buttons, but leaves it on. Same with her stockings.

If ever a situation called for sleeping in her clothes, this is it.

But where will she be sleeping?

Deryn stands again and crosses to the bed, where Alek slumbers on. He's still wearing the shirtwaist and skirt, and he's atop the blanket, although he at least had the sense to remove his own shoes.

She studies the line of his jaw, the curve of his ear, the way his mouth is parted ever-so-slightly. The rich auburn of his hair against the dishwater linen of the pillow. He looks young. Exhausted.

You and me both, laddie. It's that sort of weariness that seems to soak into your very life-threads, dragging you down from the inside out, making everything feel like a long, hard slog.

The sort that gets your bum killed in combat.

If she wakes him, he'll want to be a gentleman and giveherthe bed, but even she can't imagine making an emperor sleep on a bare wooden floor. She's also having a tricky time imagining herself sleeping on that floor.

He's mostly on one side of the mattress. If she's careful, she can squeeze in without waking him. Maybe.

The pistol gets stowed next to the leg of the bed, on the floor where she can make an easy grab for it. She eases onto the bed, sitting on the edge, then swinging her feet up. The fabricated wood frame squeaks the whole sodding time, unhappy with the weight of a second person, and she winces at each noise. But he doesn't wake.

Deryn shifts around, trying to find a position that doesn't have her halfway falling out of the bed while also keeping her from being plastered against him like a barnacle.

Alek makes a noise, and she freezes. He moves, turning in towards her, so that his breath is warm and ticklish against the skin of her neck.

Barking spiders. She closes her eyes, feeling the solid heat of him. Somehow he still smells as nice as he did this morning. She takes a deep breath, then another, and then, before she can stop herself, she stretches over and presses a kiss to his hair.

"Good night," she whispers.

Daft. But she's too tired to resist the temptation.

His breathing is slow and even. She finds the rhythm of it and is asleep in moments.

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Four years in the Royal Air Service mean that once Deryn's asleep, shesleeps. And indeed, the next time her eyes open, it's morning.

Blisters. What a daythatwas, she thinks, going over yesterday in her head. She has a stab of deep fear for Captain Wells. German bastards, shooting him like that. And that Ackermann fellow, he seemed a good sort. Loyal. Brave.

Maybe they survived. Somehow.

She has another stab of fear when she considers her current predicament. If she and Alek were trailed to Paris, they likely would have been attacked last night while they slept. Regardless, she'll feel better after a quick reconnoiter, preferably without His Majesty.

She exhales, slow and steady, then cautiously rolls over.

His Majesty doesn't stir at the movement. She smiles a little, wondering wherehelearned to sleep like a soldier.

Being so close to him has her feeling like she's fallen off the ratlines without making certain of her harness. She'd kissed him good night. Maybe she ought to kiss him good morning.

It's tempting.

But before she does anything regrettable, she slips out of the bed and quietly puts her shirt and skirt to rights. Retrieves some of the money from her boot, returns the rigging knife to its rightful place, and laces the boots back on. Leaves the pistol. Collects a shawl and the straw hat, then tip-toes to the door, tucking the stolen francs inside her stolen skirt's pocket.

Which reminds her - she'll have to find some way to pay back those poor sods in Calais, the ones whose laundry she filched. Maybe Alek can send them a medal for meritorious service.

The hotel is sleepy. It's too early for people to be stirring much, even in this place, where half the night's custom is probably staggering home, drunk or broke or both. She slips out to the street, trying to look inconspicuous. She's a barking sight better at it than Alek; he made a pure dead terrible girl.

She snorts at the memory, and glances heavenward, as though Flora MacDonald might be looking down in sympathy.Aye, kings are rubbish at disguises, Flora would surely say.

And yet, if Deryn is being completely honest with herself, she didn'tmindAlek in a skirt.

Her cheeks heat, and she scolds herself for being a ninny.

Early as it is, the sun's up, which means newspapers are out. She buys one from the boy on the corner, tucks it under her arm, and strolls down the street a bit, looking for apatisserieor aboulangerieor even just a bloody cup of coffee.

Instead she finds aviennoiserie.

She stands on the pavement for a moment, staring through the window at the croissants, the buns studded with raisins, the apple turnovers, the brioche bread so fresh from the oven that it's steaming - stands there with the oddest tight feeling in her throat.

Viennoiserie. "Of Vienna."

Blisters. It's almost enough to make you believe in destiny.

She buys breakfast for two and takes the long, slow way round to the hotel. No one's lurking. Good.

And there's no hint of danger as she climbs the four flights of stairs to their rented room. More guests are stirring, and in one of the rooms on their floor, a baby is shrieking its unhappiness, loud enough to shake the plaster from the ceilings.

Alek's certainly awakenow.

She raps on the door - a long and two shorts, Morse for "D", and if he's any kind of walker pilot, he'll know that and not shoot her - then lets herself in. Locks the door again straightaway.

Alek is indeed awake, which doesn't surprise her. He's standing over the washbasin, wiping water from his eyes with the stolen shirtwaist for a towel. His trousers are on, but the braces are dangling loose against his legs, and his vest and shirt are draped across the foot of the bed.

Thatisa bit of a surprise, but a good one.

"Good morning," she says, with the same brisk cheer she'd used yesterday morning. Never mind that her mouth has gone dry at the sight of him. Square shoulders, narrow hips, flat, wiry muscle everywhere, a dusting of dark auburn hair across his chest and under his navel.

Sod it all. He looks tastier than the apple turnovers.

"Ah - yes." He clears his throat. His ears are turning pink. "Good morning, Miss Sharp."

"Past that, aren't we?" she asks as he makes a belated grab for his vest and shirt.

He pulls the former on - more's the pity - and puts his arms through the latter, acknowledging her point with a nod. "Deryn. You ought to have woken me; I meant to give you the bed."

"That's exactly why I didn't wake you,Alek," she says.

He pauses in doing up the buttons on his shirt. "I see," he says, with a small, if tired, smile. "Well, we shall settle the matter properly next time."

She rather hopes they'll settle it improperly, but that's for later. "Aye, Your Majesty. Meanwhile…" She holds up the newspaper so he can see the headline. As though he could miss it.

Stark and black, it takes up most of the front page.

ALEXANDRE ASSASSINÉ HIER À CALAIS

Under that is a smaller headline explaining thatl'empereurwas returning to the Continent fromune tournée politiquein Britain when he was attacked. An official portrait of Alek takes up the rest of the page.

"You've been assassinated," she says.

His eyebrows lift, and he leans over to peer at the headline, forgetting to button the shirt any further. "So it would seem."

"Bum-rag reporters." She tosses the newspaper onto the bed. "They always get it wrong."

He makes a smallhmmof agreement, then picks up the newspaper and sits on the bed while he reads the article announcing his death.

Deryn decides sitting on the bed beside him is probably not the cleverest idea. Instead she busies herself with the contents of the viennoiserie bag.Chausson aux pommesfor her,pain aux chocolatfor him, both pastries still warm from the oven. Coffee would be brilliant, but she's had worse - and less.

"What next?" she asks, chewing a mouthful of buttery crust and tart, sugarypommes.

"I still need to reach Vienna," he says, only half paying attention to her. "And I still haven't any idea how."

Eventually he lowers the paper, then dashes it to the floor with an exclamation that sounds decidedly un-imperial, and springs to his feet. Paces. Pushes both hands through his hair.

Deryn takes his seat on the bed, popping the last bite of her breakfast into her mouth as she does. "Aye, that's about the truth of it."

She picks up the newspaper and skims the breathless article beneath the shouting headline. It's garbled rumors of the attack in Calais, accounts of everything Alek's done since becoming emperor, a long lament about how his parents were also murdered - the French do love a tragic romance - and finally, a lot of jittery speculation about a new war.

Oh, there's going to be a new war, all right.Herwar. She's going to use every cannon, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon she has down to her own eyeteeth, until the bastards who tried to kill Alek are wiped off the bloody map.

I'm coming for all of you, she thinks, fiercely.

She chooses not to think about why the notion of someone hurting Alek -Emperor Aleksandar- a young man she met two days ago - leaves her absolutely barking furious.

"No word on Captain Wells," she says, tossing the stupid newspaper back to the floor, where it belongs. "Or your lieutenant."

"It could mean nothing," he says. He pushes his hand through his hair again.

"Aye," she says, because anything else would be unkind.

"They have to know I'm alive. The conspirators, I should say. Pretending that I'm not won't help anything. In fact it will hurt my cause." He paces around some more, then stops, hands on his hips, eyes ablaze, accent sharpening with each word. "I need to contact the newspapers, to - to put the truth out in the open. Conspiracies die in the light."

"But if you go to the papers, they'll know you're in Paris," Deryn says. "Then it all starts over."

He nods and runs a hand through his hair yet again. He ought to stop doing that; it's giving her ideas.

Some of which are more daft than others. "I'll go," she says.

That earns a whipcrack glare and a curt, "I cannot ask -"

"Blisters, you didn't. I volunteered." She stands and brushes pastry crumbs from her skirts. "I happen to know a few reporters. Rogers is likely still in the States, but Malone always manages to be right in the middle of everything. I'll kick over some rocks and see if he scuttles out."

He will. He always does. Useful, that, because Eddie sodding Malone owes her for ruining her life, and it's past time he paid down his debt.

Alek is regarding her with wonder. "I cannot ask you to do that," he says again, but this time it's softer. Gentle. He steps closer to her. "You've already saved my life - heaven knows how many times. Smuggling me out of Calais..."

She shrugs. Electricity is crackling in the air between them again, but she kissed him last time, and she's not going to do all the work here. "We're meant to do great things together, aye?"

"Yes," he says, even more softly. He reaches out for her hand and she lets him collect it. "Deryn… I don't want to make presumptions -"

He's got lovely green eyes. Right now they're dark and a squick dangerous. She squeezes his hand in encouragement. "You ought to."

The corner of his mouth ticks up into a half-smile. "You must think me terribly dull."

"Notterribly," she says, only to make that smile grow wider, which it does; her heart jumps in her chest. "And if you'd stop blethering and kiss me, I'd think you were brilliant."

He kisses her. Leans in and presses his mouth to hers. It's soft and warm and sets a slow heat to unspooling in her guts.

After a second, though, he draws back, shaking his head. "Entschuldigung. I haven't much experience with…"

"Kissing?" She catches both his hands in hers and keeps hold, so he can't go too far. "True enough, lad."

Ruefully, he says, "I've gone back to terribly dull, haven't I?"

She grins and says, teasing, "Here I thought you royals were always leering about, tupping maids in corners and ruining debutantes."

He looks briefly scandalized, then puts on a haughty expression. "PerhapsBritishroyals do such things."

Now she laughs, and the haughty expression vanishes into a smile.

A shy smile, which fades into something grimmer. "In honesty, I've been too busy. The empire was in a bad way when I came to the throne, and not everyone has been pleased with my efforts to save it."

"Aye," she says, dry, rolling her eyes in the direction of the newspaper. "I noticed."

"It seems irresponsible to seek an empress before one can guarantee that she'll keep her head," he says, equally dry. "Regardless, Volger thought I should make a diplomatic marriage, if at all possible."

"That's why you were in London," she says, understanding. "Not just a state visit, but hunting for a bride."

The grim look returns. "Along with making myself an easier target for assassins - but yes."

It's ridiculous, how badly she needs to hear this answer. "And?"

"Princess Mary and I don't suit." He rubs his thumb over her scarred, battered airman's knuckles, which shouldn't send fire blooming under her skin, though it most surely does. There are a few knicks and scars on his own hands, but, she suspects, none of them are from disgruntled flechette bats.

She says, "Better to know it now, hmm?" instead of the truly madDo you and I suit?

There's no future in wanting an emperor.

Maybe if she reminds herself enough, the notion will stick.

She gives his hands another squeeze and pulls hers free, the better to push one through his hair. Barking spiders, she likes the feel of it. Thick and soft. He closes his eyes and leans into her touch. Breath hitching. All but purring.

Maybe she ought to remind him, too.

"We need to get a different disguise for both of us," she says, in a desperate grab at that reminder. "Then I have to find Eddie Malone, and then we have to get our bums out of Paris so you can save your empire. But first you ought to eat breakfast before it goes cold."

He reaches up and recaptures her hand. Presses a kiss to the palm that she feels all the way to her toes. "May I make a request?"

"You won't have to be a lass this time." For one thing, he's in need of a shave.

"A relief to both of us, I'm sure," he says. "After breakfast - and thank you for procuring it - ah. I was hoping... you might allow me further presumptions?"

Well, shehasto kiss him for that. So she does, and this time she puts a hand on the back of his neck to hold him in place, in case she shocks his inexperienced clockworks.

"Open your mouth," she murmurs against his. For a moment she thinks that's a push too far, and then he follows orders.

He was being honest, before: he knows sod all about kissing, especially when tongues are involved, but she's patient, and he's keen to learn. His hands hover about her shoulders for a moment before settling, and he makes a noise in the back of his throat that curls her toes.

In the hall outside, several someones go stomping past, cursing at the top of their lungs in slurred French. One of them thumps heavily on the door, or maybe the wall beside it, before the whole lot clatters down the stairs.

Deryn and Alek come apart at the commotion. His eyes are wide, and she wonders if she's wearing an identically gobsmacked expression. She rather suspects she is.

A trifle breathless, he touches his mouth and says, "I think you bit me."

She runs her thumb over his lower lip. "Aye, and I've a mind to do it again."

His eyes go even wider, and then darken, and somehow they end up kissing again. She pushes closer, hungry, hands rucking up his vest to reach the soft warm skin beneath; his hands work in fits and starts down her sides to her waist. He leaves them there until she grabs one and repositions it on her bum. It startles a breathless little laugh out of him, but he follows that order, too. Even squeezes a bit. She doesn't mind. In fact she thinks they ought to tell the assassins and conspirators to get stuffed and just go on, exactly like this, for a while longer. Maybe the rest of her life.

Which will be short indeed, if they don't get out of Paris.

So the next time they surface for air, she withdraws her hands and takes a step back. It might be the most difficult thing she's ever done, excepting that keelhaul drop near Istanbul.

"Pain aux chocolat," she says. Breathing about as hard as she'd done during the keelhaul drop, too. "In - in the bag. For you."

"Ah," he says. Poor lad, he's been dropped right along with her. "Ja. Yes. Thank you."

Neither of them moves for a moment. She's not embarrassed to have kissed him like that, but can't quite bring herself to look him in the face, either.

Barking spiders. What a mess.

Alek clears his throat. "Pain aux chocolat, I believe you said?" It's a good-quality imitation of his imperial voice - but only an imitation. Part of her rejoices that her kiss can knock an emperor off his pins. The other part meets his eyes and feels herself turning red.

"Aye," Deryn says, too quickly, nodding like a perfect looby.

He busies himself with the viennoiserie bag, removing the bread before flattening the paper sack into a precise, neat rectangle. To serve as a plate, evidently, because he lays the bread atop it, then seats himself at the rickety little table as if it's a fancy banquet.

His hair is mussed. She doesn't remember doing that.

She'd like to muss it further.

Deryn blows out a heavy exhale and sits on the bed, then lets herself fall backwards, so she's staring up at the cracked, water-stained plaster of the ceiling instead of at Alek.

No future.

Bollocks.

"How do you know Mr. - Malone, was it?" he asks, back to being polite.

"Oh," she says to the ceiling. "Kept crossing paths with him during the war. One too many times, I reckon. He put it together that I was a girl."

A moment of silence. Then, voice neutral: "He told everyone."

She closes her eyes. Daft to be hurt by an old wound, and yet it's never really healed. "Aye. Made a bloody lot of money off the story, too."

"That's reprehensible," he says, heavy with disgust.

She snorts. "That's journalism."

Another pause. "May I ask - why did you do it?"

That question's never changed, not since the day Malone's article splashed the truth across the world. The answer's never changed, either. "I had to fly," she says. "Simple as that. It would've killed me, staying on the ground."

More silence. It goes on for long enough that she's contemplating a quick doze - but then the bed dips beside her, and her eyes fly open to see Alek sitting there, spine perfectly straight, face grave.

His voice is grave, too, but soft. "You deserved better,HauptmannSharp."

The words ease the ache in her chest even as they make it a little worse. She shuts her eyes again. "Lieutenant," she says, tired. "Though I wasn't even that, at the end. They stripped me of everything."

"Their mistake, and my gain. I hereby commission you an officer of theKaiserliche und KöniglicheLuftfahrtruppen," he says formally. "You will begin as a captain, although I expect battlefield promotions will see you to colonel, at least."

Deryn opens her eyes and levers herself up onto her elbows, narrowing her eyes at him. "Truly?"

Yesterday she would've turned him down flat. Did turn him down, in fact. But today is different. And it'll be pure dead convenient to fight in his air corps, since she's already sworn to destroy his enemies.

Emperor Aleksandar doesn't nod. He inclines his head slightly.

She's grinning madly. She doesn't care. She has the urge to grab his shirtfront and drag him down on top of her, but there'll be time for that later. Instead she hops up and begins unbuttoning her skirt. "In that case, pass me my trousers, Your Majesty. We need to get to that battlefield."

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They both leave the hotel dressed as young men and take an omnibus across the river to the Île de la Cité and the police headquarters - one place you can always expect to find newsmen. Deryn strikes up a conversation with the reporters loitering outside and asks if they know where Eddie Malone is. They don't, until she confides she means to beat his arse black and blue.

He's working forLe Monde.

Back across the river. They find a telegraph station and Deryn fires off two: one to Malone atLe Monde, demanding he meet her in the Tuileries Garden in four hours, and bring along as much money as he can lay hands on; and one to Jaspert.

Alive. More later.

She'd say more now, but sending a telegraph from Paris to Twickenham is sodding expensive.

Alek sends an equally short telegraph to Vienna, to that Volger fellow. His prime minister. It's in German, of course, but he translates for her:Traveling by night.

"And he'll know what that means?" Deryn asks, doubtful. If he's even there to receive it.

Alek smiles, satisfied, as he gives the telegraph agent the message. "He will indeed."

That accomplished, they find a second-hand clothes shop. It isn't difficult; many Parisians sold off clothes during the war, trying to scare up coin for necessities like food. Now there's a surplus, and it's a buyer's market. Deryn trades her remaining francs for a new set of disguises.

Blue traveling suit dress and a matching cloche hat for herself. Brown pinstriped suit and a straw derby hat for Alek, along with a fabricated-wood cane that he insists on. A less-battered version of the carpetbag she stole in Calais.

They haven't enough money to buy new shoes, but that's just as well - ladies' boots don't have room for a rigging knife. They exit the shop comfortably, anonymously middle-class.

After that, Deryn teaches Alek how to distract a street vendor while she nicks their lunches, and how to hop on and off an omnibus without paying.

It's been a productive morning. A lucky one, too.

Now that luck just has to hold.

Notes:

Alert readers will recognize the "every cannon, every bomb" vow is a modified version of the one from the Battlestar Galactica episode "Blood on the Scales", where President Laura Roslin delivers it like the BAMF she is. So say we all!

After a lot of back-and-forth on a really unimportant issue, I've decided to use the British meaning of "vest". Americans: it's an undershirt.

Chapter 7: foreign country, pt 3

Chapter Text

Six weeks in a foreign country, how the time flew

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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Thus far, Alek's contribution to his own rescue has consisted of wearing other people's clothes and trying not to look like an emperor. That shall change - soon, he vows - but it remains true that he does neither very well.

Deryn nudges him in the side with her elbow. "Slouch," she says in a low voice. "You look like you've a scepter up your bum."

"It was installed at the coronation," he says dryly; she snorts, amused, which was his goal. Obediently, he lets his shoulders droop and his back curve. Slightly. Not enough to appear hunchbacked, he hopes. "How is this?"

"Better," she judges.

It feels bizarre. He has been trained to stand perfectly straight since he was old enough to walk, and now it takes a great deal of concentration to hold himself incorrectly.

Currently, he is a young man escorting a pretty girl around the manicured greenery and gravel paths ofle Jardin des Tuileries. Perhaps they are courting. Perhaps it is a secret tryst. They stop often to murmur tenderly to each other, to gaze adoringly at one another - or rather, to exchange observations and keep a lookout for assassins and spies.

Since the pretty girl is Deryn, and she looks very pretty indeed in her blue dress and cloche hat, Alek has little difficulty with the murmurs and gazes.

He wishes it was real, and not a pretense.

Ah well. After all of this is concluded, he shall escort her around the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. They're larger than the Tuileries, anyway, and she'll be able to wear trousers.

They pause at one of the statues on the north side of the Grand Carré. A small sign proclaims it to beCassandre se met sous la protection de Pallas. "What's this one?" Deryn asks, because she is facing away from the statue, scanning the square while pressing one hand to the side of Alek's face.

The warmth of her hand, the scent of it, immediately puts him in mind of their morning kisses.Focus, he tells himself, for that is a perilous sort of memory to summon forth in public. He removes her hand, kisses the back of it, and tucks her arm into his again. "Cassandra Placing Herself Under the Protection of Athena."

Deryn gives the statue a dubious look as they move on, their shoes crunching on the fine gravel. In French, she says, "She'd do better to put herself under the protection of some clothes."

She is, of course, right.

Alek lets her lead the way, since he hasn't any idea of what Mr. Eddie Malone looks like, and regardless, he must concentrate on maintaining his slouch. They stroll to the south side of the pond, and Deryn clicks her tongue. In English,sotto voce, she says, "There he is. Sodding bastard."

There aren't many people around, which helps Alek with the identification. Mr. Malone is sprawled carelessly on a bench before another statue, a small notebook in hand and a large frog perched on one shoulder. Alek and Deryn's clothes are fresh from a second-hand shop, but Malone appears to have got dressed in the dark, perhaps in someone else's closet, perhaps while falling down a flight of stairs. The overall effect is haphazard enough that Alek is amazed the reporter's shoes match.

He looks up from his notebook as they approach, and his initial expression of impatient boredom is quickly replaced by a grin. It's more friendly than predatory, but still, his greeting cuts deeply. "Lieutenant Sharp! Nice to see you again."

Deryn's face clouds over.

Alek has already forgot to slouch. Now he says, in his most imperial voice, "HauptmannSharp is an officer of my Aviation Troops, and you will address her as such."

Malone glances at Alek for the first time. There is a moment where one can observe the gears turning behind the man's eyes, and then a slow, delighted smile spreads across his face. "Your Majesty," he says, the American accent making it sound odd, inclining his head in Alek's direction. To Deryn, he says, "How did you managethis, Captain?"

"You know me," she says, murderous. "And if that frog records a word of this, I'll stuff it down your throat."

Malone's shrug is of theit was worth a tryvariety, and unrepentant at that. He scratches and taps at the frog's bulbous head. It blinks its wide-set eyes and resettles itself slightly on Malone's shoulder, and he gives it a pat on the back that is pure affection. "There. Rusty's off-duty. Am I allowed to take notes the traditional way?"

"You may," Alek says. He uses the neutral tones of an indifferent monarch, although the frog is staring straight at him, which is most unnerving.

Malone sketches a mock salute and starts scribbling.

"You aren't going to ask for proof of my identity?" Alek and Deryn had discussed it, but there's really no way for him to prove his claim to a stranger. Emperors don't carry identification any more than they carry money.

"Nope," Malone says, cheerful. "For one thing, she -" he points his stub of a pencil at Deryn "- is terrible at lying. She only fooled the Air Service because no one expected her to be crazy enough to do what she did."

Deryn drops herself inelegantly onto the opposite end of the bench. "AndI was a bloody brilliant airman."

Alek diplomatically sits between Malone and Deryn, the better to avoid bloodshed, but Malone concedes her point with a nod. To Alek, he says, "Also, the gossip columns out of London yesterday were all about you two canoodling at some party."

Alek isn't certain whatcanoodlingmeans. Deryn colors slightly, though, and he concludes it's what they were doing this morning.

God's wounds, he needs to stop thinking about that. They are trying to escape Paris; the last thing he should want is to spend the entire day shut up in a seedy hotel room.

He takes a fresh grip on his walking stick and glances at the statue behind them. A god, or perhaps merely a Greek hero, has been driven to one knee by an unseen enemy, but he faces them unflinchingly, sword tightly gripped, the other arm raised to shield himself from a blow. Alek rather sympathizes.

"Now, let's hear it," Malone says.

Alek obliges. He knows how to give a general's succinct accounting of events, and he does so, beginning with the ambush in Calais, their theory of a conspiracy amongst his ministers, and ending with their arrival in Paris.

He omits the shared hotel bed. And the canoodling.

Malone's pencil scratches furiously while Alek talks, and for a few moments after. "This is better than a film serial," he says, positively ecstatic. "The emperor of Austria saved by Britain's angel of the air!"

Deryn snorts. "Two days ago I was Britain's biggest disgrace."

Now Malone's smile is unmistakably predatory. Clever, though; a fox, not a wolf. "You won't be, not after this."

"No," Alek says. Swift and firm. He taps his walking stick on the ground for emphasis, then feels a fool for doing so.

Two sets of puzzled eyes look at him. Three, if one counts the frog, although it's less puzzled than complacent.

"You will not name her," Alek tells Malone. "It will only put us at further risk. Let the world believe they are looking for two men."

Malone is already shaking his head. "She's the best part of the story. No offense, Your Majesty."

He is not offended, because he agrees: Deryn is easily the best part of this. "Then delay the revelation of her identity until we reach our next destination, at least."

"How long?"

Deryn says, "Two days."

Malone narrows his eyes, clearly calculating. "I can guarantee you one day," he says eventually. "Two is pushing it."

Alek exchanges a glance with Deryn. She shakes her head slightly.

"Two days," he says. "Please."

Malone has had his eyes on Deryn, and the look of calculation is still very much present. "All right. Two."

Deryn leans across Alek suddenly, hand out. "D'you have the money, then?"

Malone blinks behind his spectacles, then grins. Digging around in his jacket, he says, "I thought maybe you were trying to blackmail me, Sharp. But this is money well spent."

He presses a crumpled wad of paper francs into her hand, then produces a handful of coins that he drops into Alek's. Alek has only passing familiarity with the money of his own empire, which is not among these coins. He hopes no one asks how much he's holding.

Does the discomfort show on his face? He is accomplished at acting like an emperor, but that's hardly the same asacting.

"Here," Deryn says, gesturing for him to pass it on. She's already tucked the paper money away somewhere.

Alek gives her the coins. "HauptmannSharp is in charge of our travel arrangements," he says to Malone.

Malone makes a noise of agreement. "She's well-traveled. Knows a lot of shady characters, too. Has she told you about the Committee?"

"I've told him about you," Deryn retorts.

Far from taking offense, Malone laughs. "Fair enough. Well, it's been a delight as usual, Sharp, but I have a story to write. Sir - very nice to meet you. Best of luck."

"Wait," Deryn says as the reporter rises from the bench, and he pauses. "Any word on the men in Calais? Captain Wells, Lieutenant Ackermann?"

"Oh, the captain. He's fine. The fall caused more injuries than the bullet, if you can believe that. Your man -" with a gesture to Alek "- was touch-and-go, last I heard. Still, doing better than the other fellow. Dead as a doornail."

Relief loosens a knot inside Alek's chest. Captain Wells is alive; more astonishingly, there is still hope for Ackermann. May Providence continue to smile upon them. "And the second assassin?"

Malone's eyebrows lift. "There were two?"

Alek looks at Deryn as the relief vanishes beneath a wave of foreboding. That sounds like the second man escaped - or was released. Perhaps via bribes. Or perhaps there was an official in Calais sympathetic to his cause. Many Darwinists would be pleased to see another Clanker empire fall in the wake of the war, after all.

Suddenly danger is prickling up and down his spine, and despite all of their precautions, he is certain they are being watched.

Deryn stands abruptly, hauling Alek to his feet as well. "We'll be leaving, aye? And two days. You promised."

"On my honor," Malone says easily, to which Deryn snorts. A deserved reaction, it seems.

Alek looks at the statue again, and realizes it is neither a god nor a hero. The plaque proclaims it to beAlexandre Combattant.

Alexander Fighting.

Well. He is that. And he is alive to do so only because of the airman at his side.

Deryn puts her arm in Alek's and tugs, but Alek holds his ground for a moment longer.

"Mr. Malone," Alek says in his crispest, most kingly tone. "One final request. When you revealHauptmannSharp's identity - do make her an angel of the air, as you said. An avenging angel."

Malone's eyebrows have raised above the frames of his spectacles. "Flaming swords don't mix well with hydrogen, Your Majesty."

Alek shakes his head, impatient with the man's flippancy. "Joan of Arc, then."

Malone opens his mouth - no doubt to mention Jeanne d'Arc's own unfortunate connection with fire - but Alek forestalls him by holding up his hand.

"I want her hailed as a hero," Alek says. "Let Austria-Hungary know she is coming to save them."

Malone scratches his chin, then grins again. "I suppose if any monarch is entitled to divine intervention, it's the descendent of the Holy Roman Emperors. And," he adds, with a nod to Deryn, "if anyone deserves good press, it's you, Miss Sharp."

There is true regret in those words. True guilt. Eddie Malone had thought she intended to blackmail him today - and he'd brought money regardless. Perhaps they have misjudged him.

It's rather crucial to their plans that they haven't.

Alek nods to Malone and the besieged Alexander the Great, and then, with as much dignity as he can muster, allows Deryn to drag him away.

She waits until they're well out of Malone's earshot before leaning in and hissing, "What was all that blether?"

He remembers her voice this morning. Small. Forlorn. Resigned.I had to fly. Simple as that.

As though she deserved to be struck down for doing something at which she excelled. The same something currently saving his life.

Alek adjusts her arm in his. They are strolling north again, around the large pond and toward the street that runs parallel to the gardens. The sensation of being watched remains, although he cannot see anyone in the gardens themselves that strikes him as suspicious. "I meant what I said."

Deryn mutters a stream of curses foul enough to make him cough into his fist.

"Be that as it may," he says, returning to French, "how was my performance?"

"Not bad." Begrudgingly. "The bit with the money was clever."

"The opposite, to be honest." At her questioning glance, he adds, embarrassed, "I never handle money."

She laughs. It's not as loud and free as it was at the party in London, but it still pulls at him like a lodestone. "Kings are hopeless," she says to no one in particular.

He leans in, close enough that he accidentally grazes her ear with his mouth as he whispers, "Just as well that I'm an emperor."

Perhaps it wasn't an accident. Given the way her breath catches and her eyes darken and her hand tightens on his arm, it's an accident he ought to repeat in the future.

They pass poor unclothed Cassandra again. There are two men walking in their general direction, but they look like friends having a chat, not assassins stalking their prey. Then again, the assassins in Calais were dressed as ground crew.

Focus, Alek chides himself again. There will be time for distractions later.

The edge of the gardens is framed by an alley of trees, probably at their loveliest in the spring and autumn. With their branches trimmed to a courteous height, the trees offer little concealment. Beyond the trees is a city street, with buildings crowding the far side. Handsome, quintessentially Parisian, they face the Tuileries with three stories of cream-colored stone and a roof of curved, leaden metal.

Unlike the trees, that roof would make an excellent perch for an assassin, he thinks, and as he does, there's a sudden, pinprick glint of light atop it.

The sight on a rifle?

No. Not a rifle.

He curses and breaks into a run, pulling Deryn with him. She stumbles, not expecting it, then delivers a curse of her own as she lags behind. It's the skirt. She can't run in it. She curses again and hikes her skirt up indecently high - but at least she is running. They race for the trees.

Fire flares from the roof. There is a horrible, screeching whistle overhead, and the rocket strikes the middle of the manicured path behind them.

The explosion is very loud and very close. Too loud. Too close.

It knocks Alek down and leaves him on the ground, ears ringing, head spinning, chest aching, vision blurred. Worse, it separates him from Deryn.

Where is she? He pushes himself up with a desperate heave. Staggers. Leans on his walking stick, which he's somehow kept hold of even as his hat has vanished. Coughs; there is dust and smoke everywhere. People are running to and fro in the distance. Probably shrieking as well, though he can't hear them.

"Deryn!" he calls. Useless. His voice is muffled and strange to his own ears. He coughs and wipes at his eyes. "Deryn!"

A human shape looms up and before he consciously notes the posture, the height, the shape, the intent of the assassin's motions, reflexes honed in a hundred thousand fencing sessions have him bringing his walking stick up to parry the attack.

He thus keeps the knife from biting into his neck, but the walking stick is not so lucky. Fabricated ebony is far harder than the natural wood - that's why he'd insisted on purchasing it.

Even so, that was meant to be a killing blow, and it leaves a sizable gouge in the wood. It also jars the stick nearly out of his grasp.

Alek stumbles backward, trying to find his footing. The assassin strikes again before he does, and another piece of fabricated ebony is hacked out of the stick as Alek falls to the ground.

He lands, he realizes with grim humor, in almost exactly the same pose asAlexandre Combattant: on one knee, arm up to shield, enemy looming over him. But his shield is a walking stick, and his free hand holds no sword.

The assassin has to move in and crouch down to press his attack - the difficulty with close-range weapons like knives is that one must be close to use them - and as he does, Alek dishonors the memory of his namesake by fighting dirty. He kicks at the man's knee and, with his free hand, flings dirt and gravel from the path at the assassin's face.

The assassin flinches backward. Alek is on his feet and lunging forward in the same instant. The tip of his walking stick narrowly misses impaling the man's skull - but Alek hadn't counted on it succeeding; he only needed the space to regain his footing.

The assassin strikes again, with a bit more desperation: the smoke and dust are clearing, and in the background, people are beginning to move toward them, instead of away. Alek parries and this time lands his riposte on the assassin's bicep, with enough force to make the man's lower arm go numb. Instead of dropping the knife as Alek had hoped, the man merely grunts and tosses it to his other hand.

Wunderbar.

Alek doesn't wait for the next attack. He feints toward the assassin's face again and, as the assassin moves to avoid being struck, steps inside the man's reach. He punches the assassin in the solar plexus, then switches his grip and, with as much force as he can, drives the handle of the walking stick up under the man's chin.

The assassin drops.

Alek steps back, breathing hard, looking about the clearing smoke for any other enemies. All he sees, however, is a friend.

Deryn. Unsteady, dirty, bloodied, but alive and whole. Standing over the motionless body of another assassin. This one has a bandage on his temple, and Alek realizes it's the assassin she struck with her rigging knife in Calais.

He's dead now. Blood is slowly crawling across the graveled path, away from his torso.

"Deryn," Alek says, with a relief that closely resembles joy.

She shakes her head as she joins him, pointing at her ear, and he nods in understanding. He gestures at the assassin he fought, lying insensate, his jacket flopped open to reveal a pistol in a shoulder holster.

She frowns, then crouches next to the man - nearly tips over - and removes the pistol. A Frommer, Alek notes in one corner of his mind. Either these men are soldiers in the Hungarian Army, or someone means to make it look that way.

Deryn checks the ammunition in her compressed-air pistol before tossing it onto the ground. She must have used the last of the bullets on the other assassin.

Standing, she needs both hands to steady her aim. For all that, the bullet strikes true.

It's the only sensible thing to do. They left the one man alive in Calais, and he nearly killed them again. There is at least one more assassin out there besides these two; they cannot risk it. But part of Alek flinches away from the death even as he recognizes the necessity of it.

Deryn sticks the pistol into the waistband of her skirt, hiding it beneath her own jacket.

Alek tucks his walking stick under his arm and holds out his hand. She takes it, and they are running again, this time toward the street. A crowded omnibus drawn by a some large, vaguely bovine animal is lumbering past, and they jump aboard.

Far from being shouted at and shooed off by the other passengers, they are greeted with concern and solicitation and urgent questions about what just happened in the Tuileries.

Alek shakes his head and gestures to his ears, and the questions stop, but the concern continues. They are offered seats and an elderly lady presses a clean handkerchief into his hand. For a panicked moment, Alek worries he will be recognized - but then he catches sight of his reflection in the window glass. Bloody, dirty, and disheveled, he looks nothing like the official portrait printed in the morning's newspapers.

Deryn does a marvelous impression of a trembling, weeping girl, one badly frightened and in want of comfort. Alek is less sure of his role as the stout-hearted young man doing the comforting, but it gives him the opportunity to put his arms around her and hold her tightly.

They change omnibuses more than once, as per the plan they'd worked out before venturing into the Tuileries, and reach their next destination without further incident. There they retrieve the carpetbag from its locker without incident. Deryn ushers him into a public washroom and stands guard at the door while he cleans up as best he can; he then does the same for her before they move on, again without incident.

In the morning, as they disembark from the train in Lyon, the newspapers are all proclaiming the same thing.

VIVE ALEXANDRE!

In a triumphant scoop forLe Monde, American reporter Eddie Malone has revealed that Emperor Aleksander is alive, though the target of an attemptedcoup d'étatby members of his own government - an allegation hotly denied by said government. Without revealing his sources, Malone has sworn the emperor was rescued by a decorated British lieutenant in Calais, and they are now both aboard an airship, racing to Vienna.

It is, as Alek expected, largely ridiculous. Still, he is in great charity with the world this morning, and he smiles as he reads the article. An airship indeed. Perhaps Malone was fooled; perhaps he decided to aid their escape by pointing their foes in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, Deryn purchases their train tickets to Bern via Geneva. By this time tomorrow, they will be nearly to his father's Swiss castle. In one week...

Well. He looks forward to reading the headlinesthen.

Chapter 8: alone and foolish

Notes:

This chapter is considerably more spicy than the others (reminder: they're both adults here!).

If that's not your thing, fear not! You can skip this chapter without missing any important plot points.

Chapter Text

...But somehow I knew

That that would be the only time that we could be alone and foolish

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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.

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"This is first class?"

Alek knows he sounds ungrateful - or at the very least surprised - but the train compartment is scarcely more than a closet. A small one, at that.

"Aye," Deryn says. She removes a belt from their carpetbag and pulls the leather taut in her hands, testing it, before quickly, deftly looping it around the door handle in a stout knot. "Expensive, but a sight better than traveling couchette. Nightmare for security, that - no doors."

"Ah," Alek says, instead ofPeople sleep on trains in open compartments?But evidently they do. He thinks of the many cars of his official train with some chagrin. An entire car as one's own bedroom hasn't seemed particularly luxurious until this moment.

There are two upholstered bench seats, one facing the front of the train, one facing the rear. He eases himself down on the front-facing seat and draws the window shade on the fading afternoon light. The fight in the Tuileries is making itself known, and he aches all over. In particular, there is a burning line across his right bicep that he suspects is from the assassin's knife, but he has not had time to investigate it properly.

At least his hearing has returned. Mostly; there is still a faint ringing in his left ear. Presumably that was closer to the rocket explosion.

"Besides," she says, examining her work, "we can afford it. 'Specially if I nick a few more wallets along the way."

He's appalled and impressed all at once. "Isthathow you had money?"

She rolls her eyes. "I left Jaspert's house expecting to take a morning balloon ride. I didn't bring my bloody bankbook."

"I suppose it's just as well that I didn't, either," he says. "No doubt they could track me through the bank. Somehow."

"Likely," she says, sounding thoughtful. "For that matter, I'm still wondering how they found us in the Tuileries."

Alek has been wondering the same thing. "Do you think they followed Malone?"

Deryn drops onto the rear-facing seat, sitting in a boyish sprawl despite her feminine clothes. She'd been every inch a dainty young lady when they came aboard - as Monsieur and Madame André Leroy, victims of robbery on the dangerous Parisian streets. The conductor surely knew better, yet he had been wholly taken in by Mme. Leroy's tearful fluttering.

It had netted them a pitcher of hot water, a first-aid kit, and assurances that if M. and Mme. need anything else, they must let the porters knowtout de suite.

"No reason to, was there?" she says. "No connection to you. And he's too clever to advertise where he was going."

"If they trailed us from Calais…"

She makes a noise of agreement. "They had a million easier chances than shooting a rocket. Here, get your jacket off, and I'll patch you up."

He obliges - though he winces as he does, because hehasbeen cut. A large bloodstain, turning brown with time, has bloomed across his shirtsleeve. Fresh blood begins to seep through where he has reopened the cut by moving.

"Nasty cut," Deryn says, eyeing him. "Shirt off, too."

He wonders, as he removes his shirt, whether he should try to kiss her. He's wanted to kiss her all day, and aside from the bleeding wound, conditions seem ideal.

He's not even bleeding that badly. Surely she won't become squeamishnow.

But she has a brisk, military air about her, taking hold of his injured arm with no hint of ulterior motives. She pushes the sleeve of his vest up to better see the wound, only to have it slide down immediately. "Vest off, too."

So he removes his vest, too, while she soaks a clean, soft cloth in the hot water, then wrings it out until it is merely damp.

"This is a remarkably convenient turn of events for you," he says, unable to resist teasing, although he can feel himself blushing at being half-undressed in her presence. Again.

She sits next to him and lays the dampened cloth against his cut. It burns, and he sucks in a breath. "Aye, I think I'll like being a captain."

"I must warn you, most captains don't have this sort of privilege."

"I reckon most of them wouldn't find this a privilege."

Nor would he find it as enjoyable, though that's a strange description for having a wound tended. He watches as she cleans and bandages the cut in her confident, capable way. That done, she wipes the cloth down his arm and then along his hand. One finger at a time.

Her examination has stopped being brisk. Now it is… something else.

"Deryn?" The rest of it -may I kiss you?- dies unspoken when she lifts his hand to her mouth and presses a kiss to his palm. Electrikal currents zip up his spine in a bright, pleasurable jolt.

"Walker pilot's hands," she says approvingly, splaying his fingers out. "D'you play piano, too?"

"Nein," he says. He swallows in an attempt to maintain composure. "No. I had lessons, but I was -Gott im Himmel."

She glances up, eyes alight with mischief, the tip of his index finger still inside her mouth. Far from being repentant, she sucks on it, very lightly.

"Deryn," he says again. This time, it sounds rather like begging. He might beg, at that, if he could remember the English words for it.

She releases his finger, only to kiss his palm once more. "Hush, Your Majesty," she says, and kisses the inside of his wrist.

Alek has never felt less like an emperor. In fact, he feels exactly like a young man who is vastly inexperienced with kissing, let alone what comes after. He wishes he knew what to do. It seems unfair to sit like a malfunctioning automaton, gears frozen, while she kisses her way up his arm.

He ought to do something for her. Return the action in kind. But -

She drags her tongue along his collarbone, and he loses that train of thought. Indeed, a great deal of thought leaves him altogether, rushing southward along with most of his blood.

"Mmm," she says into the skin of his neck. "You taste -"

He kisses her. Grips the back of her head and pulls her up the final few inches and kisses her. He thinks he might go mad if he doesn't.

She laughs and kisses him back, with equal fervor if superior skill. After a moment, she draws back, saying, "Sodding skirt - hold on, lad."

This makes no sense to him. He needs a moment to drag the words from the depths: "What about your skirt?"

Atsk. "It's too tight for me to get a leg over." She stands and unfastens her skirt, impatiently kicking it off while leaving her boots on. Now she is clad only in her shirt and underclothes. Knickers, she'd called them.

Her knickers are very much like his, which doesn't surprise him. He can't imagine her wearing lace and frills. Perhaps that's because his mind has stuttered to a stop watching her take off her skirt.

Skirt dealt with, she climbs onto the bench seat, one knee to either side of his legs. It means he must tip his face up to kiss her, but he doesn't mind, because it also gives him a warm, amazing weight in his lap - pressing against his chest and abdomen - moving beneath his hands when he puts his arms around her.

God's wounds. And he thought this morning's kisses were perilous.

They kiss again, peril be damned. He quite likes this new position. In fact, it's becoming increasingly evident that he likes it rather too much.

He breaks off the kiss, swearing wholeheartedly in German.

"Sorry," Deryn says, leaning back. Worry flashes across her face. "I forgot about your arm."

"It isn't that," Alek says, although now that she mentions it, the cut does sting terribly. He takes a long, slow breath and tries to focus on that small pain, instead of a much larger pleasure. "This is, er, very exciting."

The worry changes to confusion, and then she glances down between them. "Oh.Blisters, that's all right. Pure dead natural."

She rocks her hips forward, which feels sublime, and he experiences a moment of panic. Is he to utterly embarrass himself in front of the only girl he's ever kissed?

He curses again, trying to push her away without seeming rude. "I don't - that is - It's too soon, don't you think? For this - ah - sort of intimacy."

She scowls at him. "Clanker."

"A Clanker emperor," he reminds her. "Worse than most."

That earns an amused snort. "All right, then. Wouldn't want to muddle your clockworks," she says, removing herself from his lap and resettling beside him.

He feels cold and bereft, which, he tells himself, is a mercy. "Thank you."

"It's not too soon, though," she says. She nudges his leg with her knee, making him notice her bare legs again. Long and slender and strong, just like her arms. "I've been telling myself 'later', but that's mad, aye? When they're launching sodding rockets into a public garden? The truth is, Ilikeyou, and I know there's no future in it, but I'd like to roger you, too. Or whatever we can manage tonight."

She blushes at the last. Thank God, for he's blushed through the whole of it.

Two important phrases leap out.

Firstly, shelikeshim, which knowledge kindles something warm inside his heart.

Secondly. "By 'roger', you mean…?" he asks, cautious.

She crosses her arms over her chest and stares at him, challenging. "Means exactly what you think it means."

"I see." He suddenly finds he can't look at her. Instead he glances at the walls, the floor, the other bench seat, their discarded clothing, the darkness swiftly falling beyond the drawn window shade, the Darwinist lamp glowing to life - literally - on the ceiling of their compartment. With the benefit of time, distraction, and distance, he is no longer in immediate danger of humiliating himself in front of her - but talk like this will hardly help.

He clears his throat. Honesty is a virtue, and she deserves it, regardless. "I would - I would very much like that as well."

She makes a pleased noise, but Alek holds up one hand to forestall her. "But we can't."

"Because I'm as common as dirt," Deryn says.

"No," Alek says, then sighs. She is uncommon, gloriously so, in all regards except her birth. He would be the worst sort of fraud to deny that it mattered, especially with the shadow of his parents' marriage hanging over him. Reluctantly, he says, "Yes. That is a consideration."

"We wouldn't -" she starts.

This time, he stops her with an imperial glare. "More to the point, I would feel as though I was dishonoring you. Ilikeyou, as well. I believe from the moment I heard that ridiculous tale you spun at the party."

"That was the barking truth," she says hotly. "All of my stories are true. Anyway, it's not dishonoring me if I'm the one suggesting it."

He opens his mouth to argue, then shuts it again. "I suppose you have a point."

"I'm always right," she agrees. "Aside from that clart, any real objections?"

Religious prohibitions against enjoying the benefits of marriage outside of any such marriage are not, he suspects, going to deter her in the least. For all that the emperor of Austria is alsoHis Most Catholic Majesty, that particular sin had never stopped any of Alek's ancestors, either.

He views their weakness in a very different light now.

"Only one," he says, reluctant.

"Which is?"

"I've never -" He makes a looping gesture with one hand that bears absolutely no resemblance to the act in question, although he has precious little knowledge aboutthat. Really, if not for Bauer and Hoffman trading soldiers' tales about girls back home, in a castle too small to avoid eavesdropping, he'd know nothing at all.

Then he curses himself. She knows he hasn't; they'd discussed his inexperience this morning. Now she'll think him fixated on the matter. Or a fool. Or so nervous that he's repeating himself. Blast it, all three are true. He quickly tacks on, "I fear I'd be a disappointment."

It's less of a fear than a certainty.

"I wouldn't know," she says, shrugging. "I've never, either."

"Truly?" It comes out sounding far more astonished than he meant it to, and he quickly says, "It's only that - well - it would be entirely understandable if you had. I can't be the first to have noticed - you."

She's staring at him as if he's lost his mind. "Noticed me," she repeats, slowly.

Scheisse. Alek is truly digging his own grave. "Yes. Your bravery, of course. Your intelligence. Your skill at - well, at everything, frankly. And when I first saw you -" he abandons caution in the hopes that a full confession will buy him clemency "- I thought you were far too lovely to have made a convincing boy."

Comprehension lights behind her eyes, and he knows she's remembering his greeting to her on King George's airship:youdolook like a boy.

"Aye, that's the wonder of a proper dress. I'm not so pretty in trousers," she says.

The words are wry, but there's a bitterness lurking there as well. The same fraught thread had run throughI'm as common as dirtand yesterday'sThey stripped me of everything, at the end.

"I like you better in trousers," he says. Perhaps that's admitting too much - but those chips in her self-confidence have sharp edges. He is beginning to hate whoever put them there.

Her mouth curls up into a slow half-smile that promises dangerous things indeed. "I like you in skirts."

He grimaces; she laughs. Apparently he is forgiven. She puts out her hand, palm up, a clear invitation to lace his fingers through hers, which he is more than happy to do. "I noticed you, too, ninny," she says, squeezing. "Pure dead handsome, but…"

Something tightens within his chest. "Go on."

Her blue eyes hold his. "Lonely."

Now the tightness moves to his throat. God's wounds, yes. He islonely. He has been lonely ever since his parents died. Ironically, the more people that have surrounded him as emperor, the lonelier he's become.

She takes his other hand. Hers are tanned and callused and scarred, the antithesis of what a lady's hands ought to be. They're also warm and strong. "Aye. And sad."

A pathetic list, for all that it's true. He attempts a smile, although a witty rejoinder is beyond him. The smile is as well, if the look on her face is any indication.

Lonely and sad. A wonder, that she can see him so clearly, on such short acquaintance. Perhaps she is more than Austria-Hungary's avenging angel, more than his protector. Perhaps Providence has finally seen fit to give him a friend.

Without another word, she tugs on his hands and draws him into a hug. There's nothing gentle about it. It's a hard, fierce embrace, promising hard, fierce sentiments behind it.

He does nothing for a moment. Then he puts his arms around her and returns the hug. Hard and fierce.

"I have you," Deryn whispers, her breath warm against his ear and cheek. "I have you, Alek."

He could weep. Instead, he pulls back just far enough to kiss her. Again and again. Hard. Fierce. Desperate. With an appalling lack of skill.

She swings a leg across and settles herself onto his lap once more. Puts her hands on either side of his face, holding him fast, forcing him to slow despite the fire roaring through his veins and beneath his skin.

"Tell me what to do," he says, voice thick.

She slants her mouth over his and kisses him, slowly, deeply. "Put your hands on me."

"Where?"

"Anywhere you sodding like," she says, as though it should be obvious.

Everywherewould be the answer to that. He starts at her waist and ventures down to her fundament, which inspires a pleased hum and a roll of her hips that makes him see stars.Verdammt. That will have him back at his original problem far too quickly. He changes course and slides his hands northward, under the buttoned shirt.

She has a chemise on, as well. Too many layers of cloth to navigate in his current state of mind, especially considering that she's no longer kissing his mouth, but rather nipping and licking her way down the side of his throat.

He makes a strangled, helpless sound. That earns another hum and a brief, sharp application of teeth.

"Bitte," he says, gasping it, though whether that'splease stoporplease continuehe doesn't know. His hands have returned to her posterior, and he is fighting the urge to push his own hips forward.

"Here," she says, reaching down, taking one of his hands, and repositioning it down the front of her knickers. "Make yourself useful, Your Majesty."

God's wounds. His heart threatens to explode; so does a less illustrious part of his body. He truly has no idea what to do, only a determination to please her, which is less helpful than it might be. "Deryn..." he begins.

"Move," she says. "You've the - ah - aye, like that."

Her voice catches, her body shivers, and Alek, who has begun a cautious exploration with his fingers, feels a sense of victory wholly out of proportion to his efforts. He adjusts to a more comfortable angle and continues.

This is not comparable to piloting a walker, although it is not dissimilar to piloting one in darkness, in that he can't see where he's going and dreads a misstep, and thus the entire world narrows to the task quite literally at hand.

A fortuitous side effect: focusing on her reactions, analyzing them, distracts him from his own reaction to the warm, slippery flesh around his fingers. The rhythm they establish between his motions and hers. The small, helpless noises she makes.

"Kiss me," she says. Begs, rather. He does. He continues to do so even as her breath stutters and her kisses falter and her body tightens like a drawn bow against his. Finally she shudders, drops her forehead to his shoulder and puts a hand on his wrist, stilling him.

Does that mean she's, ah, satisfied, or has he hurt her? He has to swallow twice before he's able to ask, "Did I - that is -"

"Bloody sodding hell," she says into the skin of his shoulder. Happy. She sounds happy. She presses a brief kiss to his shoulder, and then another to his jaw, and then one to his lips, before drawing back and smiling at him. "That was lovely."

"Oh," he says, again with that disproportionate sense of victory.Alexander Triumphant, perhaps. He smiles at her. "It was my pleasure."

Her smile turns wicked. "No, that's next."

Alek's heart stops. Starts anew with a heavy thump, then proceeds to race.

"You don't -" He cuts himself off. Starts anew. "I wouldn't expect -"

"I've seen it done, once or twice," she says, ignoring his stammering. "Airmen, aye? Randy buggers. But you'll tell me what you like."

Clarity cuts through the haze of desire, and he perceives the uncertainty, the vulnerability behind those brash words. It relieves some of his own concern to see it mirrored in her. "I'll like anything you do," he says, being honest.

She smiles and presses forward, kissing him, her hands tugging at the waistband of his trousers. He leaves one hand on her hip and slides the other along her jaw, through her short hair. They are forced to break the kiss when neither of them is able to unfasten the front of his trousers sight unseen.

His hands are shaking, so he gives up and lets her take over. Mind racing along with his pulse. And then her hand closes around him and his hips lift instinctively, everything forward and bright, and his mind goes entirely blank.

He makes a noise. He's sure he does. She starts to draw back, her fingers loosening, but he catches her and kisses her.

She makes a noise right back and continues, although now she's the one lacking expertise. It doesn't matter, however, if her grip is awkward and alternatively too tight and too loose, and she misses the most sensitive area altogether; to be touched by someone else - to be touched byher, specifically - is so overwhelming that it only takes a few clumsy strokes before he spends.

Ah, God. He draws a shuddering breath and lays his hand over hers, showing her how to ease him through the end, and then he collapses back against the seat. Eyes closed. Breathing ragged.

"How was that?"

He opens one eye. "When I can remember the English words, I'll let you know."

She snorts in amusem*nt and reaches behind her for the damp cloth. "Here," she says, after wiping off her hand. "We made a bit of a mess."

"We did," he says, putting himself to rights. How peculiar. He expected to feel embarrassed, and instead he feels connected. But theyareconnected now, not by some grand design of destiny. By simple human intimacy. By breath and skin and shared pleasure. "Do you need -?"

She shakes her head, but takes the cloth back anyway and tosses it onto the tray before sliding off of his lap. He's on the verge of protesting when she resettles herself next to him, tucking in close, so that his arm instinctively goes around her shoulders, and her head leans against his.

A warm, golden glow fills him, and he thinks he would be content to sit like this for the rest of the journey, saying nothing, merely enjoying her presence.

She seems equally content, but after a few minutes she sits up and asks, "D'you think we can risk the dining car?"

"For you, Madame Leroy, I'll risk anything."

He means it as a jest. As soon as the words leave his mouth, however, he realizes it's the truth.

"Same to you, M'sieur," she says. The words are flippant, as is the tone. The vow is solemn, and the clasp of her hand around his is security itself.

In the end, M. Leroy asks the porters to please bring them a tray of food. The porters are happy to oblige, and would M. and Mme. also like the compartment converted into beds for the night?

They would.

.

.

.

There are two beds in the compartment, because a first-class bed is far too small for two people.

They manage.

It involves quite a lot of entangled limbs, and Alek grows too warm within minutes - but he will never admit it. Indeed, he draws Deryn closer. Holds her more tightly. Breathes in the scent of her.

"G'night," she mumbles.

"Gute Nacht," he says, very softly. He presses a kiss to her hair, gone silver in the darkness, and listens to the sound of her breathing even out into sleep.

If he said what he was thinking, she would call him mad. One does not fall in love on the strength of three days' acquaintance. One certainly doesn't lie awake plotting to turn a common British girl into an empress of Austria.

Volger would tell him that he's being irresponsible. Reckless. Repeating the mistakes of his father.

Entirely untrue. He's making a far, far larger mistake than his father ever did.

He's never been happier.

Chapter 9: following the rules

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

It's not being together,

It's just following the rules

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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.

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"I count two," Deryn says, returning the binoculars to Alek. They're magnificent binoculars, but then, the Swiss are famously clever with precision mechanicals. They also happen to be stolen… indirectly. Alek had stolen a walker in Bern, and the binoculars had been tucked inside.

She'd been dead proud; she hadn't known he had it in him. Put her laundry filching to shame.

He returns the binoculars to their case and tightens the strap across his chest. "Their walker can hold four. Let's assume it did."

Their own walker, a bitty wee runabout, was left at the base of the mountain, which Deryn and Alek climbed as night fell. Now they're huddled in the snow and rocks below the castle, spying on the trespassers inside and generally freezing their bums off in the darkness.

It's nearly summer, but Alek's castle is atop a sodding glacier, and springtime conditions here mean only a slightly thinner layer of snow. It must be a misery in the winter.

She resettles herself, wishing for a warm fire, a huge dinner, and a real bed, preferably with Alek in it. At least she's been able to leave off her skirts since Bern, when they spent the last of Eddie Malone's money on cold-weather clothes and became two lads on holiday, keen to do some Munro bagging - or whatever the Swiss equivalent is. "Who's paying for all these barking assassins?"

He looks grim. "That's the question, isn't it? This castle is a state secret. No one should know about it, and yet these men have obviously been here for a while."

Since he survived the assassination attempt in Calais, Deryn reckons. Whoever's behind it all must have sent out this crew at the same time as the one in Paris.

Their own journey had hit some snags after entering Switzerland, a firmly Clanker country. Namely: Deryn's stomach doesn't take kindly to mechanical transport. The train ride to Bern had been mostly all right, though she'd been queasy enough that she hadn't felt up to, well, feeling him up, more's the pity. But the runabout had been pure dead torture.

"Traveling by night,"aye, with Alek piloting brilliantly in total darkness… except for pausing every hour so she could puke her guts out or just lie down on the ground and stop the world from spinning.

As a result, the last and shortest leg of their mad dash from Calais has taken the longest - three entire days. It might have also saved their lives, she reflects. Otherwise they would've likely arrived at the castle at the same time as the assassins. Today they were able to see smoke from the castle's chimney and adjust their plans accordingly.

For example,notcoming up the glacier-filled valley like a pair of sitting ducks.

Though something about that valley gives her a sense of déjà vu. "What about your prime minister?"

The grim look turns as glacial as their surroundings. "I trust Volger with my life."

Deryn doesn't. Right now she trusts herself with Alek's life. Everyone else is suspect.

"If these were his men, their walker would have the imperial crest, or some other sign that we would be safe. Whether or not that was truly the case - though, again, I trust him with my life."

"Aye sir," she says, tone heavy with doubt.

He slants a glance at her, eyebrow raised, arrogant as only an emperor can be. "I believe you meant to say 'Jawohl, mein Kaiser.' "

That puts a grin on her face. He's been teaching her German, as promised. They've done common military phrases and the best part of any language: cursing. German's a brilliant language for cursing. Very satisfying.

"Dummkopf," she says now, not so much a curse as a tease, and is rewarded with a smile and a kiss. Rather too long a kiss, given their situation; not long enough for her liking. His lips are cold against hers, but they kindle something warm inside her chest.

"Frequently," he says. "So,HauptmannSharp, how are we to storm the castle?"

Deryn thinks about it. "D'you want to keep that walker of theirs?"

.

.

.

Alek does not want to keep the walker.

Good, because after Deryn climbs over the outer wall, sneaks across the courtyard, and rigs a signal flare to detonate into its fuel tanks, the walker isn't going to be of much use.

Makes a lovely bonfire, though.

Four men rush out of the castle after the first explosion. They're not stupid; they're all armed, and instead of standing around and gawking at the flames rising against the night sky, they immediately fan out in a search.

Deryn and Alek expected that, of course.

The castle is a rough pentagon. Stables to one side, smaller outbuildings to the other, the keep between them. A cobblestoned courtyard, dusted over with snow. One tower standing lookout over the valley. Disintegrating curtain wall enclosing everything.

She's retreated to a carefully chosen position against the keep's wall, where the shadows are deep and the firewood is stacked high, and where she'll be able to escape in more than one direction, if need be.

One of the assassins crosses her field of vision. For a moment, he's perfectly silhouetted by the burning walker. She aims for his head, fires, and he drops. Quick as a wink, she darts forward to seize his guns - the Steyr pistol he was holding and the Mauser Gewehr rifle slung over his shoulder. German weapons, which means nothing. Half the continent has German-made weapons.

Around the side of the castle, sticking to the shadows, moving as fast as she can. Next position. Toss the rifle over one of the collapsed portions of the outer wall, hopefully into Alek's waiting hands.

Onto her next position -

- straight into the sights of the enemy.

The bullet strikes the keep behind her. She drops and flings herself sideways, narrowly avoiding all the bullets the assassin sends as a follow-up.

Bollocks, she thinks. There's no good cover here.

She still has the Steyr in hand, as well as a few bullets left in the Frommer she's been carrying since Paris. She fires the Frommer twice in the blighter's general direction, then forces herself to get up and run for it. There's shouting now, none of it decipherable to her.

More gunfire.

And then the sharper crack of a rifle, fired from the top of the wall.

The assassin goes down. Alek drops into the castle courtyard, yells something to her that she can't hear because the walker's second fuel tank explodes at that same moment.

He goes left. She goes right.

Back past the burning walker, the air heavy with diesel fumes and black smoke, the heat fierce enough that it's reducing the snow around it to slush.

The final two assassins come racing down the steps to the tower. They spot her instantly and bring their guns up.

She fires at them and tries to change direction mid-step, and her foot slips in the slush, on the rounded cobblestones, and she feels something in her left kneepop.

It sends a bolt of bright-white agony up her leg and straight to her brain.No, she thinks, wild, as her leg gives out and she lands, hard, and the impact and the pain snatch the breath from her lungs. No, she can't be injured - Alek needs her, he can't take the castle by himself - no, no, no -

More gunfire. A bullet strikes the cobblestone by her head, sending a razor-sharp chip into her cheek as she flinches away.

Get up, she orders herself.Get up!

She tries. Her knee buckles into fresh agony and she's back on her arse, hardly able to see for the tears that've sprung unbidden to her eyes.

Shouting. Gunfire.

One of the assassins is coming towards where she's sprawled. Cautiously. Maybe he thinks she's been hit. Maybe he thinks she's dead.

And this would be the perfect time to play dead, to lure him in closer, but it's all she can do not to grab her knee and curl into a ball as the pain rolls over her in waves.

Bloody hell. She's lost the Frommer somewhere. She still has the Steyr.

The assassin is almost upon her. He'll shoot as soon as he can verify that she's breathing. Maybe before.

She raises the pistol. Fires.

The assassin staggers back. Doesn't fall.

She wants to scream. Instead, she fires again.

He falls.

Deryn brings her knee up to her chest, gripping it tightly through another wave of pain. It hurts like blazes, and hugging it is doing sod all.

Fear gives her a good shake. What has she done to herself?

"Hauptmann!" Alek calls out. There's fear in his voice as well, though he's kept his head enough not to give her away as a British girl. "Wo bist du?"

It's gone silent, she realizes. No more shooting, just the noise from the fire slowly consuming the walker. "Here," she calls in return, struggling to pull herself up into a more dignified position.

Then he's rushing toward her, practically falling to his knees beside her, rifle clattering to the ground unheeded. "Mein Gott- Deryn, are you shot? Are you bleeding? Where - "

"No," she says. Firm. "Better make sure the last one I shot is dead. I wasn't aiming."

He kisses her on the forehead, hard and quick, then gets up to check on the assassin. He's back a few moments later, putting an arm around her shoulders and helping her sit up. "He's dead. God's wounds, what happened?"

"It's my knee," she says, and then, like a perfectDummkopf, she starts crying.

Shehatescrying.

Alek looks worried and unsure; he's likely never had a girl cry all over him before. He brushes her hair off her forehead and then fiddles with her coat lapels, tugging them straight. "Can you walk?"

Deryn wipes at her eyes with the cuffs of her coat, willing herself to stop blubbering. The pain has eased off a little, which helps. "I don't - I don't know."

Which is a problem in many ways. They've four bodies to get under a roof and out of sight from any overflights by enemy aircraft, not to mention a flaming hulk of walker wreckage to deal with. If Deryn can't walk - and she suspects she can't - Alek will have to do everything himself.

He looks around the courtyard. Gears turn behind his handsome face. "All right," he finally says. He shifts so that his shoulder is under hers, bracing, and lifts. "Auf deinen Füßen."

Together, they do indeed get her on her feet, then make it across the courtyard to the stables, where she leans against the wall while Alek finds an old, empty crate for her to sit on. Then he gives her the rifle and the binoculars.

"You don't even need a sodding guard now," Deryn says, grumbling to hide how that little bit of slow, shuffling movement has her knee screaming again. "Everyone's dead."

He leans down and cradles the side of her face with one hand, sliding his fingers through her hair with the other, kissing her all the while. Softly. Gently. As if she's something precious.

And when that's done, he rests his forehead against hers for a long moment, saying nothing, just breathing with her.

I love you, she thinks at him.

Blisters, how stupid of her. No future in it. Less than nothing, if she gets shot because she's hobbling around.

"Keep watch anyway," he says.

He goes off to tidy things up, and she rests the rifle across her lap and keeps watch. Not much else she can do.

It's been a long time since anatomy lessons with Dr. Busk. She can't remember how to treat a torn ligament or muscle or whatever she's bollixed up in there - and there's a lot of important bits inside a knee joint.

Deryn focuses on breathing, slow and steady, and doing her best to survey the castle grounds. Because she's an airman, she also surveys the sky, and because she knows the stars as well as the back of her hand, the movement catches her attention right away.

She fetches the binoculars from their case, fumbling with numb fingers, and peers more closely.

"Oi," she calls. "Airship approaching from the east at sixty knots."

Alek has been dragging one of the assassins' bodies toward the stables, cursing profusely as he does. He stops at her announcement. Lets the body rest on the cobblestones. Turns east. "Where?"

She starts to answer the way she would've in the Air Service, then pauses. He's a walker pilot, but how much British airman jargon will he understand? Instead she says, "Just there," and points.

He follows her finger, frowning and squinting, and his shoulders stiffen when he picks out the darker shape moving against the night sky. "Airbeast or zeppelin?"

"Even I can't tell at this distance," she says. "Closer in, the engines will give it away."

They both know full well that no Darwinist country is sending an airbeast over this patch of Switzerland right as the missing emperor arrives. This is the sodding conspiracy again.

How much moneydothose bastards have? Or worse: has the coup been successful? They haven't seen a newspaper since Bern. Maybe Alek doesn't have an empire to return to.

They stay where they are for a minute, watching, until suddenly he turns to her. "Can you manage stairs?"

Her knee's mostly stopped hurting - maybe it's gone as numb as her fingers - but even the thought of climbing stairs makes her stomach drop. Still. This is no time to go wobbly. She sets her spine and says, "Aye, I can make it. Might need help."

He looks offended. "Of course I'll help. You were injured protecting me, Deryn. You deserve to be appointed to the Military Order of Maria Theresa."

They lever her to her feet again. Much to her relief, her knee doesn't immediately start shrieking in pain, but sheknowsit's not steady. She resists the urge to use the Gewehr as a walking stick - it's too fine a rifle for it. "A medal comes with that?"

"A knighthood," he says as they limp across the courtyard.

She whistles. "Dead fancy."

He flashes a brief smile. "If you must have a medal, I'll put you in for a Military Merit Cross."

"I already have an Air Gallantry Cross," she says. She does; she hid it and pretended it was lost when the Admiralty demanded it back. Wondering if she'll be allowed to wear it on an Austro-Hungarian uniform, she adds, "No knighthood, though."

"Remarkably short-sighted of Britain,RitterSharp," he says, then tsks. "Ritterin, rather. You'll be the first woman named to the Order."

She takes it thatRitteris German forsir knightor thereabouts. "Aye, I usually am."

They reach the top of the tower and Deryn switches from Alek's shoulder to the stone parapet, which is much less nice to lean on. She rests the rifle against the wall and holds out the binoculars.

"No," he says, declining. "You know what you're looking at better than I do."

Since it's true, she doesn't argue. She also doesn't point out that it's hardly a kingly thing to say.

Despite the occasional display of imperial arrogance, he's thoughtful. Kind. For example, just now he stands close to her, blocking the wind with his body, lending her his warmth.

What she's looking at is an airship running without lights. Risky, but not too, given that there aren't likely to be other aircraft crossing its path.

Déjà vu stirs again.

"Will they land on the glacier?"

Shehmmsand lowers the binoculars. "Only good space for it. It's tricky to land in the mountains, regardless. The air's unpredictable."

Alek nods, eyes fixed on the growing black shape of the airship. "We saw an airship nearly crash on that glacier, not long after we arrived in '14. Of course, it was under attack at the time - that hardly helped, I would imagine."

His tone is casual, but the back of her neck is prickling. "A British airbeast?"

"Perhaps?" he says. He frowns. "In fact, yes. It was being attacked by German planes."

"Barking spiders - that was me!" she exclaims, certain of it, and growing more certain every moment. Now all the déjà vu makes sense, though it's been ages since she's thought of it - so many mad things had happened afterwards that that one early skirmish barely signified. "TheLeviathan, I mean. Right at the start of the war, German fighters nearly brought us down in the Swiss Alps. Bloody good thing they didn't, or we'd never have been able to get up again. And I was topside for most of the fight. I would've been thrown overboard if we'd crashed."

He stares at her. "Deryn."

"Don't start blethering on about destiny," she warns.

"No," he says, then stops and shakes his head. "No. Only - it would have been nice to have met you then. I sorely needed a friend."

"So did Middy Sharp," she says. It's an admission she wouldn't make to anyone else in the world, but it's true. She nudges him with an elbow and grins, trying to lighten things. " 'Course, that might not've worked, once yourfriendDylan started mooning over you. I was prone to mooning, then."

"I don't know," he says, thoughtful. He puts an arm around her waist and snugs her against him. "I do find you very attractive in trousers."

She kisses his cheek, which is scratchy with stubble after a week of no shaving, and focuses her attention on the sky again.

"Zeppelin," she says. It's adjusted its heading slightly, and she can see moonlight glittering on the metal frame of the balloon.

He mutters something in German, too low and fast for her to parse, and then says, "It will be Volger."

Her eyebrow goes up. "You're sure?"

"It will be Volger," he says again, more firmly, as if he can make it so simply by demanding it.

The engine noise reaches them: the heavy thrum of big Clanker engines running hard, familiar to her from four years of war. She knows exactly what sort of damage an armed zeppelin can do.

If it's not Volger, they're going to die very quickly.

She forces down her fear and trusts the young man standing behind her. "Jawohl, mein Kaiser."

Alek doesn't say anything, but his arm tightens around her, and then he lets go and deliberately moves so that he's between her and the zeppelin.

It'll do sod all to protect her if there's shooting.

It's both the most and least kingly thing he's done yet.

The zeppelin's slowing even as it comes upon them, turning broadside to the castle, the engine noise rumbling through her chest, ugly and invasive as only machines can be. The markings on the balloon and gondola are Austrian, but that means nothing. Deryn grips the barrel of the Gewehr.

A spotlight blinks on in the zeppelin's gondola and sweeps through the night until it lands squarely on them. Pinning them in place.

Deryn shields her eyes. Daft. She ought to be ducking down, dragging Alek with her, into the dubious shelter of the parapet.

The spotlight blinks off. Then a smaller light - a signal light - begins blinking on and off in rapid succession. She automatically translates the Morse code to letters, but of course it's not in English, so it makes no bloody sense to her.

What does make sense: they're not shooting. Barking spiders, it reallyisVolger.

"I knew it," Alek says, grinning at her. In relief, she suspects. "Do we have a light?"

She shakes her head. "I can reply with semaphore, if you spell the message out for me."

Whatever he says must be satisfactory to the folks aboard the zeppelin, because it shoves off and manages a fairly decent landing on the glacier. Almost immediately, a small group exits the gondola on foot and starts for the castle.

Deryn hands over the binoculars. "Anyone you recognize?"

"Volger himself, and thank Heaven for it."

She's still not wholly convinced of the much-vaunted Volger's good intentions, but a full week of being shot at with bullets and rockets, of dodging and hiding and living by their wits, keeping a clueless emperor out of sight and out of danger, falling in love with that emperor, with not enough food and not enough sleep, and now a busted knee… all of that suddenly comes crashing down on her shoulders. She'stired. She wants to turn her burden over to someone else for a few hours.

Just a few. Then she'll get back to saving Alek's life.

"I'll take the knighthood, but I want that sodding promotion, too, Your Majesty," she says, watching Volger's group progress. They're moving fast. Must have brought snowshoes. Of course they would've; Volger had lived in the castle too. "Colonel would be best. Major if I have to."

"I was considering something higher," he says, putting his arm around her again. When she looks at him, the question on her face, he asks, "How about empress?"

She's going to kill him.

Notes:

"Munro bagging" refers to summiting the tallest mountains in Scotland, a list of which was made by Sir Hugh Munro in the 1890s.

Chapter 10: following the rules, pt 2

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

It's not being together,

It's just following the rules

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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.

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"I expected you to join your travel companion in the ship's surgery," Volger says as Alek shuts the door to the stateroom. This one is fitted out as an office rather than a lounge. Volger's office, specifically. A desk, chairs, little else. Currently the desk boasts a great deal of correspondence and an aluminum coffee service.

Because the airship is an official vessel of theKaiserliche und Königliche Monarchie, there is also framed portrait of Alek on the wall, which he glances at before looking away with a grimace.

"I would only be in the way," Alek says, seating himself in one of the aluminum-frame chairs. It's true, and it neatly sidesteps the actual reasons why he isn't hovering at Deryn's side now that they're aboard theKétsas.

One: it's incredibly difficult to watch her be in pain, and have no way to alleviate it.

Two: she's furious with him, if the cursing and scowls are any indication.

Three: he's rather furious with her, as well.

He's also tired and cold, and hasn't begun to work through the complicated knot of guilt and regret that comes with killing two men. He's in no mood to have the conversations he knows he needs to have with Volger. The conversations hewillhave, because as emperor, he has no choice.

It says something about one's job, he reflects, when the most enjoyable part is running for one's life.

Volger has taken the seat behind the desk. Technically, this is an insult, as Alek has the higher rank and therefore should have the more commanding seat. Now he says, "She seems a charming girl."

Alek isn't fooled by the bland tone; this is also, technically, an insult. He gives Volger a dark look. "HauptmannSharp was injured in service to me."

One eyebrow lifts. "Indeed."

"She's saved my life several times this week."

The eyebrow remains up.

Alek resists the urge to squirm in his chair like a disobedient child and instead says, voice level and brisk, "I made her an offer of marriage."

Volger sighs.

"You'll be pleased to know that she declined," Alek adds. This time he only sounds bitter.

What she had actually said, standing atop the castle tower, moonlight gleaming on her hair, the glacier and his heart laid at her feet, wasYou bloody sodding Dummkopf, what are you thinking? I'd rather be dead than be an empress!

The abbreviated version serves just as well.

He'd said something in reply – something perfectly stupid, he's sure – and it had swiftly devolved into a lot of angry words. He can't remember the specifics, only the wretchedhurtof it. Then she'd stomped down the tower stairs, refusing his assistance, and would no doubt have limped straight across the glacier to theKétsashad the landing party not reached them first.

He cannot understand it. He was certain – on the train to Lyon, she had seemed – and whenever they'd stopped for rest on the walker portion of their journey, she'd practically clung to him –

But he was wrong. She would rather be dead than his empress.

Would it truly be so awful? Itisa lot of work, a lot of scrutiny, and occasionally a lot of danger - but one also lives in palaces and has every luxury available. Not to mention that it would mean that they could be together.

Yes, howodious. God's wounds.

Volger makes a noncommittal noise and silently gives over a cup of hot coffee, which Alek needs more than he cares to admit. He drinks, then simply holds the cup with both hands, appreciating the warmth. Outside, the engines change pitch, the floor lurches, and they are off.

Does the surgery have portholes? It must. He wonders if Deryn has a view of the mountains, or if she even cares to see. Perhaps she's preoccupied. Has the ship's doctor begun his examination yet?

How badly is she hurt?

It doesn't matter. She doesn't want to marry him, which means she's merely a captain of his Air Corps, and he will not trouble himself over her any further than that.

When she'd cried out and fallen -

No. No, he has other things to worry about. Alek tries to put away his fear for her health and the humiliation of his disastrous proposal, and to focus on something more pleasant, like the pending loss of his crown. "Vienna, I assume?"

"Eventually," Volger says. "We have a few more urgent places to go first."

Cryptic. Of course. Perhaps that's why Alek finds Deryn's straightforwardness so refreshing; he's spent the last five years receiving vital information in the smallest possible morsels, and being forced to beg for more.

Unfortunately for Volger, Alek doesn't care to drag out any further details about their destinations. He drinks his coffee and stares at the electrikal light affixed to the ceiling.

He almost misses the unsteady, sickly green glow of Darwinist lamps.

"How bad is it?" he asks, because he must. "How many of my ministers are part of this?"

Volger meets his eyes for a long, steadying moment. "Half."

Alek curses and pushes a hand through his hair.Half.No doubt the same half who have been bickering and grumbling about all of his reforms. The same half who have hounded him to marry a Catholic princess but were suspiciously silent when his trip to Britain was announced. The same rabidly traditional half who would have been in a fury about his proposal to Deryn.

The same half who will be unavailable for protest once he has them put on trial for high treason.

It's a grim sort of satisfaction, but he takes it. "And who is behind it?"

"Princess Stéphanie of Belgium."

The name is so wholly unexpected that it takes Alek a moment to understand it, then another to remember where it falls in the tangled family trees of royal Europe. He sets his empty cup on the desk. "KronprinzRudolf's wife."

Volger nods, his face impassive.

Crown Prince Rudolf, whose death saw inheritance of the empire shift to Alek's father, and thence to Alek. It hadn't simply been adeath, though. Rudolf had killed one of his mistresses and then himself; a personal tragedy, a family tragedy, a dynastic tragedy, a national tragedy, a shocking scandal, an impossibly heretical last act from the future His Most Catholic Majesty.

In the devastation afterwards, his wife and daughter had faded into the background, though it seems the princess has only been biding her time.

Alek would like to be as impassive as his former fencing tutor, but he can't keep the incredulity from his voice: "Who is she putting forth as claimant? Herself?"

Volger has poured himself a cup of coffee, and he sips it calmly. "The prince's daughter, of course. Archduch*ess Elisabeth Marie."

Alek stares. "A woman can't inherit the throne."

Otherwise the double-eagle crown would be resting on the capable head of Franz Joseph's oldest daughter, and Alek would be a minor prince from a side branch of the House of Hapsburg-Lorraine.

"Still less a devoted Socialist," Volger says, dry. "One suspects the princess didn't consult her daughter's wishes on the matter. My agents report the archduch*ess has been taken from her home and is being held at the princess' Pressburg estate, presumably against her will, as they openly loathe each other. We shall retrieve her."

After the week Alek's had, storming a castle to rescue an archduch*ess sounds positively dull. "And half of my ministers are supporting this - thisfarce?"

"The archduch*ess is a direct descendent of Franz Joseph, and has three sons from an equal marriage." Volger folds his hands in his lap and leans back slightly in his chair. "And her mother has access to considerable funds."

Ah yes, because Princess Stéphanie is the daughter of King Leopold II, who owned - and exploited - the lucrative Congo Free State. That answers the question of who paid for the assassins.

"While I have only a papal dispensation," Alek says. One that's already been challenged in legal and ecclesiastical court. The ecclesiastical case is still ongoing, in point of fact. If Archduke Karl had been intent on becoming emperor three years ago, Alek would have been on shaky ground indeed - but his father's cousin had been glad to pass the throne on to someone else.

Alek doesn't lean back in his chair; he slumps, propping one elbow on an armrest and cradling his forehead against a sudden headache.

This is not a farce.

A direct descendent of the previous emperor, with three male heirs already extant and a close connection to another royal house, could very well outweigh Alek's claim - particularly if the archduch*ess is only named as a regent for her oldest son. It's precisely the sort of maneuver that would-be kings and kingmakers have been pulling since before the Roman Empire, never mind the Holy Roman Empire.

And half of his ministers are championing it.

For the first time, it seems that losing his crown is not merely possible, but the most likely outcome.

All of that effort, fleeing across Europe - and Deryn's injury. How badlyisshe hurt? And is it to be for naught?

Though perhaps she'll marry him if -

Volger lays two folded newspapers on the desk, one atop the other, precisely in the center of the blotter. "Heaven also seems to have dispatched an angel."

"An angel," he repeats, uncomprehending, then looks at the newspapers. The top one isDie Presse, published in Vienna two days earlier.

BRITAIN'S ANGEL AIDING EMPEROR, it proclaims. The headline is accompanied by a photograph of Deryn Sharp arriving at the London party where they first met, beautiful and strong and clever. Angelic, in a word.

Alek fairly snatches up the newspaper, his heart racing. According to unnamed, "highly placed" sources cited by a certain Eddie Malone, the decorated British lieutenant from his initial story has been revealed as Miss Deryn Sharp, formerly of His Majesty's Royal Air Service, and previously believed to have been discharged from the military in some disgrace.

Malone asserts that this was all a ruse; that as a virtuous, patriotic young woman, Miss Sharp has long been working as an undercover agent of sorts for the British government; and that she was sent along by King George V himself, who wisely feared for the safety of his guest and ally, Emperor Aleksandar. There follows an impressive recounting of Miss Sharp's valorous exploits during the war and in service to the emperor, as well as the promise that she will be acting as a liaison for the empire's Darwinist allies.

In the end, she does sound rather like Joan of Arc. Or, as Malone repeatedly refers to her,the Angel of the Airships, which is no less ridiculous than his originalAngel of the Air, but at least more descriptive of her area of expertise.

Die Presseconcludes by exhorting the people of Austria-Hungary to support their emperor.

"Most of this is false," Alek says to Volger, returning the paper to the desk, photograph facing upwards. His heart is still pounding. Diabolically clever of Malone - but false.

"Of course it is," Volger says. He seems most unimpressed. "May I ask - howdidyou meet?"

"At this party," Alek says, tapping the photograph. There had been photographers lurking on the street outside, he remembers, probably to take pictures of him; he's glad one of them captured Deryn instead. "She offered to show me London from her balloon."

Volger makes a noise that exactly indicates his opinion of such forwardness. "An offer you took at face value, as you did the telegraph recalling you home."

Alek counters the barb with one of his own: "That telegraph came from your office."

Volger does not sayI taught you better than that, but the sentence hangs in the air nonetheless.

Alek sighs and takes up the second newspaper.Wiener Zeitungis the official publication of his government, and as such, it's far more staid. The long editorial supporting his claim to the throne is only to be expected - but the equally long editorial singing Deryn Sharp's praises is a surprise indeed.

"What's this?" he asks. Accuses, rather.

Volger's eyebrow lifts again. "In order to strengthen your claim to the throne, Your Majesty, you need to hold the morally superior position, which you cannot do if you appear to be frolicking around Europe with a foreign girl of dubious virtue."

Alek begins to protest on Deryn's behalf, then reconsiders. Volger's correct, for one, and for another, he doesn't need to advertise exactly how much he knows about her virtue. "We were hardly frolicking."

Volger finishes his coffee. "Regardless. You will agree that it was clever of the British king to have dispatched such an exemplary agent to safeguard you on your journey."

"One who will serve as a liaison with the British government, which now must support me, since Malone has established it before the world as afait accompli." Alek finds himself grinning. Perhaps he'll knight Eddie Malone, too, because where Britain goes, the rest of the Allied nations will follow.

A papal dispensation, an angel… and half the world. He'd like to see Princess Stéphanie matchthat.

"Miss Sharp's story has seized the imagination of the masses as well. Romanticized drivel, obviously. My agents report that a film serial is already being made." Volger refolds the copy ofWeiner Zeitungand sets it aside, although Alek half expects him to use the paper to sweep away the zeitgeist he so clearly disdains.

"A film serial," Alek says. He's still grinning. "Brilliant. We'll have it screened at the Schönbrunn. Or the Hofburg, if need be."

Volger does not share his enthusiasm. "Appearances must be maintained, for the benefit of the Darwinist nations and yourhoi polloi, but after today, Your Majesty, you would be wise to limit your time with the 'Angel of the Airships'."

Alek's eyes go toDie Presse's photograph of Deryn, almost despite himself. He picks up the newspaper again before Volger can, studying the picture. She looks bright and lively, unlike the exhausted, scowling, filthy young woman currently aboard.

Scowling, filthy, and so dear that he'd insisted on carrying one pole of the stretcher they'd used to transport her to the airship.

It seems a lifetime ago that he heard her laughing from across a room in London. He remembers the magnetic feeling that drew him toward her. The way he could not bring himself to end their conversation. His pleasure at the prospect of spending more time with her.

Had he somehow known, even then, how important she would be?

Guilt and worry crowd back in, along with frustration and anger - at himself, this time. What was he thinking? He'd gone about it completely wrong. Tossing out a proposal so casually, before even telling her of his feelings for her! Of course she refused him.

God's wounds. He'll ask her again.Properly.

Shehasto agree.

I had to fly, her voice says in his memory, bleak and lonely, and the gears click into place.

Suddenly, abruptly, he understands why she refused. The insight leaves him reeling and slightly nauseous.

She was right; he is aDummkopf.

A crown on her head won't be a gift, nor a palace a luxury; they will be anchors, permanently mooring her to the earth. Denying her the freedom to do what she loves, what she excels at doing.

He can't imagine a life without her. Yet how can he ask her to imagine a life in a cage?

He's gripping the newspaper so tightly that it's threatening to tear. He takes a deep, steadying breath and relaxes his fingers.

"You shall need to minimize her actual involvement with any decisions, as well," Volger is saying. "Perhaps she can serve as secretary during meetings, although I shudder to think about such a creature's penmanship."

"I've asked her to advise me regarding air combat," Alek says, still looking at the photograph although no longer seeing it. His voice sounds strange to his own ears, and he swallows. It helps his throat, though it does nothing for the hollow sensation in his chest.

"Reasonable," Volger allows. "I trust you won't feel honor-bound to actually take her advice."

Startled, Alek frowns at him. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Indeed," his prime minister says, scornful. "Why wouldn't you propose marriage a mere week after meeting her?"

Alek sets the paper aside. This is beginning to feel like a fencing lesson, and he doesn't want to fence, or be taught a lesson. He wants to check on Deryn. Speak to the doctor. Fix his mistakes. "You told me to propose to Princess Mary sight unseen."

Volger gives him an unamused look. "Princess Mary expects a diplomatic marriage. The best Miss Sharp should expect is payment in exchange for her silence."

Anger flares. "She deserves more than -"

Volger brings the flat of his palm down on the desk with a sharp crack and a sharper, "Enough!"

Evidently Alek isn't the only one growing angry.

"Your Majesty," Volger says. Low. Angry. "You have more important matters to deal with. She has been useful, and she may very well be the most perfect woman in all existence -"

Alek scowls, his own anger growing. "No, but sheisamazing, and I won't have -"

"You will need to maneuver carefully -"

"Easier to do with a capable empress -"

Volger ends the argument with a furious, "This ruined your father!"

The words cut into him. Deeply. As they are meant to. Even as Alek flinches from the wound, even as he readies a return strike - he looks at Volger. Truly looks at him.

His fencing tutor. His guardian. His prime minister.

More than that: his father's oldest, dearest friend.

The nearest thing to a father he has left.

He closes his eyes. Takes a breath that only makes the hollowness in his chest ache more. "I know," he says quietly. Opens his eyes. The man on the other side of the desk looks suddenly old and tired and human, and it makes Alek flinch all over again. "Volger. Iknow."

He'd thought the same thing, after all, on the train to Lyon. Thought it, then blithely disregarded it, exactly as he'd cast aside any consideration for Deryn's feelings on the matter. As he's doing to Volger's concerns now.

Perhaps this is indeed a farce, though not a very amusing one. He runs a hand over his face. "If you wish to resign..."

Volger scoffs. The sound is familiar, expected, and Alek draws his next breath around a small splinter of relief. At least he hasn't ruinedeverything."You can hardly do without me, Your Majesty."

Alek inclines his head in acknowledgement. He doesn't trust himself to speak.

"A cabin has been prepared for you," Volger says after a long, watchful pause. "There should be hot water in the officers' baths as well, although not much of it. Damned inconvenient way to travel, in many respects."

Alek nods. "I think," he says, then stops. "Thank you. I'd like to speak with the captain after I bathe, as well as the doctor, if he's available."

"Of course, Your Majesty."

Alek stands, and Volger comes to his feet too, as protocol dictates.

"I can't marry her," Alek says. Each word hurts.

Volger shakes his head. Slowly. Not without pity.

Alek is cold, tired, full of grief and regret and worry and fear, and for a brief mad instant he wishes Volgerwashis father, for then he could let all of it show. He could collapse and be forgiven. But such a thing is unthinkable, when they're still usingSiewith one another. When he is the emperor.

An emperor cannot collapse, even when his crown is killing him.

"Thank you for the rescue, sir," Emperor Aleksandar says. And he goes.

Notes:

Die Presse was first published in 1848. Weiner Zeitung ("Viennese Newspaper"), founded in 1703 and formally taken over by the Austrian government in 1810, is one of the oldest newspapers in the world still being published.

Princess Stéphanie! As much as I feel kinda sorry for her, she sounds like… not a fun person. Later in life, she wrote a memoir entitled "I Was to Be Empress". Bitter much, Steph? Plus, her dad was a genocidal monster - the term "crimes against humanity" was coined in 1890 to describe what Leopold did to the people of the Congo. Actually, it's weird she's not used as a villain more often, she's definitely got the right ingredients.

More about Archduch*ess Elisabeth Marie to come, because Erzsi may be my favorite Hapsburg yet.

I can't do justice to Rudolf, poor Baroness Mary Vetsera (WHO WAS 17, EW RUDOLF), and the Mayerling Incident in an author's note, but you'll find plenty written about it out there.

The Schönbrunn Palace was the imperial summer residence; the Hofburg was the principal residence, and also the winter one, because why not.

Finally, in German, du is the informal form of you while Sie is formal. It's a whole thing that makes me glad English dropped its informal you a long time ago (RIP, thou). But yeah, there's no way Alek and Volger are using du with each other. Shame, 'cause that boy needs a hug. Maybe he'll get one next chapter!

Chapter 11: just to make sure

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Just to make sure that you were real

Just to make sure that I can still feel you

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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"It wants rest," the ship's doctor says, meaning her knee. Dr. Mészáros is speaking French, which is not his best language, according to him, but Deryn's German isn't up to the conversation, and her Hungarian is nonexistent. "You have torn - ah - not a muscle. A ligament. Yes. This is what I suspect."

Deryn sighs. "Oui, moi aussi."

Speaking French reminds her too much of Calais and Paris and that train ride to Lyon, when assassins were trying to kill them, aye, but she and Alek were becoming friends. And then becoming more than friends.

Too much more, because he's ruined it now.

Although, if she's to be honest, she's done some ruining herself. Cursing at someone is not the best way to decline a proposal.

It's just sounfair. She'd marry him in a heartbeat if he wasn't an emperor.

She sighs again. Maybe she ought to have said that, instead of telling him she'd rather be dead.

The doctor adjusts the clever metal contraption of struts and gears that's serving as a brace for her knee. There's a layer of bandaging between it and her skin, to make it more comfortable; it's a relief, actually, to have something supporting the joint.

No pain. Inconvenient, that, because she can't pretend the ache in her chest has its origins in her knee.

Alek had gawped at her for a moment, and then, imperially offended, had fired back,You can't be serious. No one's that stupid!

So she'd called him something much worse than aDummkopf, and from there it had turned into a lot of swearing and angry words that had only ceased when the landing party came into earshot. From the wee smirk on that Volger's face, she suspected he'd overheard at least some of it.

And then not a word from Alek all the way across the glacier to the airship. Not even a glance in her direction. As if he'd never met her. As if they hadn't trekked halfway across Europe together. Hadn't – well.

No wonder Flora MacDonald had stuffed Bonnie Prince Charlie into a boat and sent him on his way. Kings aren't worth the trouble.

"Rest and compression for now," Dr. Mészáros tells her. He pats the aluminum frame of the sickbay bed - bolted to the floor, same as on a Darwinist ship, to prevent the wounded from sliding around during combat maneuvers. "Then the surgery when we land."

She looks at her knee. Cutting into it doesn't seem the thing to make it feel better. "It needs surgery?"

The doctor glances over his shoulder, apparently checking to see if the airman posted at the sickbay door is minding them. He's not. He's too busy trying not to let anyone see him yawning. It's late enough that they're coming to the end of first watch, if Austro-Hungarian airships run on the same schedule as British ones, and the young airman is likely looking forward to his bed.

The entire crew is young, including the doctor. The ship's young, too. Shiny metal, glossy paint, crisp edges. She reckons it was built during the war but never saw any fighting.

The doctor lowers his voice despite the lack of eavesdroppers. "At the Sorbonne, they taught a different method, using a fabrication as a… ah, a poultice. It does not require surgery. Frankly, I find it superior."

"You were at the Sorbonne?" Deryn asks, startled that any Clanker would want to attend a Darwinist school, but not startled that he found their medicine superior. That's obvious.

"A few months only," Dr. Mészáros says, demurring. He adjusts his glasses. "The war began, and I must help my country."

The airman at the door yawns again, this time into his hand.

"If His Majesty approves, I will ask a doctor friend in France for this poultice," the doctor says, rising from the chair beside her bed. "You will rest."

"Herr Doktor," she says, nodding. It earns her a tired smile from the doctor before he leaves. The airman barely stifles another yawn as the doctor walks past.

Deryn adjusts her pillow, laces her fingers across her stomach, and shuts her eyes.

Just an injured, exhausted girl. Harmless. Helpless. Crushed to powder by the guilty weight sitting on her heart.

The problem with this king is - heisworth the trouble. And she's the one who bollixed everything up. Scared about her knee, angry about the universe having a laugh at her, and taking it out on him when he was only trying to be honorable.

Apologizing is the right thing to do, and it needs to be soon, before something else goes wrong. But first she has to find him.

That means an escape is in order.

After a minute, she hears the airman shift a chair closer to him and sit down. After another few minutes, she opens her eyes and sees the poor lad has slumped sideways, sound asleep.

Cautiously, she swings her legs off the side of the bed and stands. Dr. Mészáros had removed her boots, but she's better off in her socks anyway if her goal is sneaking about.

Which it is.

She keeps her eyes on the sleeping guard and takes a step; the brace clicks and whirs softly and holds her knee steady. She takes another step, with similar success, and feels more confident.

The doctor had also rolled up her left trouser leg to get the brace on. She manages to tug it down again; the fabric is tight around her knee.

The airman doesn't so much as twitch as she approaches, and asleep he looks all of twelve years old, though of course he's probably the same age she is, or near enough to it.

Deryn limps over to the door and grips the frame to steady herself while she looks both ways down the corridor. Alek and that Volger had kept going after she'd been deposited here, so once she's sure there's no one ready to raise the alarm, she begins making her way towards the bow, hand on the wall for balance. Just in case.

It's strange to be aboard a ship lit by bulbs and not glowworms. The electrical lights are steady but too bright against the darkness outside, and she misses the bioluminescence.

A memory strikes her, of Alek looking at her on the train, eyes dark, hair untidy and nearly black in the pale green wormlight. Breathless. Happy.

She takes a deep breath. Presses onward.

As she's passing the open door to what looks like the officers' mess, there's a noise behind her, and she glances back to see the sleepy airman is very much awake and very much alarmed. He hurries after her, calling out, "Stop!" in German.

Sod it all.

She's tired, she's cold, she's hungry, and her knee is being held together by bloody clockworks. Dealing with this looby is the last thing she wants.

Luckily, it seems she won't have to. A door ahead of her opens, and Volger steps out, followed shortly by Alek.

Every clever thing she meant to say flies right out of her skull.

Alek's bathed. Changed into fresh clothes: a navy blue suit and waistcoat and matching tie, fairly gleaming with money. Shiny black shoes on his feet. Hair orderly. He has his pocket watch in one hand.

His eyes widen as he sees her, and then he disappears behind a blank, imperial mask.

"HauptmannSharp," he says. His voice is blank, too.

Still pretending he doesn't know her, then.

She covers the hurt with Dylan's brisk, confident attitude, and stares at a point just over Alek's shoulder. "Your Majesty."

I'm sorry.A different pair of words. Easy enough.

She's not going to say them to a mask, however.Hecould be apologizing toher, after all, for blindsiding her with a badly-timed, clumsy proposal, then yelling at her when she turned him down.

"Escaped, I see," Volger says, eyeing her. He shifts his attention to the hapless airman and says something dismissive in German; the airman salutes and scuttles off.

"I don't need to be in sickbay," she says, even though it's ridiculous of her to say it when she's leaning on the wall.

Volger scoffs. "Far be it for us to gainsay your medical expertise, Miss Sharp."

Alek tucks his watch into his waistcoat pocket and does up the buttons on his jacket. "I shall be meeting with the captain shortly. You should join us."

"As your air combat advisor." Dylan never cried, and there's no reason for her to start now, simply because an emperor is talking to her like she's below him. Sheisbelow him. And she's going to stand straight as she can and hold her eyes steady.

"Of course," he says. He hasn't looked at her this whole time. "If you'd like to bathe first, you can use my cabin."

Standing next to the two of them, both starched and pressed, makes her feel even itchier and dirtier than before. Common-born, unfeminine, and not rating a turn in the officers' baths.

Chin up. Stare straight ahead. "Thanks, Your Majesty."

"Volger," Alek says, nods at the man - maybe at Deryn - and strides away.

Deryn doesn't watch him go. She turns toward the door he and Volger just exited, saying, "This is the one, then?"

Volger says, "Make yourself at home, Miss Sharp," in a withering tone that she hates to admit she finds impressive.

"Aye, I will," she says in her own scornful tone, limping inside.

It's a cabin on an airship. Smaller than the captain's quarters; large for what it is. The bed's wider than the usual narrow bunk, and the linens are high quality. The porthole has an expensive-looking curtain over it and an aluminum desk and chair beneath it. An upended traveling trunk takes up the rest of the space. Three suits hang inside, with empty hangers showing where Alek's current clothes used to be.

There's a folded newspaper on the desk. She wonders why.

"You came prepared," Deryn says to Volger, lurking behind her. She gestures at the trunk.

"Fortune favors the prepared, as they say." He snaps his fingers, and a man hustles into the cabin, carrying a bucket of steaming water, soap, and a bundle of cloth that must be a washrag and towel.

The man's wearing inconspicuous civilian clothes, not a uniform. She reckons he belongs to Volger. He sets the bucket down by the desk and stacks the soap and cloth on the chair, then disappears again.

"A tired cliche, but an accurate one, particularly in wartime," Volger continues. He clasps his hands behind his back, every inch an old cavalry officer. "Once we ascertained the identity of His Majesty's companion, I had a few things brought along for you, as well."

For some reason, her eyes go to the newspaper again. It's the only thing on the desk, so it must be important. "Companion? Bit more than that. I saved his life."

"Don't play the angel with me, Miss Sharp," Volger says. Eyes narrow. Voice hard. "It's a wasted effort."

His dogsbody returns, now burdened with Deryn's boots, a cane, and a valise. Working for someone as tiresome as Volger must make you good at all sorts of juggling.

The boots and cane are leaned against the bed. Then the man opens the valise and lays out a set of women's clothes on the bed: skirt and jacket in a subdued, dark grey; shirtwaist; stockings; chemise. The skirt and the chemise are both long enough to reach her ankles, tall as she is. The entire outfit is probably worth more than her balloon back home.

"I trust you'll find these satisfactory," Volger says.

Deryn glances at Alek's spare suits, then at the clothes on the bed. She sighs. "Aye, thanks."

Volger gives the man a curt nod, and he slips out of the room as silently as he'd come. "His Majesty is meeting with the captain, the ship's bosun, and the doctor to discuss our next actions. You'll be serving as the liaison between Austria-Hungary and Britain - on paper, at least. One must appear the part."

That's news. Who arranged an official position for her? Not Britain. From Volger's expression, not Austria-Hungary, either. "So I'm to be a proper lady, when the cameras are on me."

Volger's mustache twitches, so she can be aware of the insult. "Indeed."

She makes a long, slow show of looking around the cabin before meeting his gaze square on. "No cameras aboard."

He smiles. It's cool and razor-edged and never comes anywhere near his eyes. "Begin as you mean to go on, Miss Sharp," he says smoothly, moving to the door. He pauses there and adds, "However long that may be."

The door shuts behind him before she can throw anything.

Bastard, she thinks, scowling.

She looks at the bucket of water, still steaming invitingly, and the newspaper on the desk.

She picks up the newspaper.

It's in German, butDie Presseis simple enough to translate. The headline below has the wordKaiser, which she also recognizes.

And the photo of herself is perfectly clear.

She freezes in shock for a moment, staring at herself from a week ago, wearing a borrowed dress to a party she wasn't invited to.Deryn Sharp, the caption says, along with a lot of German blether. She picks out some of the same words from the headline.Engel.Luftschiffe.

Luftschiffeseems familiar. She says it under her breath and is sure of it - it's one of the words Alek taught her.Airship. Orairships, maybe. She's not sure of the written word's pronunciation.

She scans the rest of the article and recognizes a few more words.Leviathan. Eddie Malone.

Of course Eddie sodding Malone's involved.

What's itsay, though? She'd kill to know. And why does Alek have it on his desk?

Maybe he likes the photograph. There are five wavy spots around it, where the paper got wet. She matches her hand to the spots. Four fingers and a thumb, maybe fresh from bathing.

She can picture Alek pushing his hand through his hair and then laying his fingertips on the paper. Framing her photograph, like.

That's not the action of someone pretending he doesn't know her. Did he put on the mask just now because he thought she was done with him? The same way she'd put on Dylan?

There's no future in this, she reminds herself. Hope glows in her heart anyway, like a daft little worm that doesn't know when it's been whistled down to darkness.

She gives herself a shake and focuses instead on the important business of washing up. A squick trickier than usual, since she doesn't want to get the brace wet. It might rust.

The soap isn't military-issue. No military in the world would give its troops fine-milled, perfumed soap when iron-hard, crumbling bars are available for so much cheaper. She breathes in the scent it leaves on her skin and wonders if that's what Alek smells like now.

Will she have the chance to find out? Another good question.

Clean and toweled off, she has a stare-down with the clothes awaiting her on the bed.

She picks up the shirtwaist. Pleated silk, with mother-of-pearl buttons. It's a dainty shade of pink that brings to mind her auntie's prize rosebushes, and it's lovely, no question about that. She'll look like a proper lady, wearing it. An advisor and liaison - on paper, at least.

Or.

Her eyes light on a second option - a mad one, a terrible one - and she starts to grin.

Begin as you mean to go on, after all.

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The officer who ushers her in to the captain's quarters does it stone-faced, but then, he's had the trip down the corridor to conceal his feelings. The men sitting around the table don't have the luxury of time.

It's a delight, watching their clockworks freeze up as they realize she's wearing one of Alek's spare suits.

The least fancy one, of course. A plain brown, with a matching waistcoat, and a bright red tie. The tie is silk and a bit ostentatious for an airman. Fine for an emperor, of course.

The captain looks appalled, the doctor looks amused, the bosun looks confused.

Volger looks apoplectic.

Alek looks like she's kicked him somewhere soft.

Deryn's delight evaporates, and she squares her shoulders under the urge to apologize for stealing his clothes, in addition to crushing his heart. She shifts the cane to her other hand and snaps off a salute to the room at large. "HauptmannSharp, reporting as ordered, sir."

Alek stands, which gets everyone else unstuck, and they stand as well. "Thank you for joining us," he says to her, imperial mask firmly in place once more.

"Your Majesty," she says.

There's a moment where everyone seems to be waiting for something, and then Alek gestures at the chair beside his. He's ceded the head of the table to the captain. "If you will sit here,HauptmannSharp, I will translate for you."

"Thoughtful but unnecessary, Your Majesty," Volger says, quick and even. "I can translate for her."

Alek doesn't respond - with words, anyway. He pulls the chair out.

Ishebeginning as he means to go on? She hopes so.

She limps over and sits, hooking the cane on the arm of the chair as she does. Belatedly she remembers that a king is always supposed to sit first, but then, so is a lady, and what about an invalid?

Blisters. Too many rules.

Alek sits, and so do the others. He's very close to her, and the way she has to hold her injured knee means it keeps brushing against his. She wonders if he thinks she's doing it on purpose.

In short order, Deryn's been introduced to the captain, Hummel, and the bosun, Kovač. Hummel is polite but doesn't think much of her. Kovač looks like he wants to yell at her, but that's standard in bosuns, so she ignores it.

She's also been served a cup of absolutely delicious coffee, which she sips slowly, savoring its heat and its taste. It's been a long day, and who knows how many hours this meeting will take.

"Volger, please bring her up to speed," Alek says. He has a pen and a book of blank paper in front of him. Something to take notes in, should notes be needed.

Volger obliges, though not without a disdainful twitch of his mustache, and Deryn's head is soon spinning with ministers, princesses, dead princes, archduch*esses, and equal marriage. She has to ask for an explanation on that last one.

"Only certain families are considered equal to the imperial house," Volger says, idly toying with his own pen, the way a tigeresque might play with its dinner. "The royalty of other nations, for example, or noble Austrian families with sufficiently illustrious bloodlines. An emperor who enters into anything except an equal marriage will never see his son on the throne."

Deryn hears the insult the bum-rag carefully leaves unspoken.

He'd better be glad she's limping. "What about his daughter?"

"Salic law bars women from the succession," Alek tells her.

"A wise precaution, as women are unfit to rule," Volger adds.

Queen Victoria likely had a few things to say about that, but Deryn only has one question: "Then how can this archduch*ess take your throne?"

Before Alek can respond, Volger says, dry, "Tradition must sometimes bow to expedience."

Now it's Deryn's turn to carefully not say something. She stares Volger down while she does it. He narrows his eyes in response.

Alek clears his throat and says, "Regardless, we shall be retrieving the archduch*ess from her mother's estate near Pressburg. The estate has been fortified, and we expect a fight." In German, he asks Captain Hummel something. The captain nods sharply and launches into a long talk - none of which Deryn can understand.

Nothing like being insulted to prod you into action, and this moment seems perfect. She slides Alek's notebook towards herself and filches the pen as well. Quickly, before she can lose her nerve, she writes,I'm sorry. You rattled me.

Lays the pen on the table. Turns the notebook just a bit, so he can see it.

He glances down, then at her, then at Volger across the table - who's studying a map that the captain's laid out - then turns the book a bit farther. She watches him out of the corner of her eye as he reads her note.

The imperial mask never slips. But he picks up the pen and adds something, then turns it back to her.

You rattled me, as well. Forgive me.

Some of the weight lifts off her chest.

Kovač is talking now, pointing at the map and gesturing at the ship. Hummel and Volger are listening closely. Dr. Mészáros is nodding and rapidly taking notes. Even Alek seems to be wholly focused on the discussion, though that's obviously part of the mask.

Forgiven, she writes - although her fingers are practically shaking.I didn't mean most of it.

Alek takes up the pen.Nor I.I know why you refused. You have to fly.

He meets her eyes, and she holds him like that for a long moment, a tightness in her throat and a warmth in her heart. He's known her a week, and he understands her better than her own family does.

Maybe sheshouldmarry him.

It must show on her face, because the imperial mask cracks for a moment into something like grief, and he writes,I can't marry you.

Not with his crown being threatened by an equal marriage. She understands. It puts all the weight right back on her chest, but she understands.

Before she can write a reply, there's a noise at the door. The officer who'd shown her in returns, this time with Volger's man. He's bearing a slip of paper and a message to be whispered into the prime minister's ear.

Volger nods and dismisses him, then reads the note.

Without taking her eyes off of Volger, wearing a mask of her own, Deryn finds Alek's hand under the edge of the table. Catches it. Threads her fingers through his.

That look of grief flickers over Alek's face again. But he squeezes her fingers tightly, and doesn't let go.

"News?" he asks.

Bad news, if Volger's expression is any indication. "My agents have confirmed that the archduch*ess' children are in the custody of their father, Prince Otto. At his townhouse in Vienna." He repeats it in German for the others, who also look grim.

"Pressburg's not near Vienna?" Deryn asks Alek.

He's rubbing his thumb across her knuckles; she's not sure he realizes he's doing it, but it's tying her guts into loops. "Not near enough for our purposes."

Right. They need to swoop in, snatch up the archduch*ess and her children, and carry them safe away before their enemies know what's happening. Harder to do that when the targets are spread out.

"Otto's siding with the princess, then," she says. "You're certain the archduch*ess isn't?"

Volger answers that before Alek can. "The archduch*ess and her husband have filed for divorce. It has been a… fraught union. Scandal on both sides."

So much for the blessing of anequal marriage.

Alek asks Volger a question in German, and that sparks a round of heated discussion among the men.

Deryn slips her hand free of Alek's before they get caught. Instead, she turns to a fresh page in the notebook and draws a small portrait of a fancy lady, labeling itPressburg. Then she draws three princely lads and labels thatVienna. A wee airship makes the third point of the triangle.

She connects the airship to the fancy lady - obviously, that's the chess piece they most need to capture. It'd be nice if they had troops in Vienna, though if they did, none of this blethering would be necessary.

Then again, she thinks, sitting up straighter, maybe theydohave men in position.

She waits for a lull in the discussion before jumping in. "Your Majesty, I have an idea. About fetching the lads."

"There is a girl as well," Alek says, motioning for her to continue, "but please, do explain. We've gotten nowhere with the dilemma."

"Archduch*ess Marie -"

"Elisabeth Marie," Volger corrects. "Named after her grandmother, our late empress."

Deryn rolls her eyes. "Aye, like I said. She's a socialist."

"Gratifying to know you were paying attention," Volger says, looking down his considerable nose at her. "Correct. She joined the Social Democratic Workers' Party shortly after separating from her husband."

From the way he says it, the politics are more of a scandal than the separation.

Deryn gestures with the pen. "Ask the socialists to help, then. Knock down a prince's door and rescue kidnapped children? Brilliant fun for that sort, aye?"

At least it would be for anarchists. But there had been socialists among the Committee for Union and Progress, too, and they hadn't exactly been the types to sit back and twiddle their thumbs.

Alek says, approvingly, "Clever,HauptmannSharp." He quickly translates for the others, who likewise brighten and nod. Hummel in particular eyes her with more respect.

She knew he would. Captains always like her, because she's always the best airman aboard their ships.

Volger, on the other hand, will never like her. He says tartly, "I assume you've heard the adage about getting something for nothing."

She resists the urge to stick her tongue out at the prime minister and instead takes a sip of coffee. To Alek, she says, "Give them something."

"At this point, I have very little to bargain with," Alek says, thoughtful rather than grim.

She takes another drink, watching him over the rim of the cup. "You need to replace half your ministers, hmm?"

"Out of the question," Volger says instantly, which is how she knows it's a brilliant idea.

Also, Alek's practically grinning at her, and he grabs her hand beneath the table again, giving it one quick, hard squeeze before letting go.

"As a major party, they have access to municipal resources, if not parliamentary ones," Alek says to Volger. "That includes walkers and trained -"

Volger cuts him off with a lot of stern words in German. Alek listens, but his jaw has set. When Volger finishes, Alek says, "Make the offer," in a voice that brooks no argument.

Volger stands, bows, and says, "Your Majesty," in a voice that betrays no emotion whatsoever. He leaves.

He's back in an hour or so. By then Mészáros has excused himself to bed, while Deryn is standing, leaning over the maps with Hummel and Kovač, having mostly hashed out a workable plan of attack on Oroszvár Mansion. Alek is standing beside her, still translating, and every now and then his hand comes to rest on the small of her back, staying there long enough to scorch her skin through the layers of cloth.

Fortunately, his arms are safely folded across his chest when Volger reenters. Alek looks up and lifts an eyebrow.

"They accepted," Volger says.

Alek smiles, although it turns into a yawn, which he quickly covers. "In that case, we should follow the doctor's example and get some rest."

Volger apparently repeats this to the captain and bosun, who bow to Alek.

Alek nods to them, collects his notebook and pen, and offers his arm to Deryn. "If you wouldn't mind,HauptmannSharp, we must discuss your injury."

Oh, right. The doctor's friend in France. Clever Darwinist medicine, instead of Clanker butchery.

"Not a bit." Deryn takes his arm, mostly to irritate Volger.

It must work, because they exit the captain's quarters with Volger close behind them. "Your Majesty, there is also -"

"Yes, of course," Alek says, pausing at his cabin door. "Blast. Thirty minutes?"

Volger cuts a glance at Deryn. "Fifteen would be preferable. We have rather a lot to review."

"Twenty," Alek says. His grip on Deryn's arm tightens. "We have rather a lot to review, as well."

Volger bows and adds something in German before striding off down the corridor. She feels a touch of satisfaction, watching him go.

"Deryn," Alek says, opening the door and gesturing for her to enter ahead of him.

She was expecting to go back to sickbay, but this is leagues better. Someone left a tray of food on the desk. Plain military fare, it looks like.

"D'you mind -?" she asks, plunking herself down in the chair.

Alek gives her a lopsided smile as he comes into the room, leaving the door open, as is only proper when an unmarried, unrelated girl is in a room with a fellow. "By all means. I know better than to keep you hungry."

Clever lad. She grabs the first thing to hand - some kind of hard biscuit - and starts chewing. "What did you tell the doctor?"

He removes his jacket and hangs it in the trunk. "Oh. That he should abide by your wishes. I assume you'll want the Darwinist method."

She sheds her own jacket - well, it's also his - and drapes it over the back of the chair. "No offense to you Clankers."

From the pocket of his waistcoat, he takes out his watch, consults it, and snaps it closed again. "None at all. I wouldn't choose the surgery, either."

She expects him to say something about the time, especially when he goes to the open door. It looks like a prelude to kicking her out. He stands with his hand on the doorknob for a moment, frowning at nothing in particular. Then he exhales.

And shuts the door.

Her pulse kicks up faster. What's that mean?

"Deryn," he says. "I wanted to discuss more than your knee. I wanted -"

She stands abruptly, not ready to hear it. He's going to say, again, that he can't marry her, or he's going to ask, again, if he can. Bad options all around. She blurts out the first thing that comes to mind: "You can have your suit back."

He's taken aback for a moment before recovering and saying, "It looks better on you. Keep it."

Pleased, she nods at the clothes on the bed. "You can take that in trade, if you like."

The glare he gives her means to be dark, but it collapses into a tired smile. "I'm sure that looks better on you, too."

Talk of ladies' clothes reminds her of the newspaper and its photograph. She limps over and picks it up, holding it so he can see the headline. "I meant to ask - what's this about?"

"Ah," he says. He puts his hands on his hips, the smile growing. "Mr. Malone's atonement. He's declared you 'Britain's Angel of the Airships', and according to Volger, you're wildly popular. There are film serials being made."

She wrinkles her nose and tosses the newspaper down. Malone. Full of clart, as always. And she'd wager he's making money hand over fist with thisatonement. She's equally sure the film serials will be awful. "As long as it gets me in the fight again."

"I'd like to see anyone stop you." He pushes a hand through his hair and says, "Iamsorry about… earlier. It was… precipitous of me."

Precipitous, aye, that's one way to describe it. It was also, she admits to herself, grand and romantic, if you look at it a certain way. "And arrogant."

He grimaces. "Yes."

"Arrogant of me, too." She glances at the newspaper photograph, the places where he touched it. "What I said…"

"You were right," he says, coming to stand before her. "God's wounds, you're always right. You could be a brilliant empress, but you'd have to break yourself to do it. I can't ask that of you."

She studies him. Those green eyes are serious, and worried - for her, she thinks. Daft. She could go back to Britain and do anything she likes, while he'll be stuck under a crown for the rest of his life. "Whydidyou ask?"

He kisses her. Fierce and sad and lightning-hot, one hand on her hip and one on her shoulder. She wraps her hand around his tie and tugs him closer, until she can feel the weight of him against her.

He does, in fact, smell like that fancy soap. She smiles against his mouth, and he draws back slightly. Not too far. Just far enough to put an end to the kissing.

Instead he swallows and says, quietly but very, very bravely, "I love you."

She goes still, the better to screamDon't ruin thisat herself.

"It's only been a week, I know," he goes on, ears turning red, "but I think I might have loved you before I left that party. And - and nothing can come of it, as I said, it's only - I ought to have told you that. Earlier. It wasn't a very good proposal at all, though in my defense I've never -"

She stops the blether by saying, "I love you, too."

Oh, good. That came out exactly right.

It takes a moment for the words to hit him, and then he smiles, and it's like the sun in a blue summer sky.

This time she kisses him. Fierce and sad, because they've honesty between them now, but he's right. Nothing can come of it, exactly as she's told herself all along.

Her brace is clicking and whirring with every slight shift, which is an unwelcome distraction. She solves the problem by hitching her bum up onto the desk and dragging him forward with her, so that he's standing between her legs.

The walls on an airship are too thin for anything more than kissing, and he's on the clock, anyway. But for the next few minutes, she plans to kiss him until neither of them can see straight.

It won't be tricky. She's already dizzy with the heat of him, the solidity, the surety of his hands on her back, the soft slickness of his tongue against her own.

He's learned a lot about kissing in the last few days.

He draws back, breathing hard. She hooks her uninjured leg around one of his, to hold him in place, but he's not leaving. He's adjusting his angle of attack. Loosening her tie. Undoing the first few buttons on her shirt. Kissing his way down her neck.

She pushes her fingers through his hair and gives it an involuntary tug when he nips at the join of her neck and shoulder. Half-gasping, half-laughing, she says, "Don't start something we can't finish,Dummkopf."

He returns to her mouth for a long, pleasant moment. His sigh, as he pulls away again, turns into a yawn, which turns into a curse. "You're right."

She fusses with his hair, pretending she means to tidy it, when really she only enjoys touching it. "What's so barking important that you have to go?"

"My government's business hasn't stopped simply because I was fleeing for my life," he says, wry. "I have a week's worth of briefings to review."

She makes a face.

"My thoughts exactly. But you should rest, Deryn." He glances around the cabin, but aside from the aluminum chair at the desk, the only other option is still the bed, still decorated with all the clothes she was supposed to wear.

He could, of course, send her to rest in sickbay. He doesn't suggest it, and she's not going to, either.

"Here," he says, sweeping up the clothes in his arms and dumping the whole expensive lot of it onto the chair. "Someone might as well use this bed."

She hops down from the desk, ungraceful as a newly-hatched beastie, and somehow, under the guise of helping to steady her, he manages to very effectively feel her up.

"Oi, you," she says, swatting his hand away but grinning all the while. "What did I just say about starting things?"

"A common failing among royals, I've been told," he says, straight-faced, as she settles onto the bed. He crosses the cabin to turn off the electric light, plunging them into darkness. Moonlight or starlight or even pre-dawn twilight filters around the curtain, giving him enough light to find his way back to the bed. Enough light for her to see him yawning again.

She gets her injured leg stretched out and nearly sighs with relief. The doctor was right; it wants rest. So does Alek. "You should sleep too, ninny."

"An emperor hasn't the luxury." He does, however, sit on the bed beside her. Unties her bootlaces. Gently tugs them off. Yawns hard enough to crack his jaw in half.

"As your air combat advisor," she says, yawning herself, "I advise you to lie down before you fall down, Your Majesty."

"Is this one of your superior Darwinist tactics?"

"Aye, except I think -"

"The bed isn't large enough," he finishes, mouth twitching. "Well, I daresay we have the expertise to manage it."

They do, at that. He removes his shoes and waistcoat while she scoots over, and after a bit of arranging, they're lying on their sides, facing each other, her injured leg held carefully between them.

"I have five minutes at most," he says, his eyes already sliding closed. "I'll be lucky to get that."

"I'm lucky to get you," she says, which gets her a sweet, sad smile.

She could kiss him some more, but that's not what either of them needs. They need to find their balance again, now that they're safe and among allies. Find how they fit together when there's other eyes on them.

She smooths his hair back from his forehead, and he makes a small sound.

"We'll be all right," she says softly. "The two of us. No matter what comes next."

He brushes a kiss against her cheek. "I could abdicate," he whispers, his breath warm on her ear.

She jolts back. "No! Alek, no. Not ever. Certainly not forme."

He regards her, steady and sad. "You would be worth it."

"I'd run a mile if you tried," she retorts. "You're a good emperor. Too good to leave your people in someone else's hands."

He draws a ragged breath. "You're right. It's only..."

She waits.

He presses a hand to his eyes and grimaces, then looks at her again. He's on the verge of tears, she can see, which makes her own eyes start watering. "Will you - will you stay, Deryn?"

"Aye, forever," she says, and her voice hitches on the second word and sod it all, they're both crying. She wipes at her eyes with the heel of her hand, and then she tugs her shirtsleeve down and tries to wipe at his, but he's reaching for her and their hands tangle. She huffs a laugh that turns into more tears.

He puts his arms around her and draws her close, giving her a fine shirt to ruin with her crying, while he's ruining hers with his.

It's not fair. None of it's fair.

But at least they're together.

Notes:

Erzsi didn't actually join the Social Democratic Workers' Party until 1921. I fudged the timeline because, come on, how could I pass up a socialist royal? The SPÖ remains a major party in Austria.

Prince Otto Weriand of Windisch-Graetz was already engaged to a countess when Erzsi met him in 1900. He got unengaged real quick after an order from Erzsi's doting grandpapa Emperor Franz Joseph. The marriage, not shockingly, was a hot mess, and Erzsi and Otto split in 1918. In a truly impressive display of judicial foot-dragging, their divorce wasn't granted until 1948.

Pressburg is better known today as Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Oroszvár is the Hungarian name for Rusovce, where Princess Stéphanie lived after marrying her second husband, Count Elemér Lónyay de Nagy-Lónya. (For the record: it was an unequal marriage.)

Chapter 12: fool

Chapter Text

No one's a fool

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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.

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Fools require little time to bring about disaster, and young fools require no time at all.

Volger knows this, and yet when he checks his pocket watch, nearly forty-five minutes have passed.

With no sign of Aleksandar or Miss Sharp.

He curses, abandons the paperwork to the care of his secretary, and makes his way to Aleksandar's cabin with all deliberate speed. The cabin door is shut, and there is no sound within. Hardly encouraging.

The door, when he tries it, is unlocked. Of course it is; he's the only soul aboard who would dare to open the door without the emperor's express permission.

Except, perhaps, for Miss Sharp. It's hardly necessary, however, since she's already inside. With the lights off. Lying on the bed, entangled with Aleksandar.

Both asleep. Atop the bedlinens. And fully clothed, thanks be to a merciful God.

Volger directs a dark thought towards his dear, late friend. How kind of Franz to leave all of this in his hands.

He steps closer, intending to roust the girl and drag her from the room, if need be. Aleksandar is perfectly intelligent, but he is also less than twenty years old and inexperienced with the fairer sex. It is not an ideal combination, especially with a strong dose of Hapsburg stubbornness added in the bargain.

Franz Ferdinand stood firm against three emperors and a pope. His son will be at least as difficult, and Volger has far fewer weapons to range against Aleksandar.

Too, Volger doesn't trust the girl. At all. He read the dossier his office put together before he left Vienna; her military record is impressive, but that only underlines how unnatural she is. How uncanny her deceptions. Her refusal of Aleksandar's offer was undoubtedly a ploy, as was that ridiculous spate of note-writing and hand-holding in the captain's quarters earlier.

As though he wouldn't notice. Bah.

Light from the corridor spills over his shoulder, illuminating the bed and its occupants. More precisely, illuminating their faces.

Aleksandar has been crying.

Volger stops.

Surely not over the girl. For God's sake, she's wearing a man's suit - one of Aleksandar's, in point of fact. A vulgar, possessive display indeed, from a vulgar, rough creature. Her hair is cut like a boy's, her manners are appalling, there is nothing elegant or refined in her movements or speech. If one was assembling a list of undesirable attributes for an empress, she would embody them all. Aleksandar himself acknowledged this little more than three hours ago.

Miss Sharp twitches, and then she is abruptly awake, staring at him, one hand reaching beneath the pillow. For a weapon? Good Lord.

"At ease," Volger says. He makes the words as scornful as possible while keeping his voice low so as not to wake Aleksandar.

"Oh, it's only you," she says, matching his volume and intonation exactly. She begins to extract herself, revealing, in the process, what she'd been reaching for under the pillow. It's a sheathed knife.

She's saved my life several times this week, Aleksandar had said. Evidently she continues to take the job seriously. Further ridiculousness: aboard the emperor's own airship, what harm can come to him?

But those are tearstains on his face.

The circ*mstances recall their escape from Konopischt nearly five years ago. Aleksandar, newly orphaned, uprooted from his home for reasons best concealed from him, had borne it stoically.

Except in stray moments, when he believed himself alone, or unobserved.

Once in the castle, he had continued to present himself as His Serene Highness, carrying the weight of new expectations with utmost grace. A model emperor-in-waiting.

Except whenever he would vanish to the parapets for an hour, perhaps two.

He has been emperor for the better part of three years. There have been no lone moments during that time, no unaccompanied trips to the metaphorical parapets.

If he is to be honest with himself, this is one of the reasons - if not the primary reason - that Volger sent the boy to Britain.

The girl's efforts to leave the bed are disturbing Aleksandar, who begins to wake but stills again as soon as she lays her hand over his.

"You may as well stay," Volger tells her.

She stares at him. Blinking. Saying nothing.

Explaining things to Miss Sharp is irksome indeed when she only gives him that blank look in return. His English is impeccable; there's no chance of her misunderstanding. Volger scowls. "He needs his rest."

She blinks again, then glances down at Aleksandar before looking at Volger once more. Her confusion finally clears. "Aye sir."

Volger nods, once, crisply. He turns around and exits the cabin as quietly as he entered, being certain to pull the door shut behind him.

In the corridor, he waits a moment. He could use rest himself. This is obvious, because under normal circ*mstances he would never have left the girl where she is, and he would never need to lean against the wall.

Nor would there be such a hollow sort of pain in his chest.

You have a peculiar sense of humor, Franz,he thinks.First myself as a guardian, and now that creature as a guardian angel.

Although the latter is much more in keeping with Sophie's sense of humor, rather than her husband's.

He closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. Fatigue makes one maudlin.

Through the thin cabin wall, Volger hears Aleksandar's voice, muffled and indistinct and sleepy, and Miss Sharp's voice answering in a soothing murmur. Then silence.

He waits another minute. Then he straightens, adjusts his cuffs and lapels, and returns to work.

Chapter 13: make sure, pt 2

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Just to make sure that you were real

Just to make sure that I can still feel you

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

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TheKétsasapproaches Oroszvár Mansion from the east. As explained by Deryn, this allows the airship to hide in the morning sun, which prevents it - hopefully - from being spotted for that small, crucial while longer.

It's a large estate, mostly forest, set between the curve of the Danube, a village, and a number of farms. Earlier, Alek had been concerned that Volger's intelligence was incorrect, and they were going to find a true castle, rather than a mansion.

But no. From the bridge, he can see the building clearly. Three wings, traditionally arranged: a central rectangle, with two projecting wings on either side, framing a courtyard with a lavish fountain. There are no defensive features on the mansion's white walls; the crenellations running around the grey roof are merely decorative.

To make up for the lack, Princess Stéphanie has fortified her lawns.

"Two walkers. Stormwalkers, with the imperial crest." He lowers his binoculars, personally offended. It's a sentimental attachment, not based on anything rational, but Cyklop Stormwalkers are his favorite. How dare she. "I'd like to know how the princess acquiredthose."

"It will be investigated," Volger says on his right. He gestures, and his secretary makes a note.

"Six anti-aircraft guns," Deryn reports from Alek's left, looking through her own binoculars. She whistles. "That'll be a bit of a gauntlet to run."

She sounds pleased, not concerned. Alek glances at her, then at the officers on the bridge. None of them seem worried, either.

Madness may be a prerequisite for serving aboard an airship.

Then again, he is having rather a difficult time being properly concerned about this attack. Last night he had faced a future without his mad British airman; this morning he carries her promise to stay beside him. It makes all the difference.

Currently, however, he is staying besideher. Deryn was invited to join Captain Hummel on the bridge for the attack. Meanwhile, Alek, Volger, and the latter's secretary are taking up valuable space and being politely ignored while they do.

"I may also need to replace half my generals before this is over," Alek says to no one in particular, returning his thoughts to the Stormwalkers. His father's cousin Archduke Friedrich will return to command if asked - assuming Friedrich isn't on the side of the coup. He turns to his air combat advisor, wondering how many generals she can pull out of her collection of acquaintances. "Perhaps -"

He hasn't the chance to finish, as the first anti-aircraft shell explodes off their starboard bow.

Alek flinches instinctively, though none of the officers so much as blink. Captain Hummel gives a quiet command to the helmsman, and the airship adjusts course slightly.

Deryn clicks her tongue. "Someone's nervous," she says, scornful. "We're still out of range of those archies."

"Launch gyrothopters," Hummel orders.

Alek repeats it in English for Deryn, who looks more interested about that than she had about the shelling. He supposes she hadn't any opportunity to observe gyrothopters during the war, since they would have been attached to pilots trying to kill her.

More explosions come, closer to the airship and closer together.

"You'll want to grab hold of something," Deryn says. She herself isn't holding onto anything except for the binoculars and her cane, although she's braced her hip against a bulwark. "The next few will likely hit us."

"You're very sanguine about this," Alek says. He takes her advice and grips a sturdy-looking pipe.

She shrugs. "It's always terrifying. But it's like an old friend now, aye?"

The gyrothopters cut across the scene, rotors reflecting sunlight in bright flashes, firing their machine guns at the anti-aircraft guns. First one, and then two more, of the gun crews break off attacking theKétsasto return fire at the gyrothopters.

The remaining three guns continue to fire. As predicted, the airship takes a hit, and then another, shaking the floor beneath Alek's feet, and machine gun fire rakes across the lower edge of the gondola in a ghastly staccato. He grimaces, wishing he was sitting behind the controls of one of the stolen Stormwalkers, which thus far seem to be unmanned. "I'd prefer to meet this old friend on the ground."

"Very wise, Your Majesty," Volger says.

"Sodding walker pilot," Deryn says to Alek. Her grin turns it from an insult into an endearment.

He tightens his grip on the pipe rather than put an arm around her waist. The crew has turned a blind eye, but there's no need to test their discretion. When this is concluded, he'll be receiving a lecture from Volger, no doubt, about allowing Deryn to sleep in his cabin.

Alek hadn't planned to. Quite the opposite; he'd made all sorts of resolutions about keeping his distance, speaking to her only about official matters, letting their relationship - whatever it may be - fade naturally into a professional sort of friendship.

Those noble intentions had lasted until she'd appeared at the meeting wearing one of his own suits. Defiant. Fearless. Carrying herself like an empress.

And God's wounds, hedoeslike her in trousers.

"Could use some strafing hawks," she says now, eyes back on the fight, "but they're doing all right out there."

Yes, for war. There are motionless figures slumped around one of the anti-aircraft guns. Another disappears in a blindingboomas the gyrothopters release bombs, which also stymies the walker crews trying to reach their machines. The gyrothopters themselves have taken some damage. One has been shot down, and one is damaged and struggling to remain aloft, but the others now dart away. Circling for a second run, perhaps.

"Open fire," Deryn murmurs, watching them go.

At the same moment, Hummel orders, "Open fire," and the airship does just that. Its guns also send vibrations through the floor of the bridge and through Alek's chest. One of the anti-aircraft guns erupts in a gout of flames and smoke.

That's three; half down.

Movement in the courtyard draws Alek's attention away from the fighting. A liveried servant has run out of the mansion, frantically waving a white flag. Or rather, half a bedsheet tied to a broom handle.

"Hold your fire, Captain!" he tells Hummel, who immediately repeats the order to his crew, and the airship ceases fire. Meanwhile, more servants in livery have emerged from the mansion, shouting urgently at the men on the ground.

The anti-aircraft guns fall silent, and the two walker crews pause, then turn back and begin arguing with the servants sent to stop them.

"Your Majesty," Volger says, warningly.

Alek knows it could be a trap. Anyone who would attempt to overthrow a lawful government cannot be trusted to be honorable. Still,heis honorable, and the mansion is outgunned. "We'll see what they're up to."

"Someone's coming out," Deryn says.

Two women are walking out of the mansion, one in front of the other. Both are tall, slender, well-dressed, and have the perfect posture that comes from years of ruthless, royal training. The one in front has her hands clasped before her - no, tied, which makes more sense when Alek notices the pistol being held to the back of her head by the woman behind her.

"Is that the archduch*ess?" he asks Volger. He's never met Elisabeth Marie, who is fifteen years his senior, and anyway, at this distance, it's difficult to make out fine details.

"Yes," Volger says after a fraught moment. "And the princess."

"Motherly as a crocodile," Deryn says, indignant, "holding a pistol on her own daughter!"

"You mistake my meaning, Miss Sharp," Volger says coolly. "Thearchduch*essis holding the pistol."

Alek looks at him, stunned, and then at the women standing beside the courtyard fountain. "She's taken her mother prisoner," he says, for he feels it needs clarification.

"So it would seem."

Deryn whistles again. This one is approving.

The same information is being repeated more officially by the officers on the bridge. Hummel looks pleased. "Your Majesty," he says, crossing to join Alek's group, "we have a radio message from the mansion. They are surrendering. Shall we land?"

"Of course," Alek says. They'd selected a number of potential landing sites during the meeting last night; the nearest is in a farmer's field a short walk away. To Volger, he asks, "Are we safe in doing so?"

Volger makes a disdainful noise. "Princess Stéphanie won't risk it. She knows her daughter has killed before."

And he refuses to divulge more in the presence of Deryn and the officers, citing a matter of state secrets.

Very well. Alek glances at Deryn; she nods, and a warmth suffuses his chest that has less to do with the morning's victory and more to do with being understood so well.

Forever,she'd said. He means to hold her to it.

"I want the princess secured in the brig, along with her husband, if he's present," Alek tells Hummel. "Captain Sharp will take custody of the archduch*ess."

.

.

.

Count Elemér is not at home, which the expeditionary party discovers after trekking across the newly-plowed field where the airship has moored (the farmerisat home, and too agog to be unhappy about the disruption to his field). Hummel politely refuses to let Alek join the party, which is only reasonable, if frustrating. Instead, Alek is tailed by two burly airmen while he descends to the ground, then speaks to the awestruck farmer and his family until part of the expeditionary party returns with the princess and archduch*ess. The rest of the party will stay at the mansion until soldiers from Pressburg arrive to relieve them.

Archduch*ess Elisabeth Marie fairly marches up to him where he stands in the airship's shadow. Tall. Slender. Well-dressed and well-coiffed, though somewhat bedraggled by the morning's adventures. She crackles with rage - and something more, something distinctly imperial.

"Your Majesty," she says loudly, clearly, sweeping into a deep, formal curtsy, as if she was being presented to him at court, rather than ankle-deep in mud and fertilizer. It's a difficult position to hold, but she holds it, head bowed, graceful as a dancer.

Her mother the princess directs her gaze to the horizon. Face expressionless. She's also flanked by two burly airmen, but for a very different reason, and her wrists are still bound.

"You may rise," Alek tells Elisabeth Marie.

She rises, only to step forward and kneel at his feet. "Your Majesty," she says again, in a carrying voice, "I amyour loyal servant."

Alek dislikes people humbling themselves at his feet, but he understands the need for public pageantry, even if the public, at present, is merely a ship's crew and one family of common farmers. He extends his hand; the archduch*ess grasps it and presses a ritual kiss to the finger where he ought to be wearing a state ring.

Presumably, the ring is still in his baggage, traveling from London with the rest of his imperial trappings.

"Archduch*ess," Alek says, also in a carrying voice. "I am grateful for your continued loyalty."

Elisabeth Marie climbs to her feet, shoots a venomous glare at her mother, and allows herself to be taken aboard.

Alek personally sees the princess escorted to the brig while Volger contacts his people to track down the missing count. Meanwhile, Deryn - who had used her time stuck aboard to change into women's clothes - shows the archduch*ess to a cabin.

Alek would much rather be with Deryn, learning how the archduch*ess managed to turn the tables so comprehensively. However, he has unfinished business with Princess Stéphanie.

TheKétsashas no brigper se, merely a small storeroom that has been emptied for the purpose. A cot is the sole piece of furniture, and there will be two guards posted outside the door at all times.

Alek stands in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back, studying the princess as she sits on the edge of the cot. Her posture is perfect, her face impassive, her attention fixed on some indeterminate middle distance. There is silver streaking her dark hair, fine lines around her eyes and mouth, and a heavy bruise coming in at her temple.

The archduch*ess must have struck her.

It occurs to him that Stéphanie is of an age with his mother, and that makes him sad. Not for his mother's absence, but for the princess, whose relationship with her daughter is so hopelessly fractured.

"Am I truly such a poor emperor?" he asks.

The princess makes no answer. Indeed, she seems not to hear him at all.

Silence hangs around them, thick and stifling. He waits for several minutes, curious to see how long she'll ignore him. The guards outside shift and shuffle. The engines change pitch and the entire gondola rocks as the airship takes flight.

The princess remains motionless.

Where did she learn that? Growing up with a monstrous father? Trapped in a miserable marriage withKronprinzRudolf? In the years since, unseen and unwanted?

He's not sad for her, he realizes. He pities her.

"There will be a trial," he says. "No executions, however."

Now she looks at him - a look to freeze the blood. He has been weighed, the look says, and found sorely wanting. "Your mercy will not buy you favor."

"No," he agrees. His supporters will be unhappy, and his opponents will be emboldened. "But I have no taste for vengeance."

The princess' mouth curls in disdain. "As weak as your father."

Alek laughs. It's genuine, and her sneer falters into uncertainty. He gives her a small bow, in return for the greatest compliment she could have paid him, and then he leaves. The guards shut and lock the door behind him.

Volger intercepts him on his way to find Deryn. "The count decamped yesterday for Györszentmárton, likely to take sanctuary in the abbey there."

"Let him," Alek says, more than willing to defer that problem to a later time. "But keep an eye on him."

Volger lifts an eyebrow, the wordsAs though I haven't already arranged itremaining unspoken yet clearly audible. He moves to the next item. "The embassy in Paris reports that Lieutenant Ackermann has survived his most recent surgery. His doctors are optimistic."

More good news. And there is Deryn, emerging from the archduch*ess' assigned cabin, leaning on her cane, bright and soft in her pink shirtwaist and grey skirt. She smiles when she sees him; he smiles back, then quickly schools his expression, feeling foolish. "Thank you, Volger," he says.

Volger makes a noise that Alek - very generously - interprets as respectful acknowledgement, and a gesture that Alek - again, very generously - interprets as a respectful bow. "We will rendezvous with the Socialists in Vienna. Their mission also went well, it seems."

He walks past Deryn, who rolls her eyes at his back.

"How is the archduch*ess?" Alek asks her.

"Angry as a wet hen," Deryn says, watching Volger walk down the corridor and enter the captain's quarters, leaving them momentarily alone. Then she steps closer and kisses Alek full on the mouth.

He's surprised, but not unhappy. He can't imagine a situation where kissing her would make him unhappy.

Forever, he thinks.

He sighs when she releases him, though it's for the best. "Angry, you said."

"Aye." Deryn makes a face. "She was all right with her ma kidnapping her, but she's pure dead furious about her children."

"Apparently so," Alek says, thinking of the bruise on the princess' temple. "How did she do it?"

Deryn's voice and expression become admiring: "She hid a pistol in her luggage when she was first taken. Not much of a kidnapping, is it, to let her bring along a change of clothes? Anyway, she stuck it in her ma's face when theKétsasshowed up. Told the servants they had three minutes to stop the fighting or she'd pull the trigger. They believed her."

Alek believed her too. "And she's killed before?"

Deryn shrugs. "Didn't get to that part."

Blast. He'll have to ask Volger after all.

A few officers come down the corridor; rather than force them to shuffle past, Alek steers Deryn into the nearby officers' mess. Since they're in the mess, they might as well sit down and eat something, or at least drink some coffee.

Alek fetches two cups. He doesn't like the brief, tight look of pain that flashes across Deryn's face as she shifts position in her chair. The morning sun slices through the portholes, thick and golden, reminding him of that first morning aboard a British airbeast, bound for Calais. He'd been exhausted then, as well - another night of very little sleep. He'd also found himself thoroughly beguiled.Thathasn't changed.

Quietly, he asks, "How is your knee?"

She shakes her head and takes a long drink, watching him over the rim of the cup. It's not an answer - or perhaps it is. "I'd do it again, you know."

"Absolutely not," he says, too quickly and too vehemently, feeling sick at the very idea. Before she can take offense, he puts on a deliberately arrogant tone and adds, "Women have no place in war, after all."

"Get stuffed,mein Kaiser," she says pleasantly.

He catches her hand and presses a brief kiss to the back of her knuckles. "It may be just as well that we didn't meet five years ago. I had… definite opinions about women and their roles."

He tries to release her hand. Instead, she laces their fingers together and rests their hands on the table's surface. An easy, simple, affectionate grasp. He shouldn't want to cling to it like a drowning man. She's already promised him forever, after all.

"What changed?" she asks.

"I inherited an empire," he says, wry. "A struggling one. A - adyingone. My God, it was awful, Deryn, you can't imagine. My granduncle had refused to allow aid from charity organizations in 'enemy nations,' and the people were starving. Inflation was soaring, the military was collapsing, every faction was trying to break away..."

He trails off, overwhelmed all over again by the memory of those first few desperate, terrifying, whirlwind months, when it seemed like the thread holding Damocles' sword was growing thinner every minute of every day.

A boot nudges his foot. Not gently. He starts and looks at Deryn, who's regarding him with sympathy. "They were lucky to get you," she says, echoing - deliberately, he's sure - her words last night, when she'd also told him in no uncertain terms not to abdicate.

For some reason, it makes him embarrassed, and he looks away. "The luck was my cousin - Franz Joseph's daughter - ah, Archduch*ess Marie Valerie -"

Deryn mutters something about too many bloody Archduch*ess Maries.

Alek smirks. "Be that as it may, after he died, she held the empire together until I could reach Vienna, and then she stayed as anéminence grisefor the first year. All unofficially, of course."

"I'll bet Volger hated it," she says, smirking herself over the rim of her coffee cup.

Volger had indeed;éminence griseis much more his sort of role. However, Marie Valerie had possessed knowledge and connections they desperately needed, and Volger is, ultimately, a practical man. "He would never turn away an ally."

She snorts. "Aye, I'm proof enough of that, I reckon."

He squeezes her fingers. There's no reason not to mention the other woman who had come to his aid, except for a sudden, superstitious fear that Deryn may find herself trapped in a similar role. "AndFrauSchratt had been privy to all of his correspondence. She helped as well."

"Schratt?" she asks, tilting her head, frowning slightly at the unfamiliar name.

"Katherina Schratt," a new voice says from the doorway. It's Archduch*ess Elisabeth Marie, no longer disheveled, although her dress has been hopelessly stained by the mud. She continues in French, "An actress by trade, but best known for being my grandfather's… companion."

Alek lets go of Deryn's hand - hasty enough to look guilty - and stands, although he doesn't have to do either. "Archduch*ess."

She waves him off with one slender, pale, effortlessly elegant hand. "She's lovely," she says to Deryn, crossing the room to join them. "Kind. Steady. I imagine that's why they lasted so long together. My grandmother the empress was an exquisite creature, but one could never call hersteady. She and my father were much alike in that way - constantly seeking peace, yet incapable of finding it."

Alek draws a chair out for the archduch*ess, then fetches her a cup of coffee as well.

"Thank you," Elisabeth Marie says. She resembles her mother, though her mask is brittle and cracking at the edges. Dark smudges around her eyes speak to sleepless nights. "It's been quite a while since an emperor waited on me."

"We're en route to your children," Alek tells her, as it seems the most important thing. "The Socialist Party rescued them this morning."

"Yes, so Miss Sharp informed me." Elisabeth Marie smiles at Deryn. "My mother was following the news very closely. She was livid to hear that a common British girl was swaying public opinion in Emperor Aleksandar's favor. I think she rather hates you, dear."

If Deryn is surprised to hear that she's made a personal enemy of the former Crown Princess of Austria, she doesn't show it. In fact, she looks smug.

"You may call me Alek," he says to the archduch*ess. When her eyebrows lift, he adds, "We are cousins, after all."

"Then you must call me Erzsi." This reciprocation is standard, even expected. What he doesn't expect is the deliberate way his cousin gestures to include Deryn in the invitation. Her Socialist beliefs in action, perhaps. Regardless, it warms him.FrauSchratt had never been invited to address the imperial family by name.

"Deryn. Volger said you killed someone," Deryn says, straightforward as ever. This time, straightforward enough to make Alek wince.

Erzsi makes a noise of amusem*nt, although her expression becomes serious. "That was a mistake. Not an accident - but a mistake."

"You don't have to explain," Alek hurriedly says.

Another dismissive wave. "Silence hasn't eased my guilt; perhaps confession will. Both of you have killed, haven't you? I daresay you know how terrible it is."

Alek exchanges a glance with Deryn, who says, "The nightmares are the worst."

Erzsi flashes a tight, small smile. "Just so. Well. I broke into my husband's apartments at the palace and found him in bed with his mistress. So I shot her. Louise Zeigler, another actress. Poor girl. I ought to have thrown her a parade instead, but at that point I still thought that swine was worth having."

There is a short silence. Alek breaks it by saying, "I'm sorry."

"And I'm sorry for mentioning it," Deryn says, frowning.

"No need for that," Erzsi says. She's exhausted, and Alek wonders how heavy the guilt of murder is, when one cannot justify it with self-defense. "Her death was my fault; the marriage was my fault. The divorce is my fault, according to my husband the prince. Heaven only knows when it will actually go through."

"Very quickly," Alek says, "once he's convicted of treason."

Erzsi's smile is grim. "There is that."

Before anything more can be said, the ship's doctor pokes his head into the officer's mess, bows to Alek, and asks for Deryn to come with him. Apparently he's heard from his Darwinist colleague and has to conduct another, more specific exam of her knee.

Alek helps her stand, though she scowls the entire time, and she limps out of the room as though she intends to commit murder herself.

"I like her," Erzsi says, returning to German as he returns to the table. "She's an original."

Originalcan be an insult in aristocratic circles, but he knows Erzsi is sincere. "She is that," he says, and drinks his coffee instead of waxing poetic about Deryn.

She will not be welcomed by his court. They'll try to eat her alive. And if he can't offer her the protection of marriage...

His granduncle had kept company with Frau Schratt for over thirty years. Alek doesn't want that; more to the point, he doesn't want that for Deryn. Imperial mistress is a shadow life, one with greater and lesser freedom all at once.

A lifetime ago, aboard a British airbeast, he'd compared her to Lola Montez. He knows better now.

Surely the Angel of the Airships will rise higher.

Erzsi is tapping one long, pale finger against the side of her cup, pensive. "Of all the petty, useless rituals of court, the demand to make an 'equal marriage' is possibly the most ridiculous. And dangerous, should you choose poorly."

"I haven't given much thought to my marriage," he says, lying through his teeth. He's thought of nothing but since the train to Lyon. He's thinking of it right now.

"My grandparents, my parents, myself - we all married someonesuitable, and were miserable for it. God willing, I shall not make that error again." Erzsi looks directly and pointedly at Alek. "God willing, Your Majesty, you shall not make it at all."

Forever.

He manages a smile. "That's my hope as well, Your Highness."

Notes:

Archduke Friedrich was appointed supreme commander of the Austro-Hungarian military during WWI. He was a modest and hardworking dude, so good on him.

Princess Stéphanie and Count Elemér took sanctuary in the archabbey at Györszentmárton (today called Pannonhalma) during WWII; she died there in 1945.

Erszi's account here of Louise Zeigler's murder omits some big details. When Erzsi stormed into Otto's apartments after learning he'd brought Louise into the palace, his valet tried to stop her. She shot at the man (with her gold-handled revolver - by some accounts a gift from Otto) and missed. The valet ran. Then she burst into the bedroom and shot Louise in the chest. Otto wrestled the gun away from her and Erzsi collapsed, sobbing. Louise, 27, died of her wound. The media coverage was sympathetic to Erzsi, and she was never charged or punished.

Chapter 14: fool, pt 2

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

No one's a fool

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

.

.

.

On the screen, his image flickering, Emperor Aleksandar disembarks from the airship. There's a woman on his arm. Similar height, similar coloring, similar bearing.

The Right Honorable Winston Churchill, newly-minted Secretary of the Air, says, "Archduch*ess Elisabeth Marie," into the dark shadows of the projector room.

Dr. Barlow resists the urge to point out that yes, of course, it could be none other. Instead she says, feigning fatuousness, "He's very young, isn't he?"

That earns the noncommittal grunt she was aiming for. There's a slight shuffling from the two other men in the room, as though they can't quite believe the Director of the London Zoological Society is as dim as that, but are afraid to ask.

She also resists the urge to smile.

With the herky-jerky movements characteristic of Clanker film cameras, the emperor takes up a standing position on a raised platform with chairs for the officials overseeing this bit of political theater. His cousin the archduch*ess pays a pretty obeisance to him, then, aided by emperor, takes a seat in one of the vacant chairs. The newsreel footage switches to a view of the crowd. Arms waving madly, mouths open, it's difficult to tell their mood without the benefit of sound: joy and fury look much the same.

It's joy, of course. This newsreel film is days old, and the attemptedcoup d'etatis now as firmly squashed as these things can be. The emperor shall have a busy few years ahead of him, rooting out the remaining conspirators and sympathizers, in addition to the humdrum challenges of holding together the Continent's last empire.

He's very young, but the task will surely make an old man out of the emperor.

The airship looms over the scene, scarcely fitting between two equestrian statues. She automatically studies its lines and finds them adequate, if lacking the innate, simple grace of a fabricated airbeast.

"Moored in the Heldenplatz," Churchill offers.

As though this information holds any interest for her. Indeed, as though it has any bearing on her purpose for being here.

"The emperor is residing in the Hofburg palace again?" she asks, watching a long line of uniformed officials bowing and scraping to the emperor on his platform. He looks bored. Good for him. A display of imperial ennui will be disconcerting to his enemies.

Churchill nods. "The archduch*ess, too, along with her children."

Speaking of the archduch*ess' children – here they are, being formally presented to the emperor by his prime minister, who, she notes, has quite a dashing mustache. Three gawky adolescent boys bow and one girl curtseys, not quite in unison. The archduch*ess abandons her regal poise to sweep each of her children into fierce embraces in turn. The boys squirm, uncomfortable and embarrassed. The girl merely looks uncertain.

Dr. Barlow feels a familiar stirring of guilt and worry.There but for the grace of God, she thinks, and the fact that the oldest of her own children is not yet seven. There is still time. And she's home so much more now. Surely her hours of work at the Zoo each day are not enough to divide them.

Now the archduch*ess is clasping the hands of a nondescript man wearing what is, no doubt, his very best suit.

"Leopold Petznek," Churchill says. Dr. Barlow assumes that this, too, is to show off how well-informed he is. "Minor official in the Austrian Social Democratic Party. Led the rescue of the children, it seems. Would you mind if I -?"

"Yes, rather," she says. She smiles; a clever man would recognize it as a threat. "In my current condition, I can't abide strong smells."

She lays a hand on the pronounced curve of her abdomen for emphasis, and has the satisfaction of watching Churchill stuff one of his disgusting cigars back inside his jacket pocket.

"Quite so, quite so," he says, striving for bonhomie even though he certainly would rather tell her to jump in the Thames. "My wife was the same with ours."

Dr. Barlow pities Clementine her marriage, but that is neither here nor there. "Ah," she says, returning her attention to the screen. "We come to the point at last."

Miss Sharp crosses the screen, one hand gripping a cane and the other securely fastened around the arm of the disgraced Princess Stephanie.

Dr. Barlow studies her former "cabin boy" - goodness, how Midshipman Sharp had detested that appellation - and understands the girl to be seriously injured indeed.

Midshipman Sharp had also detested showing any sort of weakness. She would not struggle now, before camera walkers and photographers, unless she simply had to.

Sitting out the event would never be a choice.

"Brought in a Darwinist doctor to treat her," Churchill says, meaning the emperor. It's been widely reported in the newspapers, although one must take those accounts with a grain of salt.

"You've heard how she was injured?" This from the new Minister of Munitions, Baron Inverforth, previously known as Scottish shipping magnate Mr. Andrew Weir. He's overseeing the dispersal of unneeded military materiel now that the war's over.

"Gallantly defending the emperor, as I recall," Dr. Barlow says. Miss Sharp passes off the princess to waiting guards and limps over to salute the emperor, who gives her an appropriately small bow before escorting her to a seat on the platform. Below the archduch*ess and her brood, but not too far below. Interesting. "Kind of him to see that she receives treatment from one of ours."

"She's also staying with the archduch*ess," the third man says. Dr. Barlow was not introduced to him, has never seen him before, and suspects she's meant to never see him again. He seems a perfectly unexceptional, even dull, sort of man. One of the countless anonymous civil servants who fill the halls of government buildings such as this. Of course he must be a spy. "A guest of the palace. Until her health is recovered."

Dr. Barlow doesn't say anything.

"We haven't determined what the emperor's plans are for her after that," Churchill says.

This is patently ridiculous. Anyone with eyes can see what the emperor's plans are for Miss Sharp.

Another mark in his favor.

"What of His Majesty's plans?" Dr. Barlow asks.

More shuffling and noncommittal grunts. The newsreel footage comes to an end, leaving the screen a blank, softly luminous white.

"We have some latitude," Churchill says, the words chosen with care.

Dr. Barlow already knows why she was summoned here. It's because the Air Service in general - and Churchill in particular - co*cked matters up comprehensively when they cast off Miss Sharp. Now the girl has no reason to cooperate with the British government. She's probably refused outright to see the British ambassador in Vienna.

Thus, His Majesty King George needs someone who is on good terms with Miss Sharp to intercede. Former crewmates won't do; family members won't do; the preferred candidate will be someone highly placed, familiar with diplomatic efforts and international affairs. Someone who can befriend, rather than command.

In short: Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow.

"She's ideally situated to promote British interests," the spy says.

Ideally situatedbeing more appropriate for mixed company thanin the emperor's bed. How silly. Her boffin's hat and current gravidity should, either one, indicate there is no need for squeamishness about discussing human sexual behaviors in her presence.

The spy adds, "We'd like you to visit posthaste."

Dr. Barlow places her hand on her abdomen again. This child won't make its debut until August or September, by her reckoning, but the men have no way of knowing that. "Exquisitely poor timing, I'm afraid. I shan't be traveling any time soon."

Impatient, Churchill says, "Write the girl, then."

"Miss Sharp never struck me as one for correspondence," Dr. Barlow says. "Unless my letter begins 'find enclosed one decommissioned military airbeast', I doubt she'll read it at all."

The men stare at her.

She tsks. "Why else would Inverforth be here?"

Inverforth rallies at his name. "We thought to offer the emperor ammunition. Small arms. Things such as that."

"And I'm certain the emperor would be delighted to receive them," she says drily. "If your target is Miss Sharp, however…"

"We can't give her a bloody airbeast," Churchill says, then adds, surly, "Begging your pardon, Doctor."

"Then don't give her an airbeast," Dr. Barlow says, ignoring his apology. "Send her flowers and jewels and tickets to the opera. A young woman who repeatedly and knowingly flouted the law, while risking her life in combat, acquiring medals and mentions in dispatches by the fistful - no, you're right, gentlemen, she should quite enjoy fripperies. And it isn't as though she's owed anything by His Majesty, either. Not when she's allowed all the credit for her recent actions to fall to him, even after his Air Service treated her so shabbily."

The men have fallen silent once again, but this time with the chagrined air of schoolboys called before the headmaster.

She tsks again. "A small one will do, I'm sure."

"There's one moored in Portsmouth that might serve," Inverforth says, evidently thinking aloud. "HMSSalamander. Took damage in a sortie over the Western Front; some of the boffins recommended it be put down. Seems a waste, though. It's fundamentally sound."

"We can't give acivilianamilitaryairbeast," Churchill says, scowling, stabbing a thick forefinger at her to punctuate his words. "Especially not a girl who's thrown in her lot with a foreign power. Sets a da- a deuced bad precedent."

Dr. Barlow waves an airy hand. "You're all clever fellows. You'll come up with a perfectly reasonable justification, if you apply yourselves."

The spy looks amused. Churchill does not.

"Bad precedent," he grumbles. "Dangerous thing to do."

She would, Dr. Barlow thinks, very much like to throwhiminto the Thames. Instead, she stands, which is more difficult when one is swiftly approaching the dimensions of a Huxley ascender. At home she would accept Alan's help, or that of a servant. Here she finds it necessary to manage it alone. "Surely, Secretary Churchill, it will be more dangerous to sever relations with Miss Sharp. Who knows what sorts of new friends she will make in Vienna."

The gentlemen have risen with her.

"Write her," Churchill says. Orders. "Don't say a word about an airbeast. Merely… establish a rapport."

Dr. Barlow inclines her head a small fraction. "I am His Majesty's loyal servant, of course."

The men bow. Inverforth offers to see her out; she accepts.

"Thank you, Doctor," he says as they make their way downstairs. The building is bustling with those anonymous civil servants; perhaps the spy has already slipped into their midst, vanishing in plain sight. "I've much to do today. No time for circular debates."

She smiles, because he may as well have saiduseless debates. "Where in Scotland are you from, my lord?"

"Kirkaldy, just north of Edinburgh, though I lived for many years in Glasgow."

"Miss Sharp hails from Glasgow, I do believe." As she knows for a fact.

"Aye," Inverforth says, smiling at her as they reach the street and the vehicle waiting for her at the curb. "Scottish lasses are a special breed, Doctor. A proper force of nature. Here you are."

He assists her into the vehicle. Tips his hat to her. Walks briskly down the sidewalk, intent on the next task in his busy day.

Dr. Barlow tells the driver to take her home, then settles back on the seat as the equidite in the harness clip-clops into action.

She stares at the passing scenery without seeing it.

Churchill continues to live down to expectations, but Inverforth is a promising connection. The spy will be as well, once she's unearthed his identity.

On the whole, however, that room of men was hopeless. So focused on King George's plans, and on Emperor Aleksandar's plans, that they have entirely overlooked the true question.

What are Deryn Sharp's plans?

Dr. Barlow, for one, looks forward to finding out.

Notes:

While there have been several ships named HMS Salamander, the one I'm referencing here is "the Salamander of Leith," a warship used by the Scottish navy from 1537 to 1544, when it was captured by England. It was a wedding present from Francis I (of France, naturally) to James V of Scotland.

Baron Inverforth seems to have been one of those people who're wildly successful because they work really, really hard. When he was ninety-one, he was still going into the office four days a week. I mean. Come on.

"Exquisitely poor timing, I'm afraid" is stolen from an episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, where it was said by supervillain Mr. Sinister (a geneticist and contemporary of Charles Darwin). Have I remembered and admired that line since 1994? Absolutely.

Chapter 15: come home

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

We said we'd never come home

- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac

.

.

.

There's a reason so many fairy stories end with everyone going off to live in a palace. You have to stop the story there, Deryn's learned, because that's where the adventure stops. That's whereeverythingstops.

Palaces are pure dead boring.

She shifts slightly on the chaise longue. The cushions are covered in red velvet and silk, but inside it's the same horsehair stuffing as the moth-eaten sofa in her auntie's parlor. And despite the gilding and fancy plasterwork and Clanker conveniences in Erzsi's Hofburg suite - it's about as exciting as sitting in her auntie's parlor, too.

The compress on her knee lifts a few external tendrils at her movement. She waits for the internal tendrils to start buzzing, too, but there's nothing. About time. Maybe, when the French doctor finally gets his skylarking bum in here, she can convince him to remove the compress altogether.

She picks up her sketchbook (a gift from Alek via Erzsi) and flips through the pages, finding the ones she's been filling with drawings of the compress. A true sign of her boredom, that.

"You're terrible company," she tells the beastie. Worse, its presence holds her to a mind-numbing routine.

Wake up. Dress, in a sodding dress, with the help of a maid. Eat breakfast with Erzsi and her four children. See Alek for five minutes under the guise of his daily courtesy visit to his cousin. Be escorted to the conservatory by the maid and a footman. Sit motionless in the sunlight so the compress can bask. Get escorted back. Eat lunch. Twiddle her bloody thumbs for bloody hours. Dress for dinner, in a fancier dress, with the help of the maid. Eat dinner with Erzsi and her brood. See Alek for five more minutes, unless he has a state event that evening. Dress for bed, with the help of the maid.

Try not to throw her crutches across the room in a fit of frustration.

Sleep.

Repeat again and again, for the longest fifteen days of her life.

At the back of the sketchbook is a collection of the only things keeping her from going completely barmy: the letters Alek slips into her hands every morning.

My dearest Miss Sharp, the first one began, polite as an etiquette book, but the one he gave her this morning opens with a plainLiebchen.

There's no one to see her run her finger over the word and smile to herself like a mooning village lass.

Liebchen,

"When your knee is healed…"

I find myself thinking these words a thousand times a day. The places I mean to take you, the sights I must show you, the food we'll eat - for I know you soldiers march on your stomachs - it is a long list, and only growing longer. I hope that you, who have adventured across the world, can be satisfied with exploring one city. We will be discovering much of it together; I am almost a stranger to Vienna myself. My childhood was predominantly spent in the country, and you know how limited my time has been since taking up the crown.

Have I told you of Konopischt? You would like it, I think, although there are no airfields.

He goes on to describe the castle where he grew up, tells a story about childhood shenanigans which makes her grin, then signs himself,Yours, Alek

That's all written in his usual elegant cursive. But the postscript is a smudged scrawl, as though he added it at the very last moment, folding the paper while the ink was still wet.

I've had the most wonderful idea - I shall tell you as soon as possible.

This squick of a mystery is the most excitement she's been offered since arriving here. She hopes he can tell her today, but it's unlikely, since he's got some military function to attend (Landstreitkräfte, notLuftfahrtruppen,so she's not sorry to miss it).

She wonders where he's keeping the letters she's written to him, the ones she slips intohishands over half-eaten breakfast dishes and snippy wee royals. This morning, continuing a prior disagreement, her letter said:

Love,

You're not to buy a house for me. That's daft. Bad enough you telephoned my ma behind my back and got her so rattled she's threatening to move here. I'll let a flat, like a normal person. Hahn (the maid who stuffs me into dresses every day) says she knows some likely places nearby.

Either that or just move me into your suite and have done with it. You can't force the world to respect me, and at least then I could kiss you as much as I'd like.

Instead of blethering about her childhood, the rest of her letter was a dissection of the current disposition of hisLuftfahrtruppen,based on translated papers one of General Uzelac's aides had supplied her. Not very romantic, maybe. But she's rubbish at romance.

Signing off withYours, foreveris about as close as she gets.

The door to the suite opens and a liveried footman enters, giving her a stiff little bow and an equally stiff, "Frau DoktorBlair."

Deryn sits up straighter, instinctively pushing the sketchbook away and reaching for the knife in her skirt pocket. She doesn't know who Frau Doktor Blair is, but it's not Herr Doktor Laurent, and that's reason enough to be suspicious.

Especially because Deryn's alone.

Princes Franz Joseph and Ernst are with their tutors, Prince Rudi is at his walker pilot lessons, and little Princess Fée is spending the day at a friend's house. Erzsi, meanwhile, is off with the Socialists, doing important work for the good of the masses and certainly not snogging that Leopold Petznek fellow.

Her fingers have just closed around the folding knife's handle when the doctor enters. It's a woman. White doctor's coat, black doctor's bag, sensible dark skirt. Unlike Dr. Laurent, she's not wearing a boffin's bowler.

And there's a dog trotting at her heels.

"Good afternoon, Captain," the doctor says briskly, in English, though an accent lilts the words. She sets her bag on the sofa near Deryn's chaise, then turns to her dog and gestures. "Muggins, sit."

Muggins the dog has black fur, with white paws and a white blaze on its chest. It promptly sits, tongue lolling, tail wagging, gazing up at the doctor adoringly. As far as Deryn can tell, it's a normal dog - nothing fabricated about it.

Over the doctor's shoulder, the footman returns to the hallway, shutting the door after him.

The doctor extends a hand to Deryn. "Dr. Mary Blair."

Deryn shakes hands, unsurprised to find the doctor has a firm grip. She seems the type. "Aye, hello. You're not -"

"- who you were expecting, no." Dr. Blair smiles, a flash of teeth in a sun-lined face. "Dr. Laurent is unavailable, and since I was in the area, the job's fallen to me."

Well, that explains the delay, at any rate. "Thanks for coming, then."

"A doctor's job is to serve," Dr. Blair says. There's a wry note to it, like a private joke. She nods at Deryn's compress. "What have its activity levels been?"

"Almost nothing, today."

"Mm. We may be able to remove it," she says, which is music to Deryn's ears. The doctor looks around the parlor. "Is there a sink? Or a basin? I prefer to wash my hands before an exam."

"Aye, the loo's just through there," Deryn says, pointing. Muggins turns its head to track the doctor's movements as she goes, but it's an obedient dog, and it stays put.

Dr. Blair returns in short order, pulling on a pair of rubber gloves and saying, "Good boy, Muggins," on her way to the chaise, which earns her more tail wags.

"New Zealand," Deryn says, having worked out the accent.

Dr. Blair gives her an appraising look as she sits on the edge of the chaise. "You've a good ear, Captain."

Deryn shrugs. "I served with some ANZAC lads during the war."

"I served with the Scottish Women's Hospitals. We do live in a small world." She puts her attention on Deryn's knee, obviously moving the conversation along from war stories, which is fine. Those ANZAC lads had been very brave; they're also very dead. "Let's see to your compress."

The doctor gently presses around the edges of the beastie. The external tendrils wriggle, and inside it starts up a weak buzzing - more a tickle than anything else. She gives a wee tug to the lower part, and it lifts away from Deryn's skin without complaint. Dr. Blair lets go of the compress, looking pleased. "I believe its work is done."

Deryn drops her head back against the stiff horsehair padding of the chaise. "That's a bloody relief," she says, then winces at her own language. "Sorry."

The doctor chuckles. "I've heard much worse."

Serving in the war, aye, she's likely heard every curse ever known to man. A few new ones, too.

Muggins, evidently tired of sitting, lays down and rests his head on his paws. Dr. Blair removes her gloves and snaps her black bag open, rummaging around inside. She draws out a glass specimen jar half-filled with some kind of cloudy liquid and says, lightly, "We have an acquaintance in common, you and I. Dr. Nora Barlow."

Dr. Barlow. The name sends a jolt of memory through Deryn: the lady boffin and her thylacine coming aboard in Hyde Park; those barking inconvenient eggs; the fear of being found out that'd lurked in the pit of her stomach until Dr. Barlow had got off the ship.

Suddenly Deryn is pure dead certain Dr. Laurent didn't just happen to beunavailabletoday, and Dr. Blair didn't just happen to bein the area.

She looks at Dr. Blair with new eyes. Suspicious eyes, at that.

At least whatever the lady boffin's plotting, it's not likely to end in her death. Murder's too vulgar for the likes of Dr. Barlow, even by proxy. Still, her fingers itch for the knife in her pocket.

"Aye," she says slowly. "Aye, that we do."

This time there's no alert from the footman. The door simply opens, and the person on the other side comes striding in like he owns the place. Which he does.

Alek.

She'd got used to him in borrowed clothes, in need of a shave, tired and travel-stained. In the last fifteen days, she's seen him wearing everyday suits and surrounded by a flock of bureaucrats and servants, looking more like a banker than a king.

Not today. Today, he's kitted out in a military uniform. Hair freshly cut. Boots with a mirror shine. Medals spangled on the jacket's chest. Sash of state from shoulder to hip, gold belt at the waist. Imperial arrogance in every gesture.

Alek at engines ahead full... It's enough to take a girl's breath away.

The doctor has risen to her feet, along with Muggins. She dips into a serviceable curtsey; Muggins merely wags his tail.

Deryn keeps her bum on the chaise. Invalid's privilege.

Alek, imperial mask in place, gives the doctor a cool nod. "Please continue," he says.

Dr. Blair says, "Yes, sir," and goes back to her preparations, laying out a set of steel instruments on the small table beside the chaise.

Alek comes to stand on the other side of the chaise, his hands behind his back and a smile tucked into the corner of his mouth, threatening to ruin that mask. "Captain, how are you?"

Deryn herself is hard-pressed not to grin like a looby. Blisters, it's good to see him, especially since she wasn't expecting to. But he's interrupted his schedule, probably putting himself in Volger's black books in the process, just to make certain her doctor's visit goes well.

She's never said, not aloud and not in any of her letters, that she's been fretting about this. That it's not the compress being removed which has her worried, but everything afterwards.

What if her knee never heals? What if her days of mad adventures are over?

And here's her friend, her love, come to keep her company. Unasked.

"Aye, I'm all right, Your Majesty," she says, because his presence makes it true. She makes a rude gesture at the compress. "Ready to have this gone."

"Then I've come just in time." Ignoring the stricken looks from the footman, Alek fetches one of the spindly-legged chairs and carries it over, settling in beside the chaise and taking Deryn's hand in his.

"You may begin," he tells the doctor, every inch an emperor. Cool and arrogant and commanding. But his fingers tighten on hers.

Forceps at the ready, Dr. Blair glances at Deryn, who nods.

Luckily, the compress is happy to say farewell to Deryn's knee, and its tendrils release with no fuss at all. Dr. Blair is methodical but quick, exactly the way you'd expect a war doctor to be, and within a few minutes, the compress is bubbling in its specimen jar and Deryn is able to wiggle her toes without a swarm of bees giving an opinion about it.

Dr. Blair returns her instruments and the specimen jar to her black bag, saying, "Any physician should be able to handle treatment from here, Darwinist or not. Rest it another week before starting reconstructive therapy."

"Thank you, Doctor," Alek says - this time, not as an emperor. Just himself.

Deryn squeezes his fingers and gives the doctor a smile. "Aye, thanks."

Dr. Blair nods, says, "Muggins, come," and exits as briskly as she'd entered. The dog trots after her, tail wagging.

The footman hovers for a moment longer, but Alek dismisses him with a few curt words in German.

And then it's just the two of them, alone, for the first time since arriving in Vienna.

She turns her head to look up at him. He's faster than she is, though, because he's already dropped to sit on the chaise, and now he cups her face in his hands and kisses her like a drowning man in search of oxygen.

There's no room on the chaise longue, and someone will be along in a matter of minutes, if not sooner, and Alek can't get mussed when he's on his way elsewhere, but none of those facts stop Deryn from hauling him atop her and kissing him back. His weight settles in right where she most wants to feel it.

The train in France was lovely, and this is quite nice as well, but if she doesn't get her lad into a proper bed for some proper debauchery soon…

His medals dig into her chest; the pricks of sensation serve as a counterpoint to the warm, soft slickness of his mouth against hers, the smell of his skin, the sparks of fire where his clever pilot's fingers are stroking the back of her neck.

They break apart, breathing hard, and she smooths her own hands over his jaw and chin and cheekbones, careful not to make a mess of his hair, ending with a tweak to one of his ears (which he likes quite a bit, evidence suggests).

Now shedoesgrin at him like a looby. "Oi, hello."

He grins at her in return, and catches up one hand to press a kiss to the back of it. Daftie. "Hallo, Liebchen."

Instead of kissing him further, she prompts, "You had an idea?"

If anything, his grin gets wider. He sits up and tugs at his uniform jacket, trying to put it to rights. "Yes. A brilliant one, I must say. I've spent most of the day discussing it with General Uzelac, and it should be feasible, although not without a rather large impediment."

Either he's stalling to taunt her, or he's spent too much time making kingly speeches lately. She gives his red-and-white sash a quick pull to straighten it, while ordering, "Out with it, then."

"A Women's Special Air Auxiliary," he says in a rush. "A thousand soldiers to begin with. It will serve as the model, I hope, of a new way forward for the Continent."

She stares. No wonder they liked each other straightaway; he's at least as mad as she is. But the very idea makes excitement start bubbling in her veins. "And I'll be advising you on it?"

"You'll be in command," he says, as though it's so obvious he needn't have said it, and that's what makes her thinkOh, lad, I do love you. "Is that… Should you be interested in that?"

"Oh, just a squick," she says. Then she laughs. Delighted. "Barking spiders, Alek! That's brilliant. Just Austro-Hungarian girls?"

He shakes his head. "It would be open to any and all nationalities."

"Aye, it would have to be, with me at the helm. Makes it less odd."

"Many will no doubt find the entire venture odd." But he's clearly delighted, too, over her reaction. "There's an airfield and barracks the you can take over; they were used for training during the war, and won't be needed now. However - this is the obstacle - Uzelac insists theLuftfahrtruppencan't spare any actual aircraft."

"Bollocks."

"Yes, but I don't see a way to press the issue."

Deryn frowns. Alek's right; now's not the time to get high-handed with the military he'll need to support him in the event of another coup. It'll be difficult to train a full regiment of airwomen without any sodding aircraft, though.

She's just about to open her mouth and say so when something at the corner of her eye catches her attention. A white rectangle - an envelope. It's on the little table where Dr. Blair had set her instruments.

"What's that?" Deryn asks, stretching over and plucking it from the table. Maybe it fell out of the doctor's bag? It's not one of Alek's letters, nor hers. They don't use envelopes.

Any thought of it being accidentally left there vanishes when she gets the thing close enough to examine properly. Across the front, it saysMidshipman Sharpin bold script.

"It's… for you?" Alek asks, not so much confused as suspicious. Wary.

"Aye, and I'll bet I know exactly who it's from," Deryn says, cross. "Barking meddling boffins. Or d'you suppose the British ambassador didn't tell anyone what I said he could shove up his arse?"

His umbrella. But that had been after a long conversation where he acted like she hadn't any brains in her head. Then he'd all but called her a whor* and insinuated Alek had poor taste for wanting her.

Pillock. He was lucky she only threatened him.

Alek takes the envelope and turns it over in his hands, then holds it up to the light. There's more than a single sheet of paper in there, that's for certain. "Is it something bad, do you think?"

She sighs, resigned. "I reckon we'll have to find out."

He gives the envelope back to her, and Deryn uses her pocketknife to slice the top open. When she shakes the contents free, two pieces of paper fall out into her lap, along with a photograph.

One paper is a letter. The other is tracing paper, folded into a tidy rectangle, the picture on it reduced to a jumble of random lines pressed together. She decides to start with the photograph.

It's an airbeast, tucked safely inside a hangar, although the poor creature has heavy scarring along its side.

"Blisters!" She squints at the black-and-white image, wishing it was larger. "What happened to you, beastie?"

"Perhaps the letter might reveal that secret," Alek says, dry. "Perhaps it might, in fact, tell us everything."

She makes a face at him; he laughs and presses a kiss to her cheek. Then she holds the letter so they can both read it at the same time.

Dear Miss Sharp,

Please find enclosed plans for the decommissioned military airbeast HMSSalamander, which I expect will soon be yours. It is currently moored in Portsmouth, having been damaged late in the war. I have received a full report on its condition, and while its wounds are extensive - as you have no doubt noticed - I am comfortable in asserting that it is capable of many more years of service.

The next bit is a dry recitation of facts: the airbeast's fabricators, its specifications, when and where it hatched, when and where and how it was injured, the course of treatment recommended to bring it back to fighting strength. Fascinating stuff to Deryn; probably less so to Alek.

The letter concludes with:

You have already been approached on behalf of His Majesty's government. You owe that pack of incompetents nothing. They, however, oweyou, and I believe theSalamanderto be an adequate initial payment. A friendly word or deed from the emperor should suffice; grand gestures are not required.

You need not reply to this letter.

Yours most sincerely,

Dr. Nora Barlow

Alek takes a few moments longer to finish the letter, frowning the whole while. "Who is Dr. Barlow?"

"A fabricator," Deryn says. Instead of addingAnd a thorn in Middy Sharp's side, she adds, "Charles Darwin was her grandda."

His eyes widen in surprise. "You know the most unexpected people."

"She's every bit as tiresome as Eddie Malone, trust me."

He returns the letter to the envelope, and she unfolds the airbeast's blueprints. It's a large sheet, the tracing paper is, and rather than spread it across her legs, she takes one corner and he takes the other, and they hold it up in front of them.

HMS Salamanderis printed across the top of the tracing paper in tidy draftsman's letters. The rest of it probably looks like gibberish to him, but to her…

"It's a beauty," Deryn says, looking at the photo again. "Bit old, and that scarring's going to make it trickier to steer, but Dr. Barlow's right. It still has a lot of fight left."

He gives her a dubious glance. "I bow to your expertise."

Deryn folds up the blueprints again and puts them away. The photograph she keeps out, the better to wave it at Alek. "D'you know what it'd be perfect for?"

The smile that spreads across his face is slow, wide, and lights his lovely green eyes with mischief. "Perhaps a Women's Air Auxiliary?"

"Might be nice gesture of friendship."

"Providentially so. Is that your opinion as my air combat advisor?"

"As the commander of your regiment."

"Ah, yes, the commander who's going to allow me to pay for the flat she'll need whenever she visits Vienna -"

"Get stuffed,mein Kaiser."

It's not the easiest thing, to kiss while you're both laughing, but they manage it.

One thing's spoiling the moment, though. She pulls away to point out, "I'd be leaving you here."

Alone, in a place so dull she's desperate to it escape after two weeks. He's been trapped in palaces and castles for years, to the point he hasn't even had a good wander around the capital city of his own empire.

She needs to fly. But - she also needs Alek to be safe and well and happy.

He says nothing for a long moment, merely studies her. Then he says, quietly, "You saved my life, my throne, and my sanity. Let me give you your dream."

Now it's her turn to study him. Their eyes meet and hold for a long, long moment before she nods.

"And a flat on the Ringstrasse," he says, and kisses her again while she's sputtering with indignation and laughter.

They're still kissing some minutes later when the footman raps on the door and calls "Eure Majestät?" through it.

Alek draws back and swears. As well he should - his hair's been ruined, there are creases in his sash, and two of his medals are askew. Deryn's shirtwaist is mostly unbuttoned, while her skirt has migrated up around her thighs. Considerate of that footman not to barge in.

She hurriedly helps to get his uniform squared away, because if the footman is daring to knock on the door, they're only moments from that Volger kicking it down.

As she gets her own clothes more or less where they ought to be, she says, "You know, captains don't lead regiments in Britain."

"No," he says, running his fingers through his hair to straighten it. It's a vain attempt, but she likes him better rumpled. "Nor here."

"So I've made colonel in a month." She grins up at him, happiness so keen it could slice her to ribbons. "Not too shabby, aye, love?"

Notes:

Shout out to Prince Rudolf, who died in a motorcycle racing accident in 1939. He was openly anti-Nazi, which we love to see.

Meanwhile, the baby of the family, Princess Stephanie, died in 2005, at age 96. She and Erzsi did not get along. (Something something history repeating itself.)

Erzsi married Leopold Petznek in 1948, pretty much the second her divorce to Otto was granted. Leopold was already married when he met Erzsi, but his wife was institutionalized due to mental illness; she died in 1935.

Finally, Dr. Mary Alice Blair was a pioneering anesthetist, and she really did have a dog named Muggins who saw patients with her. In 1922 she was awarded the Order of St. Sava by the king of Serbia for organizing field hospitals in Salonika during the war, and then taking charge of 5,000 patients that had been evacuated to Corsica. If you want to meet some more badass WWI doctor ladies, check out Dr. Alice Hutchison and Dr. Caroline Matthews. (Neither of them had a cute dog, so they didn't make the cut for this fic.)

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