Authors: Leigh Statham
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The author makes no claims to, but instead acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the word marks mentioned in this work of fiction.
Copyright © 2016 by Leigh Statham
THE PERILOUS JOURNEY OF THE MUCH-TOO-SPONTANEOUS GIRL by Leigh Statham
All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America by Month9Books, LLC.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
EPub ISBN: 978-1-945107-54-2Mobi ISBN: 978-1-945107-40-5
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-944816-57-5
Published by Month9Books, Raleigh, NC 27609
Cover design by Christel Michiels
For Evan & Georgie,
little boys with big dreams.
Fly hard and fast,
and keep your mouths closed
or you’ll get bugs in your teeth.
Lady Marguerite Vadnay strapped herself into the tiny compartment and slipped her goggles over her eyes. A glass hood lowered over her upper body while she sat snug in the cockpit of the single-man aership. The wind blew enough to rock the small cabin back and forth as her envelope filled beside her, eventually leaving the ground completely, its seams tight with helium.
Her hair was pulled into a neat bun, and her flight suit was no longer a man’s hand-me-down. It was custom made from the finest industrial cloth she could get her hands on in Montreal, complete with lots of pockets. Lady Vadnay loved pockets. Little brass buttons stamped with her monogram ran from her chin all the way to her trousers. She had fully embraced her life as a woman of New France and soon-to-be aership pilot.
Plenty of men flew the tiny contraptions. It was the aercraft of choice in New France, perfect for charting high-mountain passes and performing night raids on neighboring New England. France was far ahead of any country in the world when it came to avionics—unless, of course, you counted the pirate nations of the seas, which Marguerite did not. All of their technology was stolen, mostly from France.
It had been a long road getting to this point. Only six months earlier she was being abused by her high-priced governess, Pomphart, back in mainland France. Her father was a wealthy Lord, determined on marrying her off to anything that crawled around with a decent title and bank account, and her friends were either boring or deserting her for adulthood.
Marguerite quickly took matters into her own hands. She’d volunteered to be a Daughter of the King and sailed away without her father’s knowledge. All she wanted was to start a new life with her childhood friend Claude and have some adventures; unfortunately, the adventures were more than she’d bargained for. Friends were lost, and new ones made. She was lucky to be alive and studying at His Royal Majesty’s Flight Academy for Resilient Young Women after the harrowing trip.
“Tighten the lift lever, pull in on the altinometer. We’re going to remove the anchors now!” Her professor yelled at her over the sound of the roaring single-motor engine. It sputtered and spit steam. The solar panels had been fully charged the day before and the fuel tanks filled with fresh water that morning. There was nothing left to do but fly.
“Ready?” the professor called to Marguerite. The ground crew, consisting mostly of her classmates from the flight academy, scurried to finish their assignments. Marguerite nodded, and the assembly went to work loosening ropes, moving sandbags, and generally getting out of the way.
Marguerite adjusted her goggles out of sheer nervousness. Claude had made her a new pair, with even better dark vision and a scoping feature on the right eye. They fit her face perfectly, but she didn’t even need them today. She had a glass dome to protect her from the elements. Still, she loved having them on, and she couldn’t help but think that they brought her good luck. Her first pair had saved her life not too long ago.
This was her inaugural solo flight for His Majesty, Louis XIV. If all went well, she’d spend the rest of her life an independent woman doing what she loved—flying. If not, she was going to have to do a lot of backpedaling with a lot of people, Jacques Laviolette, being person of interest number one. She spotted him walking up to the edge of the group of onlookers. She’d hoped he would come today. She’d mentioned the event offhandedly the night before while they shared dinner with her automaton, Outil, but she wasn’t sure he’d understood how important this day was or if he could get away from his own duties at the school.
Jacques—handsome, brave, and annoying Jacques. He was an entirely different issue. But there was no time to think about that now.
The professor gave the signal. She tore her goggle-tinted gaze away from Laviolette’s tall, dark-haired frame. Lifting one hand, she gave the sign for all go, pushed the buttons and pulled the lever. The launching mechanism shot her little ship into the air like a Chinese rocket. She had never traveled this fast before in her life. It felt like invisible arms were shoving her back into the seat with tremendous force, until she reached her cruising altitude, and the balloon took over as the thrust let off.
Marguerite glanced up from her controls and caught her breath. Her new home city of Montreal lay beneath her in all its splendor. The river wound like a loose ribbon through the brick and wood dwellings. She could see her school almost immediately, its roof littered with experimental equipment for weather and aviation. The chapel caught her eye next, its soaring crucifix and brightly colored windows winking in the perfect morning sun.
Her heart filled like a mini aership envelope, happiness threatening to burst it open. Marguerite sighed audibly, realizing that she’d held her breath during the entire launch. She eased her controls to the right, and the thrusters kicked in, propelling her forward and to the right.
This was amazing.
“Yes!” she cried out to the endless blue sky in front of her.
The controls felt so right in her hands. She began to execute more maneuvers. The tiny ship felt like an extension of her own body. She dove to the left, steered it back up, turned tight to the right, centripetally swinging her own compartment in the opposite direction.
She laughed. What a thrill! Months of study and hard work, tiny rooms, and terrible food—this was completely worth it.
A flock of birds flew past her, swirling around, welcoming her. They dove and skimmed the surface of the St. Lawrence River, then swooped back up along the edge of a brick building.
“That looks like fun,” she said to herself.
Laying on the controls, she took the little ship in a steep dive toward the aerstrip. Her heart floated in her chest, her breath caught in her throat, and she giggled with delight as the ship responded to her demand and swooped back up. It leveled off like the birds, just in time for the envelope to catch on a breeze and drag Marguerite, ship and all, into the windsock tower.
The birds continued on without her, the sudden lurch throwing her forward and forcing her to close her eyes. When she opened them again, it was just in time to see the metal trusses of the tower approaching at top speed.
Before she could call for help, Marguerite was whipped around the tower, her envelope caught in the trusses. She banged into one pylon and then another; the glass around her shattering and tearing at her exposed cheeks and nose. She cried out and braced herself for impact with the ground, her giggles from the moment before turned to cries for help.
This could be it, she thought.How appropriate that I work so hard and then die in my first solo flight. Poetic even.
She braced herself for death, but a final jerk left her shaken yet alive. Unfortunately, she dangled several feet above the ground from her own rigging, tangled beneath the windsock. She opened her eyes, realized her precarious situation, and groaned. She could still fall and be hurt, but her broken pride was worse than death at this point.
“Marguerite!” Jacques was the first on the scene. “Are you alright, my dear? Quick! Someone get a ladder. Call the medic! Move!” He barked orders like the Air Captain he was born to be. Marguerite cursed herself and pounded her fist on the altinometer. The little dial spun around and fell off its clasp, landing in the bottom of the circular compartment, completely useless.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she called back. Then more quietly to herself, “Just feeling like a complete idiot.”
“Lady Vadnay,” her professor called up, “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you failed your first flight test. Very glad you survived, however. Very glad!”
“Wonderful.” She laid her head back against the seat. “Just wonderful.”Chapter Two
After much finagling, and procurement of a very tall ladder, Marguerite was freed from the trap of her own making.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” Jacques asked as he examined the scratches on her face, his hands on either side of her head.
“Yes. Yes. I’m fine.” She swatted his hands away. “My body is in perfect working order. My spirit, however, is crushed beyond repair.”
Jacques eyes twinkled. “I’m sure the ship feels the same way. He looked up at the envelope and battered cockpit still dangling from the windsock tower and covered his mouth with the back of his hand, failing to stop his laughter.
“I’m sure you find this hysterical, but I just set myself back by at least six months or more,” Marguerite said.
“They will give you another test flight before then. Everyone crashes—eventually.” He laughed again. “I’m going to climb up there and try to help them cut the poor beast down. Wait for me?”
Marguerite didn’t answer. She’d had enough of the field and his chuckling. As soon as he mounted the grey metal ladder, she gathered what was left of her pride and walked back to her dormitory.
The next day she sat at attention on the edge of her wooden chair, furiously scribbling notes as her teacher lectured on the mechanics of the next generation of aership thruster systems. Something sharp pricked her ear. Annoyed, she reached up to rub it, without breaking her concentration on the lecture.
“With improved aerodynamics and lighter construction materials, we should be able to see improvements in speed and process efficiency.” The professor, old and balding with a long white beard and a moth-eaten uniform, poked at a diagram on a chalkboard as he walked through the final information the young women needed to know for their exams the following week.
Another prick, this time to her neck.
Marguerite rubbed it again and heard giggles behind her. Annoyed, she glared behind her at the pack of simpering girls having a laugh at her expense. She looked at the ground. Two pieces of paper lay folded in the shape of stars with sharply creased corners jutting from each edge.
“Here.” The girl next to her bent over, scooped them up, and handed them to her. “You dropped these.” She barely hid a chortle as she turned back to the other girls, then pretended to listen to the lecture.
“Fortunately for us, France has a leading edge on mechanics and steam engineering. Our solar harnessing powers are unmatched, and our Royal Corps of Engineers is unparalleled in the world. The best that other countries can do is hope to steal our technology, then pick it apart, trying to reproduce it.” He chuckled at his own joke. “Why, we even have engineers from other countries denouncing their birth homes and swearing allegiance to the King just for the chance to go to our schools—schools such as this, ladies.” He flashed a wide, squinty smile around the room then turned back to the chalkboard. “Where was I?”
Marguerite knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t help it. She slowly unfolded the first paper and read the tiny script inside:
Why are you acting like you need to learn this material?
Everyone knows your lover will make sure you pass the exams…
Unless you keep crashing.
Marguerite crumpled the scrap in her hand and forced her thoughts back to the lecture. She endured this kind of torment regularly. Jacques Laviolette was an instructor at the school, but notherinstructor. And he was most certainly not her lover. He’d captained the ship that brought her to New France. They spent time together; they enjoyed each other’s company; and they frequently debated engineering and the latest science out of Paris. He’d made it clear more than once that he intended to marry her, but she had made it clear that she was not going to get married until she was good and ready, and that probably wouldn’t be until she was done seeing the world.
The most ridiculous thing about the whole situation was that she kept hoping the notes and comments from the other girls might be friendly at some point. But no, they just got uglier and more cruel.
She wadded the second note without reading it and tried to memorize what the professor said about thermodynamic possibilities. If it weren’t for the amazing subjects she was free to learn in this school, she would have left long ago. She certainly wasn’t here for the female companionship or the housing. But small, grey, and dingy as it was, at least she was able to secure a room to herself.
The teacher wrapped up his lecture and dismissed his class. Marguerite tucked her papers neatly into a satchel as several girls bumped into her shoulder while filing past.
She sighed and rose as soon as they were gone. Outil peeked around the corner of her classroom, and Marguerite smiled.
“Hello, how was the oiling?” Marguerite asked.
“Lovely, m’lady.” Outil nodded and took her bag of textbooks from her. “There is a new machinist who is most cautious with all of my gears. He was admiring Master Claude’s handiwork.”
“It sounds like you have a little bit of a fancy for this new boy. Was he human?” Marguerite grinned wickedly.
Outil stopped walking. “This theory is illogical in the extreme, m’lady. I was not designed to exhibit feelings other than loyalty, in any form, much less for a human I do not know. And I can’t imagine developing afancy,” she repeated the word carefully, “as you call it, on another bot that is also not designed to return feelings.”
Marguerite laughed. “I was only teasing. Relax. Where is Jacques? Have you seen him? I never know how to find him now that his teaching duties are completed for the term.”
“I believe he is in the chapel, m’lady.” Outil moved easily away from the strange conversation of human emotions.
Girl and robot made their way to the school’s chapel, the oldest building in the neighborhood, possibly the oldest building in Montreal. Its soaring stone walls were already turning black with age. Inside the mammoth wooden doors, stained glass windows shed rainbow colors on all the pews. A man in a uniform sat with his head down, while an automaton meandered from one candelabrum to another, trimming wicks and mopping up spent wax.
Outil waited at the back of the massive, echoing room while Marguerite moved silently up the aisle. She slipped into the pew next to the man and sat quietly for a few moments until he lifted his head and smiled at her.
“Hello, Lady Vadnay,” he whispered.
“Hello, Jacques. What are we praying for?” She was half-sarcastic, half-concerned.
“Nothing really … I just received some news, trying to digest it and figure out the next steps.” He sat back and stared ahead at the pulpit.
“Anything you’d care to include me in?” She slid her hand across the bench toward him.
He swept it up and kissed her knuckles without taking his eyes off the front of the church. He kept her hand at his mouth for a moment longer than was appropriate, and then exhaled and kissed it again. “I have a commission. The ship leaves next week.” He smiled, but happiness did not fill his eyes.
“Oh! Where are you going?” Marguerite’s heart leapt at the prospect of going with him to finally use all the knowledge and skills she learned.
“To the Atlantic. The corsairs are moving farther and farther from the Barbary Coast. King Louis himself has decreed that we must stop them from attacking our trade routes and drive them back to the Mediterranean. They are also afraid that the British may be aiding them in attacks on our merchants,” he spoke quickly. “We will have the finest warships France has ever built, and I will captain one.”
“That’s wonderful! When will they have our tests sorted out?” Marguerite didn’t miss the fact that fulfilling her dream of serving on an aership rested on her ability to pass this test.
“Next week. They should have the students cleared before the ship departs—but, Marguerite, my love, you cannot go.” The corners of his mouth turned down, matching his eyes at last.
“What are you talking about? Of course, I can go. I have but to volunteer. We will work together. It will be wonderful!”
He let go of her hand and folded his arms. “Marguerite, you failed the flying exam, and there won’t be another opportunity to retake it until after I have departed.” She began to protest, but he stopped her. “Do not argue. There is no way around this. Besides, this is not the type of voyage I think you should be on for your first assignment. You’ve already survived one pirate attack. There is no reason to see the world from a battleship.”
He reached up to stroke her cheek, but she pulled away.
“This is ridiculous, Jacques. You said it yourself; I’ve already proven myself in battle. I’m a crack shot, and I think quickly under pressure. Outil and I are a marvelous team. School is merely a formality so I can get into a cockpit,” she whispered fiercely, trying not to disturb the quiet of the chapel. “And why must you leave so soon?”
“Because the supply routes are being attacked daily. His Majesty’s aeronauts have to constantly devise new routes and carry more armory than is usually necessary, which leaves less room for supplies. In short, it’s costing the king a pretty penny, and that doesn’t count the bounty he’s losing when the pirates win skirmishes.”
“I suppose the ship will be outfitted with modern weaponry?” she asked.
“Yes, in fact, your friend Claude just finished a commission to create a defense system to thwart their blasted air cannons.” She shuddered at the thought of the giant bursts of wind that rocked the ship and tore it to pieces. “We won’t be going in to save anything. We are going to search and destroy. This is going to be a dangerous mission, Marguerite. Trust me, you are not ready. In fact, I doubt they will have any female crew on the battleship.”
“I’m not planning on being in hand-to-hand combat. I’ll be on the bridge with you. It won’t be like the last time where we were attacked from out of nowhere, and I had no idea how to help or what I was doing. I’m ready now. I can help you lead the attack.”
Marguerite couldn’t believe this conversation. All these months she thought they had the same goals. She thought he knew that she wanted to work on an aership and eventually command her own in the Royal Fleet.
Jacques laughed. “Darling, you won’t be on the bridge.”
“What do you mean?” She folded her arms and stared at him.
“Even if you passed all of your exams and were granted a post on this mission, first-year cadets don’t serve on the bridge. You would be below in the engine room or on the galley ship.”
“The galley, as in where food is prepared?”
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s the order of things.”
Marguerite sat back and put her hands in her lap, methodically smoothing her skirt as she choked back disappointment. “I want to fly.”
“And you will!” Jacques reached for her hand again. “In a year or two you’ll be on the bridge, and we will be married. Besides, you will be able to pilot a small ship privately before that.” He took her hand again and kissed it more softly this time. “Your accident yesterday … I’m sorry I laughed. I know that was uncalled for, but it frightened me. I don’t want to see you in danger ever again, especially if I can prevent it.”
She couldn’t argue with his logic, but it bothered her that a man was still deciding her future. Even if he was a handsome, kind, thoughtful, and funny man, who knew exactly how to make her insides melt at just the wrong times. Even if his plan aligned with her dreams perfectly, she still felt squirmy about it.
And she didn’t like him assuming she would go along with all of this. She wiggled her hand free. “I don’t think so, M. Laviolette.” He smiled at her.
She glared back, heat rising to her face.
“You always laugh at me, but I am not making a joke. You act like this is all just a hobby for me. I don’t think you take me seriously when I tell you I want to fly, and Iwillfly. I also don’t need your permission or your timeline in order to accomplish my goals.” She stood. “And Ido notneed your proposals any longer.”
Even though her hands were shaking, and she felt as if she would explode, right there in the middle of a church before the altar and God and everyone, she regretted the harsh words as soon as she said them.
“I know you are upset, but that is no reason to take it out on me.” His tone was serious.
“If you love me so much, why are you running off to battle pirates without me? You expect me to wait here and be a good girl. This is Claude all over again!” She threw her hands up in the air and turned to leave the pew, then thought better and twisted back to point a finger in his face. “Except this time I’m not a stupid girl. I’ve done things. I’ve seen things. I know what I want and it has nothing to do with you.”
Jacques’ jaw hardened as he spoke. “Your pride is the only thing standing in the way of your dreams. No man. No society. Justyou. Certainly not me. Maybe if you’d been paying attention during your flight test and hadn’t started showing off you might have passed,” he shot back at her. Then added, “And I am no Claude. If you would just pay attention to men a little more carefully, you would have seen that he never loved you that way, but I always have.”
“Love, love, love. It’s easy to say sweet things and buy presents, but when it comes right down to it, you march away without a backwards glance. That is not love, Jacques.” Marguerite forced herself not to consider his words. They were pricking at a very soft place in her heart, tempting her to cry, but she would not let herself give in.
“That is my job, my dear.” He stood and made a move to take her hand. She pulled away. “I’m an aeronautic officer. I have to leave when I am called.” Then more quietly, “There are very few exceptions.”
A million retorts filled her head; everything from accusing him of being a very poor officer—letting his first ship get blown up—to begging him to resign. It was all ridiculous. She didn’t need him. She didn’t needanyman.
“Fine then. Go chase your pirates. Enjoy your battle. Kill a few hundred people and try not to get blown up this time.” She started to walk away, then turned back to finish. “No, go ahead and get blown up. I have the perfect flight suit to wear to your funeral.”
“Marguerite! You don’t mean that!” He called after her.
“Yes, I do.” She marched resolutely to the wood doors of the chapel and pushed them open. “Come on, Outil. I’m famished.”
The bot followed dutifully. “Yes, m’lady.”
“I could use a decent meal myself,” Jacques ran to catch up to them just outside the chapel.
After a course of soup, mutton with roasted vegetables, and fresh bread from the nunnery down the street, Marguerite felt much less cantankerous. She still fumed about Jacques’s news, though, and resolved herself to finding a way around his stubborn attitude and the rules.
A young boy approached their table, his voice loud. “Lady Marguerite Vadnay?”
A chorus of chortles erupted at the other end of the hall—the other school girls enjoying the boy’s announcement that aladywas serving alongside them in a government-run institution. The rumor was that her father had disowned her for having an affair with Jacques. Marguerite and Jacques both ignored the idol gossip, and Marguerite made sure she was at church each week and on good terms with the priest. The last thing she needed was a guilty conscience on top of the stress of living in a new world with all of these commoners.
“I have a missive for you from Paris. Came in just an hour ago.” He puffed his chest and handed her a slip of paper, obviously proud of himself for finding her and delivering the important message.
Normally she would have tipped him handsomely, but the last six months she’d been living on the money Claude set aside for her from his family jewels, and she didn’t want to waste one franc. Instead, she smiled prettily at him, handed him the last coins from her pocket, and said, “Excellent work. Thank you.” The boy smiled back and made a tight military turn before leaving the dining hall.
“Who is it from?” Jacques leaned over the table, trying to catch a glimpse of the formal lettering on the page. Marguerite read the lines quickly, her face pinching slightly. Then she had a thought. She sat forward and looked him in the eyes using her most serious voice.
“Help me get a commission on your ship, and I’ll tell you what it says.”
Jacques leaned forward and answered in his most serious voice, “Marry me, and I will.”
Marguerite rolled her eyes and sat back to reread her message.
“What? Most women around here think I’m a fine catch.” He leaned back and smiled at a group of girls at the next table, nodding his head slightly. They actually tittered and turned away. “See?” Jacques whispered.
Marguerite gave up her game of blackmail and handed him the page. “It’s from my father,” She said, “He’s coming to see me.”Chapter Three
“Well, that’s wonderful news!” Jacques cried.
“Not necessarily,” Marguerite said as she poked at the leftover carrots on her plate.
“How could it not be good news? You have been wondering about him all these months, and how he felt about your wild wanderings. This is wonderful. If he were going to disown you, he wouldn’t do it in person. That’s much too messy for the aristocracy.”
“You don’t know the Vadnay aristocracy, Jacques. He could very well be coming here to spank me with his own hand.”
Jacques laughed, and Outil approached the table from the corner where she waited as chaperone. “M’lady, I doubt that your father will come all this way to administer corporal punishment. You are much too old for that, and it goes against the dictates of refined society,” Outil said with concern.
“I was exaggerating, Outil. He is unpredictable at best. Who knows what Pomphart told him about me when she got back to France.” Marguerite’s mind flashed to her horrid governess who’d followed her across the Atlantic only to be thrown in jail for threatening to kidnap Marguerite, or worse.
“You really think he visited her in prison?” Jacques asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
“Well, cheer up. He can’t possibly get here for another few weeks. You’ve got exams to worry about, and I’m sure he’ll be most impressed when you pass with top marks.” Then he quickly added, “And learn to land correctly.” Jacques was always trying to put a positive spin on situations she was sure would be positively dreadful.
“Oh no, this note was not from Paris. It was sent by ship-to-shore wireless telegraph. He will arrive in three days.”
“That is not much time, m’lady,” Outil said. “And that is right in the middle of your first written tests.”
“Exactly, Outil. I’m going to have to figure this out.” Marguerite folded it carefully and put the paper in her pocket.
“I would offer to help you, or meet him at the docks, but I’m afraid I may not be available next week,” Jacques said.
“My ship leaves next week.” He smiled but did not look happy.
“So soon?” Marguerite felt her anger bubble up again, but she didn’t want another scene, especially not in front of her ridiculous classmates.
“The sooner I leave, the sooner I will return to you.” He stood from his seat and made a low bow, sweeping up her hand and kissing it.
“That’sveryreassuring.” She was trying to be mature and more level-headed these days, but sarcasm came so easily. Jacques liked a bit of her coquettish, spoiled rich girl side, but he could only take so much. Then again, she wondered why she was even concerned with what he did and didn’t like.
“And now I must bid you lovely ladies farewell. You need to study, and I need sleep. It’s going to be a long week for us all.” Jacques crossed to her side and placed a kiss on her cheek before leaving. The other girls in the room fanned themselves and whispered giggles into each other’s ears.
Hewasrather dashing. Marguerite couldn’t deny that.
She spent most of that evening and all of the next day in her dingy room with Outil, going back and forth over the facts of the semester.
“What is the fastest possible speed of an aerschooner?” Outil asked.
“Cargo, passenger, or warship?” Marguerite asked.
“It obviously depends on weight and design. The schooner is the fastest of the aerships because of its combination of sails, motors, and envelope, but a heavy load will slow even the sleekest of vessels. Whether that be passengers, goods, or guns.”
Marguerite stared out the window at the golden spring weather. Other girls were congregated on the lawn with their books and papers. The scene pulled at her heart a bit. Outil, poring over the facts and figures, reminded her not to get bogged down in the details, but to give concise and complete answers. Marguerite, however, was preoccupied with memories of sitting in the grass with her friends, Claude and Vivienne, back in France.
It had been several months, but the rot of guilt still ate at her gut when she thought about how her childhood friend Vivienne had died crossing the ocean with them.
“You are tired and distracted.” Outil’s voice cut through the moment.
“Yes, I am,” Marguerite replied.
“Would you care to tell me what bothers you?”
“I was just thinking of Vivienne.” Marguerite continued to stare out the window. “It’s strange. I don’t feel as bad about her death as I do about the way I treated her when she was alive.
“I mean, I wish she were still here, of course. She would love the thought of a husband, a little farm, and babies crawling all over her. I can’t help but think that if I’d actually paid attention to her back at home, that she might not have suffered so much. She might still be alive.” Marguerite’s voice trailed off.
“M’lady, at that time you did not yet understand many of the aspects of true friendship that you understand now. You were never required to sacrifice or to give much of yourself. Please forgive me for speaking more openly than is appropriate, but I do so to prevent you from punishing yourself for a situation that was beyond your control.”
“That’s just the problem, Outil. I did have control. I could have paid more attention and been kinder, and then I might have seen what she was going through. I might have helped her sooner.” Marguerite stood from the end of her bed and shook out her hair. It hung loosely in long dark waves down her back. “Never mind. It’s done now. If I ever get the opportunity to make a friend again, I will just have to do a better job. Even if she is the most obnoxious girl on the planet, I will be a good friend.” She folded her arms and held her head high as her resolve sunk into her chest like a pebble to the bottom of a lake.
“Now, would you fetch me some supper? I’m starved, and I don’t feel like dealing with those imbeciles in the dining hall.” She nodded toward the girls outside gathering their materials for dinner.
Outil sighed an automaton sigh, shifted uncomfortably but answered dutifully, “Of course, m’lady,” and left the room.Chapter Four
Sunday was long and tedious. Marguerite’s brain kept jumping between test questions, and what her father was going to say when he arrived. She was starting to formulate a plan for getting her way with Jacques, but she had no idea what to expect from her father or the exam. The fact that she crashed and nearly died on her first solo flight test meant she had to do that much better on her other tests, so she barricaded herself in her room and studied until she couldn’t keep her eyes open any longer.
The next morning Marguerite was up before the dawn, poring through her books one last time. She wasn’t due in the main lecture hall until late morning, but she felt there were still a few subjects she could brush up on; propulsion was a big one, and so was maritime aerial law. Plus, she’d never taken an examination before in her life. Her father always provided her with the very latest publications and occasionally a competent tutor. She wanted to get it right and get her failure behind her.
Outil came to life with the morning sun as usual.
“M’lady, would you care for some breakfast?”
“No, I couldn’t eat a thing.” Marguerite didn’t look up from her text.
“It is a fact that you will perform at a higher level if you have a healthy morning meal and a full stomach,” Outil pressed.
“Fine.” Marguerite looked up and remembered herself. “Yes, that would be lovely, please fetch me an egg and some bread.”
“Very good.” Outil left the room quickly, happy to have something to do with herself. Marguerite took a moment to stretch, stare out the window, and get dressed. Today was definitely flight suit time. She didn’t think she could stand one second in a corset and still think clearly. Plus, it was an aviation examination. That called for an aviator’s attire.
She pulled the pants up and buttoned the pretty brass buttons on top. Then she fastened the belt and picked up her bottle of perfume; the original bottle she’d brought from France hadn’t survived the trip. Jacques had purchased her a new one as soon as he’d found out her favorite type from Outil. He was very thoughtful. She had to give him that.
She put on a squirt and set the bottle down, looking out the window absent-mindedly. The door opened behind her. She didn’t turn around. “Thank you, Outil. You can set the meal on the nightstand.” A booming male voice shook her core and scared her to death. She spun around at once.
“I am no automaton, and I’m certainly not serving you breakfast. What in the world are you wearing?”
“Oh! Father!” Marguerite’s first reaction was to run into the old man’s stout arms and hold him tightly. She stopped herself midway, however, suddenly leery of his response to her new life, remembering she was no longer a little girl.
“Come here, then. I won’t bite you.” He beckoned and stepped closer to her.
Relief flooded her heart. He didn’t hate her.
She leapt for him, nearly knocking him over. He returned her affections with a tight squeeze and a rough peck on her cheek. “My dear, dear daughter,” he said reverently.
“I was so afraid you would never want to see me again.” Big salty tears ran freely down her cheeks, soaking his shoulder.
“I’ll admit I spent quite a bit of time ready to disown you—or kill you—for the grief you caused me. But of course, I wanted to see you again. I’d have to see you to knock sense into you.” He laughed at his exaggeration and held her at arm’s length. “What in the world are you doing here?” He gestured to her tiny room and indicated the low status of her life with only the raise of his eyebrows. “Your letters were so vague. I only knew you were alive and nothing more.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Father. I didn’t want to trouble you, but I’m so happy here, and I didn’t know how to explain by letter. I feel like I’m finally using my brain and my talents. People respect me because I’m working hard and doing well, not because I’m your daughter or because I have money.”
She knew this wasn’t all true, but it fell off her tongue so quickly and easily, and it just sounded right. She was happy. And wasn’t this what a father would want to hear? Not that his daughter was laughed at and tormented because of who she was and where she came from?
“Well, money is something we must discuss.” His tone turned dark. He looked her up and down. “Please explain this clothing. I arrived last night, and I haven’t seen one other lady wearing anything of this sort. However, I have seen several young men in similar.” His glance was accusatory and suspicious.
“When our ship went down, I lost everything I brought.” She hesitated before explaining further. It was still hard to think back on that day. “My gown was soaked in seawater and blood. All they had for us to change into on the rescue ship was a flight suit. It was so warm and comfortable, and such a relief to get the soil of the wreck off, I couldn’t resist. I suppose it’s become a symbol of my new life.”
“Darling, it’s been several months,” he said with eyebrows raised again. “You must know that there are rumors … er … more than just about you leaving home. Now that I see you face to face, I’m beginning to worry these rumors are not without substance.”
Outil appeared in the doorway, carrying a tray and followed by Jacques. Suddenly the tiny space felt close to bursting.
“I see the automaton survived. Curious,” her father said.
“Lord Vadnay,” Outil dipped low, balancing the tray perfectly.
“At least you aren’t without a servant.” He did not acknowledge her piety. “And you. Explain yourself.” He looked at Jacques, who seemed just as stunned as Marguerite to see her father this early in the morning, two days ahead of schedule.
“Sir,” Jacques stood tall and offered a small bow in greeting. “I am an instructor in this school and an acquaintance of your daughter, as you will remember from the ball at your home several months ago.”
Marguerite noticed that he left off the part about being the captain of the ship that was bested by pirates, or the fact that he blew it up and was investigated by a formal inquiry.
Her father’s face grew dark nonetheless. “Oh, yes. I know who you are.” He turned back to his daughter. “Marguerite, I’d like you to move into my quarters for my duration in New France. I can send a man for your … things.” He looked around the room with disdain once again, his eyes rested on the humble meal Outil was carrying. “And we will get you some proper food.”
Marguerite’s stomach jerked in upon itself as she fought to get the words out she knew she had to speak. Defying her father in the middle of the night with no one watching was a far cry from openly disobeying him to his face.
“Father, I … ” she began.
Jacques stepped forward. “Lady Vadnay actually has a very important examination that will keep her engaged for the rest of the day. She is required to report to the lecture hall within the hour and will complete the exercises sometime in the afternoon.”
Within the hour…the words made her stomach even more upset. It was almost time. She was almost finished. She just had to get past her father first.
“Marguerite?” Her father looked at her, his hands on his hips and his chest puffed out. “What is he talking about?”
“It’s a school, father. I’ve been learning aeronautics and steam engineering. Today is my final examination before I am assigned my own ship to pilot.” She took a deep breath and suddenly felt five years old again, begging for a mechanical pony. “I’m going to be a pilot, father. I’m going to fly!”
He looked at the ceiling. He looked at the floor. He took a deep breath.
“Sir, she has attained the top place in her class—academically,” Outil added without mentioning the test flight disaster. “She is the brightest student in the history of the school.”
“Outil is correct … ” Jacques tried to add.
“Enough.” He cut them off and then looked at Marguerite. She thought she saw tears welling in his eyes, but he spoke with the authority of a king. “My man will collect your belongings from this closet. You will report to my home immediately.” His voice was even and deadly serious. Marguerite set down her book, picked up her cape, and stepped past him into the hall by Jacques and Outil.
“Father, I will meet you for supper this evening at any location you choose. Outil will take down the address and escort me. If you wish for me to live in your rooms, I accept, gladly. I have many things I wish to discuss with you as well, but only after my examination. I’ve worked very hard to learn this material. I’ve paid my own money for this experience. I will see it through to the end.” She dipped low in a curtsy, made ridiculous by her flight suit, and turned to walk down the hall.
“You are just like your mother! Stubborn and hard headed!” He hollered after her. Marguerite did not look back.Chapter Five
Her hands twitched and trembled as she tried to hold the pen steady and scrape it on the edge of the ink well. She blotted it carefully and began to write. The more she lost herself in the technical details of the questions, the more she felt the drama of the morning melt away.
Her thoughts began to flow more easily, and the knowledge she’d pored over for the past few months all came together. There was even a portion of the test that she knew she bested simply because of her time on Jacques’s ship,The Triumph.
They had a small break for lunch. Marguerite was a bit saddened that Outil and Jacques were not waiting for her in the dining room, but she ate quickly and sped back to the lecture hall, giving herself time to stretch and think and breathe deeply before the second half began.
Much to her relief, Outil was waiting for her at the end of the day. If the automaton had been anything softer than brass gears and panels, Marguerite may have fallen into her arms and wept for joy. She was exhausted, but also confident that she’d passed without a flaw. This was her passion. This was her talent. It was just a shame, for her father’s sake, that she hadn’t been born a boy.
“M’lady, congratulations!” Outil used the most excited version of her mechanical voice for this exclamation. “There is an autocart waiting to take us to your father’s home. He has already removed your belongings from the school.”
“Thank you, Outil. How does he seem?”
“He is not in good spirits.”
“That’s not surprising.”
Outil adjusted a button on Marguerite’s shirt that was about to come undone. “I believe that although he did not wish to, he may have enjoyed the tour of the city Master Laviolette and I took him on today.”
“You took him on a tour? With Jacques?” Marguerite was incredulous. “That’s a small miracle, Outil. I was sure he would have you sent out for scrap and me chopped up for chum after this morning.”
“Excuse me for saying so, but I believe he loves you much more than that.” Outil motioned down a path to their left. “This way.”
“What is it they say? Out of the gearbox, into the oil,” Marguerite mumbled.
The cab was the latest model from Paris, of course. Marguerite had seen a precious few on the streets of Montreal up to this point. She wondered if her father secured it as a rental. or if he’d brought it with him on the ship.
The rear seat was plush and comfortable and made from the softest velvet. Marguerite caught herself running her hand across it, longing for her own room at her childhood home filled with similar fabrics and softness. It had been close to a year since she’d slept on a feather bed with real satin sheets and a duvet that didn’t smell like it was made from a yak. Independence was nice, but so was luxury.
The driver looked at the pair in the rear mirror with a smirk but drove through the streets overflowing with horse-drawn carriages, autocarts and those on foot, without comment. A short drive along the St. Lawrence River brought them to a formidable brick home with modern lights flanking a huge mahogany door. “Lovely, of course,” Marguerite commented. “Where is Jacques now?”
“He had an engagement to attend this evening. He wanted me to assure you that he would call on you tomorrow at your father’s home.” The driver pulled to a stop, got out, and opened the door for the ladies. They stepped from the autocart and walked to the front door. It opened before they touched the knob. An automaton stood at attention, beckoning they enter.
“M’lady, your father awaits.” Its voice had none of the sweet inflection or lilt of Outil’s, but his gear work was magnificent and his metal shiny and new.
Marguerite walked past, taking him in, followed by the grand foyer beyond. Outil replied, “Thank you,” and followed. Fresh flowers stood on delicate tables lining the walls of a round room with a vaulted ceiling. Windows lined the top of the space, each covered with a rainbow of stained glass. An elegant staircase clung to the wall, winding its way to the second floor.
“Your room is at the top of the stairs. I will show you there if you will please follow me,” the bot croaked before stomping up the stairs in a very ungraceful fashion. Marguerite looked at Outil, who rolled her metallic blue eyes. The gesture was so human and so appropriate for the moment; Marguerite burst out a little giggle as they ascended the stairs behind the clomping bot.
“Thereyou are.” Her father’s voice filled the rotunda and bounced off the gilt ceiling. Marguerite looked down at him from halfway up the stairs to the second-floor balcony. This welcome was decidedly less warm than the previous one. She was going to have to figure out how to apologize for ignoring his orders without giving up her hard-earned independence.
“Yes, here we are,” she answered and walked down the stairs.
“Faulks will show you to your room. Please rest and change for dinner. We have much to discuss, and I’m hungry enough to eat a brass elephant, so we’ll dine early.”
“Yes, sir.” Marguerite’s voice dripped with sarcasm, but her father didn’t seem to notice. After all these months successfully navigating life on her own, she found it ridiculous to have someone telling her how to dress and when to eat.
The room at the top of the stairs was gorgeous. Deep, ocean blue draperies flanked floor to ceiling windows. The bed filled most of the floor with four posts, a duvet that matched the curtains, and a mountain of pillows. Outside, Marguerite had a view of the city gardens and the river. It was truly glorious.
Her father’s bot, Faulks, opened the doors to a towering wardrobe in one corner of the room. The trunk from her school and all of her books sat at the other side of the room. “These were brought in for her Ladyship this afternoon. We apologize for the lack of selection and possibly ill-fitting styles; we will do our best to update your wardrobe as soon as possible.”
“That will do.” Marguerite waved the bot away and flopped on the bed in a very unladylike fashion. Faulks didn’t react. He nodded his shiny silver head and clomped out of the room. Outil shut the door. “Ah! This bed is like a cloud!” She spread her arms out and closed her eyes. “Outil, see if there is anything decent I can stand to wear tonight. I suppose I have to dosomethingfor Father.”
Outil sifted through the contents of the closet and pulled out a light blue dress of fine linen and helped Marguerite dress for the evening. They left the room together and made their way down the stairs.“Best keep to yourself tonight. Father doesn’t like automatons with opinions.”
“Yes, m’lady,” Outil answered.
The dining room was through the main lobby and around a corner. It was just as opulent as the rest of the home. Her father sat at one end of a huge table with only two place settings. He rose when she entered the room.
She decided on the spot to be kind to him. After all, she already knew she wasn’t going to do anything he said. She might as well let him down easily. If there was a relationship to be saved without ruining her plans, she would save it.
“Hello, father. This is a wonderful home.” She offered her hand and curtsied slightly. He took it and kissed it, a broad smile spreading under his mustache. She noted that it had much more grey in it than the last time she’d seen him.
“This is the daughter I’ve been longing to see.” He beamed again and gestured for her to sit. As her father sat across from her at the end of a very long table, a human servant entered the dining room and served them the first course, a creamed soup with tiny bits of truffle and carrot.
“My dear, I want to tell you that I am not as horrible as you might think. I was took ill when I heard you’d run away. And when I got news ofThe Triumphgoing down, I was even more devastated.”
Marguerite had to bite her tongue to keep from saying something sarcastic about him not caring enough to actually come help her; instead sending Madame Pomphart and a slick suitor. They’d traded letters a few times over the past few months, but only in the form of checking in to make sure the other was still alive.
“Now that we are together at last, and yourschoolingis out of the way, we should revisit our plans and start over fresh,” he said with a smile.
To anyone else, that would sound like a perfectly lovely way to reconcile, but Marguerite knew it was a thinly veiled way to let her know he was still in control and had come to clean up the mess she’d made of her life. She opened her mouth to rebut him in the kindest way she knew how, but he didn’t give her a chance to speak. “First things first. We are going to have to find you a suitable match here, since you seem to prefer it to France. I purchased this home with the idea of staying here until you are settled, then passing it along to you and whomever the lucky man is you choose. I hear that’s how it is done here in the new world.”
Marguerite was actually touched by his effort to meet her halfway, but she paused before speaking, “Thank you, that is very considerate, and yes, that is how it is done here in New France. But what do you mean youboughtthis home?”
“I also spoke with Captain Laviolette today. He is quite taken with you, but I made it clear that my aspirations for you are much higher than an aership captain who can’t keep his own ship from blowing up.” He was playing cat and mouse. She was obviously the mouse.
“I know you don’t approve of Jacques, but I don’t care. I’m not ready to get married, Father. We are not engaged; he is just a dear friend. Perhaps when I do decide to marry, it would be to someone like him, but for the time being, do not ignore my question. What do you mean youboughtthis house?”
“Well, if that is your attitude, then it’s just as well that I’ve leased out the estate in France. I’m here to stay, my dear. There is no reason for us to be apart. We are the only family left to each other.” Marguerite’s heart dropped. This could ruin everything. She would have to put her plan into action first thing in the morning if it was going to work. Otherwise, her father would embed himself into the society and start dragging her around to balls again.
She thought of the last ball she attended and shuddered. She’d rather risk her life in the aether.Chapter Six
Marguerite rolled over and dramatically pounded the bed with her fists. “Men make mefurious, Outil. Who do they think they are? They can’t plan my life for me.”
“If you will excuse me, ma’am, I am not sure I understand why you are so upset this morning.”
“I was up half the night thinking of all my hard work being thwarted by the men who claim to love me.”
“I am sorry, but I don’t see how anyone is thwarting you, m’lady.” Outil pulled open the curtains to let the sunshine fall on Marguerite’s bed and spill down to the floor.“Jacques thinks he can tell me when and where I can serve, and my father just moved halfway around the world to try and salvage my love life.”
“I believe your father moved here to try and salvage his relationship with you, m’lady. And Jacques is correct about the rules of the Royal Fleet. You cannot serve on the bridge unless he calls in many favors, and that would not be favorable for anyone.”
“But I could still serve on the ship. Why does he think I spent this whole year at school if not to serve on an aership? He thinks he can keep me here safe and sound while he goes off and has all the fun, but he is dead wrong.” Marguerite sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Come, we’re going to the school. I can’t wait for the post to determine my future either. All I must do is get my test scores and my own post. Neither my father nor Jacques need to know.”
Outil set to work taming Marguerite’s hair while Marguerite continued to grumble about men in general. Eventually, she was presentable, and the pair set off down the street, a breezy Montreal spring welcoming them. At the school, Marguerite proceeded straight to the dean’s office. She knocked firmly on the door three times. “Yes?” A voice from the other side answered.
Marguerite walked in and pronounced loudly, “Dean Beaumont, I am Lady Marguerite Vadnay here to speak with you about my future at this school and as an aership pilot.”
The stout man with the neatly trimmed beard and immaculate dress stood slowly but didn’t look up from his papers immediately. Marguerite had always admired him from afar for his high standards of dress and decorum; however, she’d never had to speak one-on-one with him before. She was starting to feel uneasy with his silence, when he finally put the paperwork down and looked at her properly. Then he motioned for her to take a seat across from him. Outil took her place standing behind Marguerite’s chair.
“Yes, of course. What seems to be the matter then, Lady Vadnay?” He asked, looking at her fully now, taking in her strange flight suit and perfectly styled hair.
“The problem is that I am ready to go out and do something with all the information I have learned in this good institution, but there seem to be a few things standing in my way.”
Marguerite hesitated a bit, “Such as my test scores. I need to know if I passed my exams or not.”
“Right, well, you will receive a notice by mail when those scores are made available.”
“Of course. But, you see, I can’t wait that long. There is a ship leaving in one week that I would like to volunteer to serve on.”
“Ah, the pirate operation. Yes, I’ve had a number of young ladies offer to volunteer for those posts. However, I do not think it is their excitement or skill in battle that is fueling their readiness to serve king and country, but rather an interest in the captain of the ship. Plus, I cannot refer young ladies to a combat mission of this type. The admiral would laugh them away. It is a man’s job.”
Marguerite gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. This man was of a higher standing than most military men his age. He was educated and would not be intimidated by her anger or, she guessed, her title. She decided to change tactics.
“Of course, M. Beaumont. Do you suppose you might be able to, at least, pull my file and recommend a course of study or employment to best suit my skills then? I’m very earnest about securing my own future before settling into a marriage.”
He regarded her for a moment and sighed. “I suppose I could take a look—but only as a favor to your father. I heard he is in town to check up on you. I was hoping to make his acquaintance.”
Marguerite had to force herself not to explode. Favor to her father? The whole situation was infuriating. As the dean rose to retrieve her records, she took another deep breath and spoke as evenly as possible.
“Of course. I’d be happy to introduce you.” She forced a smile and realized this could be her chance to get what she wanted.
“That would be lovely. I was invited to your home once when I was back in France. Oh my, it was decades ago. You may not have been born yet. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I am quite curious to see your father’s collection of military machinery.” He continued to flip through papers in a long and deep drawer as he spoke.
“Well, he hasn’t brought much of that with him, but he did bring a new autocart from Paris.”
“Excellent.” He pulled a stack of papers from the heap and turned to her. “Here you are then.” He sat back down and started reading through her reports and exams. Marguerite had to fight the urge to fidget as the dean flipped page after page, nodding his head and humming a bit. She knew she’d done well in all her classes. Her professors had remarked on her hard work and dedication, as well as her previous knowledge of most subjects. Still, she couldn’t tell what the man in front of her was thinking.
He paused on a particular page. He squinted at the paper, his eyes repeating the same pattern as he read it a second time. And then a third. He looked over the top of the paper at her and then back at the page again. “Uh, huh. Interesting.”
Drat! He’s read about my crash.Marguerite tried to keep her face from falling, but it was not easy. “Yes?” She finally ventured to speak.
“It says here you scored perfect marks in every ballistics exam, including the practical and marksmanship?”
Relief flooded her heart. “Yes! I have quite good aim.”
“I’m guessing your father gave you a head start?” He smiled knowingly over the paper.
“Yes, yes he did,” she lied. The dean didn’t have to know that all of her target practice as a girl was done without her father’s knowledge.
“It’s a pity you failed your practical flight examination. You will have to retake that before you will be allowed to fly anything for His Majesty. And yet, I was just speaking with Admiral Auboyneau and he was asking if I knew of someone with your particular skills. Granted, I’m sure he did not have a lady in mind when he asked, but I could possibly mention your name and see what he thinks. I believe the position he needed to fill was on the new ship they commissioned for this pirate raid all you ladies are so keen to go on.”
Marguerite let a genuine smile spread across her face this time. “Oh, would you? That would mean so much to me.”
“Just between us, you passed your final examinations with top marks.” He smiled at her conspiratorially.
“Excellent!” She clapped her hands.
“Don’t let word get out that I told you any of this. The last thing I need is a line of pupils at my door asking for their results and special favors. I am curious about something, though, Lady Vadnay.”
“What is that?” Marguerite’s mood was much lighter, making her happy to indulge the dean a bit.
“How is it that a lady of your standing wants to work on a battleship? You could have your pick of suitors on either continent, and if you retake the flight exam, you could have a private ship to fly at your leisure. I’m not quite sure I understand your aim here.”
“It’s quite simple, really. I want more than what is handed to me. I want to see the world, earn my keep, and use the brain in my head. A lady can’t very well do that from a chaise lounge in a palace on either continent.”
The dean nodded and tapped his desk with his fingertips. She could tell he wanted to say something else but was hesitant.
“Thank you for looking into—” she began.
“Are you aware that he truly loves you, and only you, m’lady?” he interrupted her.
“Captain Laviolette. He also has his pick of eligible ladies of fine birth—of all births, actually—but his heart belongs to you. I’ve known Jacques for many years. He has not always been a faithful or completely, shall we say, faultless man. But since meeting you, he has made himself a better man and has dedicated himself to you and your happiness. He speaks highly of you and your goals to anyone who asks. I just wondered if you knew that.”
Marguerite was speechless. She nodded a bit and stood. The dean stood as well. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your time and insight. I will keep all of this in mind. Might I call on you later to inquire as to the position on the ship?” She struggled to keep her voice even.
“Don’t trouble yourself. I will send a pigeon in a few days.” He opened the door for her and Outil.
“One other thing.” Marguerite had almost entirely forgotten. “Do you suppose I could retake my flight test this week? Is there any chance of that? As a special favor?” She smiled prettily.
“I’m sorry. We really can’t do that. I’d love to, but really, I can’t. There is another test in two weeks time. If this position doesn’t work for you, then we’ll have you set to retake then. Never fear, m’lady. You will not go to waste in New France. We will keep you engaged.”
Engaged.Marguerite shuddered at the word but smiled and thanked the dean again before leaving. Once they were safely out of earshot, Marguerite turned to her bot, smiling. “That went rather well, don’t you think?”
“Yes, m’lady. Very interesting. Congratulations on passing your exams.”
“Oh, I knew all along that I would pass. It was just a matter of finding out for certain. Now all I need to do is make things good with Father. And that begins with new clothes. Where shall we spend our money today?”
The two spent the afternoon patronizing two dressmakers and a corsetiere. The result was a much more refined Marguerite and an Outil with very little energy in her reservoir.
“Father, we are home!” Marguerite cried as she entered the towering double front doors, leaving Outil to pay the driver. Faulks came stomping into the hall. “Welcome home, m’lady.”
“Where is Father?”
“In his study. Will you be dining with us tonight?”
“Of course.” Marguerite hurried past the bot, anxious to show her repentance by attire and to discuss her plans with her father. She found him in the study, as Faulks had said. Only he wasn’t reading. He was fast asleep in his armchair, a copy of “The Hundred Years’ War and its Follies in Weaponry” lying precariously on his lap. She regarded him for a moment. He looked so much older like this. So grey, and so very lined about the face. Her heart softened a bit as she regarded him.
“Father?” She asked quietly.
“Huh?” He jumped from his sleep with a start. The book slid from his legs and to the floor with a loudthud. Marguerite bent to pick it up. “My dear, what are you doing? What are you wearing?” He seemed confused, still on the edge of dreams and reality. She set the book on his bureau and spun so he could fully appreciate her new emerald green dress.
“I have a waist, Father. Aren’t you happy?”
He rubbed his face and smiled in admiration. “You look amazing. Thank you. What is the special occasion?”
“Just that I missed seeing you smile when I came into a room, and I have good news.”
“Of course. Please, sit down and tell me about your day.”
Marguerite sat on the edge of a comfortable chair and leaned forward. “I have spoken with the dean of the school, and he has told me that I passed all of my exams. I even scored perfect marks in some of them.” She smiled triumphantly.
“Well, then.” Her father hesitated. “I suppose that is wonderful news.”
“Yes. It is. It proves that I have more than just fluff in my head.”
“I never thought that of you.” He leaned forward, his face earnest.
“I have proof that it isn’t true now, for anyone who does.” She sat back and folded her hands in her lap.
“What is the next step for you then?” Her father stood and picked the book up off his bureau. He placed it carefully on the shelf.
“That is precisely what I wanted to talk with you about. I have a few opportunities ahead.” Marguerite formed her words carefully as she watched her father align the book spines on the shelf with the precision of a watchmaker.
“Go on,” He spoke without looking at her.
“Father, the last time we tried to make plans together, it ended badly. I would like to avoid that this time, but I’d also like to retain my independence.” The words came out in a rush.
Lord Vadnay turned and regarded her now. “It ended badly because you ran off in the night.”
“Yes. I know. No need to bring that up. Except that I would like to avoid a repeat performance.”
“At least we agree on that.” He took a seat across from her and sat forward listening intently. “What do you have in mind?”
Marguerite had to take a moment to compose herself. It occurred to her that this was the first time her father had asked her that—what she wanted. She took a deep breath. She didn’t want to mess this up. “You know that I want to fly. And that I have the intelligence and strength to serve in His Majesty’s aerguard.”
“Marguerite, dear. If all you want is to fly, I can buy you a dirigible. We can get your papers in order, and you can fly to your heart’s content.”
“That’s just it. I fear I will never be happy with my own little dirigible. I want to be part of something. I want to—well, I suppose I want to help people.” Marguerite’s words surprised her. She thought about what she’d said as she watched her father mull it over as well. Did she mean it? Or was she just saying this to get her way?
After probing her heart a bit further, she decided she did mean it. Working alongside Jacques to saveThe Triumphhad been the highlight of her life. Losing Vivienne had been the worst moment of her life, but she knew she’d helped countless other girls that night. She wanted to do that again. She wanted to make a difference.“You want tohelppeople?” Her father was still considering her sincerity.
Marguerite decided to explain what she had only just discovered herself. She’d never told him what she had been through before. The short telegraphs merely assured him of her safety and happiness. Sitting in the library with him now, she felt it was time to open up and recount the whole story. How she’d fought pirates, saved passengers, taken charge of evacuation, and helped to destroy the ship to keep it from falling into enemy hands. Her father sat at attention, his brow furrowed, taking in every word.
Marguerite’s hands were sweaty and her heart racing as she finished her tale. A piece of hair had fallen out of place and covered one eye. She tucked it behind her ear quickly without thought to her appearance and waited for his reply.
“That’s what I want, Father. Not necessary hand-to-hand combat, but I want to make the world a better place. I want to serve in the aerguard, and I want to help France.”
Lord Vadnay shook his head and looked down at his feet. He splayed his fingers, pushing the tips together as he leaned forward, forearms to knees. He didn’t speak. “Father?” Marguerite braced herself for an explosion of temper.
“You are just like her,” he whispered.
Lord Vadnay sat up and looked at his daughter, tears in his eyes. “Like your mother. She wanted adventure as well. She wasn’t quite as bold as you, and she was never dedicated to helping others. She just wanted out of France. I, on the other hand, wanted a beautiful companion and lots of children running free on the estate.” He pulled a hanky from his waistcoat and wiped roughly at his face. Marguerite didn’t know what to say. She’d never seen her father like this before.
“I fought with her about it for years. She ran off once, but then she came back.” Marguerite thought of the letters she’d found in the trunks of the estate back in France, her mother begging for forgiveness.
“So, I brought her home. We were happy for a while, and you were born, making our joy complete—or so I thought. But she grew restless again. She blamed me for her isolation and dull life. She called me a jailor. She lost interest in you, and all things eventually. I was afraid she would harm herself. I consulted doctors and specialists. They prescribed all kinds of ridiculous tonics and therapies. Then one day, she was gone. You were just shy of two years old, and she disappeared into the night.”
A lump formed in Marguerite’s throat. If only she’d known this story a year ago, she might not have run off into the night.
“At first, I resolved to find her and drag her back. It was my right as her husband to do so, but I knew it would just lead to more of the same, so I gave up. I focused my attentions on you. Such a tiny little thing with no mother to care for you now. My heart turned to you and there it has stayed.” He wiped at his face again and cleared his throat.
“I had no idea.” Marguerite stood and walked to her father’s side, gently laying her arm on his shoulder. He was suddenly strong again. All emotion swept aside.
“I know. I didn’t see the need to bring that kind of shame to your pretty head. The trouble is all my doing. I should have faced the truth long ago. You are your mother’s daughter.”
Marguerite felt taken aback at this statement. “I am not.”
Lord Vadnay laughed out loud and patted her hand. “I don’t mean to say that you would torment me to such extremes, but you have tormented me some.”
“Yes, I have, but had you told me of her and how she broke your heart, we may have avoided a few things in the past year. We might not have wasted so much time being angry at one another.”
“Yes, well, that is all in the past now, isn’t it?”
“Where is she now?” Marguerite wasn’t going to let this point fade into the background. Her mother didn’t die like he said she had. “It’s a fairly terrible thing to tell a child their mother is dead when in reality, they are just off gallivanting somewhere.”
“I don’t believe she is gallivanting anywhere. I told you she died because I believe she has. After she left me, her choices were not conducive to a long life. I tried to keep up with her for a few years, but it soon became evident that this was pointless.”
“But you don’t know for certain?” Marguerite felt silly and small asking this question, like a child clinging to a favorite toy.
“No, but I have compelling evidence to suggest as much. When we return home to the continent, I will show you all the documentation I have and some likenesses that were painted before you were born. It’s time I did at least that much for you. For now, tell me what you plan to do.”
He smiled at her, and she hesitated. This was a lot of information to consider all at once. Then again, she finally had her father’s attention. He wanted to hear her out. He wanted to support her. She could push him to answer more questions about his shadowed past, but that could push him far away again. She felt his smooth old fingers hold her own young ones and felt a rush of warmth in her chest as she looked at his lined face, then Marguerite told him her plan.Chapter Seven
The letter came by street post three days later. It had been a long three days, but also quite enjoyable for Marguerite. Her mind had been hovering on the possibilities the next week would bring, but her heart was resting in lazy days spent with her father.
He begrudgingly agreed to support her scheme, even though it was dangerous and altogether unbecoming for a wealthy young girl to pursue. This made their time together even less strenuous. They spent time in the library of their new home. They took the autocart out for drives every afternoon, and one day they even hired a private steamship to take them up the St. Lawrence River for the afternoon.
Marguerite was true to her word and invited Dean Beaumont to tea. He and her father got along swimmingly. This helped to ease the burden of guilt she carried when she thought of leaving him once again. At least he would have a friend to chum around Montreal with for a bit.
The evening after the boating holiday, an automated pigeon dropped in through their aermail slot carrying a rolled parchment bearing Marguerite’s name. She just happened to be walking through the entryway when the clicking and cooing mechanical bird landed on the guest perch and dropped its cargo on the table.
“What a sweet little thing you are.” Marguerite patted its shiny grey back and pulled an oil can from the table’s hidden drawer. She gave the bird a couple of pumps of oil in each wing then bid it farewell, as it hopped to the swinging exit window and flew back into the street.
“Outil!” Marguerite shouted, “It’s here!” She eagerly peeled off the wax seal and unrolled the thick off-white paper. Her automaton came up behind her and placed a shining silver hand on each of Marguerite’s shoulders, peering over to the words below. “What does it say, miss?” the bot asked quietly. Marguerite read quickly then let the paper snap closed again in her hand. She turned to face Outil, biting her lower lip.
“What is this racket?” her father cried.
“Father, I have an assignment onThe Renegade!” She was breathless with excitement.
“I’m hoping that’s the name of an aership?” Her father puffed into the entryway, Faulks and a human servant trailing a safe distance behind. “It is!”
“And is it Laviolette’s ship?”
“Yes, I believe it is.”
“And this is what you wanted?” His voice was lower now, despite the acoustics in the vaulted room.
“Yes, Father. It is.”
“Well, then, I suppose we must celebrate.” Marguerite shoved the letter in the pocket of her dress and threw her arms around him in a very un-ladylike embrace. He grumbled and grunted and patted her back, then started barking orders at the servant to prepare a feast for dinner that evening.
“Would you like to invite Captain Laviolette to join us? Give him the good news?”
“No.” Marguerite didn’t hesitate for a moment. She felt a longing for him deep in her belly, but she would rather see her plans through to the end than give into a moment of girlish silliness. Besides, she hadn’t told her father that Jacques was completely against this plan of hers.
“Suit yourself. I will invite a few of the neighbors, and we will make a party of it. Outil, you will assist Faulks today,” he said.
“Of course, sir.” Outil looked to Marguerite for a moment. Marguerite nodded her head. She got the distinct feeling that the bot had something to say but couldn’t do so in her father’s presence.
“I’ll come find you later,” Marguerite added.
“Very good, m’lady.”
Marguerite found herself alone in the great foyer. She reached in her pocket and squeezed the thick creamy paper in her hand. She gave a little hop for joy, then called out to her father, “I’ll be back in an hour. I’m going to go officially register.”
“Good, good,” he called out from somewhere deep in the house. She gathered her cape and hat and strained to open the massive doors for herself. She took a deep breath of the springtime air and set off. No time to lose. At the registry a girl, not much older than Marguerite, greeted her with a tired expression. Marguerite produced the paper in her pocket and slid it across the glossy wooden counter.
“Hello, miss. How can I help you today?”
“Lady Marguerite Vadnay reporting for duty,” she beamed.
The girl took the piece of paper with one hand and looked Marguerite over. “LadyVadnay?” she questioned. Then she opened the paper and stared at it for moment before looking back up. “Assigned toThe Renegade?” Her disbelief was palpable.
“That is correct. I’m the new second officer of ballistics.”
“Yes. See, right there.” Marguerite reached over the counter and pointed to the assignment on the paper before spreading her fingers wide and adding: “Boom!”
Her antics did not amuse the girl. She verified Marguerite’s paperwork, showed her to the outfitting station, gave her a very itchy uniform and a small trunk for personal items, then she showed her to the door.Chapter Eight
Marguerite awoke to grey all around her. Clouds blanketed the normally bright spring weather, and a constant drizzle tapped on the floor to ceiling windows and dampened her spirits—but only a bit. She bounced out of bed and commanded Outil.
“Today is the day! Are my bags ready?”
“Yes, m’lady.” Outil indicated a small trunk at her feet.
“Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?” Marguerite stared at the little box with handles. “To have come from so much in France to so little, and yet, I’m so much happier.”
“I am truly grateful for your happiness, m’lady,” Outil said.
“What was it you wanted to tell me the other day, Outil? I feel like I haven’t seen you at all lately.”
Since Marguerite received her commission, she had been busy with her father’s party and preparations at the office of military affairs. Then she’d wound up spending all day the day before with Jacques. It had been wonderful. Just like the old times, even though Marguerite felt she may burst with the news of her job on his ship. He hadn’t mentioned it, so she figured he hadn’t seen the ship’s manifest yet. All in good time. She knew he could have her removed from service if he wanted. As captain ofThe Renegade, he had the right to choose his crew. Marguerite hoped he left that duty up to his first mate and wouldn’t take note of her until they were well on their way.
Outil hesitated a moment then asked, almost shyly, “M’lady, it’s just that you never let me see what your actual assignment was on the ship. You folded up your missive before I was done reading.”
“Oh, dear Outil. All you had to do was ask. I’ve been assigned as the second ballistics officer. Even though my eventual goal is to work on the bridge, I’m quite happy with this assignment. You know I’m an excellent shot and my knowledge of weaponry, both old and cutting edge, is quite extensive. It’s a perfect fit, don’t you think? So much better than the galley. Ugh. I can’t imagine spending my whole voyage below deck preparing ship food for a bunch of aerman!” Marguerite finished her speech and began to dress for the day. Outil remained silent.
“Outil, aren’t you happy for me?” Marguerite was suddenly annoyed by the bot’s silence.
“Yes, m’lady. It’s just that, I believe there is more to this mission than what he has told you.”
“Whatever could you mean by that?” Marguerite snatched her military issued underthings from the bot and pulled them on only to throw them back to the floor. “These are horrid. I refuse to wear them. They will wear the hide right off my thighs. Give me the silks from Paris.”
Outil obeyed and retrieved the light pink silk underthings. She helped her mistress dress, as she continued to explain. “It’s nothing he has said directly. It’s just a few clues I have picked up on while listening to your conversations.”
“I have also done more research into the foes we will be facing, m’lady.” Outil pulled at the waist cinch of Marguerite’s flight suit. Unfortunately, she had to wear the military issued suit.
“And what did you find?”
“They are more than just the common Mediterranean corsairs that attacked our ship. These seem to be a ragtag group of outlaws from several countries, most originating in the Caribbean and the British Colonies. The news I could gather on them suggested England might even have backed them.”
“Well, that’s neither here nor there.” Marguerite waved Outil’s concerns away with her hand. “Pirates are pirates no matter where they come from. All of them are wicked law breakers.”
“If England has backed them, they will be a much more formidable opponent,” Outil protested. “They would be considered Privateers and will be protected by maritime and aerlaw. That greatly limits your options for stopping them and avoiding war.”
“What about Jacques? What clues are you referring to?” Marguerite changed the subject as she sat at her dressing table and waited for Outil to plait her hair.“Nothing in particular. I just get the feeling that he didn’t want this commission, but that he didn’t have a choice. You realize that a man of his ranking doesn’t get much say, if any, in where he is assigned to serve?” Outil expertly pulled a stiff bristled brush through her dark, wavy tresses and began to weave them up and back out of her face, forming a neat arrangement at the back of her neck.
“Yes, but he knew that when he signed up.” Marguerite admired Outil’s work and turned to face her mechanical friend.
“Forgive me for saying this, m’lady, but he also didn’t know you when he signed up.”
“Outil, unless you have something of substance to tell me, I think we are finished with this conversation.” Marguerite was tired of Outil playing the devil’s advocate. Plus she didn’t believe her bot could actually intuit or research more about the situation than she already had. True, she’d been busy with studies the past few weeks, but not that busy. If there were something more that Jacques wasn’t telling her, she felt certain that she would have noticed it.
“Very well,” Outil meekly stepped back from Marguerite’s chair as she rose and headed for the door.
“Bring my trunk downstairs, will you?”
“Of course, m’lady.”
After a quick meal, Marguerite bid her father farewell.
“Be careful, young lady.” He had both hands on her shoulders; his face just inches from hers. “You are my greatest blessing, my greatest joy, and my only true treasure. It pains me to see you go, especially in this fashion. Are you certain you won’t stay with me? We could have so many lovely days on the river and in the countryside.”
“Oh, father. Of course, I will be careful. And you know that I would lose my mind if I had to sit here, idle and aging, as we took in the scenery together. I will make you proud while I’m saving the world, and bring home a uniform dripping in medals.”
“Just bring home a uniform without any gunshots in it, eh?” He pointed to her neckline. “And cover that up, for goodness sake.”
Marguerite reached up and felt a bit of pink silk peeking out from beneath the scratching blue wool. “Right.” She blushed.
“Take care my girl. Remember that I love you.”
They embraced only for a moment, long enough for Marguerite to whisper: “I love you, too.”
And then she was off. The autocar delivered girl, automaton, and small case to the landing just off the St. Lawrence River at the Port of Montreal. The drizzle had stopped, and the sun threatened to break through any moment. Everything was damp and glistening, despite the grey light of morning.
Marguerite gasped as she took in the spectacle before her. It was so much grander than she remembered. So many more ships than back home in La Rochelle. Gleaming new dirigibles and aerships anchored side by side with older, more weather-worn vessels. Fishing rigs and ancient cargo ships filled the river below. There were people and officers and crates everywhere. Marguerite couldn’t help but think of the first time she’d arrived at a dock like this, just a little more than a year ago with her friend Vivienne. Bittersweet emotions flooded her chest. What an adventure that had been. She allowed herself to miss Vivienne for just a moment, and then she turned to Outil.
“Here we go, Outil! Which ship do you suppose isThe Renegade?”
“It seems fairly obvious, m’lady.” Outil lifted a shining silver finger and pointed up river. Amidst a circus of ships in the air and the water, surrounded by busy bots and workers, was moored a gleaming black and silver aership of epic design and proportions.
“Yes, you are most likely correct.” Marguerite agreed, and the two set off.
Despite the aership’s massive size, it was a sleek and practical design. The body was slim and very pointed at either end. The stern and bow both sported razor sharp ramrods—for puncturing envelopes— Marguerite guessed—and the lower decks only showcased very small portholes and weaponry access. The whole ship gleamed like an autobot, bright silver in the morning sun. The envelope was painted black, and the royal seal had been emblazoned on the giant swaths of fabric making it look like one enormous flag.
If there was any doubt left in her mind, large letters were painted in black along the back edge of the ship:Renegade.
Marguerite turned to grin at Outil as they approached the ship. There was a flurry of activity beneath. Aermen and soldiers chatted and checked off lists. Lifts ran up and down as fast as the crew could load and unload them. Marguerite looked for someone in charge but was at a loss. Almost everyone had a uniform, and no one looked like they were in charge of new arrivals.
Across the crowd she suddenly spotted Jacques. He was wearing his finest uniform, hat and all, and was shouting orders to those surrounding him as he approached a lift. The men cleared the way and let him enter with a few crates. He slammed the door, accompanied by a smaller man with a newer looking bot, and the lift pulled them off the docks and into the air. Jacques carefully surveyed the scene below him as he rose.
“Hurry, Outil! Hide me!” Marguerite ducked behind the bot. If he saw her in uniform, he would pounce at once. Her lunch with Jacques the afternoon before had been so wonderful; Marguerite had pretended that none of this was about to happen. She’d allowed herself to just enjoy his company. He did not propose; she did not argue. It was bliss.
Being at the docks and watching him ascend like a king to a floating throne, left a pit in her stomach. She had to keep her head down and her wits about her, at least until the battles were over.
“It is safe to come out,” Outil said softly. “And I believe we must speak to that man over there. Marguerite looked up and saw a man with a paper and quill calling out names and pointing people to different areas of the dock. The pair made their way through the crowds of humans and bots to the frantic man who seemed to be in charge. He was speaking to a younger boy, maybe fourteen years old, and directing him to his station. Marguerite wondered at such a young lad going off to fight on the open seas. Then again, she was but three years older than that. She had no room to argue.
“Hello, I’m Lady Marguerite Vadnay,” she said much too loudly at the man’s face. He winced a bit and adjusted his spectacles. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to go to the end of the line—er, um, m’lady.”
“What line?” Marguerite looked around her, but all she saw were throngs of men and bots. Until she realized that part of the throng did indeed form a serpent of bodies winding back away from the man with the papers. “Oh, dear. I’m ever so sorry.”
“She can go in front of me,” another young lad with sparkling blue eyes and a red dusting of shaggy hair spoke up. He smiled at Marguerite in obvious appreciation. “I don’t mind giving way for a lady to pass.” He held his hat in two hands and gave an awkward bow.
“Aren’t you a dear?” Marguerite rewarded him with an appreciative smile.
The organizer grumbled but flipped quickly through his pages. “Just hurry yourself, m’lady. Let’s see, ballistics?” He looked at her and the paper, alternating a few times.
“Yes, that is correct.”
“And this is Outil, the automaton?”
“Yes.” Marguerite nodded. “Alright, you are to report to the first officer of ballistics to the left of the ship, there where they are loading powder and such. Officer Vuitton. Safe voyage.”
“Thank you ever so much.”
Marguerite gave a little dip herself and was off to meet Officer Vuitton. Behind her, she heard the voice of a young man squeak, “I’m Louis!”
She turned to look at the red-headed boy. Just as she suspected, he was yelling at her. She smiled and waved. “Safe voyage, Louis!”
“Enough,” the organizer grunted. “Louis what?”
As their conversation faded behind her, Marguerite focused her sights on the ballistics team. They seemed a sturdy bunch, each one hauling, at least, two crates to a lift and returning to the pile to get more without hesitation. An older man with sandy brown hair peeking from under a first officer’s hat was calling out orders and hauling the odd crate himself. Marguerite approached him triumphantly, bursting with pride at having found her position.
“You must be First Officer Vuitton?” she chirruped.
The man stopped, a bulky crate in hand, and regarded her with annoyance. “And may I presume you are Lady Marguerite Vanday?”
“Yes, sir. You may.”
“Thank heaven.” His voice was heavy with sarcasm as he turned and continued to load crates of ammunition. “Get yourself and that bot in gear and give us a hand here. You may be a lady, and we’ll make sure you are treated as such, but you have volunteered to serve His Majesty, and right now His Majesty needs his ship loaded as quickly as possible. That goes for all of you!”
He hollered at the rest of the crew who had stopped to stare at Marguerite and Outil. They jumped back into action and Outil followed suit. She stepped up to the dwindling pile of crates and picked up four to add to Marguerite’s personal trunk and carried them to the lift. “Nowthatis what I’m talking about.” Officer Vuitton cried. “You work as hard as your bot, m’lady, and we will be in business.”
Marguerite huffed over to the pile and grabbed the handles on either side of a crate. She jerked back, trying to lift it, but only succeeded in getting it balanced on her knees. Outil was back in a flash and helped her get the crate into her arms securely, and Marguerite proceeded to the lift. Hers was the last box on before the lift was yanked far over their heads.
“That’s it boys, and er … um … Lady. Take five minutes to rest and grab a drink. Last load in fifteen minutes. You—” He pointed at Marguerite. “Walk with me.” He set off at a quick pace heading down to the end of the dock. Marguerite scrambled to keep up, Outil at her heals. They caught him a few paces from the edge of the water. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked up at the massive schooner above. “Beautiful, isn’t she?” he asked.
“Yes, sir. Quite.”
“I was told that you know a thing or two about computations and weapons?”
“Yes, sir.” He turned and looked her over carefully.
“I was also told your bot is capable of much more than the average automaton?”
“Has it a name?”
“Yes,hername is Outil.”
“Outil, it’s been reported that you answer to no one but Lady Vanday here. Is that correct?”
“Yes, sir,” Outil’s sweet feminine bot voice sounded out of place given the situation.
“Well, we have to get a few things straight while you are on theRenegade. This is a military operation. We have a mission to accomplish and as ballistics officers—yes, I consider the bot my officer as well—you will be answering to me. Got it? You must do as I say when I say it, or you could very well die. I didn’t want to bring a rich girl and her pet robot on this trip, but they assured me it would be worth my while.”
“Of course, sir. We wouldn’t dream of—” Marguerite started.
“That’s enough. I don’t need an explanation or any pretty compliments. I just need you to know that what I say goes. Not to be indelicate, but there is one more matter we must discuss.”
Marguerite tipped her head, curious.
“You will have a bunk to yourself, but it will be in the ballistics hall. You will not be allowed in the other ballistics bunks and neither will your bot. You will lock your door each night, and your bot will be in your room with you at all times. You will not flirt, flounce, or otherwise use feminine wiles to gain favor, access, or exceptions. In return, I will make sure you are treated with the utmost respect. Are we clear, m’lady?”
“Clear as crystal.” Marguerite clenched her fists and gritted her teeth.
“That should be yes, sir,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” she managed to sputter.
“Last but not least, it was brought to my attention that you have special favor with our captain. I hope I do not need to remind you that in the military, even though he may be my commanding officer, you are still my second in command and under my jurisdiction. I would appreciate it, for the sake of our comradery as a ballistics crew, if you would please keep your personal affairs to yourself.”
“Yes, sir.” Marguerite sucked in through her nose and out her mouth before opening it to speak, but Officer Vuitton was already heading back up the dock.
“I’m sure we’re going to have alovelytime together,” he called over his shoulder. Marguerite stomped after him. “Outil, help me pick up some crates, would you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marguerite swore the bot giggled as she said this, but bots didn’t giggle.
“I’m losing my mind,” she muttered to herself. “Completely losing my mind.”Chapter Nine
On board, Marguerite barely had time to take in the amazing view from the deck before she was ushered below to help load the supplies and ready the ship for departure. The stairwells were much tighter than on theTriumph,and there weren’t any of the hand-crafted wooden embellishments she enjoyed on that ship. This ship was made for nothing but war and efficiency. Everything was forged from aluminum alloys—gleaming in silver and bronze. She descended three flights of stairs before reaching the belly of the beast where she was shown to the main meeting room for artillery. Crates of ammunition were stacked on the floor, leaving hardly any room for all those assigned to maneuver in the tight quarters. In the center of the space, behind locked metal gates, one whole wall was lined with guns and knives, just like inthe Triumph.
Marguerite stared at the possibilities in front of her. She knew exactly which weapons she preferred to shoot, which would feel balanced in her hand, and which would be hard for her to manage. She memorized their positions, from the giant long-range musket ballers to the air-powered dart slingers, and all the pistols in between. This was her new job.
She felt torn between excitement at such a remarkable array of weapons at her disposal and the memory of what it meant to actually use one—to be hit by one. She reached up and rubbed her shoulder without thinking.
Vuitton was there, barking orders again.
“Gentleman, and Ladies,” he tipped his now bare head at Outil and Marguerite. “We are on a very important mission for His Majesty, King Louis XIV.”
“Long live the king!” the men around her shouted in unison.
“Long live the king,” Vuitton repeated. “You have a particularly delicate job on this voyage. We are to maintain the weaponry, keep track of the ammunition stores, calculate battle efficiency—if there is a battle—and if need be, provide the captain with support in hand to hand combat. If any of you do not feel like you can provide these types of services for His Majesty, that’s rather unfortunate. It’s too late to back out now.”
A few of the men laughed at this. A few laughed while they looked at Marguerite and Outil. This crowd response did not go past Vuitton’s watchful eye. “Gentleman, I’d like to introduce you to my second officer, Lady Marguerite Vadnay, and her automaton companion, Outil. Ladies, please join me.” He motioned for them to leave the crowd and stand on an ammunition box next to him at the front of the small space filled with bodies.
Marguerite couldn’t be sure, but as she passed through the group, she thought she felt someone’s hand on her backside. She jumped, but in a split second, decided not to pay them any heed. That’s probably what they wanted, to see her squeal and squirm like a little girl. As soon as she stepped a bit farther, she heard a yelp behind her and turned to see Outil squeezing the hand of a man she’d just passed.
“I’m sorry. It was an accident,” he whined.
“Enough, Outil. I’m pretty sure he learned his lesson,” Vuitton ordered. Outil dropped the man’s hand, and the ladies made it to the front of the room without further incident.
“Lady Vadnay comes to us with glowing references, battle experience, and a brilliant head on her shoulders. Outil is more than just a labor bot. She is highly intelligent, stronger than all of you put together, and able to crush your hands if you step out of line. So there will be absolutely no disrespect to my second officer or her companion. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir!” the room cried in unison.
“Good, because the next person to disrespect either of them will be thrown overboard without a chute. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir.” They all cried again.
“Lady Vadnay will be referred to as Officer Vadnay on board. Her orders are as good as my orders. You will obey without incident. She will be in charge of maintenance, inventory, and calculations. I will assign a team to her momentarily. Outil will be in charge of assisting Officer Vadnay and any extreme, heavy work that needs doing. This does not mean that you will grow fat and lazy on my watch. This also does not mean you will order this bot around. This is not your bot. She does not belong to any of you. She answers to me, Officer Vadnay, and King Louis. Is that clear?”
Marguerite tried not to, but she couldn’t help smiling a bit at this man’s ability to control a crowd. She tried to take mental notes on his stance, his tone of voice, anything that might set him apart from your average aership officer. She needed to learn fast and learn well.
The rally broke apart at Vuitton’s word, and everyone got to work. “We sail in one hour!” He cried, and everyone cheered. “You two come with me.” He had Marguerite and Outil outfitted with parchment and autopens and set them to work cataloging the ammunition. It was a tedious job, but it kept Marguerite from having to deal with any more wandering hands or carrying any more impossibly heavy crates.
The time passed quickly, and before she knew it, the audio pipes lit up. Marguerite nearly jumped out of her uniform when a familiar voice thrummed through the works and echoed in her compartments.
“All hands on deck! This is Captain Laviolette. We are pulling anchors now. All hands on deck!”
Marguerite looked up at Outil, who had been bent over a stack of retractable harpoons. The bot shrugged and pointed to the others filing out of the room to join the crew on deck. Marguerite shook her head and mouthed, “No!” She couldn’t risk Jacques finding out she was on board yet. He’d toss her off with an anchor and be done with her in front of the entire city. It just wouldn’t do. She bent back over her catalogue and continued to make careful marks on the thick cream paper.
“You too.” Vuitton’s voice was louder than necessary in the small space. Marguerite jumped. “Excuse me?”
“All hands on deck means you too. Come on, get to it.” He stood by the stairway, the last of the men chugging up the stairs in front of him. Marguerite sighed and lay down her writing utensils. Outil followed suit and took up behind her mistress on the metal stairs. They were steep, and Marguerite’s muscles ached by the time she reached the top, but her heart bubbled and burst when the excitement of the deck and the expansive view overcame her.
Men and bots, plus a few women, were everywhere, hoisting weights and coiling ropes as a fine mist from the gray clouds around them settled on their clothes and faces. They were all singing a working song in unison.
Upon the air, we’ll fly our flag
Upon the currents merry,
And over shore and over land
We’ll float our big brass belly!
Sing Hey! Sing Ho!
Shine up your gears
and fill the envelope!
Sing Hey! Sing Ho!
Toss off your fears.
The dawn is full of hope!
Marguerite almost forgot to watch herself amidst this chorus of joy, dew, and sweat. Then she caught sight of Jacques across the deck, monitoring the progress and talking with another man of high rank. She quickly ducked behind a stack of flour sacks still waiting to be moved to the galley. Outil followed suit. “M’lady, do you mean to hide from him our entire journey?”
“No,” Marguerite hissed. “But I don’t want him to see me when he can just pitch me over the side into the St. Lawrence without guilt.”
“Hey there, lass! Give us a hand?” A merry crewman signaled for her to grab a rope he and four others were already pulling on. “Just coil up the extra there in a neat pile while we pull it on deck, will ya?”
“Of course,” Marguerite was more than happy to be given something to do other than hide. She grabbed the wet rope—as thick as her arm—and started to coil it at her feet as neatly as possible. Outil stepped up next to the small group and pulled the rope with both hands so effortlessly the humans stumbled to the sides from the slack in it.
“Well, now! That’s a bot I could live with!” the man cried and slapped Outil on the back.
Having found themselves free from their burden, the others moved to help Marguerite coil—it was more than clear that she needed the help. The work was done in quick order, and the ship began to drift higher into the air, leaving Montreal far below.
A cheer went up from the onlookers left at the port. Marguerite ran to the port side rail to watch the river and city shrink beneath her. She couldn’t suppress a gleeful smile and a bit of a yelp. Others soon joined her and began to wave and shoutAu revoir!to those below. A loud roar burst through the cool morning as the engines came to life. A surge of steam shot from the stern and a horn sounded. The deck went wild with cheers. TheRenegadewas on her way.
Outil joined Marguerite and pointed to three smaller war vessels of an older make that had also lifted their tethers and were following closely. “What do you suppose they are about?”
An aerman standing next to them answered, “Those’ll be our partners for this trip. Gonna take more than one ship ta bring in the cargo King Louis’s sent this time.”
“Seems a bit much, wouldn’t you say?” Marguerite questioned.
“Oh no, my darling. You’ve obviously never encountered the southern buccaneers. It will take heaps more than this small fleet to stop them. There are also war vessels accompanying the supply lines. I only hope the Brits don’t get involved—those bloody technology stealing parasites.” The man spit over the rail and made an obscene gesture in the general direction of England.
“Oh, my goodness.” Marguerite instinctively placed a hand on her face at the vulgarity. Outil immediately stepped between the two.
“Sorry, ma’am. Meant no offense.”
“Quite alright,” Marguerite replied, but Outil didn’t move. Overhead a loudwhooshcaught their attention and the entire crew still on deck looked up. A huge sail was unfurled and caught the morning breeze, urging them to the east as the envelope full of helium pulled them toward the aether. The engines kicked in, and suddenly the ship turned port side. They began to pick up speed, headed straight for the Atlantic.
The air was suddenly filled with the sounds of Jacques’s voice. “Welcome, crew! I hope you brought your air legs and your iron spirits. This will be a harrowing voyage, but hopefully one with historical outcomes. We will be joined by our sister ships, theHenrietta, theSteam Lily, and theGrapple.”
Marguerite looked around for the source of the voice, but couldn’t see Jacques anywhere, so she relaxed and leaned back against the flour sacks to enjoy the ride. “TheGrapplesounds like a proper name for a warship.” Outil observed. “I’m not certain about theHenriettaand theSteam Lily, however.”
“They ought to hire someone with a bit more imagination to christen these lovelies,” Marguerite agreed while Jacques continued with his rallying speech.
“There is no finer fleet of aermen, women, and bots in the world! There is no chance for failure as long as we stand together. The lawless will fall, and we will return triumphant at the end of this campaign. Too long have the buccaneers and corsairs, even British privateers, assaulted our kinsmen and stolen our technology and goods. Today we fight back! Today we exact revenge! Today they fall!”
A cry went up from the crew, so loud that Marguerite had to cover her ears. She looked to Outil, who stood at the ready, and wondered for a moment if this was, in fact, a wise journey to have undertaken.Chapter Ten
TheRenegaderose high above the earth as Marguerite and Outil descended deep into its belly to continue their assignments. Marguerite felt particularly proud of herself for having not only secured this position, but also for doing so without Jacques finding out.
They gathered their lists and autopens and began cataloging and testing all the weaponry and ammunition. Marguerite found she thoroughly enjoyed this kind of work. She thought it would be tedious at first but quickly fell into a routine of polishing, oiling, testing and inventorying each item. She longed to fire some of them but knew better than to ask Vuitton for that privilege.
Meals were fast and small, but she was delighted to find that they were made up of more than just the dreaded salt meats and beer. Fresh fruits and vegetables accompanied fresh eggs and warm bread, and of course, salt meats and beer.
Her cabin was small, but it was her own. She dutifully locked the door and changed for bed while Outil powered down in the corner. She curled up on the small pallet and only wished for her silk covered feather mattress for a moment before she drifted to sleep.
The next day started in much the same way. Marguerite felt happier than she had in months. She wasfinallygetting close to accomplishing her goal of being an aership captain, and she found that life on the aership suited her.
She and Outil were finishing up with a carton of ignitable grease pellets when the ship suddenly lurched forward. Since leaving port the trip had been very smooth, and Marguerite could hardly tell they were moving at all from the lower decks. Everyone stumbled and a few called out, but Marguerite flew right off her feet and landed in a heap of ammunition crates.
“Ow!” she cried. Outil was instantly at her side to offer her an arm, as were four other crewmates, smiling and shy. “Why, thank you all.” Marguerite reached up and took the arm of the most attractive man within reach.
“It’s a bit rough at times. Not usually that rough, but you’ll get used to it, Officer Vadnay.” He smiled wide, revealing dark yellow teeth and a few black holes where teeth of any color should have been.
“Oh, my!” Marguerite tried to hide her surprise at the contrast between his horrid mouth and handsome face. “I’ll be ready next time. Thank you.” Outil rolled her robot eyes and went back to her job.
“All stop,” Vuitton came through to their compartment. “Ship is at an all stop, prepare for orders.” He continued into the next set of rooms and repeated himself. Marguerite let go of the man’s arm and turned to another. “What exactly does that mean?” He was not nearly as handsome, but his teeth didn’t show while he talked or smiled.
“Means something’s prolly not right with the riggin’s. I figure we’re only about forty miles or so out of Monty, so it’s prolly just a precaution.” The sounds of shuffling and boxes moving were interrupted by a strange, new sound. It was light and steady, the sound of wings flapping.
Marguerite turned to see an automated pigeon flapping around the small compartment. Its wings beat frantically as it flitted about the small space. A few men swatted at it; others jumped out of its way. She laughed at the scene until she had to duck suddenly as the out of control bird sailed right for her head.
Outil was still standing close enough to reach out a shining arm and snatch the bird out of the air. However, she wasn’t fast enough to do it before it emitted a formidable blob of gear grease right on Marguerite’s head. “For the love of monkey wrenches!” she cried. “Who let this blasted bird in here?”
“Someone looking for you, miss.” Outil held the bird out in one hand, its mechanical eyelids blinking with aclick click,and its body still twitching from flight. In the other hand Outil held out a small piece of parchment.
“What is this fuss?” Vuitton asked as he rounded a stack of crates.
“Lady Marguerite is being summoned to the bridge, sir,” Outil said.
Vuitton leaned in closely, measuring each word as he said, “If this is some kind of lover’s spat, you best nip it in the bud and get back down here to work.”
Marguerite’s stomach filled with rocks as she read the neatly written paper. She’d recognize the penmanship anywhere. Even the best autopen in the world couldn’t hide his scrawl. Jacques had found her out.
She wanted to lash out, to set Vuitton straight. They were absolutelynotlovers. Instead, she nodded. “Yes, sir. Come on Outil. Let’s get this over with.”
“Oh, no.” Vuitton took the paper from her hand. “This says, Second Officer Vadnay. It says nothing about your bot. We need Outil’s help getting all these crates to their cannons before it’s time to use them.”
“But sir … ”
“I’m sure you’ll be just fine walking up there on your own. Now snap to it! Don’t keep the bridge waiting!” Vuitton dismissed her with a wave of his arm. Marguerite was both furious and frightened.What if he was angry? What if he was already turning the ship around to take her home?She couldn’t bear the wondering, and the long walk up the tiny stairs, through the upper deck, and around to the bridge was infernally long.
TheTriumphhad boasted a captain’s deck and a bridge, high above the body of the vessel, attached precariously to a structure that housed the giant round envelope. Marguerite remembered her first journey in the small banging lift, where she’d eaten her first real meal in days with Jacques, surrounded by an epic view of the oceans below them. She did not doubt that this meeting would be just as memorable. The envelope for theRenegadewas much more sleek and streamlined for speed and war, making it impractical to house the bridge in the air. Marguerite could hear the wind howling and rain slapping the deck above her as she walked through to the fore of the ship. At least she didn’t have to see him completely disheveled and wet.
TheRenegadehoused its bridge in the fore, just below one of its enormous razor-tipped ramrods. Windows lined the front most portion of the hull, allowing the officers to see what lay before them without having to subject themselves to the elements.
She finally reached the opening to the busy area. A crowd of men and two women—neither of whom were very pretty, Marguerite noted with satisfaction—were scurrying about with tools and maps and goggles, intent on their work. She stared at them and suddenly wasn’t so keen about her assignment.This is where I belong. Not down in the belly with the explosives and people missing their teeth.
She touched her hair self-consciously and looked at the black gun oil stain on her fingers. A young man approached her and glanced at her grease-streaked hair, then the rank on her uniform. “Can I help you, Officer?”
“Yes, I am Officer Vadnay, I believe Captain Laviolette requested my presence?” she tried to sound confident, even though she felt sheepish and nervous.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll go find him.”
The boy hadn’t turned completely around before Jacques was upon them. When she saw his face, stern and furrowed, Marguerite couldn’t move.What was he going to say?She’d lied to him less than forty-eight hours earlier. She’d hidden her plans from him and even kissed him passionately goodbye when Outil hadn’t been looking. She began to panic.What had she done?
Then he smiled his beautiful smile at her, all of his teeth white and sitting exactly where they should be, his eyes twinkling and his tone merry. “Ah! The lovely Lady Vadnay.” He bowed low. The warm welcome was worse than if he’d immediately berated her. Something was not right. Maybe he was ill? Except he looked healthy as ever and even quite dashing in his captain’s best. The rest of the bridge turned to look at the exchange and watched curiously.
“Imagine my great surprise when I saw your name on my ship’s manifest this morning. What an honor to have aladyof your standing aboard theRenegade.” He smiled again. “I believe you are serving in ballistics?”
He sounded genuinely pleasant. Maybe he wasn’t mad at all? Maybe he was happy to see her. She pushed aside the doubt and smiled.
“That doesn’t seem like the right place for aladyto be serving on a warship.” He stretched out the word lady again and scratched his chin. Marguerite didn’t like the way he was sayinglady.
“Oh, but I scored excellent marks in ballistics. They made me second in command.”
“Yes, I’m sure they did. Excellent.”
“If you have something else in mind, Captain?”
This could be it!She thought excitedly.He’s not mad, and he’s going to invite me to work with him on the bridge! He knows as well as anyone that I am cool under pressure and a crack shot. Plus, I know my way around the instruments, and I’m a quick learner. This is all just a show for the rest of the crew.
“Actually, since you mentioned it, I do have something else in mind. Come with me. Henry! You have the bridge. I need ten minutes.” He smiled again, only Marguerite realized this time that his smile did not meet his eyes.
He took her arm, not gently, and steered her back through the hall and down a tight corridor. It was too close to walk side by side, so he was pressed against her and forcing her to walk quickly in front of him. If she hadn’t been so confused about the direction events were about to take, she may have said something snarky to him about excuses to get close. She decided instead to try apologizing. Surely she owed him that.
“Jacques, I’m very sorry. It’s just that I thought you’d be upset …”
He held up a hand to silence her then pulled them both to a stop at a speaking port on the wall. He pressed a button and spoke into the screened circle opening. “Marshton, are we in place?”
A squall answered back, “Yes, Captain.”
“Good. I will be there in five minutes with the package.” He flipped the button off and directed Marguerite to a door across the way. He reached around her and pushed down the brass handle while shoving it open in one quick movement. His second movement was to shove Marguerite inside as well.
The room was obviously private quarters. A bed sat in the middle. Made neatly, covers tight, pillows just so. A comfortable chair sat in one corner and a wardrobe in the other. A little table flanked the chair, and a large table in the middle of the room was covered in maps and sextons, a gleaming brass auto compass, and a pot of ink. Everything was neat and tidy and in its place. There was no sign of anyone having ever been in the room except for the mess of maps and charts on the table.
She turned around and glared at Jacques. “This isyourroom,” she hissed.
“Of course it is, I need to speak with you in private, and this is the only room on the ship where we will not be disturbed.”
“I do not know what your game is, sir, but that kiss the other day was not an invitation for a private meeting in your bed quarters!”
Jacques laughed at her outburst. “How did it end up that you are now cross with me? Aren’t I the one you lied to, mislead, and made a fool of in front of his first officers and bridgemates?”
Jacques donned a false voice and flipped his hands in the air as he said, “Oh, Captain, how good of you to place Lady Vadnay in the ballistics team. Good show of faith in the Lady despite her lack of aviation skills. Oh, Captain, how lovely that your littleprotégéis joining us. I’m sure she will prove good company for long nights at sea. Oh, Captain—”
“Enough! I said I was sorry. I didn’t mean for you to look a fool. I only wanted to have this adventure with you. I needed to get off land, Jacques!” She put her fists on her hips and held her place.
“That’s exactly the problem. You only ever think about yourself. You never consider the positions you put other people in. It’s always what will make you happy or what will keep you from feeling bored.”
“That is not true!” Marguerite folded her arms and felt a bit like a child, but she couldn’t help her lower lip sticking out a bit with hurt.
“Oh, isn’t it, though?” He put one hand on his forehead and pushed his hat back then rubbed at his hair. “What did you think anyone else would gain from any of your little adventures? Hmm? Is your father so sick of you already? Does Outil actually want to be out at sea risking her life with pirates? How about Vivienne?”
“That’s not fair. You didn’t even know her.” Marguerite’s pout was turning into a fury. Tears boiled in her eyes, threatening to fall. Her nose felt tight, and it was getting hard to breathe.
“I knew her well enough, and I know you. You probably didn’t even take the time to research what this voyage is actually all about or why I’m leading it, did you?”
He had her there. She hadn’t asked anything when they’d summoned her, or when she’d spoken to Dean Beaumont. She supposed she could have probed a bit deeper, but that was beside the point. He was attacking her. “No. I didn’t need to. We are going after pirates and to protect the king’s fleet of supply ships.”
“Why do you think His Royal Majesty would put a barely aether-worthy aerman who blew up his last ship—one of the finest ever built for king and country—in charge of a fleet of ships headed into such an important mission?”
“I … I thought it was because you are so good at what you do,” Marguerite stammered. She hadn’t thought about this either. “Besides, your name was cleared in the inquisition. It wasn’t your fault theTriumphwas lost. I don’t see what this has to do with anything.” She flipped at the map corner hanging off the little table and tapped her foot with impatience and discomfort.
“Exactly. You don’t see. You don’t want to see, and you don’t care to see anyone but yourself. The reason they gave me the commission is because no one else wanted it. They all have families, Marguerite. The whole goal of New France right now is to settle, serve and survive. Once a soldier takes a wife, they have one year reprieve from service to start their family and build a home. Everyone there has taken a wife and land and started a settlement. I have half a crew of babies, because there’s not a single soldier to be found who isn’t supporting a wife and child now. I have no wife. I have no child. Therefore, I have no say in where I am assigned. I go wherever his majesty’s whim takes me. This time it’s on a suicide mission.”
“Surely it’s not as dangerous as all that,” she insisted. “You have plenty of arms and support and bots. The armory on this dirigible alone could take down the Palace of Westminster.”
“Yes, we will outnumber them, outgun them, and outmaneuver them. Hopefully, we will bring the shipments back safely and take a few pirates down with us, but that is not my only assignment. And don’t think that this mission won’t be pocked with casualties.”
Marguerite took a deep breath. “So, you’re telling me that I am selfish for not marrying you and saving you from having to risk your life to fight pirates? And that I should forget all of my dreams, so I can settle down and have your babies? And that is not selfish?”
“Marguerite!” He put both hands on his head and closed his eyes, a sure sign he was losing his temper. Then he took a deep breath and began to pace in the tiny space, turning tightly, obviously straining himself to come up with the next words. He stopped suddenly. “Do you know what the southern buccaneers do to women when they capture them? If you’re thinking they kill them, you are wrong. They never kill women. They take as many prisoners as possible, men and women. The men are given a choice—pledge allegiance to the pirate captain, or be marooned on an island or tortured, depending on the captain’s fancy that day. Women, on the other hand, are forced toservethe pirates, and I don’t mean in the galley, or being sold as a slave in the islands. I would rather you be stuck at home miserably caring for babies than ever have that fate be a possibility.”
“You exaggerate to scare me. I’ve read nothing so heinous in the journals. ” Marguerite met him mid-stride and got as close to his face as she dared, just to make certain he knew exactly how she felt. “You have always wanted to control me. You say you love me, but you don’t. It is all about control, and that will never happen.”
In one swift move he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her into a kiss. Marguerite pushed back, but he didn’t let her go. He put both arms around her and kissed her like his life depended on it. Then just as suddenly he let her go, keeping one hand on her waist.
“That is very true. I will never be able to control you, and despite what you think, I never want to. I’m trying to tell you that I may not come home from this mission, but I’m going to make certain that you do. I do not have control over your choices, but I am still captain of theRenegade,and I have complete control over who serves on my ship.”Chapter Eleven
Jacques left no time for her to question him or disagree. He opened the door and pulled her by the hand back into the passageway, marching forward so quickly she had to jog to keep up. They came to a ladder midway down the hall that appeared to lead to the deck above. Jacques hit a button on the wall and a trap door atop the ladder slid open. Rain began to pour onto their heads and into their eyes. Marguerite was in such a state of shock the only words she could manage were, “Where are you taking me?”
“Somewhere safe. Up you go.” He grabbed her waist from behind with both hands and practically threw her toward the opening. Marguerite squealed out loud and grabbed the top rung. It was slick with rain now, and she barely caught it. Her left foot found purchase on a rung a tad farther down but, at least, she didn’t fall. She had no choice now but to climb. Jacques was already climbing below her, his head nearly in her backside. She knew she couldn’t win a hand-to-hand fight with him. Not even a foot-to-face fight would come out in her favor.
She pulled herself up grudgingly into the rain and wind. Two very small deck hands were there to help her up. She could see another aership hovering just above her head, a ladder dangling from the side. Its brown oval envelope was kissing the black envelope of theRenegade.
Jacques was behind her in a moment. He shielded his face from the deluge and pointed to the ladder. “Tie her down, lads!” The two boys quickly jumped to attention and fastened the dangling ends of the rope ladder to the deck of the black warship. “I’m sure they will have adequate necessities for you on theHenrietta,” Jacques said.
“TheHenrietta? You are putting me on the ship with the worst name in the history of aerships? Jacques, how could you?” Marguerite stomped her foot. Rain ran over her face and hair, beading up over the pigeon grease and soaking her uniform through.
“Only because I love you!” He shouted through the rain and wind. “Now go!” The two deck boys snickered. Marguerite gave them dirty looks.
“What about Outil?” Marguerite protested as he steered her to the ladder, much more gently this time.
“She is needed here. I will send her to join you as soon as possible.”
“You can’t do that! She is my property! Plus, I can’t go alone! You are being completely unreasonable!” She hadn’t felt this close to throwing a complete tantrum since her father had told her she was going to boarding school back in France.
“Some would argue with you there, my dear, but we don’t have time to fight about the finer points of bot slavery. If she really is your property, and you really want to help the cause, then as the King’s servant, I am commandeering her for the time being.”
“Captain Laviolette, please.”
“I’ll go with her, sir!” One of the deckhands offered. Marguerite glared at him through the rain. She recognized his face and scruffy red hair peeking out from under his rain-soaked cap.
“Louis?” she asked.
“You know him?” Jacques said. “Very well. We don’t want the lady to go without all of her servants. Keep an eye on her, Louis. And help out on theHenriettaas best you can. Take a turn in the nest and give Captain Butterfield my best.”
“Yes, captain!” The boy saluted and scurried up the ladder to the deck of the other ship. “I have to get back to the bridge. We have precious little time to prepare. Get up that ladder now, or I’ll strap you to a parachute. I doubt the Iroquois will deal with you as kindly as I do.”
“Jacques!” she cried.
“Go!” He pointed again.
To the left, she saw her small trunk being hoisted off the deck by a rope on theHenrietta. She watched it whip and twirl in the wind and rain. Everything she loved was in that box, her new goggles, her extra flight suit and a book of aernautics she wasn’t quite done studying, and three more pairs of pink silk underthings. She watched in anxiety until it was pulled to safety on the smaller ship.
She tried to give Jacques one last look of hatred, but she found her heart didn’t have the energy to hate him or to fight him. She knew he would keep his word to put her in a parachute or worse, the brig. He had to. He couldn’t let his men see him taking orders from a woman he wasn’t even engaged to.
She took a few steps to the ladder and began to climb. The wind continued to blow rain into her face. The wooden rungs were slippery, and she was grateful for her water resistant boots. The soles had been painted with a tar-like concoction that made them excellent for walking a wet deck, or climbing a slippery rope ladder from one aership to another, thousands of feet above the earth. The ropes stretched and twisted slightly. The higher she climbed, the less stable she felt. Her body bobbed to either side every time she took a step. She looked down and saw the space between the two ships was just enough that should she slip or let go, she would plummet all the way to the St. Lawrence sprawled below her, or to the trees flanking the shores. She found herself freezing up about halfway to theHenrietta. Her arms shaking and her feet stuck to the rung. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, water dripping into her mouth.
“You wanted this,” she reminded herself out loud. “You wanted adventure. What’s more adventurous than a forced ship transfer in the midst of the aether with no harness?”
Then with her eyes closed, she forced herself to take hold of the next rung up. She took another deep breath and pictured the rope ladder in her father’s stables back home. She’d loved to climb it when she was a child. It was never soaking wet and hovering this high over nothing, but she remembered herself scampering up it just like Louis had. She tried to harness that child inside of her.
“Come on! You’re nearly there!” Jacques cried.
His voice rose through the storm, bringing her anger back with it. Marguerite was in this position because of him. Determined not to let him see her falter in fear, she reached up with her other hand and then willed her feet to follow. The ladder wobbled, but she made herself keep going, hand over hand, foot over foot, until she had a nice rhythm.
“There you are, sassy britches.” A raspy female voice surprised her. Marguerite’s eyes popped open to see she had reached the starboard side of theHenrietta. A portly woman with wild grey hair sprouting out from underneath a deep blue tricorn hat reached over the side and grabbed her arm, practically yanking her off the ladder.
“Hold on, there!”
Marguerite scrambled not to lose footing as the woman’s surprising strength overwhelmed her. Marguerite hit the deck like a wet rag doll and slipped as she tried to gain footing.
“You’re safe with me as long as you don’t cross me!” The woman hollered, then leaned over the deck and shouted below while waving her arm in a huge circle overhead. “We got her, boys! Safe flying!”
A faint cry of “Safe flying!” came from below and theHenriettalurched away from theRenegade.
“Alright then. That wasn’t too painful. Get yourself below and get dried off. Report at the mess hall in thirty minutes for a meal and debriefing.”
“I’d love to, but I haven’t any idea where to go or how to get dry or—” Marguerite was cut off unceremoniously.
“Pierre, and you, Louis?” The woman pointed at the red headed boy who grinned at Marguerite. “Pierre, take them both below and show them to the aft quarters.”
“Yes, Captain Butterfield,” the boy shouted and saluted.
“You are the captain?” Marguerite asked incredulously.
“Right now I’m soaking wet and cranky, and yes, the captain. So if you don’t want to see my temper, you’ll get yourself below before I send ya back without a ladder.” She waved an arm at Marguerite.
Marguerite wasn’t sure if she should salute or run or just walk backwards without taking her eyes off the stout, wiry old crone. She chose an awkward curtsy, realized it was the wrong choice when Captain Butterfield laughed out loud and decided to turn and walk quickly after the boys.
Below deck on theHenriettawas even more cramped than theRenegade. As soon as they lifted the hatch to enter the lower levels, a great waft of animal, human, and machine gear smells hit her nose. She took a few steps into the dense air lit by old-fashioned yellow lights and felt the ship take off at full speed ahead. No doubt they were trying to make up for lost time in the great embarkment adventure. She swayed and grabbed the rails to steady her, too late realizing they were also covered in dirt and gear grease.
“Oh my word,” she mumbled to herself as she followed the two boys down the steep, single file staircase while wiping her hand on her uniform. They descended another staircase and then proceeded down a long hallway, the smell of animals growing stronger with every step. Marguerite couldn’t take it any longer. “What on earth is that smell?” She plugged her nose with two fingers; pinky raised daintily in the air.
“Oh, that’s Fifi,” Pierre called over his shoulder. He looked to be about the same age as Louis, twelve, maybe thirteen. Both boys bore the marks of a hard life—thin arms and legs, messy hair and dirty faces, but both boys seemed happy enough to be on this stinking ship.
“Who is Fifi?” Marguerite called after them as they trotted ahead.
Pierre came to a quick stop. “Here’s your bunk, miss.”
She couldn’t’ take the impertinence any longer. “It’s Lady Vadnay, or Officer Vadnay, if you please.”
Pierre looked confused. “Oh, I’m sorry m’lady, er, officer. I was told you lost your rank and was being kept here till they could court martial you or some such.”
“Court martial? No. I do not think so.” Marguerite knew how quickly gossip could spread, in a small town, in a girl’s school, and on a ship. “I’m here only until we get things sorted out with Captain Laviolette. Never mind. I don’t need to explain to either of you. Now, where is my room?”
She leaned against the two boys, moving them away from the open door, and her heart sunk as she saw the tiny room with four bunks and three chests at one end, her soaking box of belongings at the other. She sighed audibly, “And who am I to be sharing this room with?”
“Oh, the galley gals, I suppose. You’ll be workin’ on the farm, though, miss.” Pierre caught himself, “I mean, lady.”
“The farm?” This was just getting to be a bit much.
“Aye,” Louis answered this time. “TheHenriettais famous for her floating farm. It’s one of the reasons I offered to come with ya, m’lady. I wanted to see it for myself.” He looked suddenly sheepish then. “I hope you don’t take offense to that. I’ll be here to help you out as well.”
“It’s right down here, come on. I’ll get you to a washroom and a clean towel while we’re there. Laundry’s right by the farm.” They continued down the narrow hallway until it opened into what Marguerite guessed was the aft of the ship. A glass dome of triangles lay overhead. She remembered seeing part of it on deck, but with all the drama, she hadn’t paid it much mind.
The rain beat on it now making the chamber echo and ring. The smell was almost overpowering, but she truly couldn’t believe her eyes. Surrounding the large skylight were artificial lights, fired up no doubt to compensate for dreary sunless days such as this. They cast yellow light on an amazing array of plants growing below. Walls, floors, and benches were covered with food producing plants of every shape and size, and in the center stood the biggest Abondance milk cow Marguerite had ever seen. Her body was a deep red with patches of white on her legs and friendly cow face. She wore a leather strap and bell for a collar that dinged when she swung her head to look at them. The smell told Marguerite this had to be Fifi. A makeshift fence of copper piping held the cow in a stall with plants arranged all around her to nibble on like some sort of bovine buffet. A pipe extended from the deck above, allowing rainwater to gather and pool in a bucket attached to the floor for the beast to drink from. She stood chewing happily, and paused only tomooat them for a moment as Marguerite inspected the vast room filled with plants of every variety.
“What an ingenious idea!” Marguerite forgot to hold her nose or the fact that she was freezing cold and soaking wet as she pushed past the boys, opened the waist high gate, and proceeded to give herself a tour of the farm. “This is as fine a greenhouse as I’ve ever seen, even in France. It’s a bit dusty, and the materials could be updated, but the design is pure intelligence put to work.”
She identified several varieties of citrus trees, berries, pole plants, and even melons. One whole section was dedicated to greens of every kind, and grape arbors grew from containers fastened to the walls, dancing and twirling across the beams of the deck above. A pond of light-colored fish swam at the end opposite the cow, chickens pecked and scratched at the floor around the pond, alternately pooping and flicking scratch into the fish. Marguerite followed the line of the pond to pipes at one side and a pump that appeared to distribute water to all of the greenery, and then alternately, it caught the runoff and returned it to the pond.
It was the most amazing thing she’d ever seen, but as she took a deep breath, as she was used to doing when she wanted to appreciate something fully, she nearly gagged on the smell of Fifi.
Marguerite walked up to the beast and entered her pen. Having grown up with free reign of a working estate in the country, Marguerite knew a thing or two about all things flora and fauna. She examined her from all angles, patting Fifi on the soft white forehead and rubbing her back. Then Marguerite made her way around to the steaming pile of manure that lay on the floor at the lovely animal’s hind quarters.
“Who is in charge of mucking this stall? This is atrocious. No animal should have to stand around in this, and humans shouldn’t be forced to endure the smell! It’s absolutely wretched on every level.”
At that moment Captain Butterfield walked in, picked up a flat-ended shovel and threw it at Marguerite’s head.
“For goodness sake!” Marguerite cried as she caught the shovel with two hands saving herself and Fifi from a nasty blow. “I don’t think that was necessary.”
“You are,” Captain Butterfield said with a smile.
“I am what?” Marguerite asked.
“In charge of the cow.” Captain Butterfield laughed heartily then turned to leave. “Get to scooping.”Chapter Twelve
When the two boys were finally done laughing behind their hands at the soaking wetladyholding the shovel in front of them, they showed her the trap door for the excrement. If she hadn’t been completely mortified, the contraption might have impressed Marguerite. It had a lever she could step on that retracted a space in the floor right next to Fifi’s small pen. She could then shovel with both hands while her foot held the door open.
Pierre demonstrated and then handed the shovel back to Marguerite, who reluctantly took it from him and demonstrated a quick mastery of the chore. A bell rang overhead. Pierre stood to attention and turned to Louis. “We better get going. That’s the deck boy’s call.”
“I’m assigned to help Lady Vadnay. I’m staying right here.” Louis stood tall and immovable at her side.
“Suit yourself,” Pierre answered, and then he ran off, placing one hand on the top of the fence and vaulting over it in a single bound. Louis immediately reached for the shovel and took it from Marguerite’s hands.
“The laundry is over there, m’lady. I’ll finish up here while you get a towel and swap clothes.” He blushed a bit as he smiled.
“Well, thank you, Louis. That is very kind of you.” She started to walk toward the door opposite the fence they’d entered in but stopped and turned to the small boy who was now furiously scraping refuse out to sea. “Are you certain you don’t need to be somewhere else, Louis?”
“Captain Laviolette ordered me on this ship to help you. Those are my orders, and I plan to follow them.” He put the shovel to his side like a musket and saluted her with two fingers to his forehead.
“Well, lovely then.” Marguerite turned and left Louis to shovel without a second thought.
She found the laundry easily enough. It was a tiny room directly opposite her bunk on the other side of the ship and was filled to bursting with two women, two large copper pots of boiling water, and several overhead-drying contraptions. One woman stood on mechanical stilts while hanging rags to dry high above the other woman who was stirring a pot of grey suds. Marguerite wondered what they could possibly have to wash so early in their journey, but decided not to ask.
Both women took one look at her wretched state and motioned to the stack of dry towels without a word. Marguerite thanked them and turned to leave, toweling her rain-soaked hair as she went, when one called out to her. “One towel per person. Washing day is recorded on your bunk door.”
“Thank you!” She called and hurried to her bunk to change. Excellent. She would have to find somewhere to hang her soaking garments, or she would be stuck in these clothes for another week or so. When she’d followed the boys to Fifi, she remembered seeing a passageway that looked like it cut through to the other side of the ship. The last thing she wanted was to cut back through the farm and end up having to help muck cow dung, or worse, before she was dry.
She found the passage and only had to deal with a handful of shipmates giving her strange looks on the way to her bunk. She quickly closed the door and prayed that none of her new bunkmates would show up before she got herself decent again. The tiny space was like being locked in a closet. She thought of her old governess locking her in the cellars and shuddered. Small dark spaces were not her favorite.
She opened her chest and was relieved to see that her clothes were still dry. She peeled off the wet wool suit and hung it on an empty peg on the wall, then carefully took off her pink silk under garments, threw them on the floor, and hurried to replace them. She put on a new flight suit, and then debated what she should do with her undies. They weren’t soaked, but they did need to lay flat to dry.
“Drat,” she swore. “If Outil were here she’d know what to do.” She rubbed her head vigorously with the towel and laid it over her trunk to dry. Marguerite cursed Jacques then as well. He was such a bastard for putting her in this position. There was no other word for him. True, he could have sent her home, or given her a chute and thrown her over the edge of the ship, but this was only a miniscule step above complete abandonment. She gritted her teeth and stomped her foot for good measure. She was going to get even.
In the meantime, she decided to try to determine what bed was not being used and laid her things out there. Only, none of the beds had been used yet. They were all made up tight, untouched. She sighed in frustration and just picked a bottom bunk to arrange them on, then resolved to get back in time to put them away before anyone else returned.
Back at the farm, Louis had finished cleaning up the mess and the whole place smelled measures better. He had found a brush somewhere and was in the middle of rubbing down Fifi, who appeared to be enjoying the whole affair immensely. “Well then, Louis. You’ve done a fine job here. She’s a lovely Abondance, isn’t she?” Marguerite walked to the pen and leaned in to pet her. Fifi stomped her foot and threw her head away from Marguerite’s hand. A stout woman with bright red hair piled high on her head came panting and chuffing into the farm. She spotted Marguerite and Louis and pointed at the pair.
“You the new help from theRenegade?” she asked. “Yes, ma’am, I’m Lady Vadnay, and this is Louis,” Marguerite answered.
“Right, well you are both going to come help me. I’mLadyCook, and I need at least six more hands to get evening meal on before we hit the preparations for tomorrow’s rounds.” She rolled her eyes as she saidladyin a mocking tone.
“Oh no, I am not a galley worker. I’m sorry. I’m an officer and a Lady, and I do not prepare food.” Marguerite was firm in this point. She stood her ground, hands on her hips. Fifi mooed long and low as if to mock the aristocrat pouting by her pen.
“You may have been all those things on land or even on theRenegade, but here on theHenrietta, you’re nothing but what Captain B. says you are, and today, that’s a galley hand. Now get those lovely little aristocratic hands off your hips and help me fill these baskets with greens or you’ll get no supper and quite possibly the chute.” The little woman picked up two baskets from a pile near the door and tossed one unceremoniously to the floor at Marguerite’s feet.
Marguerite knew the woman was right. The law of the skies was not the way of things on land. All that mattered up here was your title according to your captain, and neither of her captains was interested in promoting her anytime soon.
She had no choice.
She bent over and picked up the basket. Louis put down the brush and climbed out of the pen. Fifi mooed again.
The rest of the day was much the same. She cut her hand trying to learn to peel carrots; she stubbed her toe while carrying a pot of potatoes and water from sink to stove, and she ended up covered in grease when the ship lurched to starboard and a pot of lard tipped and tumbled off a shelf.
She had to admit that the meal was quite good, considering they were several leagues above ground and even farther from civilization. However, the after dinner clean-up nearly did her in. Even with Louis running circles around her, helping in any way he could, she felt beaten and bloody and even more determined to make Jacques’s life a living hell if she was ever to see him again.
She made her way back to her bunk in low spirits and with a bedraggled appearance. She heard voices coming from all the rooms she passed. Some had doors open, some closed. Some were merry, most sounded tired. It was a crew of mostly women and boys. TheHenriettawas a galley ship, which meant it prepared food and carried extra supplies for the rest of the convoy. This saved space for the other vessels to carry larger weapons and more men for battles. At supper each night, theHenriettacoasted over the other ships and dropped food from a parachute system. In the morning, the ships floated over her deck and returned the shoots and empty containers.
Marguerite hadn’t ever spent much time in the kitchens of the estate where she’d grown up. She took for granted the fact that hot meals showed up on her dinner table and at her bedside at regularly scheduled times. Even at the school, she didn’t think much about where her food came from or whose hands had prepared it. She looked at her own hands. They were white and shriveled like ghostly prunes. Nicks and scrapes here and there lent shocking peeks of blood. To add insult to injury, three of her nails had broken to the quick. She felt wretched.
Ahead of her, the door was open to her bunk. Merry voices drifted down the hall and met her ears. She hesitated; worried that she hadn’t arrived soon enough. What would they say about her underthings? Just when she thought the day couldn’t get much worse, she was now convinced it would.
She decided to meet the problem head on.
Marguerite marched up to the open doorway; head held high and mangled hands on her hips. Their laughter and chatter stopped suddenly when Marguerite appeared. She looked them over carefully before speaking. The three girls sitting on bunks before her were a mixed bunch. Two were mousy with thin watery-brown hair and upturned noses; obviously sisters, but not twins. One sister was broader through the forehead, looked a bit more care worn, and even while sitting down was a head taller than the other.
The third girl was sitting on the bed Marguerite had claimed earlier. She had tight black curls falling in lovely ringlets to frame a creamy brown face. Marguerite was instantly jealous of her hair. When she saw Marguerite, her soft brown eyes grew wide at first, and then narrowed in mischief. “Oh, good! Our roommate is finally here,” she purred.
Marguerite instantly identified her as a new pain in her side. One of the many girls her age whom she could not abide but would have to endure. A troublemaker, a bully, a nasty heart in a pretty package. She bristled as she realized the girl was holding her now dry pink satin underclothes up to her own body and smiling like a cat with a mouthful of canary.
“I’m ever so grateful for the gift you left on my bunk. I haven’t had pantaloons so fine since I left Paris. Ooh la la!” The girl posed and threw her amazing hair over her shoulder. The other two girls laughed quietly. Marguerite took two steps into the room and stared down at the pretty face with the jolly expression.
“Those are mine, and I’d like them back please,” she said. Then she braced for a fight. Back at school and even on the ship ride to New France, every confrontation with these kinds of common girls came with a fight. But Marguerite was used to it now and even though she was exhausted, she was ready to put this horrid person with perfect curls in her place.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you claimed this space. I don’t see your name on it anywhere.” The girl’s eyes twinkled as she smiled a wicked grin. Marguerite leaned over and snatched the pantaloons from the girl’s lap before the girl could react. She pulled open the waistband and flashed her monogram in the girl’s face.LMVwas stitched in meticulous, scrolling letters across the soft, silky fabric.
“Lady Marguerite Vadnay,” she said with steely defiance. “Now please remove yourself from my bunk and hand over my camisole.” The girl flinched.
Ah ha!Marguerite thought,I got her. She’s afraid of me. I am scary!
“Alright, alright.” The girl stood, forcing Marguerite to back up to make room for her in the small space. She tossed the camisole onto Marguerite’s head and scampered up to the top bunk in one quick move. “Calm down. I’m just having a bit of fun with you,Lady Marguerite Vadnay.I’m Lucy; that’s Rori and Audrey.”
Marguerite didn’t know who was who, but the sisters raised their hands simultaneously and smiled. She felt suddenly off guard. She wasn’t sure how to respond. It took her a moment to register the fact that it had been a very long time since a girl other than Outil, who was actually just a bot, had been nice to her.Chapter Thirteen
Two more days passed as the ships flew at top speed to the aid of the convoy from France. Rain continued to pound down on the fleet, and high winds pushed them forward at top speeds with minimum fuel needed. The smaller ships tossed back and forth relentlessly, making Marguerite airsick for the first time in her life. If she could just get above deck for a breath of fresh air, she would feel better and get her legs beneath her, but there was no such luck. The high winds and dangerously cold temperatures meant that even the deck boys spent as little time out there as possible with the unrelenting storm.
Even if she could have escaped for a morsel of air not laden with the smell of cow and fishpond, she didn’t have time. TheHenriettawas a hive of activity at all hours, and she didn’t have a moment of free time from morning wakeup call until she fell into bed at night.
If she thought her hands were a wreck on the first day, she wept over them as she tried to sleep the third night. Her fingers ached from cracks and cuts, and all of her once manicured nails were now gone, lost to shredders and peelers in the kitchens. In a matter of days, her hands had gone from those of an aristocrat to the maws of a dirty washerwoman.
Her bunkmates continued to be kind to her. In fact, almost everyone on the ship was kind, with the exception of Lady Cook, who’d insisted Marguerite and everyone else in the kitchens call her that after Marguerite had arrived and announced her title. Marguerite still wasn’t sure how to handle these women who were kind and even funny. She tried to smile as much as she possibly could and otherwise kept her mouth shut.
She had much more important things to think about than getting along with common aerwomen. Like how to get back at Jacques. It wasn’t enough that she had resolved never to have a thing to do with him again. Her anger had blossomed into schemes of revenge. She wanted to annoy him. She wanted him to feel like she felt—helpless, humiliated, and small. The fond memories she held for him were being persistently mashed to a pulp by the autohammer she used to tenderize the meat every night, and she made little effort to remember what it was she loved about him.
She should have been cataloging weapons, testing trajectories, and preparing for war. Instead, she was scrubbing pots and pans, chopping leeks, and brushing a cow that hated her. At least Louis had stuck around to help her with the manure. Fifi loved him, but every time Marguerite tried to get close, the beast flipped her with her tail or head-butted her, and just this morning she’d kicked her square in the stomach, quick as a whip. Marguerite had never seen a cow move that fast in her life.
She rubbed her still sore ribs with her aching hand. She seriously considered sending a note to her father asking him to come get her, but then she dismissed that thought immediately. She wouldn’t be able to bear his smug I-told-you-so laugh once he had her safely back in the luxury of his grasp. No, she was going to tough this out and get even, and make them all see that she was made of stronger stuff than they all thought.
In the meantime, she was going to have a good cry. She turned her face into her pillow, took a deep shaking breath, and let the tears fall. She tried to stay silent so the other girls wouldn’t hear her and bother her—she didn’t want to deal with anyone right now. She knew at least two of them were asleep, as she heard the soft lady-like snores of tired girls. But when she accidentally sniffed a bit too loudly, she heard the bunk above her squeak as Lucy shifted and then slid down the ladder like a spectre in the night.
She sat on the edge of Marguerite’s bed and put a hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Are you alright there?” Marguerite wanted to swat her hand away and tell her to cog off, but she took another deep breath and tried to calm herself instead.
“I know it’s hard being out here. I imagine you aren’t used to this kind of life. Anyone with drawers as fancy as yours hasn’t spent much time doing the kind of work we do on the ship. Are your hands ok? You’re on galley duty, right? That can be murder on the fingers. Hang on a second.” The girl stood up and started rummaging in her trunk then returned and sat on the bed again. “Let me see your fingers.”
Marguerite reluctantly pulled her hands from under her rough wool blanket, wiped the tears from her face, and held them out. Lucy found them in the dark and pulled them toward her and let them rest on her knee. Marguerite could hear her opening a jar in the dark, and a pale red light from the hallway lit a silhouette of Lucy’s lovely curls.
One by one, she rubbed an ointment on Marguerite’s poor fingers and palms. It felt amazing. Lucy was careful and quiet and didn’t push too hard on any of the cuts. “I heard Fifi got you in the gut today?” she asked softly.
“Yes,” Marguerite finally whispered.
“She is a nasty, nasty cow, that one. Only likes men. Typical woman.” Lucy finished with one hand and picked up the other. “Does that feel better?”
“Yes.” Marguerite sniffed, emotion threatening to bubble out again. “Why are you being so nice to me?”
“Why not? You’re a human being, aren’t you? You seem pretty miserable, and I don’t like to see anyone in misery.”
“But you don’t even know me or why I’m so miserable,” Marguerite protested
“Does it matter?” Lucy asked as she finished with the last hand and set it on Marguerite’s bed. She screwed the cap back on her jar and stood to put it back in the trunk, leaving a cold spot on the bed where she had been sitting. Marguerite realized she didn’t want her to go.
“No, I suppose it doesn’t matter.” Lucy sat back down. “Do you want to tell me your story?”
“There’s not much to tell. I’m a fool stuck in a man’s world, trying to find a way to get out.” Marguerite realized how utterly pitiful that statement sounded and instantly felt self-conscious. She didn’t realize how huge the pity party was she was throwing for herself until this very moment.
Lucy laughed quietly, “Aren’t we all? Listen, let me tell you my story and you can tell me yours. Then we’ll call it good for the night, yes?”
“Deal,” Marguerite answered.
“My parents were wealthy merchants in Paris,” Lucy began, “but they thought living in New France would be an excellent adventure, so they packed my brother and me up, bought a dirigible, and took everything we owned to the skies. Everything was fun and exciting, until we got to Montreal. My father had made a deal with a land agent for a shop in town where he was going to set up an importing business. Only the agent turned out to be a crook, and we lost everything we had. Father went to work at a brick factory and mother did what she could here and there, cleaning or sewing for wealthy families. We lived in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of town, and when the pox came through, well, I was the only one who made it. How about you?”
Lucy told this story like it was reporting the events of a very dull day. Not a hint of sadness in her voice.
“I am so very sorry,” was the only thing Marguerite could think of to say.
“Don’t be. It was about six years ago. The nuns took me in and took care of me. They tried to marry me off this spring, but I told them I wasn’t having any of it. So they got me a post on this ship. It was the best they could do for a penniless orphan. So far, so good. I love flying. I can’t wait to get out from under the deck. It’s driving me crazy to be locked up down here.”
“Where do you serve?” Marguerite asked, anxious to change the topic.
“Crow’s nest is my favorite, I have a good eye with a glass, but this week I’m on chute duty. I help pack the goods for the other ships at meal time, and I collect and service the chutes when they come back in the mornings. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a full time job. Lots of patching and cleaning to be done. What is your story?”
Marguerite sighed and began her tale. She tried to keep it short and absent of melodrama, especially considering the events Lucy had just relayed. There was no competing with losing your whole family and having to strike out on your own. At least, Marguerite had known somewhere in the back of her heart that her Father was always there should she need him. There was always plenty of money and family, and if nothing else, Outil.
Outil! How Marguerite missed her bot! She wondered quickly where she was, what they were having her do and if there was a competent smithie on board to help her oil her gears.
“I can’t believe he took your bot,” Lucy said. “Kicking you off the boat is one thing, but commandeering your bot is completely out of bounds. It’s definitely his right, but you’d think someone who knows you and is worried about you would, at least, send you with your bot. What do you think he’s up to?”
“What do you mean?” Marguerite asked.
“Well, he must have something planned for her, right? Some reason to keep her?”
Marguerite hadn’t thought about this. Whyhadhe kept Outil? Was it really just to help around theRenegade? Outil was strong and excellent with gearwork. She took orders without complaint and was able to fly any vessel with only a short introduction. Still, Jacques knew just how much Outil meant to Marguerite. Lucy was right, he was up to something. “Whatever it is, it’s just one more reason I’m going to blast him into the next aethiosphere as soon as I can get my hands on him.”
Lucy laughed. “Somehow I have a feeling Captain Laviolette knew you would react this way and is going to avoid you for quite a while after this.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t let him ignore me,” Marguerite growled. A light came on in the hallway, followed by a bell. Their bunkmates rolled over and moaned. Lucy sprang to her feet and opened her trunk. “What’s that sound?” Marguerite asked.
“All hands call. We must have made contact with the shipment from France, and I bet the news isn’t good. Get dressed and report to the mess hall,” Lucy sounded like she’d been flying all her life.
Marguerite sat up, weary to her bones, and willed herself to swing her legs out of bed and put her flight suit back on. The other girls did the same and all four of them stumbled down the corridor, joining the rest of the ship in the mess.
Captain Bonnifield stood on a dirty brown crate of yams in order to see above the throng. All in all, the ship had a crew of about fifty people crammed into the small mess. Marguerite guessed a few were still at the bridge and in the engine rooms on deck. The rest standing here looked tired and disheveled. She wondered for a moment what she looked like. She hadn’t seen herself in a mirror for three days. She touched the knot of her hair on the top of her head self-consciously. Without Outil here to brush it and tie it up for her, she’d done the best she could with a piece of twine she’d nabbed in the galley, but she was sure she looked no better than the other girls around her. Lucy seemed to be the only one who looked as fresh and ready as if she’d just woken from a sweet dream on a feather bed. Marguerite made a mental note to ask her the secret to keeping her hair tame and her face from puffing up like a balloon.
“Gather round. Push in, make room for everyone!” Captain Bonnifield called.
Marguerite felt the people behind her push in, forcing her to move closer to those in front. The effect of all those bodies so close was a room that smelled almost as bad as Fifi’s stall. “Good, good. I’m sorry to have brought you here at this late hour after a hard day’s work, but we have made contact with theRoyal Armada,and they are, in fact, being besieged by pirates as we speak.”
Lucy bumped Marguerite with her elbow and whispered, “I told you so.”
“We are now seven ships to their three, and we are under a strict no light policy. If your bunk has a porthole, your power has already been shut off. TheHenriettais even now being tacked into a safe spot on the winds behind the skirmish where we can continue to provide food, support, and aid to our fellow countrymen. Captain Laviolette of theRenegadehas spoken with Admiral Lautrec on theDame de Guerre, who has escorted the shipments this far from France, and they have relayed to us that this battle will be over by the morning. In the meantime, I expect you to be prepared for anything. Sleep in your uniforms. If the bell sounds three times, it is all hands to the ready stations, five times, all hands to deck. Dismissed.” The round little woman jumped down from her box and walked quickly through the crowd toward the bridge.
“She’s such a funny little Captain,” Marguerite said. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a woman like her in the military.”
“Oh, she’s not in the military, this isn’t a military vessel. Didn’t you know?” Lucy explained.
“No, I didn’t realize.” Marguerite felt foolish once again.
“Captain Butterfield is a privateer. She operates as a free agent for whoever pays the best price. She owns theHenriettaoutright and has sailed her all over the world. I think she’s amazing.” Lucy beamed as she watched the round lady walk out of the room.
“That explains a lot,” Marguerite said as she thought about Fifi and the unprecedented farm operating in the aft. She couldn’t wait to get back to Montreal and talk to her professors about the possibilities of improving on the idea. Imagine, fully self-sustaining ecosystems in the air. Marvelous!
The girls were still chatting as they made their way back to their bunks. Marguerite felt better, body and soul, as she lay down on the hard mattress again and covered herself with the rough blanket. She felt Lucy climb the ladder and settle into her own bed above. As the three girls wished each other goodnight, for the first time since arriving, Marguerite joined their tradition and whispered through the dark, “Sleep well.”
“You too, Lady Dungslinger,” Lucy giggled.
“Very funny,” Marguerite smiled and fell instantly asleep.Chapter Fourteen
The morning call came far too early. Despite her rough surroundings and tiny space, Marguerite dreamed she was at her Father’s house in Montreal, lounging in her lovely feather bed. Outil had just arrived with tea and a pastry for her breakfast.
Then a siren wailed, and she was back to reality. The sights and sounds, and especially the smells, of theHenriettacrashed in all around her. But today was different. Today there would be action. She jumped from her bunk, nearly knocking her head on the rail above her, and dressed quickly, making sure to grab her new goggles. She put them over her head like a headband to help hold her hair back. “Off to the races then?” Lucy asked. “We’re only a gust of wind away from your beau.”
“Yes, I am well aware of that. I have a lot of things planned for today.” Marguerite replied.
“Oh,things, eh?” Lucy wiggled her eyebrows.
“Yes, many, many things. Do you think it might be possible to borrow a chute and a box or two?”
“You’re not thinking of dropping into the middle of the battle are you?”
“There may not even be a battle, Lucy, especially considering the size of our fleet. I doubt any pirates would be brave enough to take us on. No, there will probably be a parlay and much strutting, flexing of cannons, and then the pirates will fly off with their envelopes between their legs.”
“True that. But what do you want a chute for?” Lucy asked while climbing down carefully from her bunk.
“I don’t want to explain right now. Do you know where I might find one?” Marguerite dug through her trunk as she spoke.
“It may be possible if you know the right people. We have loads in storage toward the aft,” Lucy answered.
“Excellent. I’ll see you in a bit then.” Marguerite knew her new friend wanted her to expound, but she didn’t have time. There was much to do. She smiled and headed out to the farm. Louis was there already, brushing the cow and whistling a merry tune.
“Good morning, Louis!” Marguerite smiled in genuine happiness at the boy. He certainly was reliable.
“Good morning, m’lady. If I might say, it’s good to see you in such fine spirits.”
“We have pirates to deal with today, Louis—and captains,” she added the last bit under her breath.
“Yes, ma’am. That we do.”
“Have you had your breakfast yet?” Marguerite feigned concern.
“No ma’am. I haven’t. I like to get down here to Fifi and make sure she’s taken care of first, and then I feed myself.” He rubbed the cow affectionately.
Marguerite noticed that he had, indeed, freshened her water and put out new food for the beast. “Well, you are just a dear, Louis. Why don’t you run along and take care of yourself now. I will finish up the nasty bits today.” Marguerite indicated the waiting pile of manure.
“Are you sure, m’lady? I don’t mind doing it all, but I am a bit hungry. Dinner was sparse for deck boys last night, and I’m not used to all this green fruity stuff.” He waved an arm at the garden before him.
“Of course. Hurry on now and get a baguette before they are all gone.” She smiled at the boy who beamed up at her and only felt a tiny bit of guilt for her not-completely-sincere intentions.
After thanking her far too profusely, Louis ran off toward the mess and Marguerite took stock of the situation. She grabbed an apple from a barrel and munched it as she studied the pipes and pots and especially the cow. “Right then,” she told herself as she threw her apple core to the chickens that attacked it greedily.
She grabbed a sturdy looking basket from the pile for harvesting and lined it with a gunnysack. Then she picked up the shovel from the corner and set to work scooping up the foul smelling sludge. With her first scoop, Fifi mooed in angst and swung a foot toward her. But Marguerite was ready for her this time and jumped out of the way. “Oh, no you don’t,” she said.
A hugeBOOMshook the ship and lady and cow both stumbled. Marguerite braced herself on the fence and had to gulp hard and breathe deep to get a hold of herself. She knew it was probably just a warning shot, but visions of rough corsairs and a rollicking ship falling to pieces began to flood her mind. Remembering the sight of Outil carrying Vivienne’s limp body as theTriumphwas thrown about like a rag doll made her shudder and panic.
No.She thought.I can do this. I wanted this. It is not a proper battle. There won’t be any sort of battle.She braced for more fire and scooped quickly, then wrapped the remaining edges of gunnysack over the top of her disgusting treasure and prayed no one would question her on the way to the chute room. Fifi mooed angrily at her as she left. “Go milk yourself!” Marguerite hissed back.
The chute room wasn’t hard to find. It was just below the kitchens in the belly of the ship. It was dark and a bit musty smelling. She only received a few strange looks as she passed her shipmates in the small passages with her smelly package. Marguerite heard Lucy before she saw her. She sat sewing a chute next to an older woman and laughing her merry giggle, despite the stress of the moment. Marguerite set her basket down at the entry and hurried to Lucy’s side. She tried to sound official.
“I have a special delivery for theRenegade, Miss Lucy. Could you assist me with delivery?” Lucy put down her sewing and looked up at Marguerite with a conspiratorial smile.
“Of course, Lady Vadnay.” The two walked casually to the pile of crates, and Lucy picked one up.
“No,” Marguerite stopped her and pointed to another crate that looked to be on its last leg. “That one.”
“I’m not sure it will make the landing,” Lucy questioned.
“Exactly,” Marguerite said. Lucy shrugged and handed it to her just as anotherBOOMsounded in the distance. This time, the ship did not shudder and rock, however.
“What on earth could they be shooting at? The sun isn’t even up yet.” Lucy wondered out loud.
“Those are traditional warning shots, probably from theRenegade. Captain Laviolette is letting them know we are serious about defending ourselves.” Marguerite took the crate back to her basket by the door, far from the other women. She picked up the gunnysack carefully and slipped it into the wooden box, then hammered the lid on securely. Lucy walked up to her carrying a fresh chute.
“Breakfast drop is in fifteen minutes. We always send special morning rations if there is a battle possible. You’re going to need this too.” She held out the small tangle of canvas and ropes.
“Oh, no I won’t.” Marguerite grinned. “All I need is a bit of chalk or charcoal. Ah!” She spotted a chunk on the main work table. She snatched it up and wroteSpecial Delivery, Captain Laviolettein block letters across the sturdiest plank left in the whole box.
“My goodness, what is that smell?” Lucy asked as Marguerite examined her handiwork.
“It’s a delicacy Captain Laviolette requested for the morning of battle.” Marguerite smiled as the other women caught wind of the crate and turned up their noses. Then she whispered to Lucy, “Remember, no chute.” The breakfast delivery began to arrive just in time to stop anyone from questioning the peculiar package.
Lucy nodded and laughed, then put the package in the midst of the shuffle as Marguerite headed for the deck. For a moment she hesitated, rethinking her joke, but she knew there was no danger this morning. Negotiations would be first, and then a battle only if the pirates were completely crazy and they couldn’t come to an agreement. She couldn’t imagine any small band of pirates being foolhardy enough to take on an entire fleet of French warships. More likely, they would bargain for their own safe release rather than demand any booty or attack.
She continued up to the deck. It had been far too long since she had seen the sky. Even if it was still full of clouds and pouring rain, she needed to be outside. She needed to smell the ocean air and to feel fresh wind on her face. The trap door she’d entered the first night on theHenriettawas easy to find. She grabbed a deck-boy jacket and flipped the hood over her messy up-do. She pushed open the door and prepared for a deluge of water in the face.
To her surprise, all was calm and clear. The sun was just about to break on the horizon to the east, making the whole world a gorgeous pink color. The clouds had all but disappeared, and a moderate wind blew up from the south. Marguerite’s spirits instantly lifted. She filled her lungs with cow-free air and smiled as she pushed off the black waterproof hood.
The scene was as close to magical as Marguerite had ever seen. Ships of all sorts bobbed and drifted on the winds. It was clear which belonged to King Louis, with their flowing black envelopes and bright silver crests. The brown support ships with theRenegadewere notwithstanding. There were three warships in total, flanking three cargo ships. A little ways south of this great bobbing conglomeration was another group of four ships, hodgepodge affairs, nothing like the foreign vessels that attacked her ship last year. These aerships looked to be at least a decade old, patched with various parts from other ships, and crawling with crew.
Small, dark bodies moved over the decks and rigging of each ship, like ants on an abandoned picnic. She flipped down her goggles and adjusted the scope mechanism for a better view. They were definitely preparing for something, but Marguerite couldn’t tell if it was battle or retreat. She couldn’t imagine how in the world the pirates could think of taking on nine royal ships and bring back any bounty to speak of.
She flipped her goggles back up as Pierre scampered past, hauling a rope as big around as his leg. “Mornin’ miss.” Two other boys scampered to help him.
Marguerite nodded and then asked, “Only one warning shot this morning, Pierre?”
“Yes, miss. I doubt there’ll be a fight today with the whole fleet together now. TheRenegadeis at the head. She’s been chosen to lead should the rogues lose their brains.”
Marguerite noted theRenegade’s position was closest to the pirate vessels, but she agreed with Pierre, there would most likely not be a fight making this the perfect time for her to get off theHenriettaand get back on the ship she was commissioned to. She felt bad leaving Lucy and Louis, but she needed Outil, and she had words for Jacques.
As Pierre scampered off, Marguerite took note of the assets on deck. If she wanted to be of use and get herself off this ship, she was going to need a plan and some materials. There were ropes aplenty, random tools, mops, brooms and—ahh! An escape ship!
TheHenriettakicked in its propeller and began to head for theRenegadeto make its morning drop as Marguerite quickly assessed the small aerdinghy. There wasn’t much to it. It was older than she was, had the tiniest speck of a motor and no envelope, no retractable glide wings, and the rudder was broken. How in the world was this supposed to save anyone?
She tinkered a bit with the engine and then checked the fuel tank—completely full. Then she realized it had an intake funnel for rainwater. Excellent. She checked to make sure no one was observing before she adjusted the throttle and pulled the start cord. The little monster coughed and chortled to life, then roared like a lioness awoken from a nap too early.
Marguerite slammed the off switch and ran for the hatch, ignoring the stares from the deck boys. There wasn’t a moment to lose. She barreled past other girls rushing to their duties, all the way back down to the belly of theHenrietta.
“Lucy! I need a chute after all, a big one!” Lucy looked up from her position at the drop hatch. Her goggles were askew, and her perfect hair flipped wildly in the wind. Marguerite noticed her box was second to last in line to go out.
“Hang on,” Lucy said to her coworker, then made her way to Marguerite’s side. “They are over here.”
Marguerite could see theRenegade’s deck coming into view through the hatch. She watched as the first crate was dropped and its chute popped open, guiding it softly onto the deck below. One by one the little crates were popped out in succession, like a giant dandelion being blown into the wind. “It must take a lot of skill to get them in just the right spot,” she commented.
“Yes, it does,” Lucy pulled a large pile of folded canvas from a bin. “These ladies have been precision dropping for years. This is the biggest chute we have. Don’t lose it or get cow dung on it, or whatever it is you’re planning.”
“Will do. Thank you, Lucy.” Marguerite gave her a genuine smile of appreciation.
“And be careful! I want to visit your fancy house in France and meet your bot, Outil. Can’t do that if you’re dead, you know.”
“Of course! Au Revoir!” Marguerite cried as she raced back up to the deck. Her legs burned from climbing all the stairs, and she was completely out of breath by the time she reached the little ship again. She began to secure the ropes of the chute to the hooks and holds of the aerdinghy, and occasionally she peered over the edge to theRenegadebelow.
By now its imposing black envelope was bellied up to their own brown one again. The two ships snuggled in the breezes like friends seeking shelter together. The parade of food was nearly complete, gauging by the size of the stack of crates on the deck below. A hand touched her softly on the back. Marguerite jumped in surprise and whirled around.“Excuse me, m’lady, but what are you doing with the old dingy?” Louis stood there with wonder in his eyes—or was that fear?
“Nothing, Louis. Get back to work and nevermind me.”
“But, I’m sorry, m’lady, if you’re planning to do what I think you are, those knots won’t hold you for two blasts of wind.” He indicated her neatly tied bows around the edges of the cockpit.
“Oh, well, I suppose that’s good to know,” she mumbled, unsure of what type of knot she could tie in its place. She was much better with machines and gadgets than she was with everyday nonsense such as rope.
Luckily, Louis was quick in both hand and mind. He deftly removed each tie and resecured them with much more complicated twists. “Excellent!” She patted him on the back and pulled her goggles back down and her hood up. She pulled the engine cord and climbed into the driver’s seat. There was only room for four people total. Such a useless rescue ship, she thought. The seat cracked and groaned with age, making her wonder about the stability of the entire vessel. Nevertheless, she tested the throttle again, and when she was happy with the state of things, she gave Louis a huge grin and shooed him away with her hand. He made as if he were going to climb in behind her, but she shook her head forcefully and yelled, “No!”
This was her idea, her scheme. Should it go awry, she wasn’t going to have anyone else hurt because of it. She’d already dragged enough people into deadly disasters in the past. She was willing to risk her own life to face Jacques once and for all, and to retrieve her bot, but not anyone else’s. Besides, all she had to do was drop and drift a bit with the aid of the small motor, and she would land on the deck of theRenegade.
A gust of wind caught her chute, whipping it up and forward. She shoved the chute out of her way and checked over the side of the little ship again, just in time to see the second to the last box plummet without a chute and hit the deck with a loudSPLAT!
“Ha!” She laughed out loud as she watched the deck hands scurry out of the way. She adjusted her scope and easily made out the figure of Captain Laviolette standing near the “special delivery” in his finest uniform, wiping at a cow dung stain and cursing. She could also still make out her charcoal message on the single board still intact on the pile of exploded cow dung.
Serves him right,she thought.
The chute strained against the wind again. She had to get going; things were picking up. She looked back to Louis and started to pull free the latch hooks that held the dingy to the ship. She motioned for him to help her with the back ones, but behind him she saw Captain Butterfield stomping toward them. “Go!” She yelled as she climbed over the seat to reach the hooks herself.
Louis stayed, however, and popped the last two without worry for his own demise. Then he called out to her, “Don’t die, m’lady!”
She twisted back into her seat and fastened the harness just as the last hook came free, and the ship plummeted into open space.Chapter Fifteen
This was a terrible, terrible idea.Marguerite chided herself as she dropped like a rock out of the sky.
She revved the engine and pulled hard on the throttle, trying to get some forward thrust. The parachute whipped and whistled, occasionally hitting her in the head as it flipped in the upward wind. Then just as quickly, it caught on a gale and popped open, slamming Marguerite hard into her seat.
Terrible idea!She repeated as the little ship bobbed a few times, and then headed right for her target, the deck of theRenegade. Except that her target was moving.
By the time Marguerite had secured her chute and cut the aerdinghy free of theHenrietta, they were already done with the food drop and sailing up and away from the larger ship, which was now sailing toward the pirate ships.
Excellent,Marguerite thought.All I have to do now is steer this little disaster of a ship to the giant moving target ahead of me. Easy as winding a gear.
Except that the wind blowing her toward her mark was also blowing her mark away from her. She pulled hard on the rudder, and then remembered it was broken. She pushed with all her strength on the throttle. It kicked in a bit more power, but not enough. If she was lucky, she would make it to the aft deck—but only just. As she drifted helplessly, the wind picked up again. A huge gust blowing her higher in the air and forward in the right direction. She shoved on the rudder again. This time, something clanked, and it gave way sending her soaring a good fifty feet higher than was necessary.
“Oh, merciful gears!” She cried out as the chute deflated in the upward motion and she began to plummet again. Her engine continued to spit out full power, pushing her forward, but the chute wasn’t catching now. She was rocketing straight for the giant black envelope of the Renegade.
Marguerite quickly inspected the round hull of her ship and counted her lucky stars. There was a chance she wouldn’t puncture the giant bag of explosive gasses, but only a small chance. She held on tightly and closed her eyes as the black balloon rushed up to meet her tiny wooden capsule and her bottom left the decrepit seat again.
This is it,she thought.This is how I die.
But impact was not as explosive as she’d feared. In fact, it was quite lovely. She sank deep into the giant oval shaped balloon and was instantly bounced back into the aether. It was an exaggerated copy of the way it had felt to jump on her father’s bed when she was a child. She would land on her backside and rocket back into the air, landing on her feet on the floor. Only, this time, she felt her chute catch the wind again as she arched up and began to soar back down toward the sea. She had just enough time to catch her breath and open her eyes before she realized that she had been too liberal with her throttle and theRenegadewas now nowhere in sight. Instead, the patchwork riggings of a pirate ship were dead ahead.
“Clogged cogs and steaming cylinders!” She yelled out loud and covered her face. Even though the chute slowed her descent, she was still coming in too fast. It was not going to be a soft landing. The aerdinghy hit the rigging, just above the deck on the smaller of the three pirate ships. Marguerite hit the controls of her dingy with a loudcrunch, andthe ship ricocheted off the ropes and posts and then hit the actual deck. Marguerite heard another loudwhackand the sound of wood splintering as she was thrown about her tiny cockpit like a wet noodle in an autocart spoke.
A few morewhacksandclangsand a final, nasty knock on the head, and Marguerite and her ship came to a sudden stop, leaving her bruised and bleeding and dizzy. Her head felt like someone had boxed it repeatedly with a monkey wrench, and she had somehow managed to land upside down.
Rough hands grabbed her and shoved her harness slack as they unhooked it; then they dropped her unceremoniously to the ruined deck floor. A piece of splintered wood jammed into her side, and she cried out in pain. “It’s one of them she-fliers!” a voice cried out. “Get her up and outta here.” Marguerite realized suddenly that these were not the strange voices of foreign corsairs, but English-speaking men with British accents.
While the British had always groped and fought over the best French tutors for their children, believing fluent French was a sign of culture and sophistication, the French never bothered with learning English. To Marguerite it sounded short and clipped, an ugly language lacking emotion. Still, she enjoyed reading some of the English authors in their original texts, and occasionally there was an interesting article published on engineering in England, so she’d taken the time to learn enough to understand. But she wasn’t anywhere near fluent enough to bargain her way out of this mess.
A loud man barked next to Marguerite’s ear as he pulled her to her feet.
“Send word to Captain Douleur. We’ll throw her in the brig till we get orders. In the meantime, clean this blooming mess up!” Her head throbbed, and her vision was still blurry, but things were starting to come into focus. Whoever was supporting her took her by both arms now and held her in front of him.
“Ain’t you a pretty little suicider then? Musta done something stupid, or you’re just plain crazy, to be assigned the first strike against the meanest pirate rig in the Atlantic. Eh?” She blinked at him and tried to make out his face. Her goggles were still firmly in place, however, and she realized one reason she couldn’t see was because they were fogged up with the foul breath of the man examining her.
“Those is nice glasses you got there. I think I’ll have them for me self.” He reached out and plucked the goggles from her face and looked them over carefully. Marguerite could see clearly now. He was a hulking British man covered in soot and grease; hair cut short—a sure sign of recent lice. She shuddered and stood on her own two feet. She tried to shake off the dizziness. Her knee and her shoulder ached, but she was fairly certain nothing was broken.
“Captain says she’s taking us in. Battle’s on boys! To your stations!” The man had let go of Marguerite and was now trying to shove the goggles onto his own massive head, but he only succeeded in getting them pinched onto his brow. “What do I do with her?”
“Tie her to the mainsail and get to work! We’ll use the parts from her ship in the catapult. Them Frenchies are going to regret the day they took us on!” A great cry went up from the men all around her. The big man pulled Marguerite, stumbling, toward a post that traveled up into the envelope of their ship. She couldn’t help but think what an interesting design it was but her thoughts were jerked back to the present as he yanked her arms behind her and around the pole then started fastening them with a rope.
This was a disaster, an absolute and complete disaster. All the warnings Jacques gave her about what buccaneers did to women began to flood her mind. Even obscure tales she read as a child of tongues being torn out and bodices ripped open raced through her thoughts and bludgeoned her heart. She had to stay calm. She had to think. Panicking would only get her killed. “Ah!” she cried out in pain as the pirate yanked too hard on her arm, in turn hurting her throbbing shoulder.
“Come on, Jo!” another man cried. “I need you on the ship cudgel!”
“Right, I’m coming!” He hurried with her knot and then grinned in her face. “Don’t worry pretty little French lovey, I’ll be back for you in a jiff.”
Marguerite shuddered and watched as her beloved goggles trotted away on top of the oaf’s head. The ship began flying some sort of maneuver. It spun around and flanked its sister ship. The deck crew made quick work of her wreck, tossing any bulky, unusable pieces overboard and organizing the rest near rustic catapults. Other men brought up buckets of goopy liquid and set them next to the catapult operators.
Marguerite looked out beyond the scene in front of her and saw theRenegadewas closing in quickly, with its razor sharp battering bow. The rest of the King’s ships stayed behind as theRenegadeflew directly at what appeared to be the main pirate ship, right in the middle. But the pirates made quick work of the situation, maneuvering up and around theRenegade, like a matador dodging a massive, flying bull.
The air was filled with auto pigeons carrying notes back and forth between the warships. Each ship had wireless telegraph, but there was no telling if the pirates could intercept the transmissions. The birds were much more secure and reliable in a close battle like this.
Marguerite would have been fascinated by everything happening around her, except that she kept trying to wiggle her hands free, and was completely unsuccessful. Watching the ships square off to fight while she kept at her ropes, she realized that theRenegadewas going to miss its target and was now trying to regain footing as the pirates prepared to fire on her when she passed.
Air cannons roared through the driving winds and men stood at the ready, dipping debris in the buckets of liquid and securing it to catapults. As theRenegadedrew near, she could see the crew of its deck making similar preparations. Then a man aboard the ship Marguerite was tied to brought out a torch and walked along the line, lighting each catapult’s load on fire as they aimed toward theRenegade
“Oh, grease and gears,” Marguerite swore. Fire was just about the worst thing you could have hit an aership. She willed the crew of theRenegadeto see the smoke and glowing flames and steer clear.
Her thoughts were answered by Jacques’ vessel making a quick bank to the right, away from the ship she was on, and a blast of cannon fire from the aft of theRenegade. The pirates returned fire, but it was too late. Their flaming scraps of rubbish drifted harmlessly to the ocean below as cannon blasts rocked the boat out of position. Marguerite jerked and shook with the vessel she was tied to, but in her heart she cheered for her shipmates.
Her shipmates. Outil and Jacques. What had she done? Where were they? How would they get out of this mess she’d caused? It worked once, so she tried again, willing theRenegadeto turn and leave with the rest of the armada. She could figure out these pirates on her own. Maybe she could even steal a ship and fly back, catch up? “Oh crusty custard,” she swore again. No matter how stupid she was, or how terrible the peril she’d caused, she knew Jacques and Outil would never leave her. They had seen her stupid dingy land on the pirate deck and even if they didn’t know she was flying it, Jacques wouldn’t leave a man behind. Even if they did leave her behind, she knew deep in her heart that she probably wouldn’t have the will to fight on anyway.
She wallowed in self-pity until she saw another of the French warships break off from the pack, safely gliding away from the fight to circle the battle at an unbelievable speed. It was smaller than theRenegade, sleek and shining silver in the morning light, but it didn’t have the obvious weaponry of theRenegadeeither. Still, it was wicked fast and tore around the pirates, blocking their maneuvers.
Now that the small ship had cut them off, Jacques fired up his surplus motors and surprised the farthest ship out with his own burst of speed. The razor sharp tip of reinforced brass raced right for the hull of the smaller ship. Deck hands scurried to retreat, but it was too late. The huge spike ran right through the center of the body of the wooden ship.
The noise of metal and wood crashing together carried over the high winds to all in earshot. The smaller ship stayed lodged on the spear of theRenegadelike a sausage recently forked for dinner. Men cursed and scurried to reload their now empty weapons. Marguerite stared in wonder. She’d assumed the sharp points were meant for puncturing envelopes, but she supposed this worked as well.
The smaller, faster French ship spun to attention and flew to theRenegade’s aid as the remaining pirate ships did the same—only not to help. The pirates raised red flags on all three ships. Marguerite had read enough to know this was a bad sign. It meant they were out for blood; no survivors would be taken. Her ship turned and sailed toward theRenegadeas well. Marguerite guessed that these pirates thought they would fly up alongside the huge warship and blast it, maybe even board it, and have the day. But even with her short time on the ship, she knew there was enough fire power on theRenegadeto take out several little scrap metal fliers like the one she was on, fire or no fire.
The small French ship flew to the envelope of the skewered pirate ship and tied on, a prime position to tap the gasses and leave it hanging helplessly until its weight pulled it to the ocean and beyond. As the pirates with their red flags drew nearer, theRenegadethrew up its white flag, calling for negotiations. The men around her cheered, “They surrender!”
The man who appeared to be in charge struck out at the closest of his deck mates and clocked him good in the face. “You idiot, that’s not a flag of surrender; that means they want to talk. They’ve got us by the gears right now. One poke from that little ship up there and the entire crew of theLollywill be shark food.”
“Well, what we going to do now?” asked another man.
“We wait till Captain Douleur makes a move. If the red flag stays, we attack, if she flies the white, then we gots to sit back and wait till they be done talking.”
Marguerite watched as the main ship drew nearer. The ship she was on was now close enough for the men on either vessel to give each other dirty looks. Side by side, theRenegadewas obviously the far superior ship. She searched for Outil’s face, or even Jacques’s, but couldn’t see them among the deckhands. They were probably on the bridge.
Someone on theRenegadespotted her and cried out. “They’ve got one of our own tied to the main sail!” She realized she was still wearing her French flight suit. It was the first time she felt grateful for it since the scratchy thing had been issued.
“Call the captain!” Another man on theRenegadecalled out. “He’ll want to know!”
Oh, I bet he’ll want to know.Marguerite thought.
“Truce!” a pirate called out in English.
She looked to the largest of the pirate ships, and sure enough, the red flag was gone and a white flag was taking its place. All she had to do now was wait. She tried to sink down to her bottom. Standing against the pole was becoming very tiresome, and her leg still ached from the crash. Men ran around her in all directions, preparing for whatever came next. Some had weapons drawn, some ale. Some were laughing while others looked fierce, ready for blood. As she slid down the pole, she wiggled her hands and twisted them around again, hoping the new angle would provide better leverage for slipping free.
She was right. The bony part of her left hand popped against the tight rope. Pain shot up her arm and brought tears to her eyes, but her hand slipped out of the tight ropes providing space to release the other hand as well.