Fingers tucked into the wicker rim of the gondola, Archie leaned his face into the rarified air and reveled in what was truly a most capital morning. The fuel was burning as steadily as the sun in the heavens, the wind blew true, and stretched out below him lay a sight few men had ever been privileged to see: the Galapagos.
Or perhaps the Juan Fernandez Islands.
Or possibly the St. Sebastian Archipelago.
Next trip, he really must remember to bring an extra map.
Minor setbacks aside, here he was, twenty-five and bravely at the helm of his own airship, parents and financial empire and the nuisance of being St. Helvetia's most eligible bachelor scattered leagues behind him on the breeze, the stalwart coast of South America waiting just over the horizon to the east (or perhaps the southeast), and not so much as a soul in ...
Archie blinked and raised a hand up to shade his eyes. Nothing, for a moment, then he had it again, a flicker of white moving over one of the green hills below. In a swift movement, he extracted the glass from his belt, brought it to his eye, and made a few rapid adjustment. A flock of birds, he thought, or possibly some pale species of deer, or--
Half a mile below him, the figure waved its arms wildly, and his glass jumped to capture the windswept banner of a long, blond braid.
Archie lunged to the flag rope and rolled out the colors for signal noted, tendering assistance. He was grinning like a loon.
A maiden in distress. No man had ever been gifted with a more excellent birthday.
Half an hour later, Archie watched with some consternation as his passenger tore the last of the meat from a chicken drumstick, pitched the bare bone over her shoulder into the wind, and rooted around in the hamper until, with a cry of triumph, she laid hands upon the smoked ham.
"How long were you marooned, did you say?"
Her eyes flickered up to his; guiltily, he thought, though the rest of her expression was obscured by the hamhock. Their slanted angle was most fetching, even in her dirty face. "Nine days," she said, snatching a napkin from the hamper and wiping her mouth. "And you cannot imagine how slim the pickings were. There was a stream, thanks to God for small mercies, but not a familiar vegetable as far as the eye could see, and it took a devil of a trick to rig a proper--" At his climbing eyebrows, she paused. "--berry-picker," she finished, in an embarrassed tone.
Archie hastily schooled his face into a more appropriately charming smile. A bona fide rescue of a lady lost at sea, and here he was bungling it by drawing attention to her lapse of manners. "Words cannot do justice to your resourcefulness, Miss Malloy," he assured her. "I dare say most men I know would be hard-pressed to survive such an ordeal, and for a young woman such as yourself to come through so unscathed ..." He dropped to his knees to extract the insulated jar of tea, pouring and offering her a cup. "Do not give a thought to ceremony; eat and drink your fill, I beg of you."
Her fingers brushed his as she took the cup, and he started at the scrape of calluses. She missed his reaction, though; her eyes had fluttered closed in an expression of pure bliss at the warmth emanating from the cup in her hands. He swallowed. The pitch of the floor had shifted him a bit too close for propriety; he pulled back to seat himself at a more suitable distance.
Unscathed was not precisely the right word for Miss Malloy. When he had dropped the ladder, meaning to climb down and anchor the ship, she had nimbly leapt into the air and seized the bottom, then raced up it as sure-footedly as a child of the St. Helvetia swamps could climb a cypress. An act of desperation, to be sure, lest her chance at rescue vanish, but still. It had been most ... impressive. As had the muscles of her arms when she had pulled herself over the railing, left bare as they were by her ...
Dress was not the right word for that garment, either. The longer he looked at it (or rather, tried chivalrously not to), the more certain he became that it was a torn length of sailcloth, held in place by a length of rope. At least he had had the presence of mind to preserve her modesty through immediate offer of his coat.
Bundled within the folds of the oiled wool and the high flare of the collar, she took a reverent swallow of the tea. Delight dawned over her face, and the high sun flashed in her eyes as she opened them, brightening their hazel to bronze.
Goose pimples broke across Archie's spine. His shirt sleeves were somewhat inadequate to the breeze. "Forgive me, but I must ask how you came to be left upon that island."
Miss Malloy's features darkened with some feral emotion. Anger, possibly even hate. "Fortunato." Archie blinked in confusion, and she clarified, "Captain Guzzi, of the Red Sky."
And despite his most gentle overtures and expressions of alarm and sympathy on her behalf, Archie could not persuade Miss Malloy to part with more than the barest bones of her tale of abduction, attempted escape, and eventual marooning at the hands of the pirate king.
They passed the afternoon most amicably together. Miss Malloy had as bright and inquisitive a mind as he had ever found in a woman, and asked with great interest after the science and art of his airship. He indulged her with explanations that grew more detailed under her questions; her focus, he felt, showed the thirst she must feel for all aspects of civilization after the terror of her last few weeks. Her education was no match for his own, but she gained hold of the new concepts swiftly, and at times revealed a familiarity with navigation and astronomy that was most unusual for her sex. A mark left by some indulgent father or uncle in the Navy, perhaps, lacking sons of his own and willing to nurse a daughter's curiosity.
Answering her inquiries about how he learned to pilot, he found himself telling her about other things as well. The whirling bore of high society, his mother's many dreary attempts to marry him off, his father's demands that he take a greater role in the dull old family business. She listened with few interruptions but with great sympathy, and it struck Archie that for all the people hoping to warm themselves in the glow of his inherited fortunes, he'd met almost none who cared to listen to the less dazzling facts of his life.
After tea, he showed her how to change the heat of the flame, raising or lowering the airship to find new currents in the air and change directions. On a whim, he let her try her hand at it, staying close behind her lest a belch of fire startle her or the wind prove too fickle. It took her only a few minutes of careful concentration (and a couple of worrying lurches that nearly had him stepping in), and then she had it, and sent them soaring upward and to the east. With a deft grip on the knobs controlling the fuel, she swept them down until she found a gentle southward current, and set them in it as smoothly as one might set a paper boat into a stream.
"Remarkable!" Archie cried, and raised one hand in jaunty salute. "You're a true natural."
Miss Malloy smoothed one hand over the front of the jacket and took a dignified bow. As she rose, breathless with laughter, a knot in the air rocked the floor beneath them, and she stumbled. Archie caught her.
The pale strands of her hair brushed over his face and neck, mutineers from the confines of her braid. One small hand braced itself against its chest. Something in her manner had made him believe her tall for a woman, if not near his own much-admired height. This close, he was startled to discover she stood better than a foot shorter.
"May I ask a favor?" she asked, and her voice was steady, even with the blush of laughter and proximity upon her cheeks.
"Miss Malloy, I feel there is nothing I could deny you," Archie said. A sudden lofting leap within his chest made him fear it might be true.
"You gave me your Christian name, sir, when you brought me aboard, but when we reach land and I wish to praise my rescuer, I fear I will have nothing proper to call you."
"Oh, criminy," Archie said, feeling stupid. He had done it, hadn't he, said call me Archie without realizing. It was his preferred response, one he had cultivated as a youth to rather dashing effect. His mother had always told him that one day it was bound to come flying from his lips when he didn't mean it to. "How very rude of me. Archibald Pringle of St. Helvetia, citizen of the United States of the Americas, at your service."
"Pringle?" She cocked her head, squinting in the glare of the encroaching sunset. "Not of the Pringle Mercantile Company?"
Normally, Archie met the question with a self-deprecating bow. But he had failed to let her go, despite the floor having steadied beneath them, and had only the room for a sheepish nod. "My father's venture, Miss."
Astonishment washed across her face, and then she threw her head back and whooped with laughter. The sound was shockingly robust and unrestrained. Her mirth at his answer went on for some moments, and he kept his baffled grip on her elbows, completely at a loss. Was this hysteria, finally breaking through at a last surprise?
Unbothered by her own outburst, she wiped away tears of laughter. In the clean stripes left behind by her fingers, he saw the corners of her eyes were creased with faint lines, the skin brown and dried by the touch of the sun. She had thick hair and a coy mouth, a comely figure beneath his coat, and he had taken her for his own age at most. Now he looked past those distractions and realized she was his senior. By five years at least, if not ten. "Oh, Archie," she sighed, "you could not be better-suited to my purpose if they'd written you up in song."
"And what purpose would that be?" he asked, stomach sinking as he took it all in: their close proximity, her deshabille, not a witness to be had for miles and miles. What she might demand in payment for this affront to her reputation.
She swept her loosening hair carelessly out the way and grinned up at him. The expression turned the lines of her face from kitten to fox. "To free my crew and regain my ship."
"Your ..." One of Archie's finest virtues, recognized to all Helvetian society, was his wit and facility with language. She might as well have pitched it overboard. "You have a ship?"
With a quirk of her eyebrow, Miss Malloy pulled free of his arms and walked over to the edge, peering down at the ocean as if she expected the aforementioned vessel to appear at any moment. "Oh, yes," she said cheerfully, as though Archie's face did not clearly state his conviction that she had gone quite mad. "Fortunato's got her, at the moment, but the Titania has always been mine."
The Titania. Archie felt the blood drain from his face. "Miss Malloy." She shot him a look as hard as steel. "Captain. Oh dear. Your given name, it wouldn't be ..."
She tipped her head in a motion that somehow evoked the presence of a broad-brimmed hat. "Captain Meg of the Titania. At your service." The emphasis on the word service made it clear she was at anything but that.
Archie's palms prickled with a cold sweat. He called upon all the lessons of his upbringing to keep from wiping them upon his vest. "And how do you imagine I can aid in the recovery of your ship from Fortunato Guzzi?"
Stepping back toward the center of the gondola, she shook her head in a motion that sent her long braid snapping like a whip over her shoulder, and Archie found himself staring down the polished barrel of his own pistol. "Why, ransom, of course," said the pirate queen.
She kept them over the sea until night swept in to cover it, then changed their course. North, Archie thought, or maybe northeast, but he'd never had to navigate without a map and charts before. With no moon aloft above them, he could not tell whether the wind sailed them over water or land.
"Sleep if you want," Meg Malloy told him, craning her neck to survey the stars past the bulk of the airship's balloon. Archie was determined to do no such thing. He was a hostage, somewhere over the Pacific, and for all he knew this madwoman had never so much as seen a Montgolfier balloon before this afternoon, let alone the vastly superior St. Honoratus he possessed. But he had no tea left to fortify him, and coatless as he was, the cold wind eventually forced a retreat. He wrapped himself in the thickest layers of his bedroll and huddled against the wicker wall, where he glared at her through narrowed eyes until sleep, disregarding all permission, sealed them closed.
A steep drop roused him, and he flailed upright to find the sun sliding over the horizon and a tiny island, little more than a sandbar, looming rapidly up beneath them. "All right, I haven't done this part before," Meg called, hands busy at the flame. "You can refuse to help, certainly. But if you do and I botch it, we're both stranded, and this island looks even less hospitable than the one where Fortunato left me. Or I can force you to do it, but you don't strike me as someone used to working at gunpoint, and if your hands should slip--"
"Fine, fine," Archie snapped, and he shook free of the blankets and went to set them down.
Once they were firmly aground and the fuel valve had been spun shut, Archie crossed his arms over his chest and turned to her. "Well?"
"Well, what?" She shrugged out of his coat, and he saw that she had appropriated a shirt and a pair of trousers from his pack sometime in the night. The cuffs on both were rolled to take in nearly half their length.
Infuriated, he swept his hand around them in an imperious circle. "Why this pitiful little island? Is it a rendezvous point for the pirate fleet? Have you buried your stolen doubloons here? I beg you, enlighten me -- what adventure awaits me next?"
The pirate queen snorted, a sound he was quite sure he'd never heard produced by a feminine instrument. She folded his coat into a careless ball and strolled over to his abandoned bedroll. "I'm going to catch forty winks. You can do whatever you like, except disturb me or try to launch the airship. If you want adventure, well, there's a great deal of sand. I'm sure an educated gentleman like yourself can build something." Without so much as a glance in his direction, she settled herself in the shade cast by the wall, pulled his pistol out from the waist of her purloined trousers, and went to sleep.
Archie did not dump a great bucketful of sand over her head, because he could imagine just how long it would take to get it all out of the basket's floor later. Even so, it was a very near thing.
That afternoon, she swept them over a vast, teeming city and set the airship down on the end of a dock. A crowd of children swarmed in around the ship, clamoring excitedly. She pulled a silver coin out of mid-air (confound it, Archie thought, had the woman left one square inch of his possessions unmolested?) and carried out a rapid negotiation in Spanish, then flipped it to the sharp-faced boy who'd done most of the talking. "Come on," she said, and slipped back into his coat again. "They'll watch it for us."
Archie eyed the boy from his superior height. The boy raised a bored eyebrow back, then rolled his eyes and said something to his compatriots, who burst into laughter. "Steal it all from us, you mean."
"Don't be stupid," Meg scoffed, clapping him hard on the shoulder and shoving him forward off the airship. "They know me in Cartegena. They know what happens if I come back and anything's gone. Besides," and she grinned with one half of her mouth and pulled the collar of her shirt open. Archie fought not to look at the skin she revealed, and then he saw the twist of twine there, and the bright glint of brass nestled just at the swell of her chest. "Hard to fly her with the fuel knob gone."
She led him through a maze of narrow, teeming streets, full of sun and noise and flies, the smell of fish, laundry waving out of windows, coaches clattering through, people shouting. The door in the shaded alley connected, to Archie's thorough surprise, to a small but well-appointed office. A short, swarthy man in a suit hurried from behind his desk to bow over Meg's hand, and she laughed and snatched it back. Wine appeared, and glasses, and the two of them carried on in Spanish at tedious length while Archie sat, half-forgotten and sullen over the Barbera he was too hot and thirsty to refuse. His name, both Christian and family, surfaced at several points from the sea of unfamiliar words, but even those remarks were not directed at him.
The man returned to his desk, dipped his quill, and wrote for several minutes. The papers were blotted and handed to Meg for approval. She flipped through them, set the last one on top, and passed the stack to Archie. "Sign there," she said, pointing.
I, Archibald Thaddeus Pringle, certify that I am alive and of sound body ... began the short paragraph. There was a neat space below it for his signature. He flipped through the rest of the papers, none of which he could read. "Is this ... Dutch?"
"Mmm. Senor de Sevilla's specialty, languages. Nothing better to confuse one's trail than the wrong tongue."
Archie scanned the pages for numerals, but their contents remained stubbornly undecipherable. "How much have you asked for my return?" he demanded.
"Nothing your family can't afford, and far less than I could have. Now do endorse your ransom note, before I have to do something messy like send along a finger." Archie looked up sharply, but Meg had turned away to examine a thick sheaf of maps laid out on the table. A shining, ivory-handled knife that was most definitely not Archie's held down one curling edge.
On the other side of the desk, de Sevilla was holding out a pen with a pleasant expression. "If you please, sir," he said, his English slanted but perfectly clear, and smiled mildly.
Archie scowled at him for a long moment. "You and her, you're both absolutely mad," he told de Sevilla with some vehemence, and then he bent and signed the damned papers.
She gave him no itinerary, nor any warning that she meant to spend a fortnight crossing the full length and breadth of the West Indies -- where it seemed that everyone, rich man or scoundrel, knew Meg Malloy. The soles of Archie's boots met the mud of a dozen cities he only knew from merchant stories, along with countless uninhabited islands, three forts, four plantations, and one compound that, blushing for Meg's company, he was appalled to identify as a brothel. He was obliged to follow irritably in her wake as she spoke French with a legless man in Santo Domino and left with a cage of canaries, which she delivered to a black man on the Leeward Antilles in exchange for a map and a keg. In Kingston she left him in the care of a well-armed innkeeper for two hours and returned reeking of tobacco and wearing a brilliant green scarf. In Scarborough, he suffered through an opulent dinner where the leering plantation master gifted Meg with an extravagant frock and made many remarks at the expense of Archie's ruined suit. His only consolation was that, once back in the airship, she pitched the dress into the sea with an oath and proceeded to gloat over a letter of mark she'd swiped from his desk.
Every time they left the airship, she took some essential component with her. It was maddeningly effective, and beneath the sunburn, Archie's face smoldered with the knowledge that a woman barely nine stone held him captive and had hardly even had to bother with a weapon. She needn't -- everywhere they stopped to rest was uninhabited, and every port town in the Caribbean was full of the worst sort of criminal element, most of whom Archie felt would likely lack Meg's perversely evolved sense of fair play. On what may or may not have been one of the Bay Islands, he succumbed to the heat and the mosquitoes and his own unremitting ineffectiveness, and threw a mortifying childish fit. She pushed him off of a rock into a frigid stream, then stripped half to skin and dove in after him. She came up holding a turtle, and roasted it for dinner over an open flame.
The whole thing was fascinating and terrifying, confusing and painfully dull by turns. His ears were filled with a dozen tongues and a hundred creoles, his eyes with countless acts of kindness or cruelty. Eventually, even those places that could have fit comfortably into his own world began to look strange to him. Their silk and linen were an uneasy contrast to the watchful servants, the closed-mouth slaves.
In such settings, he sometimes caught Meg watching him, with eyes that seemed to read the thoughts right off his face. He braced himself for her contempt in those moments.
It did not always come.
Two weeks after she took him hostage, she put down at sunset on an archipelago only a half-hour's flight beyond the coast of the Tenochtitlan Confederation. He feigned sleep until he was sure she slumbered, then crept with agonizing caution around the embering fire. Her hair wound over the grass beside her like a pale rope in the dark, and the moon limned the edge of her cheek, the loose curve of her lips. Archie knelt above her, hands damp with sweat, for long minutes, sure she would awake and cut his throat, or perhaps shoot him. She didn't move, and he eased one knee to rest on the far side of her body, distant memories of childhood fisticuffs prompting him to bracket her hips with his thighs, ready if he needed to pin her to the ground. The twine twisted around her neck, and he could see the fluted end of the valve just protruding from the gap in her collar. She did not stir.
He had closed his fingers around the metal, warm from the proximity to her skin, before he realized that he had no way to break the string. Sweat condensed along his back. Swallowing back a curse, he scanned the ground around her for her knife, trying to remember if she'd placed it in her coat pocket, or in the folds of the cotton blanket, or in her boot.
"It won't do you any good, you know."
Her voice slipped through the dark like a stone skipped over the water. He froze. Her slanted eyes glittered up at him, full of the moon.
"Why?" he whispered hoarsely.
She did not smile, but he heard it anyway. "I took the fuel knob and hid it under a rock."
"God damn you," Archie said, the oath spilling unbidden from his lips. He could feel himself shaking. "I only meant to help you. Why drag me through all of this? Why won't you let me go home?"
She looked at him without the faintest trace of guilt, and did not reply. There was no answer beyond the obvious, he knew. He was a tool, conveniently fallen into her hands. She would use whatever leverage he could provide. Hearing her speak it out loud would give him no satisfaction.
When she pushed herself up to her elbows, he flinched backwards, stopped short by his fingers still fisted around the metal and twine. Even through her clothes, he could feel the heat of her skin, which retained the touch of the dying fire. Swiftly, lightly, her hand came up and closed around his wrist. Her rough palm pressed into the soft skin there. He shuddered at the ghost of her breath over his face.
"Done this before?" she asked.
Trapped by her grip, he cocked his head back a degree and did his best to glare down at her. "I've never been held for ransom before, so no, I dare say I've never had the occasion."
She chuckled, low in her throat. "Not that," she said, and then ran her thumb up the inner seam of his trousers.
A flush rushed to Archie's face, so hot he was sure it must glow in the night. "Of--" His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat. "Of course."
"With someone who wasn't a servant?" She tipped her face a little closer to his. "Someone you didn't pay for the privilege?"
Her tone rolled over him like smoke, and he drew a long breath in. As his throat and chest filled, he realized far later than he should have that there was no kiss of a knife there, no gun cocked against his chin. "No," he said. The answer came as helplessly as if she had held a weapon.
"Then trust me," she said, and he did not need to hear her smiling now. He could feel the curve of it just shy of his own lips. "This is going to be fun."
He lost his grip on the valve when she rolled them over.
Two days later, in the Florida keys, she handed him the glass and pointed at a small island, nearly bare of trees. "There. Tell me what you see."
"That's Mr. Hastings," he told her, after a moment of study. Her nearness, as always, drew a distracting tingle over his skin. Or perhaps that was the prospect of freedom. "One of my father's agents. He's planted a blue-and-yellow flag in the sand."
She took the glass back from him and studied the area carefully. With a noise of satisfaction, she swooped them down to hover the ladder's length above the beach. She'd gotten quite good at it.
"Go down and fetch your ransom," she said. She pulled the pistol out, gave him a considering look, and then pointed it down over the basket's rim. "Try anything, and I'll shoot the skiff's captain first, then your Mr. Hastings. There's no one else around."
Archie did as he was told. "Sir, are you--" Hastings asked, starting towards him before stopping with a nervous glance upward.
Archie looked up and saw Meg was silhouetted against the half-luminous shell of the airship's balloon, braid flying like a standard over her high collar. The raised pistol glinted in the light. "Fine, I'm fine," Archie said, and flushed unaccountably. "Do you have what she asked?"
"Of course, sir." Hastings nodded to the skiff's captain, and the man brought a large rucksack forward. He was dressed like an islander, and kept a weather eye on the balloon above. Archie wondered whether he, too, knew Meg. It seemed possible, though not necessary. There was no doubt that when the deal had ended, Meg was more than capable of helming the skiff herself and sailing away.
Archie shouldered the heavy pack and climbed the ladder again, sweat prickling over him, conscious of his balance and the placement of his feet. He could feel bulky, angular shapes in the oiled canvas. Whatever her letter had demanded, it had been more than just currency. He hoisted himself into the basket and took a couple of steps toward her, then slowed as the pistol swung around to point at him.
"Set it down and step back," she told him. He did. She moved swiftly forward and dropped to her knees, unknotting the flap one-handed and rifling through its contents. Her eyes flickered between him and the sack's interior.
"Precisely right. My compliments to your father's people." Her tone was brisk. She settled the sack against the airship's wall, stood, and jerked her chin toward the ladder. "Climb back to the beach now. You're free to go."
Archie's heart beat a sudden protest against his ribs. "What? But -- my ship--"
"You'll sail back with the others. I still need her." Archie jerked half a step forward in protest. She raised the gun until it was level with her shoulder, her body half-turning so that the weapon was directly between them.
"Archie. Down the ladder, or I'll have to shoot you." He stared at her, face flushed and chest full of something hot and heavy. She didn't flinch under his gaze, but after a moment, she added, "This is how this goes."
She didn't sound sorry, or like the woman who'd run a hand under his shirt last night and laughed when he'd shivered. But nor did she sound like the pirate queen. She kept her eyes on his, clear and steady, and it struck him that despite the nineteen unbroken days he'd spent in her company, he did not really know her at all.
Down on the beach, he watched the airship until it was barely a dot in the sky, and then he turned and walked past the other two men toward the skiff. "Enough," he said. "Let's go."
Back in St. Helvetia, his mother fussed and exclaimed over him, and insisted on calling the doctor to certify his health. He was fine, of course; he'd told them as much himself. After as short a period as etiquette permitted, their friends and acquaintances began to flock to the estate, exclaiming over the presumed difficulty of his ordeal with poorly-veiled curiosity. In self-defense, he distilled his captivity into an account just detailed enough to satisfy and resumed his former social calendar, relating the story with feigned humor and false consternation until it lost its luster and everyone turned their attention to fresher scandals instead.
His father did not press him on the subject of Meg herself, or of what it had been to be kidnapped. Instead, he rolled the charts out in the library and suggested that if Archie could identify the places Captain Malloy had taken them, it might help Pringle Mercantile better discern between the more criminal ports and safe harbor. Archie found this exercise occupied his mind in a way little else had been able to, and was unexpectedly satisfied when a briefing left his father's fleet masters looking impressed.
Some three weeks after his return to St. Helvetia, Archie woke to a great commotion and the sight of his airship berthed on the estate's promenade. There was a long scorch mark up the fabric of the balloon, and the basket had been riddled with bullets. The word in port was that the Titania had been seen briefly at daybreak, gliding swiftly off into the dawn.
Archie went on a three-day bender and woke in the bed of a girl of questionable virtue, the air thick with several kinds of alcohol and expensive perfume. Back at the estate, the hangover faded with a bath and several glasses of water, but the sick feeling didn't.
At a loss for what else to do, he went back to his father's charts.
June brought a stifling heat into the city. It clogged the air and left drapes, gardens, and people alike wilting limply toward the ground. At night, Archie threw his balcony doors open wide, with only the thinnest of curtains to hold the mosquitoes at bay, and tossed all but the sheets onto the floor. He dreamed of crowded public-houses and stagnant water and bright flashes of color, of dancing in great whirling circles that brought him no closer to any door.
Callused hands found his face, the cool touch like water, and lips parted against his own. He arched into it, into the weight of her, kneeling above him in the sweat-dampened bed. The muscles of her back rolled and flexed under his hands. Loose strands of her hair clung to his skin like sea grass as they moved together in the dark, half-drunk with the rise and fall of it, slow to unwind the ties of her shift and breeches, the tangled and intervening sheet.
Some time later, a cool breeze slipped in. She set her mouth against her ear and murmured, "Marseille, I'll be there in three weeks time -- come find me," and pressed her lips into the hollow below his jaw.
Daylight woke him as though from a fever, the sheet puddled low across his hips. He stared out at the balcony in hazy confusion until the light shifted, and he saw that there were dirty footprints pressed into the bedding, smudged with the deep brown soil of the garden below. One long golden hair was still coiled around his wrist and forearm.
It took a day to negotiate the schedules and trade routes, and another to convince his father of his earnest desire to gain exposure to Pringle Mercantile's operations. Then he was on a cargo ship bound for France.
The head of their Marseillaise office was educated, solicitous, and damnably difficult to shake. Archie did manage to wrangle a day-long tour of the docks out of him, but the Titania was nowhere to be seen. After that, it was fête after ballet after exclusive dinner, all full of various prestigious persons with whom Archie was obliged to make charming conversation. Some of them were interesting, particularly the French minister of commerce, who was far less dour than his American counterpart. Still, it was an exercise in extravagant frustration, because no one would dream of being so rude as to abandon him to navigate the city unescorted. The best he could do was leave word of his plans with the concierge of his hotel.
And plans, of course, were difficult to maintain. He met the Italian ambassador by chance at a dinner, and several hours later had to flee out the back door of an opulent gambling house, clutching with difficulty at honor, dignity, and the waist of his trousers. The alley was wet and perilously cobbled. Archie, more intoxicated than he might have wished, made determinedly for the better-lit end.
A hand gripped his shoulder and nimbly pressed him into the wall, the edge of a blade rising to press like a promise against his throat. "S'il vous plaît, monsieur," Archie began wearily, and then a body pressed against his back, with the unmistakable upward shift of someone rising on tiptoe.
"Je te trouve toujours dans les lieux les plus intéressants," Meg murmured, breath just brushing the back of his neck, and with a laugh she caught his wrist and let him in the other direction. The rain on his face tasted sweet in the dark.
There was no pattern to it; with her life, and his reputation, a pattern would have been the height of foolishness. But every few weeks she would send him word, by one circuitous path or another, and he would find a ship in the fleet bound for Portugal, or the Ivory Coast, or fly himself down to Brazilia. When he planned his own trips, he let word spread through St. Helvetia of his destinations, and sometimes he would arrive in a port to find rumors of the Titania there.
Many of his errands were manufactured, providing only the barest of explanations for his travel. Sometimes, though, some acquaintance or family associate would lend his trip legitimacy by asking him to perform some small service: pass along a message, or observe a negotiation, or convey regards at some happy or solemn event. He was surprised by the gratitude he received for making himself useful; it made him wonder that usefulness seemed more than anyone had thought they could expect from him. He took to trying to anticipate which trips might be useful to someone, and paid closer attention during the errands he'd been asked to perform.
If he saw Meg in St. Helvetia, it was either at an anonymous distance, or when she climbed through his window under cover of darkness. But there were other cities, where her face was less well-known and her presence at a gathering counted as a most exclusive kind of social coup. There, if his connections allowed him to garner his own invitation, he could have the pleasure of watching her best all comers with a set of gold darts, or sip port as a Chinese envoy attempted not to choke at the sight of her in a peculiarly austere set of silk robes (these, he later learned, had been taken as a prize from a Qing commodore after his surrender).
And then, for a few hours or sometimes a few days, they would slip away -- to a hotel, grand or dirty, a chateau on loan, an empty beach or a tent slung up beside his airship. She would have a new treasure tucked into her boot, a new scar fading somewhere out of sight. He would have new notations inked into his ever-thickening folio of maps, new rumors of diplomatic intrigue or social scandal. They would lie together, eat meals with their fingers and drink from each other's cups, trade whatever stories from the intervening weeks it was safe to tell, safe for the other to know.
She never said where she came from, nor could he tell. Her voice reflected the traces of any port where she landed, like the curve of a goblet picking up colors and light. All her stories had the Titania in them, as though her life had begun when she'd taken the helm. Perhaps it had. In turn, he would speak to her of anything but Pringle Mercantile. It was not that he hoped to conceal the company's business -- he had no doubt she could have found out nearly anything through her net of contacts -- but because, had he been thoughtless enough to toss the information about in front of her, her own trade might have obliged her to do something about it.
He was not her only lover. Their first rendezvous in Marseille, he found a dusky bruise sucked into the soft skin high inside her thigh. It was not the last such mark he glimpsed on her, and he never mentioned them. At times, he would bracket them with his fingers and press gently, so he could watch her eyes flutter closed.
Perhaps a year after she had returned him to Hastings' custody, he studied her face over a snifter of brandy and asked, "Why me?"
She slid down onto the chaise she had pulled before the fire and shook her damp hair out over the back. The cuffs and tails of his shirt hung long over her wrists, her legs, and the contented immodesty with which she curled onto the cushions warmed him more than the flames.
She studied him reciprocally -- not as though she was considering her answer, but as though it pleased her to look at him. "When you lifted me off that island, there was nothing you wanted from me." Her eyes were sleepy and warm beneath lids slung like hammocks. She rubbed her thumb against the crumpled collar of his shirt. "And then you came to France, because I'd asked you to."
Archie considered her answer for a while, and something bright lofted slowly up within him. To mask the blush it brought to his features, he nodded, and took a drink.
His mother's campaign to find him a wife continued, and found unsolicited confederates. At any city he returned to, more than one friend or acquaintance would magically conjure up a sister-in-law, a daughter, a cousin, a ward. Some were lovely, or accomplished, or droll. Many were none of these things. Archie smiled at all of them, and squired them to dances and operas. And he kept moving.
The wide map of the world took on texture and embellishment. He met many people, powerful, well-connected, sometimes dangerous. There were complex currents of money that flowed back and forth between the continents. For most of his life he had found the explanations too bland to bear, but it was another thing to witness the mechanisms by which the flow was regulated, from a drought to a deluge or back again. He began to see how influence tightened or loosened the gears of international diplomacy, changing the balance between nations or reeling in slack. He forgot idleness, like a distant childhood summer.
Still, whenever the open sea spread out around him, it took all his will not to search the horizon for the Titania's sails.
"You would never marry me, if I asked you," Archie said to her, as they lay curled together in the wide bed. The house belonged to the Marquis of Abrantes, who was at the Russian court, and who owed Archie a favor. The coastal rain pattered against the roof.
Meg pushed herself up on an elbow, which gave her a better angle on his face. The hard set of the corners of her eyes made him think she was near to climbing out of the sheets entirely, except that after four years, he had known better than to let that be a question.
"No," she told him. "I wouldn't."
He tucked one arm beneath his head and nodded. She smoothed a finger slowly down the indentation at the center of his chest. The nod had not fully hidden the way he'd swallowed, he guessed. There was a long burn on the outside of her shoulder, and it gleamed in the candle light.
"What could I do on land?" she asked, in a quiet voice. Her gaze settled on the window, her eyes shifting as she tracked the path of raindrops down the glass. "It would be a trap, Archie. I would go mad if I stayed still."
He wanted desperately to pull her close, and could not chance it. In this moment, he doubted her reaction to the confines of an embrace. Instead, he curled his hand over hers where it lay on his chest -- softly, so as to leave no doubt that he would not prevent her if she moved to pull away. "I would never," he said, because believing she might imagine that of him threatened to crack him wide. "Even if we --- Meg. I would never make you."
When she slipped her hand from under his, it was so she could lean in and cup his cheek. "You wouldn't have to." She stroked her thumb over the corner of his mouth. "On land, everyone else would do it themselves."
She didn't ask if he would give up life on land for her, or if he would give up flying. She didn't have to. They both knew no answer he could have given would have changed hers.
They spent nearly a week together, the longest period he'd had in her company since she had taken him for ransom. After a full two months passed and he did not hear from her, he knew it had been willful foolishness not to have thought of what that meant.
Archie nearly stayed in St. Helvetia. If she returned, he wanted to know that she could find him. He nearly abandoned the city for every place on earth that could be reached by sea or by air. If he roamed widely enough, it was possible he might find her. In the end, he did neither. He traveled like a broken compass, swinging between directions, lingering for longer than anticipated at several false promises of north. He flew from Alaska to Panama, with a break in Francisco City to sort out the snarled mess created by an embezzling branch manager. He spent a long and educational winter with the colonial governor of Suriname. At his mother's request, he returned to St. Helvetia for close to four full months, to keep his father company during a bad spell of gout. He toured Europe and accepted all invitations, even those that took him inland.
The Red Sky and the Titania were dancing across the Pacific, his captains said.
He took lovers, though few and intermittently. He met a few women whom he courted in a way that was not entirely for show. Aliz had oil paint rimmed beneath her fingernails and despised the Lutetian fêtes her Hapsburg uncle forced her to attend, because they took her from her canvases. Three days before her twentieth birthday, Susanna had cut off her hair and stolen a jockey's uniform just long enough to ride to a sixth-place finish in the Queen Anne Stakes; she whispered the story to him once, in the dark of an opera box. Gabriela limped badly from a childhood illness, but with a supporting hand she could dance more beautifully than anyone Archie had ever seen.
Once, perhaps twice, he looked at each of them and thought of marriage. It would be a trap, Meg whispered to him. He had no way to know whether the same would be true for these other women. He could never bring himself to ask.
No matter where he went, or with whom he kept company, Archie felt some inner part of him remained motionless, like a ship becalmed. That was the worst part of it, knowing that he was still waiting for the breath of the wind to set him forward, because he knew it would never come. She would never come.
In a deplorable moment, he sent her a message care of de Sevilla, clumsy in the Turkish he had begun to learn but had yet to master. Half a day after the courier had left port, he wanted nothing more than to set the page afire. He paced the library in a frenzy of inactivity, imagining sending a second courier to rescind the message mid-voyage, or somehow flying fast enough to do it himself. He was envisioning intervention by hurricane, with a longing that sickened him, when a discreet tap on the door interrupted him, and the butler entered carrying a card.
After near to an hour of scotch and pleasantries, Vickery got down to it. "It's not going well, in Africa," the governor said, setting the tumbler down to give Archie a hard look. "Some of our ships have been turned away at the ports. There's something rumbling between the colonies, but it's damned difficult to know what. The President is sending a special envoy to Vervenvania, and Forscythe's a good man, but you know how the Dutch are, and right now they're our passport to the rest of the continent. The President thinks it might be advantageous if someone joined him who was closely aligned with trade."
"Ah," Archie said, and sent his own glass down. His thoughts felt clearer suddenly, as though a strong breeze had swept through. "Yes, I see."
Vickery tugged absently at one corner of his beard, a gesture of distraction that Archie had known since childhood. He was an old friend of the family, but it was only in the last year or two that he'd begun to speak to Archie as a man to another man. "It'll be delicate work, even with Forscythe doing of the heavy lifting. I can't say what you'll find in the inner continent. It may not be safe. And if you go, I'd expect it to be ten months at least before you saw the Americas again."
Nodding, Archie moved over to the heavy oak table. The large globe in the center turned easily under his fingers, as it always had. He didn't study the outlines of Africa; as long as he'd spent with maps over the last five years, there were few parts of the earth he couldn't have drawn blindfolded. But it helped him to feel the sculpted plaster beneath his hands.
She was never going to come back for him. Meg was innumerable things, but she was not capricious. Even were he somehow to find himself in the same city as the Titania, Archie knew, he would never see her captain again.
"Tell the President I'm honored," he said, still palming the globe's curvature. "I'll talk to Father and Mother tonight."
Fourteen months later, Archie shook Governeur Reessink's hand, accepted a brief embrace from Reessink's wife Aagje, and climbed into the basket of his airship. He carried with him nine signed treaties, the news of Forscythe's death from malaria, and certain secrets too volatile to commit to paper. The umbers and greens of the vast continent slipped away beneath him, taking with them the urgency and adrenaline of the last weeks, and then he turned and found the Atlantic waiting.
Given the length of the journey, it would have been better to sail, but Archie had no fear of this crossing. He hugged the coastline for several days' travel northward, then turned west and began the long leap across. It was clear flying all the way, with the moon on the wane and the stars laid out like stepping stones to guide him. A storm caught up with him in Fortaleza, but it cost him no more than two days' spent in rest. He made good time over South America, and stopped for fuel and supplies in Paramaribo, where te Kulve asked only the most necessary questions regarding the situation in Vervenvania, then released Archie to the suite in the north wing.
It was a cool night, the air sleek with the promise of rain, and Archie left the balcony doors open. He'd spent the transoceanic flight sifting through his memory for other details which might be of interest to the President and his advisers, and he took advantage of the good lamp and long desk to begin making notes.
Some time after midnight, a soft sound from the balcony slipped through the rain's patter. Archie's pen halted over the paper, and he closed his eyes, waiting for seconds to pass and nothing to happen. He had heard such sounds a hundred times in the last two years. They carried no significance. He had learned to stop turning.
"That scar is new."
Archie's hand jumped, dragging a short, crooked line over the page. He pressed the side of the pen down hard against the desk, holding on while he willed his hand to steady. The half-healed groove in his forearm stung, as it did whenever he thought of it. "There was an attack on Nieuwe Vrijberg. I count myself fortunate this was the only shot that made its mark."
You left me, he thought.
"I heard about that. Three months ago, was it?" There was a pause. He gave a curt nod of acknowledgment. "Give it month or two yet. Time will fill a bit more of the flesh in."
Archie reached forward to wipe excess ink from the pen's nib onto the blotter. His fingers had nearly stilled. "So say the physicians." An awful anger was welling up within him. He had thought he could never hate her, but he had also thought her leaving had been permanent. It was something else to discover she could have revoked that decision at any time.
"Every now and then, they can be right," she said, and then, "Archie." His name lanced through him. He dropped the pen and bent forward, pressing his white-knuckled hands against his forehead, pressing his lips together tightly. The shaking had not stopped, it seemed, merely washed outward until its currents ran fully through him.
"Please," Meg said, in a low, hoarse voice that absented any authority. Something in Archie cracked, and he swung his legs from beneath the desk and stood.
She had stopped just inside the threshold of the balcony. Beads of rain glittered on her hair and the collar of her coat. In the firelight, her face was tired and drawn, and her eyes shone like bourbon in the warm light. Her braid curled over one shoulder.
Against the other, she held a child.
"I'm sorry," she said, studying his face with what looked like thirst. Her fingers moved over the shawl she'd wrapped around herself and the child, and she cupped a gentle palm around the curve of the child's head. The wispy strands that peeked out from under the woven fabric were the color of wheat. "By two months after I left Portugal, she'd started to show. I couldn't come to land."
"She?" Archie asked. The silence around them was only thickened by the crackle of the fire and the rhythm of the rain. He could hear his own heart as much as feel it, beating with startling force inside his chest.
Meg took half a step, paused just long enough that he could have aired objections if he'd had them, and then crossed to the bed on quiet feet. She folded the covers back and unwound the shawl to let it puddle on the ground, then laid the sleeping child against the sheets.
"Polly," she said, and turned her face back toward Archie, eyebrows lifted in careful invitation. Archie moved slowly to them and sank down onto the bedside table.
The child was barely out of infancy. Small shoes with worn soles testified that she could walk, but the smudges on her knees suggested it was not a skill she had mastered yet. Her face was full-cheeked and carried a golden tint Archie had rarely seen on a child that young and fair. The ends of her hair were nearly white, and it marked her as someone who had lived since birth under the sun. Her clothes had been darned in places with the gauge of twine used to repair sails, and she had her arms wrapped around a toy gull that looked to have been sewn out of fabric scraps.
"Polly," Archie repeated, and wanted to brush his fingers over the pink-and-gold skin of her face. He couldn't. "Meg. Why ...?"
Her raised hand cut him off, but then she reached forward and hooked a strand of damp hair out of the corner of Polly's open mouth and brushed it back behind the girl's ear. The gesture hadn't been meant for him at all, he realized. "I was hoping," Meg said, and caught her breath for just a second. It was the youngest sound he had ever heard her make. "I was hoping that you might take her."
Archie's gaze jumped to Meg's face. She met his eyes steadily, even as her hand rose to push a stray lock of her own hair back into her braid, hovered between them for a moment, and then reached into her coat and pulled out an envelope tied closed with a knot of string. Archie pulled the string loose and slid the documents out of the flap.
The first certified the birth of Polly-Ann Pringle, born to Archibald Thaddeus Pringle and his wife Margaret, and gave a date not long after his arrival in Africa. The second certified the death of Margaret Constance Pringle from scarlet fever, less than a week before he had left the Reessinks to make the return flight. Both bore the Vervenvanian seal.
The third was dated nearly two years back and appeared to be Portuguese in origin. It certified the marriage of Archibald Thaddeus Pringle to Margaret Constance, whose family name he did not recognize.
He traced his fingers over the ornately inked border, the signatures. His own hand was familiar. Margaret's and the clergyman's were not. "De Sevilla's work?"
She made a sound of amusement, low in her throat. The familiar absentmindedness of it made his own throat clench around a sudden ache. "He does love it when I ask for anything that requires decoration."
The space between them would have taken so little to close, but no place in reach seemed safe enough to set the papers. He folded them carefully and slipped them back into the envelope, then laid them carefully on the table next to him.
She had pressed her hand against the pillow, beside Polly's face. Archie wanted badly to lay his hand over hers, but he couldn't. She had certified his wife's death.
"If she stays on the Titania, the sea will be the only life she'll ever have," she murmured. "I don't want to trap her in it."
There was a red scrape healing on the back of her hand, another on her jaw. Archie felt the heat of the fire settling in his own scars and did not ask about them. "You'd have her raised on land?" he asked instead. "To keep her safe?"
Meg smiled, and it still had the old slant to it, the one that suggested all lines were skewed. "Nowhere's safe. But I want her to be able to choose." She looked up at him, and the smile did not fade, but her eyes were very bright. "Will you do that for her?"
For her. Not for me. Archie looked at the child curled on the corner of the large bed, her small body limp and tangled with the weight of sleep. "She doesn't know me," he whispered.
Meg brushed her fingers over Polly's brow, very lightly. The child did not stir. "She's met a lot of people in her life, Polly has. She's an excellent judge of character."
"Yes," Archie said, and Meg's fingertips closed around the edge of Polly's collar, gripping hard. Archie looked up and saw that she had pressed her eyes closed, brows drawing tightly together above the bridge of her nose. After a long moment, she let a breath out shakily and withdrew her hand onto her lap.
"Archie," she said, her eyes opening, but for the moment she left her gaze on her empty hands. "Things aren't -- they aren't good out there, right now. There's a bit of a mess with Fortunato. I think I know how to fix it, but ... it's hard to be certain how it will all play out." She pulled one edge of her lip between her teeth, then released it. "You ought to know."
Archie swallowed. "When it's finished, will you. Will you come back to us?"
She drew in a shaky laugh, as though she'd taken a sudden jolt, and lifted one hand to cup his face. He tipped his cheek to feel the scrape of her palm against his skin. "I will, if I can," she whispered, and brushed a thumb over his mouth. Swiftly, she took one of his hands in both of hers and raised it to press his knuckles to her lips, then she set it down on the pillow beside Polly's face. Catching the end of the shawl in one hand, Meg rose and wound the length of the fabric around her shoulders. She crossed the room, swung herself over the rail of the balcony, and slipped out of sight.
Archie sat and stared after her for a long time, listening to the rain beating hard on the roof overheard. A log snapped in the fading fire, and beside him, Polly twitched and made a fitful sound. It started Archie from his stillness, and he looked down at the child, then rose to shut the doors against the cold wind. Moving slowly, quietly, he slipped a large log into the fire, one that would burn steadily for hours. He removed his watch from his pockets and unclipped his braces from his trousers, settling both on top of his trunk. The papers Meg had brought still lay on the bedside table, and he moved them to the folio with the treaties, closing the cover softly.
Circling to the far side of the bed, he ran an anxious hand over his shirt and trousers, but his touch found nothing hard or sharp he had forgotten. Polly did not stir when he settled his weight on the bed, and she did not shift some minutes later when he swung his legs onto the mattress. He watched her sleep until he knew the tiny shell of her ear, the way her fist curled against her mouth, thumb tucked inside the fingers. Her eyes slanted up at the corners. He wondered if, when she opened them, they would be hazel.
With infinite care, Archie laid down on the bed, curled his body around his daughter's, and waited for sleep.