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Cerine

Chapter Text

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do ya?

"Looks like we're the most eligible ladies there."

They were going through the guest list, eyes bright and smiles all round, teasing each other about the prospects for a successful marriage.

"There's hardly anyone who isn't poor or old," she sighed, reaching up to fiddle with an imaginary strand of hair which she expected to have come loose from her rather imposing hairdo. "Or foreign."

"There's the prince," pointed out Sophia, turning back to the front page.

"He's an aviator!" she exclaimed, with mock horror at her sister's jest.

"Yes, yes," replied Jessamyn, dwelling on the inside pages. "Hmm, some of those Americans are rather wealthy..."

It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

The party was not getting off to a good start.

First they had waited for what seemed like ever in the dimming light, which of course was expected for ladies of their station, but not the enormous pauses in between announcements and the shocking quantity of guests who just hadn't seen fit to show up for dinner.

Then her heart sank as she was finally ushered into the candlelit room - neatly sidestepping what was almost a terrible embarrassment in front of the hosts on her dear cousin's part - and saw the name on the place setting next to her own.

Her only hope was that he might not be showing up at all, having not come in at the correct position for his precedence, but naturally she was not to be spared and Mr Jacob Kipling was in fact just rather unfashionably late to the party.

Fortunately the seats were such that she could contrive to be angled away from the repulsive gentleman, although the rest of the table were hardly the most inspiring company, and she did rather feel for her poor Sophia who received the brunt of the unpleasant man's 'conversation', if one could call it that.

The other diversion available was, alas, some awfully dry politics being offered by the Prinz, a gentleman with the most disturbing red eyes who swiftly demonstrated his credentials as quite the wrong kind of libertine - most disappointing. Not a salacious story in sight, just a long and weary recitation of deeply unsuitible opinions on religious and social matters.

She exchanged a few glances with her elder sister, who appeared to be having infinitely more fun on her table, and tried to derive some enjoyment from the cold soup and gazing mournfully into the candlelight while making snide comments to complement the appalling barrage coming from her left.

But mostly, when she thought he wasn't looking, she was observing the Prince.

He looked rather melancholy, seated lonely at the High Table while the host (also discussed in the carriage on the way down - unmarried and worth an awful lot, but far too enamoured of his Indian, and as it happened he looked to be rather past it in any case) carried on in a most unbecoming and frankly disgusting manner with that gaudy and uncivilised magician of his.

In the candlelight, the Prince's face - that some unkind girls might have described as 'ruined' - looked merely... rugged. Maybe him being an aviator wasn't so bad after all...

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

"And we simply must procure introductions to the Prince."

That rather creepy gentleman, Mr Featherstonehaugh or something like that, practically crept up on the conversation and invited himself to it at that point.

"There is no need to worry, my dear ladies; I can provide such an introduction."

Both sisters looked at him with some incredulity, but they were saved from such a fate by the master of ceremonies, who approached them at that very moment and informed them that the Prince sought to introduce himself to the pair of them.

Much fluttering and curtseying ensued, and Jessamyn of course was the first to venture a question beyond the initial formalities.

"If it's not too forwards," she said, "what exactly should we be calling you? His Royal Highness?"

"His Royal Highness will do, I suppose," he said with an air of faint confusion. "Or Prince-Lieutenant. Or, you know, just George."

Another wave of fluttering broke out at that comment. Surely he couldn't be serious?

On the other hand... he was an aviator.

"And what would you prefer?" Jessamyn pressed him.

"Just George, if you would," he replied. "It is my name, after all."

It was while she was quite unsteady from this that the most ghastly noise erupted from the corridors of the house, and the next thing she knew, the Prince's captain was carrying her away into the main building for a nice sit down and a glass of water.

"But... Dr Bellamy?" she quavered to Angelica, sipping at the glass. "He's been in our house! For years!"

And she had fainted in front of the Prince. She had never felt so mortified in her life. Fortunately she had poor Angelica to comfort, and the rather disturbing background of a bloodstained Featherstonehaugh showing his true colours, to distract her from her embarrassment...

She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

She scarcely heard the song the first time that the Americans sang it, save those few immortal lines that drifted across as she approached the croquet game. After her apology to the captain and the morning constitutional, the talk of fire-breathers and boarding axes, the sound of it was haunting as a counterpoint to the thoughts she was only just beginning to discover.

"The most dangerous part," he had said, "is jumping. Imagine - you've got one dragon, and another dragon, maybe thirty feet apart, with this terrible cliff in between them..."

"More like twenty-five at most," his captain had interrupted.

"The negotiations start at forty," he had insisted, jovially, much more at home arguing with his captain than in the normal course of conversation. "She gets the dragon maybe slightly in the vicinity of the other, you see, and says, 'Off you go!'."

"Then you refuse," prompted the captain.

"Of course I do!" he exclaimed. "I say to her, 'I can just about see that dragon in the distance. Perhaps a human-shaped locust could jump that far.' And she says, 'I can't possibly get any closer - my dragon might get hurt!"

There is polite laughter and fluttering of fans. It all seems very dashing, very romantic and distant, here on the lawn with the butterflies playing among the wildflowers in the July sunlight.

Back in the present, he hands her the croquet mallet, and they make their excuses and leave the croquet game for some serious discussion or other, something young and useless girls like her have no part in. The strange mix of foreigners and ladies playing the game are being awfully co-operative, but it is just as well as the grass is practically impenetrable.

He makes a nice shield to hide next to while the other ladies are being taken to task by the Marchioness for their idleness and subsequent unforgivable rudeness, in any case.

Later, she gets them to play the song again, and sings along, trying to learn it as they sing. Trying not to cry. She knows then that she is set on this course, and although she has made no public decision, it still makes her almost weep - the loss, the end of her childhood.

She hopes that her sister will forgive her.

Baby, I've been here before
I know this room, I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya.

"Well, it looks like everyone on site has decided to come here, so I supposed I may as well."

She had been intending to sit out the magical scrying, maybe in the shade of the treeline with Angelica, but even the Kipling girl was present in the yurt as they warned once again that parts of the retelling might be unpleasant.

"Let's move around a little," she urged, "no sense in blocking the doorway."

Sophia, of course, had positioned herself right at the table, her delicate white and pastel day-dress contrasting sharply with the bold shades of military uniform surrounding her. The Prince re-emerged from the crowd with a chair, looking tremendously pleased with himself for acquiring it, and triumphantly placed it against the wall of the yurt. He looked worried as the practicioners stressed again that there might be disturbing scenes, but she reassured him that she could scarcely see the thing from here, and in any case, that was what fans were for.

"For days we travelled across the barren ice..."

At first she watched the reactions on her sister's face, with occasional nervous glances at the impressive snowscapes that seemed to be dominating what little she could see of the scrying pool itself. With every 'by Jove', warning of another less delicate episode in the unfolding narrative, she was amused to see the Prince edge a little closer, venture another comforting gesture, and nervously attempt to check her approval of his proximity.

"And, by Jove, the things we saw on the freizes..."

Her fan was very interesting right now, as she did not want to see the looks on the faces of the people actually watching the scrying pool during the description that followed, but the words of Hawke themselves were quite enough to make the (somewhat forwards) arm around her shoulders and the opportunity to swap a nervous joke about big fuzzy bears rather welcome.

"I can't hold it for much longer, the magic is fading."

And they stumbled back out into the sunlight, where there were games and music and dancing, and her sisters wanted to tell her things, and she could almost forget that out there somewhere there were strange creatures ready to tear men limb from limb... except for those moments when she looked at the purple marks on her sister Jessamyn's eyes and on her fingernails, and wondered just what they could mean.

"You know that patrol I was talking about? I wasn't joking - we really are going off to patrol the grounds..."

She was waiting for him to reappear, but the music was starting and Featherstonehaugh got to her first. The gentleman who had been spending so much time with her sister probably said something, but he scarcely needed to - the approach and the eye contact was enough. She looked around for a moment, in case the patrol was just that moment returning, but there was no such relief - and she did rather want to dance. And it wasn't as if Featherstonehaugh was any kind of threat.

"Oh, go on then," she said, letting him lead her onto the courtyard where the dancing was to take place.

She scarcely thought that she had heard him right when he said the first unacceptable thing to her, while they were making a particularly failed transition between dancing moves, but by the time he said the second she was trying so hard not to burst into a fit of giggles that she scarcely noticed the rest of the dance, although she was aware enough of her surroundings to throw a longing glance in her love's direction when he did finally return from the patrol mid-dance.

Of course, she immediately ran and told Jessamyn what that cad Featherstonehaugh had said while dancing, with appropriate shrieks of scandalised laughter. It was good to have sisters.

I've seen your flag on the marble arch
But love is not a victory march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

"You do know what you're letting yourself in for, right?"

She had been on tenterhooks all evening - ever since Jessamyn had conveyed to her that afternoon that the Prince was indeed interested in her hand in marriage - so when the captain asked her if she had a moment, she was all too eager to hear what she had to say.

"Marriage to an Aerial Corps officer isn't like marriage to an ordinary man."

Bracing herself for the revelation, she unfurled and furled her fan repeatedly in nervous fingers. She had heard, of course, what they said about aviators. How there were no social conventions in the covert. How they had no moral boundaries, and perhaps this was because the dragons compelled them thus.

"It's not like having a husband in the Navy, where they might be away from home for maybe a year at a time, but then they will be back for perhaps just as long."

The revelations that the captain wanted to impart to her seemed far less momentous than the ones she had feared to hear. She scarcely assimilated their meaning until she had finished nodding with obvious relief and reassuring the captain that of course she was still interested, and even then she was interrupted breifly by the Prince himself.

"I don't want to make a proposal that you might feel bound to accept," he admitted, while they sat in the shade of the veranda. "Take your time to think it over."

"I'll visit you and your dragon in the covert," she said, trying to keep the shaking out of her voice. "Sophia simply must be introduced to your dragon, in any case. And... and then we can... see where it goes from there."

She walked out of the conversation as he made his excuses and went to talk incomprehensible politics in such a way as to obviously exclude her. Walked across the courtyard and into the deserted building. It was quieter here. She could almost hear herself think.

If she had truly got what she wanted... why did she feel so wretched?

She walked outside again, behind the house, where she could be alone in the shade with the cool green trees, and she began to sing that song, and the tears came into her eyes. It was not the fairytale that she had been led to believe her life would be. But, damn it all, she loved him!

"No, Cerine," she told herself. "You are not a silly little girl. This is an important occasion. You cannot make a scene of yourself. And you absolutely cannot be seen to be crying."

Keeping back her tears, restoring herself to the appropriate composure, she strode out of her hiding place and went to join the ladies at their conversation.

There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do ya?

He apologised profusely in advance for his lack of skill, and that it was late in the evening and there may not be another dance in any case, but all she really heard was that he was finally not being called away for this or that, that he was actually offering her a dance at last.

She kept him to his word and dragged him to the courtyard when the announcer declared the next dance to be a 'couples dance', a slow dance, a prospect that seemed to turn him paler than any courageous leap between dragons in mid-air might, although to her it had the opposite effect, sending her heart soaring into the sky and bringing an enchanted smile to her lips.

Listening to the instructions, and mindful of his warnings, she subtly positioned them so that she might lead the waltzing section. No need to actively court disaster, after all. Everyone else would likely be attending to their own footwork, and the company had not proved to stand on convention that much for the earlier parts of the day in any case. If anything was remembered from this ball, it would be the episode where she danced with the tiny Polish lady, not the slight lack of correctness in their waltzing.

Some sections of the dance were decidedly pleasant in a way that she was sure was scandalously inappropriate with a suitor of a couple of days acquaintance, and his commentary - "Is this some kind of endurance event? Last one standing wins?" - was equally delightful, although she was beginning to agree with him after a little while.

Then the screaming started.

"I'm terribly sorry, you will excuse me?" he asked as he dropped the ballroom hold and went for his sword, actually pausing a moment for her reply.

"Of course," she replied, with equal smiling courtesy, before stumbling backwards and being ushered into the house with the other ladies.

And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

They had just picked up Marie-Clare from her feet (her feet! where she'd fallen! when the servant did something to her!) when she saw him slumped in a corner, clutching his chest.

"I don't suppose," he said, "that you could find me a surgeon? When they're done with the others, of course."

She was nowhere near as nonchalant about the whole affair. "Promise!" she screamed. "Promise, get over here right now!"

Later, she and Angelica were the only ones in the safety of the building when they dragged him in. Something she couldn't quite bear to look at was wrong with his chest, and she began to desperately thumb through the book that the servant had given her.

"Bones... bones... no, nothing for bones... there's a lot of blood... let's try bleeding. Ah, yes, bleeding!"

Angelica hovered nervously, awaiting her instructions, determined to do some good.

"Fold a handkerchief over twice - I suppose that pad of cloth there would do, Angelica? - and apply it to the wound. Apply firm pressure..."

The young Kipling girl managed to get some cloth and a bandage quite thoroughly soaked in blood, and at Cerine's frantic cries of 'more pressure', moved something which certainly got a reaction, if not a terribly encouraging one.

"Coughing!" cried Cerine desperately. "What does it say for coughing?"

"Mix one third cough syrup with water..." read Angelica nervously, still maintaining the pressure on the wound.

Cough syrup... cough syrup... what could be used as cough syrup in a pinch? Her eyes alighted on the bottle of rum, and she snatched it up desperately.

"Hey now, missy," said one of the Monroe brothers, "we need that."

"Just a little drop," she begged.

"Just a drop, then," he conceded, pouring it sparingly into the glass she was proffering, which already had a little water in it.

She brought it back over to the hyperventilating Angelica and the terribly still form of the Prince slumped on the chair, and gently attempted to pour the concoction into his mouth, trying to touch him as little as possible - it just wasn't proper, and he was going terribly cold and clammy to the touch...

...and he spluttered a little and woke, and began to instruct Angelica on how to properly secure that bandage she'd been trying to apply, as Cerine practically collapsed in relief.

You say I took the name in vain
Well, I don't even know the name
But if I did, well really, what's it to ya?

She helplessly watched as he disappeared into the darkness, and gradually she became aware of the conversation behind her.

"You'll help, won't you, Miss Angelica? The more we can get the better..."

The Laffeyte-Monroe family were setting up some kind of ritual behind her. It all looked very Catholic - the candles, the incense, the bones - but she needed to do something.

"May I?" she asked, taking a place in the circle.

"Sure thing, honey," replied Marie-Clare as she arranged the various magical accouterments. Then she turned back to the Catholic lady who was questioning her on the matter. "Of course we worship the Almighty God, honey," she said. "We might just do it a mite differently, that's all. We got it from West Africa. These Loa we're calling, they're just like, a kind of angel."

The lady decided not to participate, but Catholics were strange like that, right? And she'd said angels, not saints. Maybe it was a properly Protestant summoning after all. Fairchilde even had his Bible out.

"So, we start by stamping one foot, like this," explained Marie-Clare, waiting for the assembled to get into rhythm. "Then just follow along, you'll soon get the hang of it."

She picked up the skull from the table, and looked it straight in the eyes.

"Oh grandma," she declared, in a voice that brooked no interruptions, "we do call on you now, grandma. We give you ears to hear!" and she kissed the skull in the places where Cerine supposed there, well, would once have been ears, "we give you eyes to see!" and she kissed the skull in each eye socket while Cerine shrank back into the wall and tried not to think too hard about that. Rhythm. Got to keep the rhythm. "We give you smoke to fill your lungs!"

Stomp, clap. Stomp, clap. Stomp, clap. Suddenly there was a presence in the room - not saying anything yet, just waiting. Stomp, clap. The world spun slightly around Cerine, with the incense and the feeling hanging in the air, but in that moment she caught Angelica's eyes and she saw the terror in the other girl, and she knew she had to keep it together.

"It's okay, Angelica," she whispered across the stamping crowd, holding Angelica's gaze with her own, hoping that her eyes did not betray her own feelings on the matter. She nodded to reinforce her statement, perhaps as much in her own mind as for the other girl. "Everything's okay. Trust me."

She just about caught a glimpse of Marie-Clare and Jean-Phillipe locked in a passionate embrace that surely in usual times they would keep extremely private, but she supposed that these were not usual times, and anyway, if she lost it then Angelica would lose it and goodness knows what that would do to the summoning.

Stomp, clap. Stomp, clap.

Then finally it was over, and the Americans were evaporating into the night. Fairchilde, pale and shaking, muttered prayers to the Almighty for his soul, but she had no time for that. She was about to let herself go when Angelica gave her that drowning look and they only just made it to the seats when a ghastly apparition appeared at the window, the sounds of fighting took a distinctly bestial turn, and both ladies fainted dead away.

There's a blaze of light in every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

The sounds of singing filled the house.

She did make a very pretty werewolf.

They'd run out of cigars, so she lit an incense stick from one of the candles and offered that to Grandma in its place.

"There are only four of them left."

"How do you know?"

"That Indian magician did some kind of scrying thing."

Being brought back to life by the Fae seemed to have done him a world of good.

"Bandages! I need bandages!"

"Here," she said softly, passing them over.

Perhaps they would weather this storm. After all, they were British. Well, some of them, anyway.

Maybe there's a God above,
But all I ever learned from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.

She was on her feet and at her sister's side before she knew that she had left her chair, Angelica hovering above them, Sophia (mercifully unhurt, even though she had taken to wandering about in the dark with a sword) at Jessamyn's other hand. She thought about the book, but a surgeon was there already, so she held Jessamyn's hand and tried to soothe her as best she could, while not looking at what the aliens had done to her sister's leg.

Unbelievably, the surgeon shook their head. "I can't do anything more for her."

"Another surgeon!" wailed Cerine. "Angelica, go and fetch another surgeon!"

Angelica, bless her pure heart, immediately darted away towards the door and returned promptly with Fairchilde, who set to work immediately in a confident fashion.

"Hold her still," he requested.

"Sssh, sssh," attempted Cerine, squeezing her sister's hand a little tighter. "Try to..."

But Sophia had already taken the more direct approach to immobilising Jessamyn, and was practically sitting on top of her sister.

"Sophia!" exclaimed Cerine. That was not the way to behave in public! Then she thought of all the other things tonight which should not have been done in public, but had been anyway and seemingly to good effect, and felt terribly embarrassed at her scolding. Fortunately Sophia seemed to take it in good part, and less fortunately there was little time to dwell on it.

"It won't stop bleeding," concluded Fairchilde mournfully.

Cerine suddenly became aware of the Fae who was watching the scene.

"Briarwolf!" cried Sophia. "Can you do anything?"

"Oh, I can save the mortal's life," he said. "The question is, how much does she want it?"

"Briarwolf," Sophia practically growled. "Our sister is dying. Won't you save her?"

"Oh, certainly I will," he replied. "For ten years of her life."

"What?"

"You heard me, little creature," replied Briarwolf, in a casually amused fashion. "Ten years of her life she will spend in my domain, and for that I will grant her the rest of her miserable existance."

Sophia exchanged a look with Cerine, and both of them looked at Jessamyn, but she was too incoherant with the pain to give an answer.

"Which ten years?" asked Sophia, eyes narrow.

"Just ten years," replied Briarwolf airily. "Whenever I want them."

Visions danced through Cerine's head of what he might mean by that, having spoken with others about the Fae and their bargains. Ten years was a lot of distruption, in a couple of hours every day... but to lose her sister altogether, even if a short journey to Heaven was preferable to a long purgatory of Fae-bound existance...

"Could..." ventured Angelica, in the frailest of voices. Briarwolf turned swiftly towards her, a graceful but sudden movement, and she wavered for a moment but to her great credit she held it together and did not faint under the faerie's gaze.

"Or her," he said. "I'll take ten years of her life, for the return of your sister."

Sophia looked up at the other girl, eyes burning. "Do it," she demanded.

Stranded on a sea of contradictions, Cerine attempted to will herself into saying something. Into warning Angelica what she was getting into, warning her off accepting a bargain with the Fae. Angelica looked at her desperately, and she could only match her desperation back. She could not form words. She could not let her sister die, for the comfort of a relative stranger. She was, she knew in the dark recesses of her heart, happy to trade Angelica's innocence and beauty - Angelica's soul - for even the faintest hope of life for her sister.

"Yes," murmured Angelica, trapped a rabbit looking up into the foaming muzzle of a cart-horse. "Yes," she repeated more boldly, "I'll do it. Just... heal her."

Briarwolf sprang into a crouch and laid his hands on Jessamyn's shoulders. "BY THE POWER OF THE FAE," he declared, "BE HEALED!"

It's not a cry you hear at night,
It's not someone who's seen the light;
It's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah.

It was not so straightforwards when he brought his captain in, looking lost and bewildered, like a child who had broken his favourite toy.

"It's my captain," he said, redundantly, as she sat clutching the book and the bandages, alone now the Fae had taken Angelica. "Can you do something?"

She looked around the room for healers, but all of them were busy tending to other would-be corpses. I was saving the last of the book for you, she thought, numbly. I was saving it for you. But the look in his eyes, like a lost little boy, brooked no disagreement. She stumbled from her seat and gazed with numb horror on the broken mess that had once been his handsome captain.

"Blood... blood..." she could barely turn the pages of the book, she was shaking so much. She looked aghast at the size of the ruined area, skipped down the page from the advice about a handkercheif. There wasn't a handkercheif in the world that could cover this wound. "Salt," she declared. "We're going to need some salt."

By the time he was back with the salt, a real surgeon had managed to disentangle themselves from their patient, and to Cerine's relief took over the treatment swiftly and efficiently as she swayed twice and then dropped to the ground. It was scarcely a real faint. She could still see things, could probably move around if she could summon the energy thereto...

"Move out of the way! More wounded coming!"

...and she pulled herself into a corner, looking blankly out at the world. Dimly, she was aware of her sisters, trying to persuade her to sit on a chair, trying to comfort her. She wished they would go away. There was nobody home for them to comfort. She was sitting on a chair, a little while later, when she thought to raise her head, and there he was - her love, her darling Prince - laughing, exultant, with the Faerie, and with the blood running down his face and neck, the blood staining his teeth, like a wild animal, like he'd just torn the throat from something living...

"Wake up, Cerine. Wake up!"

Her sisters, again. And... Angelica with them? Angelica, pale as a ghost? Perhaps she was a ghost. She couldn't see her very clearly. She couldn't see her through all the blood.

"The blood," whimpered Cerine. "The blood."

The blood on the bandages. The bloody ruin of the captain's chest. The blood in his mouth.

"You can't cry, Cerine," Sophia was saying. "You're not allowed to cry, because then I'll start crying, and I have too much to do..."

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you

His words echoed through her mind as he and the captain tried to tame their anecdotes for Angelica's ears.

"I'm sure I'll be a lousy husband," he had said, "but you shouldn't be afraid to tell me when I'm doing something wrong. I promise to screw everything up and never get anything right the first time. But I will change for you, if you ask me to. That's what I promise you. A perfect second time."

She had told him how that kind of promise made him a paragon among men, but despite the example of his father staring him in the face from the sad anecdotes of his family that he dwellt on from time to time, he didn't seem capable of accepting the complement.

"You do know that, every time I jump from a dragon, the chances of my survival are a little less than one in two?" he had said. "I don't know. Tell me that at least the title will make you happy? You'll still be a Princess when I'm gone."

She wanted to clutch at him, to wail, to tell him the truth. That it was all she would have wanted, on the carriage ride here, that she had thought herself perfectly capable of being happy with a husband as a status symbol, away on a ship or on business. That it was also her fairytale dream that her husband would be always attentive by her side as she lived her short but beautiful life. That now she hardly knew what she wanted, except that she wanted him, she loved him, and she wanted so much to make him happy that she scarcely cared about her side of the arrangement.

"Go on. Ask me anything," he'd said. "About... the coverts. About fighting. About anything. I'm drunk enough and tired enough that I might just give you an answer."

But when she danced around the question that she wanted to ask, it took her some time to find the right phrasing to get a reply. His defence of the way the dragon-men acted was worth waiting for, though, and exactly what she wanted to hear.

"I suppose the way I look at it is," he said in conclusion, "society isn't going to consider them gentlemen, whatever they do, so they don't see a need to consider themselves gentlemen either. And we're British. We make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves. Isn't that what being British is all about?"

Angelica giggled shyly at the banter between the captain and her lieutenant, and sitting here on the veranda exchanging stories it was hard to imagine there were such things as the aliens in the world at all.

And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

"I'll understand if you don't think you can go through with it," he said.

Perhaps he thought she couldn't see how he was practically leaning against the wall for support, as if he'd finally misjudged his leap and was even now falling towards the unforgiving earth. Perhaps he thought she couldn't see the desperation in his eyes.

"I can't make this decision for you, sister," said Jessamyn, the pain of her recent discovery written across her face.

"I..." the world spun dangerously, but with an iron will she drew herself back and faltered only in speech rather than in poise.

"You don't have to give me your decision now," he said, the customary mask of military detachment gradually returning to his features. "Take some time to think about it."

She tried to speak again, but before she could say another word he had pulled himself away from the wall and headed off again.

"Do you still want to marry him?" asked Jessamyn.

"Yes, of course, I..." she gushed embarrassingly.

"Well, then, go and tell him!" her sister insisted.

But there was something new in Cerine after that evening, and for once she stood her ground.

"No," she said. "I think it would comfort him more to think that I did spend the time to consider it."

"Well," replied Jessamyn, at something of a loss. "Don't tell him, then!"

And then she was gone to find her own prospective match, leaving Cerine a moment to gather her wits before heading back out into the glorious sunshine to try to enjoy the remainder of the morning.