The new engine worked efficiently; everyone admitted that. But not as efficiently as it could, in Amanda’s opinion. So there she was, bent over a few key bits of metal and a piece of paper, sketching out what was and what might be, when James cleared his throat behind her and said, "Alan wants to see you in his office."
"How soon?" Amanda eyed her bits of metal wistfully. She almost had it: she could feel the idea coming clearer in her head.
"As soon as you can," James said, and he sounded almost apologetic. "There’s some London gentleman in there with him, waiting for you."
"Well, then," Amanda said, and set down her pencil on her paper. "I’ll go directly." A ‘London gentleman’ was explanation enough for why Alan should call her to his seldom-used office. Left to himself, Alan was far more likely to come down to the floor than make them come up to him, but government people seemed to prefer the formality up there. The only question remaining, to which Amanda steadfastly refused to give the obvious answer, was why a ‘London gentleman’ should want to speak to her.
She opened the door, and was promptly reminded that there was another obvious answer. It took a moment to remember to breathe properly, more than long enough for Albert Campion to rise to his feet and turn to face her, as Alan went out the door and discreetly closed it behind him.
"Hullo," Amanda said, as calmly as she could, which was remarkably calm.
She'd rather expected Campion to say something flippant. It would have been like him. Instead, he merely looked at her for a long, long moment, and finally said, "Hello, Amanda," quietly, and the little ache in the back of Amanda's heart that she barely even noticed, really, went away again.
She smiled back up at him, and sat down on the chair next to his. "Have they given you leave again?"
"Not precisely. I'm here on business of a sort, actually." Campion sat down again as well, and absently took Amanda's hand in his. "I shouldn't dare interrupt you otherwise."
"It depends on what sort of business," Amanda said.
"Yes. Well." Campion looked down at her hand, then back up at her. "The short of the matter is this: someone needs to go and poke about Averna, and they sent me to ask if you'd mind terribly much if Lady Amanda Fitton, sister to the Hereditary Paladin of Averna, took a slightly belated honeymoon to see her ancestral family lands."
Amanda's mind tripped over belated honeymoon and fell into ancestral family lands. "That does sound fascinating," she agreed gravely. "Only I've never been to Averna, and really if they only wanted someone to go and look serious at rocks and water and things, Hal would be a better choice, wouldn't he?"
"Er, yes, if all that was wanted was a tour of the said familial lands." Campion let go of her hand, and sat up straighter, casting his face oddly into shadow. "Unfortunately, there's rather more than that at stake. Apparently some bright young scientist has found his way there, and petitioned the Hereditary Paladin to set up shop and create things. I'm not terribly clear on what sort of things, nor who he means to do the creating, as there isn't much in the way of skilled laborers available. Nor unskilled either, come to that. The last time I myself visited, the entire populace was approximately six people, who were (I believe) mostly farmers."
"So he either wants to import people, or has already started doing so," Amanda said. It was only obvious, but if she said it out loud, then Campion needn't worry about whether she was understanding things properly. "And if you simply send someone out there to have a look, then it's dreadfully obvious. So I'm to be your stalking horse?"
"No more than I am yours. The odds are very much in favor of our bright young scientist creating something mechanical, which your poor dear Albert knows hardly at all. I've some experience now with other bits of the business, so I promise I shan't be a handicap."
"Of course you won't," Amanda agreed. She could feel -- what was it? Not relief, really, but some close cousin -- bubbling somewhere in her middle. It was pleasant that she would get these days with Albert: their wedding had been ridiculously hole-and-corner, and their wedding night even worse. But to hear that she was needed, not merely a welcome support or even Orpheus's Lieut but truly needed, was rather more pleasant than she had ever expected. "When do we leave?"
Campion smiled at her, not the fatuous bland smile he used for everyday, but a true smile that lit up his eyes even in the shadows. "As soon as you're packed. I apparently believe in the grand romantic tradition of sweeping a woman off her feet." His gaze dropped to her mouth, just for a moment, then returned to her eyes as if he'd never looked away.
"Of course," Amanda said, and smiled at him as if he had kissed her. "Let me make a few notes and then I can go pack directly."
Averna wasn't at all the way Amanda had imagined it. Not that she'd ever managed to picture it clearly in her mind: Averna had been the stuff of childhood stories on a regular basis, but that only meant that she had as many different images of it as her father had descriptions. There was always towering mountains all about, and a small valley, and people who lived there -- but sometimes the mountains had pines with snow draped about their dark green shoulders, and the valley was green and fallow with hundreds of years of rest, and the people there lived in a tidy little village of stone houses and laughing children; and sometimes, contrariwise, the mountains had small scraggled trees half-hidden in choking snow, and the valley held only dust and rocks from too-thin soil and too-long, too-desperate farming, and the people there lived in scattered houses of rock and wood that had been piled up haphazardly, and no children whatsoever. And sometimes (because Amanda had a practical sort of mind) it was somewhere in between, nothing all that special (or their family would have settled there instead of in England) but nothing all that desolate either.
The mountains were tall, at any rate, even if she couldn't see whether there might be pines or small scraggled trees on them. There wasn't much in the way of snow, but then they hadn't come during the winter, so there wouldn't be. And the bits of unpaved ground that she'd seen so far sported a determined sort of grassy lawn. She hadn't seen whether there was a village or not, because they'd gotten swept over to the Great House as soon as they arrived.
In England, the Great House wouldn't have gotten a second look. It was a foursquare stone house of three stories, absolutely predictable and ordinary and the sort of house one could find in any country estate. In England. Which wasn't here. Even if the lawn might have been attempting to pass, the mountains hemming them in would have destroyed any such illusion. And if the mountains hadn’t, the people would have. It was nothing Amanda could put her finger on, which privately irritated her, but even if they were dressed vaguely the same as working people she’d seen back home, and were no darker skinned than the deeply tanned country folk she had grown up with, they were somehow clearly Not English.
She hadn’t had time to investigate why, sadly. Their party had been met off the ship by Mr. Nikou, an efficient little man with an apparently much-admired black mustache and a perpetual white smile beneath it. He had bustled them off to the Great House with a steady murmur about how pleased they all were to see them, and how greatly they had looked forward to this honor, and how they had arranged for a meeting with Dr. Murati for the following morning, though not too early as of course they must be weary with travelling and would desire a proper leisurely breakfast after, and there would be dinner laid out for them directly. Amanda could only admire his efficiency: they had lost Captain Smith somewhere on the way to the Great House, left Lugg and Miss Hitchens in the front hall, and Amanda herself was gently shut into her solitary rooms before she had been given so much as a breath to object.
She waited a minute, then carefully peeked out. The coast appeared to be clear. She nipped out, appraised the various doors around her, and chose one at random. The first room looked like hers, except somewhat more masculine; the second was empty even of furniture. The third and fourth had open windows, which seemed awful carelessness – it must rain here, mustn’t it?
By the time she found Campion’s room, she was beginning to wonder if they had even put him on the same floor as her. Worse, she recognized the room by the appearance of that ridiculous trunk Campion had insisted on bringing along, rather than by the presence of Campion himself, who was not available for identification purposes as he appeared to have vanished along with everyone else. If he was hiding, Amanda couldn’t think where: there was almost no furniture in the room, only an intimidatingly elephantine canopied bed standing exactly in the middle of things.
On the other hand, Campion was hardly likely to allow someone else to vanish him. Amanda folded her hands in front of her, and said quietly into the air, “It’s me, dearest.”
“Ah. Oh dear.” Campion promptly materialized out of the shadows by the closet, with something like relief on his carefully bland face. “I suspect Nikou of being the sort who doesn’t approve of the mingling of genders,” he explained amiably.
“Rather hard lines on a honeymoon,” Amanda said. She’d meant it for something flippant, except that the great enormous bed suddenly seemed to positively loom, and she was pricklingly aware of her husband without his doing anything but stand there.
“Yes. Quite.” Campion sounded distracted. As if obeying the same inexorable pull that was tugging at Amanda, he circled around the bed to her, and kissed her.
It was not a romantic sort of kiss, not gentle or wooing or considerate of Amanda’s lack of experience. Rather, it was the sort of kiss that bypassed all practical considerations about how long it was until dinner, or whether the door was locked, and went straight to Amanda’s head like strong drink. This was what she had wanted for what seemed like ages, since long before they had been stuffed into a ship’s cabin with only one bed, far smaller than this one..
The sound of a knock at the door startled them apart. Mr. Nikou’s muffled voice announced that dinner would be served in ten minutes, and drinks would be ready in the drawing room. Mercifully, he did not try the door.
As they listened to him walk away again, Amanda looked down to avoid Campion’s eyes. She felt absurdly raw and shaky, and not at all up to seeing either her husband’s customary blandness, or the fire that kiss might have exposed. In looking down, however, she discovered she had evidently managed to undo half the buttons on Campion’s vest, and the front plaquet of her own dress lay completely open. She began to do up the buttons again, and asked, “Do you think we should dress for dinner?”
“It’s not quite grand society,” Campion said thoughtfully, helping her with her buttons. “But all things considered, it’s probably best. Shall I serve as your maid? I can provide excellent references, and I always give satisfaction.”
Inasmuch as Amanda wasn’t quite certain where Miss Hitchens might be, she was tempted for a moment to accept. But only for a moment. “Not just now,” she said, and kissed Campion lightly “But after dinner, certainly.” And she was pleased to see his eyes darken, and his cheeks flush, as he murmured agreement. It might be inconvenient, but it was better than being alone in the heat that could rise so quickly between them.
Amanda frowned down at the engine pieces on the table. If this was supposed to be the new and fascinating discovery, then she didn’t think much of it. In fact, it looked like nothing so much as – as - oh, they wouldn’t.
She turned on her heel and headed for the door, only for it to slam shut before she had taken two steps. She swore (silently – Scatty had taught her several really good words for situations like this) and tried the handle. It was locked. She gritted her teeth, and hammered against the door with the palm of her hand. Perhaps it was still an mistake, or an accident.
“Please don’t do that,” Murati said from the other side of the door.
“Dr. Murati? There must have been a mistake. Please, open the door!”
“I am sorry,” Murati said, and astonishingly he actually sounded like he meant it: his voice wobbled a bit before steadying again. “The Pontisbrights have only done me good. So please, stay there, and no harm will come to you.”
This was anything but reassuring. Amanda tried hammering on the door again, but only heard the sound of receding footsteps. She waited until the scientist was gone, then indulged herself by swearing aloud, if quietly, before turning back to explore the room. There was no sense in simply waiting around to be rescued like a maiden in the tower.
Unfortunately, she appeared to have little choice in the matter. There was only the one window, which had been prosaically painted shut years ago, and was three stories above the ground in any case, with no rope to let her out. The door was locked, and her one attempt to throw her weight against it was an abject failure that left her with nothing more than a bruised shoulder. There might be a secret passageway, but a haphazard pressing of various carvings got her nowhere.
Amanda turned back to the bits of metal on the table, squaring her shoulders. Right, then. She would attempt a scientific examination of the walls, with an eye to secret passageways, in another few minutes. Secret passageways were really her husband’s specialty. In the meantime, she would attend to her own specialty, and examine the engine that had been laid out.
Fifteen minutes later, a bit of wall swung open, and Campion poked his head through. “Amanda? Are you – ah, there you are. I see you’ve been keeping yourself occupied in my absence.”
“Yes, of course,” Amanda said, looking up from the mostly-assembled engine in front of her. “Would you mind terribly if we took this with us?”
Campion blinked down at the engine. “If you can invent a way for my feeble arms to carry it, my own, I shall bear it to the depths of Timbuktu,” he said gravely.
“I don’t think we need go nearly that far,” Amanda said. If Campion was engaging in flummery, things couldn’t be too bad. “Just out of the room is enough for now. This is one of Alan’s engines, or at least an important bit of one. Not one of the new ones, but new-ish, and I don’t want to leave it for them to use.”
The engine wasn’t quite as heavy as Campion had implied, but it was more than heavy enough. Amanda helped Campion nudge it off the table, and between the two of them they managed to get it most of the way to the wall. Then there was a polite knock at the door, and Mr. Nikou’s voice: “Lady Amanda?”
Amanda and Campion exchanged an alarmed look, then Amanda carefully set down her part of the engine and went to the door. “Yes?”
“My sincere apologies for the confusion,” Nikou said, as smooth and urbane as if they sat next to each other at the dinner table. “I fear Dr. Murati has left you with the impression that we are attempting to imprison you, when nothing could be further from the truth. We had merely thought that you would prefer to be alone to examine the metal.”
“That hardly explains why he locked the door,” Amanda said tartly.
“We shall bring you dinner here, so that your studies will not be further disturbed,” Nikou went on, as if she hadn’t replied at all. “You may let us know at that time whether you would prefer that Mr…Campion join you. Ciao.”
Amanda didn’t wait for the receding footsteps this time, but returned to Campion immediately. “Where is Lugg?”
“He went to create a distraction, while I came to fetch you,” Campion replied, keeping his voice low. “He did suggest reversing our roles, but I claimed this part for my own on grounds of being legally committed to doing so, and he had to agree. I believe Miss Hitchens was with him: I will confess that I haven’t seen her since we arrived.”
Amanda bent to pick up her part of the engine, and they maneuvered toward the narrow door in the wall. The passageway beyond was slightly wider, though not wide enough to prevent Amanda's hands from being rubbed roughly against the walls as either she or Campion shifted their grips to something more solid. The stairs were hardly better, being narrow and steep, with awkward bends in the middle.
They finally emerged into another room, somewhere down on the ground floor. Amanda had just let out a breath of relief when she heard a shout from somewhere upstairs, indistinct except for the one word gone.
She looked up at Campion. He looked back at her. Without a word being exchanged, they stepped back into the hidden passageway and set down the unwieldy partial engine in a corner, then slipped back out again, allowing the wood to fall back into place behind them. If their enemies really knew the Great House, they would find the errant engine again all too easily, but for the moment it was safe, and Amanda and Campion were a great deal more mobile.
Onward they went, cat-footed. Amanda had seen Campion do this before, but it still sent a little thrill up her spine, watching him in his element. Every time he glanced back to check on her, there was a tiny smile on his face that not even he seemed to realize was there.
Then, abruptly, someone rounded the corner ahead of them. Amanda froze, looking around for something, anything, to use as a weapon. She didn’t recognize the man, but --
--but he wasn’t calling out, or running towards them, or anything like that. Instead, he had also frozen, eyes fixed on Campion, and Campion was meeting his gaze with unaccustomed steadiness, even as he extended one hand back as if to protect Amanda.
They could not have remained like that for longer than a few heartbeats, although it felt like much longer. At last the man straightened up and beckoned to Campion, or perhaps to them both,, then turned and headed down the hall without looking behind him. Campion hesitated perhaps one heartbeat more, as if listening to the distant sounds of shouting and running feet behind them. Then he took Amanda’s hand blindly and followed him.
The hallway they walked now went on and on, far beyond what must be the walls of the Great House, down carven stairs of stone and then slowly, slowly up again, into what no longer resembled an ordinary hallway but rather an ancient cavern. At last their guide stopped, and turned to bow to them. He held a lantern in one hand, and by its light, Amanda recognized him better as one of the not-English men she had seen waiting curiously near the docks the previous night. “You should be safe here, Lady Amanda, Mr. Twelvetrees.” He spoke English with what Amanda supposed to be an Albanian accent. “None but those who grew here know of these caves.”
“Thank you,” Campion said, bowing in return. “I shall not forget this.”
The man’s teeth gleamed in a wry sort of grimace, but he said politely, “The honor is mine,” and vanished back down the tunnel without further farewell.
Amanda waited only until he seemed safely away before asking, “So where precisely are we?”
“In the caves in the mountains around Averna. I heard a whisper of them when first I came, but the stories were mixed in with so many other tales and half-truths that I had forgotten them until I saw which way Driton was leading us.”
“Ah. Well, that’s very useful, but it’s also rather cold.” Amanda shivered involuntarily.
“I shall register a complaint for next time that we should have received sufficient warning to take our coats,” Campion said gravely.
Nothing needed to be said to that, so silence returned for a few minutes. Then Amanda couldn’t help but ask, "Is this what spy-work is always like? With dashing about, and daring escapes, and hidden secrets?"
There was only silence in the cave for a moment. Amanda looked up, but it was too dark to see Campion’s face properly, and anyway he certainly had that amiable idiot look on which was so hard to read past. But finally he said, "No. No, it isn’t." He took one of her hands in both his, and began to chafe her cold fingers absently. "It’s not at all like what you see in the pictures, with literal cloaks and equally literal daggers. It's not even like just now. It’s more little petty men, like rats in the walls, and every so often someone like me wanders through and picks up the bits of cheese that they’ve hidden away."
"That’s not a very nice metaphor," Amanda remarked.
"It’s not a very nice business," Campion said, and put down the hand he was chafing, only to pick up the other.
“Is it in?”
Amanda didn’t look up from where she was arms-deep in metal. “Yes. Just a few more checks.”
Miss Hitchens made the soft humming noise that Amanda had learnt meant ‘understood and accepted.’ “I’ll go check on the fuel, then, shall I.” And she vanished off, to finish filling the fuel tanks or to fetch them back, Amanda wasn’t certain which and she hadn’t the attention to spare to ask.
With a soft click, one more bit of the engine settled open. Two more to go.
Albert was off somewhere else, confronting the conspirators and exposing their half-baked conspiracy. There was certainly running and shouting and danger to Albert’s life. But this time she couldn’t be in the wings, trying to help or even waiting to help. They couldn’t trust the boat, not if they had to run for it, and while they could make the attempt to cross the mountains up into Albania or Yugoslavia, it would be a slow, chancy expedition. They had to have this plane working, which meant Amanda had to stay here and fix it. Campion knew only a little about planes, Lugg even less, and Miss Hitchens knew how to fly a plane (to Lugg’s indignation), but not how to put together a plane engine that had been pulled apart by people who didn’t know what they were doing.
Click. One more check complete. One more to go.
Amanda paused and looked over her shoulder, just in case. No one yet. But if she knew Albert Campion, as soon as she finished her checks and Miss Hitchens had fueled up the plane, they would need to run. That was the sort of man she had married, and she’d known it at the time. She smiled to herself. Really, she should have expected this sort of thing on their honeymoon.
Click - and as if that were some sort of cosmic cue, Amanda heard two sets of footsteps. One, regular and even, came from inside the hangar: Miss Hitchens returning with the fuel. The other, more rapid and heavy, came from outside. Amanda straightened up and leaned back, in time to see Miss Hitchens pause on the ground next to the plane.
“Who is it?” Amanda asked quietly, craning her neck to try to see for herself.
Miss Hitchens smiled up at her. “Two London gentleman, waiting for you. Are we ready to go?”
“As soon as we’ve fueled up,” Amanda assured her with a matching smile, and hopped down from the ladder just as Campion burst into the hangar.