"Maids? Both of us?"
Alek sounds... politely confused, like maybe Dr. Barlow's using words beyond his English again, what Deryn figures is prince-speak for "you must be barking mad". Deryn's pretty sure the lady boffin is quite serious. She looks down at her boots and sighs.
They've been back in London less than twenty-four hours - just enough time to claim rooms in the Keeper's Lodge and take Alek round the Zoo for a quick gawk. Dr. Barlow's promised them a tour of the parts of the Zoo that aren't for visitors - the labs and libraries and other boffin-haunts - but she's been busy all day catching up on all the news that hadn't made it to them on the Leviathan. And, apparently, coming up with little games to play with her new assistants.
Dr. Barlow waves a hand and Deryn blinks and tries to look like she's been paying attention.
"So, no, Alek, a maid and a boot-black would not do just as well, you'll have much easier access as a maid."
Deryn squints a little and tries to think her thoughts into Alek's head. She's just hazing us, she tries to convey, giving us a bit of a test, like the Huxley ride for the Air Service. We show her we're up for it, then it's over, and at least we're not likely to get blown halfway to France on this one.
He looks over at her and she's hopeful her message has somehow gotten through, until he asks, "What do you think about this, Deryn?"
Daft prince. "The boffin says march, I march," she shrugs. Dr. Barlow looks pleased; Alek, a little betrayed.
"Of course it's different for you," he says, but he takes the bundle of clothes from Dr. Barlow with a shoulder-droop of resignation.
"Different," Deryn mutters when she's back in her room, shaking out her own bundle. Different that she's done this before, or different that it's supposed to feel less unnatural? She lays the clothes out on the bed - underthings, stockings, petticoat, dress, apron. There's even a pair of women's boots, heeled and thin-soled. It's practical gear as girl clothes go, no frills, the kind of thing her mother puts on to do the daily housework and changes out of for company. It could be worse, Deryn tells herself; given her suspicions, she's half-surprised the boffin isn't rigging them out as opera dancers.
She unlaces one of her clompy airman's boots and holds it up, gazing at it.
"Mr. Sharp!" Bovril proclaims.
"Thought you were with Alek, beastie," she says, setting down the boot and picking up the loris. "What do you think about this, then? Will you still know me swishing around in a skirt?"
"Boffin," the loris answers.
"Right," Deryn says, "You know who we've got to blame for this." No point in stalling - in minutes she's out of her uniform (she needs civilian clothes, she realizes, she can't go on dressing like a midshipman now that she's out of the Service) and into the dress. There's a mirror in her room and she frowns into it. Her hair isn't even close to right, too short even for a bob. She bites her lip and tries to remember her study of men's haircuts enough to reverse it. Maybe if she… fluffs up the front?
Now it's short and messy. "Incongruous," Bovril says mournfully.
Mr. Sharp would dangle it upside-down to make it giggle; Deryn just offers it a hand up to her shoulder, where it starts grooming her hair. It's probably not making things any worse. Deryn declines to check and steps out into the hall.
Alek's not out yet; she knocks on his door.
"I'm not dressed yet," he answers, sounding flustered. "Why are the buttons on the back?"
"I wouldn't know," she says. "They just are."
"Well, it makes them difficult to reach," he tells her through the door.
"You can do up some from the bottom and then sort of slither in," she suggests, "And then get the neck?"
"I did the neck," he says, "Now I have to undo them? This may take awhile."
"Oh, just let me do it," Deryn sighs, and pushes open the door without waiting for an answer.
Alek's dress is russet, bringing out the red in his hair; his cheeks are very pink. Deryn mostly sketches in pencil, or occasionally ink, but she suddenly thinks it would make a good portrait, to put all those warm colors on paper together.
They stare at each other for a long moment until Bovril reminds them, "Buttons."
"Right," Alek coughs, and turns around. The back of his neck is as flushed as his face. Deryn hesitantly raises her hands to the middle of his back where the buttons are gaping. She has to tug it a little to pull it closed over the blades of his shoulders.
"Is this the kind of thing you wore growing up?" he asks.
"More or less," Deryn says, "Skirts are shorter for younger girls."
Alek laughs a little. "I guess when I tried to picture you in dresses I was thinking of... I don't know. Evening clothes. Ball gowns." He shakes his head.
"Commoner," Deryn reminds him, "I've never been to a ball." She frowns. "You pictured me in dresses?"
"I never went properly either," Alek admits, "I was too young, but I used to peek over the railing." His shoulders shrug under her hands. "I might have gone this year."
Deryn lets her hands rest for a moment against his back. "There's your buttons all done," she says. She straightens his collar where it's caught at the nape of his neck.
Alek turns around under her hands and looks up at her. "Deryn..." he starts.
She drops her hands from his shoulders and looks away. "Boffin's waiting for us," she mumbles, and makes for the stairs, disliking the tap-tap of the flimsy little boots.
He catches up with her easily as they walk back to Dr. Barlow's office.
"How long do you think it will take," he asks her, "To investigate this conspiracy?"
"If there is a conspiracy," Deryn snorts. "If you ask me Dr. Barlow's having a little laugh at her new hires. If we're lucky, it's over when we get to her office; if we're unlucky, we get to tour the whole Zoo like this."
"Really?" Alek says, surprised. "She had a lot of details - the main union, the splinter group, the dates of the conference, the name of the hotel… if she was just playing a prank would she really bother to make all that up?"
"I can't say what a sneaky-beak like her might bother with," Deryn says, "Perhaps that's her idea of fun, inventing blether. 'The East London Federation of Suffragettes split off from the Women's Social and Political Union over the question of the war,'" she recites, trying to imitate Dr. Barlow's superior tone. "'And the Clart Society will be convening at the Hotel, uh...'"
Alek snickers. "Not so easy to make up details, then?"
"Well, not for me," Deryn says, "I'm not the clever-boots. Probably shouldn't be saying 'clart' anyways," she adds quietly.
"Clart", she hears Alek mutter, and then they're at Dr. Barlow's office, presenting themselves in front of her enormous desk. The lady boffin looks them up and down and Deryn belatedly clasps her hands and brings her toes together.
"Not hopeless," she finally pronounces. "These should help." She hands them each a colorful kerchief, the sort Deryn's seen on the very poorest women, who can't afford a hat.
"Green, white, and violet," Dr. Barlow says, "Give Women Votes!" She pauses. "Well?"
They fumble them onto their heads. Alek in a dress just looks like Alek in a dress, but Alek in a dress with his hair covered could almost be a girl, maybe, if she squints.
"You'll have a day to learn your jobs before the convocation," she reminds them, and Deryn starts to feel less sure this is just a joke. "We've bribed the hotel manager enough that he shouldn't fire you before the week is out. Remember, if you can determine which women are in on the plan, I have other resources I can call on for their apprehension."
Dr. Barlow looks at them with sudden concern. "I hate to send you out so unprepared," she says, shaking her head. "I know I've barely started on your training. Codes, passwords, how to spot a lie, pick a lock, use tracer ants or a quarantine frog... a whole arsenal of tricks not yet at your command. Still," she says, perking up, "You both seem to have an impressive knack for improvisation. I'm sure you will manage."
Deryn looks down at her hands and frowns. This isn't still the Air Service, she's not a soldier any more... she looks up and meets Dr. Barlow's eyes. "Why send us at all, then?" she asks, ignoring the little yelp of insubordination! in the back of her head. "If we're so untrained... why not use these 'other resources' to begin with?"
Dr. Barlow, to Deryn's surprise, smiles briefly. "That is exactly the kind of question my assistants need to be able to ask," she says. "The problem is that most of the East London suffragettes are, in fact, harmless. Their patriotism may be deficient, but the extent of their criminality is, perhaps, a brief flirtation with the idea of throwing a stone at a window. For every Lillie Lenton plotting her next fire, there are ten women genuinely organizing soup kitchens and nursery schools. If my source is correct and a major attack is being planned it must be stopped. But," sternly, "I will not see innocent women rounded up to be tortured in prison just because they had the ill luck to be used for cover by the true militants. Our civil authorities may not care to differentiate between activists and anarchists, but I trust you," looking right at Deryn, "will be more discriminating."
"Aye." Deryn nods weakly. Definitely not a game then. They are Della and Alice, hotel maids, and they have a week to stop some kind of attack.
Three days later, Deryn, on her first-ever mission for the Zoological Society, has gathered the following intelligence:
1) Being a maid is incredibly exhausting.
2) Being a maid is horribly boring.
3) Suffragettes don't deserve the bloody vote.
Every time Deryn passes an open door some shrill voice is deploring the war and proclaiming that all Britain needs to do is refuse to fight it. Deryn wants the war to end as much as any of them. More, she thinks, after all, she's seen it. But can't they see that staying out of it will have just the opposite effect? Do they want water-walkers coming up the Thames?
"But most suffragettes support your country," Alek points out when Deryn can't hold back her disgust. "That's exactly why this little group had to split off from the rest, right?"
Alek being reasonable is not helping. Every time she starts to console herself with the thought that, no matter how much she hates this, it must be worse for him, she catches him scrubbing the floors behind the furniture - like anyone's going to look there - or smiling (smiling!) while he beats rugs.
"You must have cleaned things on the Leviathan," he argues, when she points out the pointlessness of all this drudgery.
"It was an airship," she replies tiredly, "Of course we kept it shipshape. This is a shabby old hotel."
"It still looks better clean," he insists. Which is another thing - since when does his princeliness clean, anyways?
"I'm not a prince any more," he reminds her quietly, "Right now I'm a maid. Maids clean."
He keeps asking her, too, for tips on posing as a girl - how should he stand? How should he walk? What does he do with his elbows?
"It's not bloody fencing," Deryn tells him, "Just make it up." It's not fair and she knows it - she spent a solid month practicing as a boy before she tried to fool the Air Service - but no one here is paying much attention to them, and it bothers her that Alek apparently finds his skirt less of a shackle than she does hers.
"It's not the worst thing I've ever worn," he says, and describes some ghastly outfit of knee breeches and a collar up to his chin. "I couldn't turn my head," he says, shuddering, and, okay, Deryn's been a boy, but she's never been an Austrian prince; maybe there are worse things out there than dresses.
"How many times did you have to wear it, though?" she asks, and he admits it was only the once.
The problem with dresses is they are forever. Deryn's had a few glorious months of trousers and pockets and now she's back to trying to get her petticoat to stay under her skirt while she crawls around polishing table-legs and this is the rest of her life. Maybe not the table-legs. But the skirt... what if the skirt is the price of having Alek?
He'd pictured her in dresses, he'd said. Ball gowns. The Zoological Society probably even had balls, or at least swank parties with everyone in fancy clothes like the one at the embassy in New York.
Was Alek just waiting for her to, to hatch out of the trousers like some fabricated butterfly? Looking ahead to the bit in the fairy tale where the rags turned into silks and the princess was revealed? Dummkopf, she tries to call him, but she can't, not even in her own head. He'd thrown away a throne for her. The least she can do is wear a dress with a smile.
She just can't quite manage the smile. She's more tired than she's ever been, they're making no progress finding Dr. Barlow's conspirators, and Alek seems to be worrying about her. I'm just tired, she tells him. I'm worried about Bovril. (Persuaded to stay behind with Dr. Barlow's beastie, but almost certainly moping.) Maids are underpaid, if this is what they're expected to do.
To her great surprise that turns out to be the breakthrough. One minute she's griping to Alek in the hallway and the next minute an older Irish lady has her hand on her shoulder and is telling her she's absolutely right, maids are underpaid.
"But the whole wage system is exploitative!" replies another suffragette.
"But working women get the worst of it," adds a third.
Maids are underpaid, they all agree; suffragettes, social reformers, socialists. Suddenly they've noticed her green and white and violet kerchief and started talking to her.
"I bet talking to the people you're spying on is one of those tricks Dr. Barlow was talking about," Alek says, and Deryn throws a dustrag at him. It's not like he'd been doing any better.
("I tried going through some bags, but they're all full of undergarments," he'd whispered to her, blushing.)
The older Irish lady is Mary Mallon, or Mary Brown to the police; the radical is Mary Leigh and the third woman is Sylvia Pankhurst, the Federation founder herself.
Irish Mary takes it upon herself to introduce Deryn around, and Alek too, once Deryn mentions that her friend Alice is also an admirer of the suffrage movement. Catching all the names is like reading message flags, as they fly by - it doesn't help that so many of the women have an alias or two, that they've used in prison, or are planning to use, "and of course once you've met someone in prison because you got arrested at the same action, you're always going to think of them as Jane, not Rachel, even if they tell you later that was just an alias," Mary Leigh explains.
Their prison stories are horrible. Deryn's seen war, but she's baffled how prison wardens and doctors can be so brutal to people they've already got safely locked up. She can't imagine hunger-striking - it had been awful on the Leviathan when the rations ran out - but the force-feeding stories scare her. That some of the suffragettes plan to be arrested again, when they know what they've got to look forward to, makes her guts clench in sympathy.
"You fly hydrogen breathers," Alek points out, but that's different, she's not expecting a fire. That night she has a dream where someone is walking towards her with a funnel and a rubber tube, and she can't run; she wakes up with a shudder.
New nightmares aside, though, they're actually getting some information. Over the next two days Deryn starts to put together who already knows each other and who's meeting for the first time, who's from London and who's come from far away, who's the old guard and who're the new recruits. Of course she's still sweeping floors and emptying dustbins, but she also finds time to accept five cups of tea, hear about plans for three soup kitchens and one Montessori nursery, and, most importantly, be invited six times to demonstrate with the ELFS in front of Parliament at the end of the week.
("That has to be the target," Alek agrees, comparing notes between midnight and dawn in their tiny rooms up under the eaves. He's been invited seven times. But they've yet to hear any word of an attack.)
The suffragettes mostly seem to like Deryn and Alek, or rather, Della and Alice. Alek lets a bit of his accent come out in his English and the war opponents fall all over themselves to show their solidarity with their Germanic sister.
("Germanic sister!" Deryn calls him, late at night, and Alek tells her she's as bad as Bovril. He says it fondly, leaning towards her with a certain hopeful smile, but she turns away. Can't have the maids canoodling.)
Lillie Lenton, notorious arsonist, does not actually seem to have shown up, but when Deryn tries asking about her she's told the thrilling third-hand tale of how Lenton had once escaped from the police in a delivery van, dressed as an errand boy reading a comic and eating an apple.
("Sounds like you two would get along," Alek teases, but Deryn can't laugh. As if she'd ever be friends with an arsonist.)
Deryn shirks her maid duties to help the suffragettes paint slogans onto umbrellas ("Give Women Votes", of course, but also "Abolish the Wages System" and "Peace Now") and strains her ears, hoping for one word suggesting something in the works besides umbrella-waving.
The problem is the suffragettes are all over the hotel, forming little working groups, ducking into rooms in threes and fours for quiet conversations that turn out to be about hygiene and family problems. (They've started barging into occupied rooms with fresh linens, hoping to stumble upon something by luck.) It's a small hotel, but if just a few of the women are conspiring, they could be anywhere, indistinguishable from any other committee.
It's not that they're not learning anything. By day five of the conference, Deryn knows that
1) The entire hotel had been rented for the week by a very wealthy, titled lady, who liked to dress up as a poor ugly seamstress "for reasons of fairness". ("Oh," says Alek when they overhear that tidbit, "I thought there was something incongruous there.")
2) Three of the suffragettes are pregnant, only one of whom is married. ("Britons don't have preventatives?" Alek wonders.)
3) A surprising number of other suffragettes seem to be avoiding the pregnancy problem by going to bed with each other. (Alek is permanently pink these days.)
This is all fascinating, particularly the last point (Deryn had bunked with a bunch of endlessly blethering middies, and even she hadn't heard tell of a couple of things they've walked in on), but none of it even hints at some sort of upcoming violence, and the Parliament demonstration is the day after next. In desperation Alek goes back to the Zoo, to ask Dr. Barlow just where this mysterious "source" had heard rumors of an attack, only to find that Dr. Barlow has been called away to Southampton on some emergency.
"Maybe there is no conspiracy," he suggests to Deryn. "Maybe Dr. Barlow is just... wrong."
"I don't know," Deryn sighs. "She's a clever-boots, that one. Would she really send us here without a good reason?"
"You're the one who thought it was a prank," Alek points out. "Maybe you were right. Or maybe this is training, and when we head home in defeat, she quizzes us on what we learned."
"Or maybe someone in this hotel is planning something terrible," Deryn says, "And we have no idea who, or what, or how, and we have one more day to figure it out."
"I wish Bovril was here," Alek says glumly.
"It would be on to something by now," Deryn agrees. "I can't believe we're not as smart as the barking beastie."
"Figure something out?" Alek asks, yawning.
It's the middle of the night, but Deryn had finally given up on sleeping and gone and tapped on Alek's door until he let her in. Deryn's wearing her dress (although she'd set aside her filthy apron), but Alek's clearly been sleeping in just his shift and petticoat. As he shuffles back to his bed (the only place to sit in the tiny room), she realizes the last time she saw him without sleeves, he'd just been accidentally shot. It's different without bandages to distract and worry her; she stares at the arcs of his shoulders where they're outlined by the moonlight.
"No," Deryn says, a moment too late. "Just couldn't sleep."
Alek leans back on his hands, inviting her next to him with a jerk of his chin. He's obviously tired enough not to be worried about his state of undress. Deryn sits down gingerly, careful to leave a space between herself and his bare arm.
"I'm sorry," she says, "Obviously you were able to sleep, I shouldn't have bothered you."
"I'm your partner," he says, "Your lack of sleep is my lack of sleep." He turns towards her and gives her a princely bow, or maybe a curtsey, given the little flourish with his petticoat.
Deryn smiles, then sighs. "Some partnership," she says, "We'll be famous in the Zoological Society for our first mission ending in Parliament getting blown up."
"Your Parliament must be guarded," Alek says, "I don't think anyone here could just… blow it up. They'd need explosives, for one thing. I've swept under every bed in this hotel, no one's hiding anything as big as a bomb."
"If Dr. Barlow thought the police could stop whatever it is, she wouldn't have sent us, though."
"I think we're supposed to stop it before the police can be involved. What these women say about prison - it's horrible."
"Aye. ... is that how they'd be treated in Austria? Suffragettes?"
Alek frowns. "I don't think we have suffragettes. Or... they weren't spoken of, in polite society."
"None of that here."
"No, I... never met so many poor people."
"Don't see how they'd even afford explosives. Not a ten-penny item, your aerial bomb. Ground kind can't be much cheaper."
Alek flops back onto the bed. The cotton of his shift is really very thin; even in the dark, his chest is visible underneath.
"Do you agree with them?" Alek asks her. "The suffragettes, I mean."
"I still think they're wrong about the war," Deryn answers. "But, the vote... sure. I'd wave my kerchief for them."
Neither of them is wearing their green, white, and violet. Alek's hair, which she hasn't seen in days, is falling into his eyes; in the moonlight it's colorless, dark.
"Of course, as a woman, you want the vote yourself," Alek says.
"Aye," Deryn says, "I guess. Hadn't really thought of that. They're saying the age might be thirty, seems a long way off."
"I walked in on a conversation," Alek says. "I came in with more towels, and they were talking... they were saying that in a few years, the Darwinists might be able to change the life threads of an animal already grown."
"What?" Deryn scoffs. "That's a load of clart. They can't - really?"
"The woman," Alek says, "She said, 'if we can't win the vote, we can just change ourselves to men and vote it in'."
"Fabricators never work on humans," Deryn says automatically. "It was barking nonsense."
"But would you?" Alek pushes himself up onto one elbow, staring at Deryn. "If you could... rewrite your life threads, and really be a boy. Would you do it?"
"Do I get the arms?" Deryn snaps, and then stops. Alek is looking at her hard; she's obviously supposed to say no… but what's the real answer?
"I'd like the arms," she admits. "Even if I'm not climbing ratlines any more. They'd sure make all this scrubbing and hauling easier."
"But girls do this," Alek says.
"Sure," Deryn says, "But stronger'd still be better. The rest..." she looks down. She's sitting sideways to Alek, her whole body in profile to him; he's got a clear view of the curves that aren't there.
"The middies never stopped," she says, "Fighting, bragging, trying to top each other... it was great, a thousand times better than tea parties, but it was like they couldn't help it. Sometimes it was nice to just... take a break, take a step back and not have to think like that. To just... look at things. Just fly."
"But I'm not like that," Alek says.
"Never make it as a middy then," Deryn tosses back. She looks down at him. Alek is sprawled on the bed, wearing a girl's chemise and girl's petticoat and probably girl's drawers under that, entirely unconcerned about it. She tries to imagine Newkirk in the same get-up, or that bum-rag Fitzroy. They'd be twitching, fuming, they wouldn't forget for a second what they had on. Alek... Alek's entire attention is on her.
A boy couldn't marry you, she almost says, but it catches in her mouth, like it's too big for this cramped little room. She scrambles for something to substitute. "I can't imagine Lilit giving up on being a girl just to get the vote," she says, voice a little shaky. "She'd fit right in here, wouldn't she."
Alek lets his head fall back to the bed. "If there was really a plan in the works to overthrow Parliament, she'd definitely be in on it by now," he says to the sloping ceiling.
"Piloting their secret walker," Deryn suggests.
"Of course," Alek agrees, and then sits up with a jerk. "Deryn," he says, "I'm not thinking like a Darwinist. They don't have a walker. They don't have explosives. What can they have?"
"You mean some kind of fabricated threat?" she asks, thinking about it. "Beasties eat... they make clart. We're cleaning this hotel, we'd notice anything of the sort! Besides," she adds, "Where would women even get a fighting beast, they're military, regular beasties are all tame and harmless."
"Dr. Barlow is a woman, and she makes fabrications," Alek says. "To hear her talk, she designed half the creatures in Britain."
"You think someone here is a secret boffin?" Deryn blows out a long breath. "How could we sniff that out? Toss a handful of rocks into the parlor and see who looks interested?"
"Scientists know each other," Alek says slowly. "A fabricator is sure to have heard of Dr. Barlow. Deryn... you need to unmask me as a spy for the Zoological Society."
"What?" Deryn yelps. "Daft prince. How would that help anything?"
"Lilit's family trusted me because we had interests in common," Alek says. "The conspiracy here - if there really is one - isn't looking for allies, we'd have heard something by now. But they might care about enemies. You reveal me, they move against me, they'll show themselves."
"You're talking about using yourself as bait," Deryn bites out. "Why you and not me, anyways?"
"We can't prove I'm a spy," Alek says, "But we can prove I'm a boy. If I'm lying about that I could be lying about anything."
"What if they just shoot you?" Deryn says. "Barking spiders, Alek, I don't have a gun, I don't have my knife, I don't have anything. What do you think I'm going to do, if they do show themselves?" She's aware she's maybe getting a bit screechy, but she doesn't think she can stop herself.
"I'm sure you'll think of something," Alek says. He's smiling up at her, entirely too calm for someone talking about handing himself over to violent radicals. He's obviously taken the "serene" in "your Serene Highness" too much to heart.
"You're daft," she grumbles, but she can feel herself coming around. It's not like they have any other ideas.
"We have to do something," Alek says. "A beast doesn't have to be large to be trouble. The fléchette bats aren't. Or... if they had some kind of poison. They could be hiding that in a valise."
"Don't see how they'd get close enough to a Parliament member to poison them," Deryn says, but she slips a hand over Alek's anyways. She figures he must like to think about poison about as much as she likes to think about fire.
Alek turns his hand over under hers and interlaces their fingers.
"So we agree," he says. "You denounce me in the morning and we'll take it from there." He yawns, eyelashes fluttering closed, and scoots up the bed until he's lying down properly. He doesn't let go of her hand.
"... stay?" he asks quietly.
Deryn hesitantly lies down next to him. She can feel the warmth of his bare arm through the sleeve of her dress. She thinks she might be lying on part of his petticoat.
Middy Sharp would roll over and press their bodies together; Middy Sharp would kiss him until he squeaked.
Deryn just lies there, listening to his breathing turn into soft snoring, wondering if she's getting it right.
"Alice is a sneak!" Della wails, dragging her captive into the parlor of suffragettes.
Deryn has one arm around Alek's neck and the other hand fisted in his hair; he's stumbling along with her as best as he can without her actually pulling, but every so often they fall out of step and he gets an accidental yank. It's sort of like the time she held the knife to his throat, except the people they're facing this time aren't on either of their sides.
"Gave me a half-crown to take a letter to the Zoo," she yells, "But I read it, din't I, telling some Dr. Barley all about everyone here, saying you're planning some kind of attack. It's a peaceful demonstration, I tells her, but she ain't even a her, she's a dirty spy!"
She shoves him forward into the room of staring suffragettes. Alek pulls himself to his full height, straightens his clothes, and says, in his deepest, most princely voice, "I work for Dr. Barlow, miss." Deryn is impressed by how much he's looking down his nose, given he's not that tall.
He spins on his heel and makes to stalk out of the room. "If you'll excuse me, ladies..."
Deryn's ready to get in his way if they need more time, but Mary Mallon is already leaping to her feet.
"Now, now," she says in her motherly Irish accent. "This is a bit of a to-do. Just you come with me and we'll have a nice cup of tea and get this all sorted out. I'm sure it can't be as bad as all that."
Deryn is dubious - this doesn't seem like much of a window into a conspiracy - but she supposes it will take some time for the news to spread through the hotel, and Alek needs some excuse not to just leave. She gives Alek the tiniest nod, and they follow the older woman down to the breakfast room, where there's always a pot of water on the hot plate, and little pots of cream and sugar and shriveled lemons. Deryn wonders suddenly whether the kitchen maids have it better or worse than they do, then shakes her head; she's surely almost done with this maid business, no point in spending more time thinking about it.
Mrs. Mallon busies herself with tea, and Alek sits down at a table and tries to look like someone to be taken seriously, despite the skirt and apron.
"Della," Mrs. Mallon says, "If you could just go find my friend Ida for me, I think she knows something about boffins. Ida Inkley, up in room 305? Perhaps she'd like to come chat with... I suppose you're not Alice, dear."
"Alek," he says haughtily.
Deryn is out the door and halfway to the stairs when it occurs to her that no one actually said "boffin". Sure, lots of doctors are... but lots aren't, too. A doctor at the zoo most likely is, but - just in case she decides to go back and listen in for a minute.
Mrs. Mallon is facing Alek across the table, teacups steaming between them.
"So you work for Dr. Barlow," Mrs. Mallon is saying. "Tell me, is her ego still as inflated as her airbeasts?"
Deryn blinks. The Irish woman's voice has taken on a new tone, angry and not at all motherly.
"Dr. Barlow is very accomplished," Alek returns.
"Her work is certainly showy," Mrs. Mallon dismisses. "Mastery of the invisible, now... that's true command of nature."
Alek looks politely interested; Deryn, behind the door, is puzzled. Aren't all life threads invisible?
"I wrote to her with my results many years ago," Mrs. Mallon continues. "Nothing, of course, to what I've achieved since, but respectable enough. More than respectable, for someone turned away from university. Too poor, too female... I went to America when I was just about your age, do you know? Land of opportunity! There I was too Irish. Everything I've accomplished, I've done on my own."
"You wrote to Dr. Barlow... ?" Alek prompts.
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Mallon says. "She wrote back that my ideas were irresponsible - that they were dangerous! I spent years constantly on the move, barely able to complete an experiment, because she had convinced the New York authorities my work should be suppressed. Of course they listened to her, with her famous name and fancy Society."
She takes a sudden, violent, swallow of tea.
"I was even imprisoned, can you imagine? Persecuted! For science! But it was in prison that I met Lillie. She was the one who opened my eyes, made me see that the government itself must be overthrown. She had escaped from England but was determined to come back here, and for myself, why not?"
Your plan, Deryn wants to shout, what is your actual plan? Because she's pretty sure now that this is the woman who has one.
Mrs. Mallon takes a longer, slower sip. "Aren't you drinking your tea, dear?" she asks Alek. "Don't you take cream and sugar? I should have asked before fixing it up, do excuse me."
Alek looks down at his teacup, but makes no motion toward it.
"The English do like their tea," Mrs. Mallon says. "I think I've had a cuppa with nearly everyone here. So friendly. So nice to be among truly sympathetic souls."
She takes another drink.
"It's getting cold," she tells Alek. "Better drink up."
Deryn watches him reach for the cup. He picks it up... and then sets it back down deliberately.
"No," he says. "I don't think so."
"You can't think I would do anything to hurt my sisters!" Mrs. Mallon exclaims. "They've had the resistance factor all week, by now they should be just as immune as I am! It wouldn't work if they got sick. No, the trick is to make carriers. They'll get the infective factor today. And then Lillie sets a fire at the demonstration - just a little one, just enough to get us all arrested - and then they take us off to prison, and force tubes down our throats, and up our noses, and fill us with slop, and as we choke and spit and bleed and vomit, every drop of bile, every fleck of spittle, kills the man it touches."
Alright, Alek, Deryn thinks, That's enough detail, get out of there and we'll figure out what to do about it. Or maybe he's frozen in horror. She might be. What they're planning… it's like using the suffragettes as fléchette bats, like they're not people, just a delivery system. What if they want to kiss someone or something?
In the room, Mrs. Mallon leans forward. "It's fair, don't you see? The doctors and wardens torture us, and then it comes back on them. An eye for an eye, guts for guts, they can put out our fires but not their fevers. And if it happens to spread a little... well. We'll never see change until conditions become widely difficult."
All of Deryn's instincts are saying get out now, what is Alek waiting for?
"Don't try to get up," Mrs. Mallon says to Alek, and the worst thing is, she sounds motherly again. "I'm sure you'd like to spring to your feet and run out of here, but you see I dropped a little paralytic spider down your collar when you sat down, and the bite should be taking effect by now. I find there are a few essentials a lady should always have about her person."
Alek is blinking and grunting but not, in fact, leaping to his feet. Deryn doesn't have her knife, she doesn't have anything; she looks around the hall wildly for something she can use as a weapon, but it's a cheap hotel, and the hall is bare.
Mrs. Mallon picks up Alek's cup of tea. "It will be quick," she says, "I've improved a great deal on the natural bacterium. Not painless, I'm afraid, but we can't have Dr. Barlow - "
- and Deryn is through the door and hurtling across the room. No more thinking, just doing; she slams into the older woman and tackles her to the floor.
The teacup goes flying.
Mrs. Mallon thrashes, but Deryn punches her solidly in the jaw; she goes for her eyes but Deryn blocks and brings a knee up into her gut. The Irish woman blinks at her, and works her mouth - she's going to try to spit - Deryn seizes a dustrag from her apron pocket and stuffs it into her opening mouth, slamming her head down against the floor.
She does that a few more times for good measure, until Mrs. Mallon goes limp beneath her. Deryn strips off her apron and ties her hands together, ties her green white and violet kerchief around her head to hold the gag, and only then climbs to her feet to find Alek.
The tea is splashed across the table, but the drops fall just short of where he sits.
Deryn can't find the words to say anything, but she can feel the grin on her face, stretching wider and wider.
But Alek is staring at her.
"Deryn," he says, "Deryn, your - you - " His shoulder twitches, like he's struggling to lift his arm.
Deryn raises her own hand to her face and feels the wetness on her cheek. She pulls it away and there, glistening on her finger, is a droplet of tea.
"Huh," she says.
Alek's eyes are wide.
"She said 'every drop'," Deryn says.
"Wipe it off!" Alek shouts belatedly.
Deryn mechanically wipes her face on her sleeve.
"She didn't say how quick," she says, voice starting to shake.
"Deryn," Alek says.
"I don't want to die of a fever," Deryn says, "Or - whatever this does - "
"You can't," Alek says.
"And I could spread it," Deryn says. "Alek. You have to - you have to get me a gun or something, something - fast - "
"I can't even move," Alek says, "And I'm not going to help you kill yourself - "
"I don't want to die like this!" Deryn yells. She can feel tears rolling down her cheeks. They're probably infectious too. "I can't even kiss you," and she can see tears in Alek's eyes also.
"You're not going to die!" he yells back at her, "You can't just leave me - "
"She said every drop," Deryn screams, and Alek screams back "NO," and Dr. Barlow yells "No one is going to die!" and slams her valise down on a table.
Deryn jumps and whirls around.
"Thank you," the boffin says into the sudden silence. She snaps open her valise and takes out a pair of elbow-length rubber gloves, which she starts pulling on.
"She is unconscious?" Dr. Barlow asks, nodding towards Mrs. Mallon, tied up on the floor.
"Aye," Deryn says, "I... hit her head pretty hard."
Dr. Barlow sighs. "There are questions she could answer if she wakes up - although I suppose we can't hope she'll cooperate. I only realized who we were dealing with when I got to Southampton. An entire ship's crew arrived from America, infected with typhoid mid-crossing by chance? Unlikely." She tugs the second glove up the rest of the way and splays out her fingers.
"Are you going to help Deryn?" Alek asks hoarsely.
"I am going to help everyone," Dr. Barlow snaps. She takes three heavy glass jars out of her bag, one at a time. One contains something that looks a little like a Spottiswoode Rebreather. Two contain frogs.
"Don't be scared going into the frog," she tells Deryn. "It'll start to inflate in about a count of ten. Don't panic, just count in your head, you'll be fine. Keep your arms by your sides - oh, and could you take off your shoes first please."
Deryn has no idea what's going on, but she sits down and obediently starts removing her shoes.
Dr. Barlow opens the first jar and lifts the rebreather to her face. "Any more questions? No? Good," she says without pause, and seals the rebreather over her nose and mouth. She fishes a pair of spectacles out of a pocket and picks up the second glass jar. Coming over to Deryn, she motions for her to stand.
Deryn scrambles to her feet, stepping on her skirt in the process. She hears something tear. She doesn't check; Dr. Barlow is opening the jar and taking out the frog.
It's an ugly frog, green, with a sort of turkey-wattle under its chin. It's big enough that Dr. Barlow has to hold it with two hands.
It's hard to tell behind the rebreather and spectacles, but something about the boffin's eyes suggests she might be smiling at Deryn encouragingly.
Dr. Barlow adjusts her grip on the frog. Then she plops the frog onto Deryn's head. It's not quite a slam, but it's definitely a forceful application. Deryn starts to say "hey!" but then she feels the slime, spreading across the crown of her head, starting to drip down her hair. Pressure follows, like she's trying to force her head into a stocking.
The frog is swallowing her head.
There's a tight band around her forehead, and then it hits her eyebrows and Deryn squeezes up her eyes tight. It oozes down over her eyes and she gulps in a breath and then it's covering up her nose and mouth, cold and wet and tight against her face.
One, she thinks. Two, three four five… Her arms are rigid at her sides as the constriction slides down her neck and starts to stretch over her shoulders. She can't breathe, she's going to suffocate, sixseveneightnine and all at once there's a popping noise and the membrane lifts away from her face.
She gasps and opens her eyes. She's head and shoulders inside a sort of translucent bubble. She can look down and see the ring of mouth sliding down around her; she can just make out, through the bubble, a dark spot that must be the rest of the frog.
The bubble keeps inflating as the frog clears her fingertips, maintaining a roughly spherical shape. The wall thins out as it stretches, until she can look through and see Dr. Barlow, and, barely, Alek beyond her.
The ring shrinks as it passes her knees and comes down to her ankles; Dr. Barlow puts her hands up to the bubble and presses, gently, until Deryn steps onto the membrane and the bubble rolls and the ring closes into a tight pucker. Dr. Barlow keeps rolling and Deryn keeps stepping, trying to cooperate, until the frog's body hangs at the equator. She can see its legs kicking, and wonders crazily if she's hurting it when she steps.
Dr. Barlow walks away, and then back into Deryn's view carrying something; Deryn assumes it's the last jar. She kneels down next to the unconscious form of Mrs. Mallon - Deryn can't tell what she's doing, and then it occurs to her, the boffin must be taking off her shoes. Deryn watches while Dr. Barlow repeats the process, lifting and rolling the older woman's body so that the frog can engulf it.
It's a squick disturbing, watching the frog inflate and knowing she's inside one of those things, so Deryn turns away and looks for Alek instead.
He's still stuck at the table - Deryn hopes Dr. Barlow has something in her bag for paralytic spider bites - and Deryn has no idea how well he can even see her through the membrane, but she waves to him and tries to smile. She has no idea how being in a frog is going to fix her, but it seems like a lot of trouble to go to if she's certainly dead, so there must be some hope. And where there's a chance, Deryn Sharp will take it.
It's not really any stranger being inside the frog than inside the Leviathan's gastric channel, Deryn decides, just a lot less comfortable.
Dr. Barlow leaves and comes back with what seems like half the boffins in London. Deryn's frog is carefully loaded into a sort of stretcher-like carrying sling and taken by two of them out to a waiting van. They drive for awhile and then she's taken out and carried somewhere else, inside, where she's deposited into what looks like more or less a giant bathtub.
The air inside the frog is stale and humid; Deryn feels like she's using the rebreather, not quite drawing a full breath. It makes her feel dizzy and sluggish and she slumps against the wall of the bathtub, waiting to see what will happen.
Boffins come and go. Sometimes they press instruments up to the frog's membrane, or even pierce it to sample the air inside (giving it a little bandage afterwards, which strikes her as very funny). Sometimes there's a pitter-patter of water onto the top of the bubble, like rain on a roof.
Dr. Barlow shows up with a sort of small megaphone, which she presses to the bubble to use to talk. It buzzes weirdly and Deryn doesn't think the frog likes it, the way the legs kick. The lady boffin tells Deryn various things over the course of the day, like "Lillie Lenton got away" or "Everyone else tested clean" or "Please press your arm to the skin of the vocal sac" so that another boffin can stab through with a needle and take a blood sample.
After awhile it occurs to Deryn that there's no food or water inside the frog with her, and awhile after that Dr. Barlow tells her that she can lick the frog slime if she's thirsty - "Please do, actually, it will speed up the antibacterial effect."
She takes a cautious lick of the membrane. It's... moist. She can honestly say she never once felt tempted to lick the Leviathan, but she supposes it would have been something like this.
No one's told her how long until she gets out. At some point they turn out the lights, and Deryn dozes uneasily. She can't stretch out and there's nowhere comfortable to put her head and her stomach is starting to gnaw at her. The frog slime doesn't really help.
Still later they come back and turn on the lights and take more samples, air and blood and even her wastes where they're pooled in the bottom of the frog (she had finally accepted there was nowhere else she could go). The membrane becomes dotted with bandages.
Then they turn off the lights again.
Deryn tries to look on the bright side. She doesn't have a fever, at least not that she can tell, or trouble in her guts, besides being hungry. So she's probably not sick. They have to let her out eventually, right?
Dr. Barlow must agree, because the next morning (or whenever it is the lights come on), the boffin is there with her megaphone.
"We're inducing release," she tells her, doing something with the frog. The mouth pucker starts to yawn open. Humid air begins whistling out. Right by the opening it mixes with delicious fresh air; Deryn squats down and sucks in breaths until she feels jittery and alert.
The frog is deflating down onto her. "Dive out when you're ready," Dr. Barlow advises, and Deryn makes a wedge of her hands and squirms out through the dilating frog.
She's filthy and stinking from sitting in her own clart, but she pulls herself together to offer Dr. Barlow a salute.
"You'll excuse me if I don't shake your hand," Dr. Barlow says dryly. She turns to the tub, where the bubble has deflated completely; the frog now looks like it's sitting on an empty sack.
While Deryn watches, it starts vomiting out clart.
"Poor thing," she says.
"The Darwin's frog raises its young in its vocal sac," the boffin says. "Discovered by my grandfather. As far as we can tell, our frogs experience all the paternal joy an amphibian could ask."
The frog vomits again.
"And the anaconda in them thinks it's getting the meal of a lifetime," Dr. Barlow adds. "They swallow each other if we don't keep them separated. They'll engulf the furniture if they get loose in the lab. You do not need to feel sorry for the frog."
Deryn shrugs. "What about Mrs. Mallon?" she asks.
"Our models suggest that thousands would have died," Dr. Barlow tells her. "Maybe more; we might have lost London." The boffin gives her a cold smile. "Typhoid Mary has been moved to... permanent quarantine."
Deryn shudders. She thinks she might not want to know what that means.
Dr. Barlow hands her a bar of foul-smelling soap and orders her to the corner of the lab, which turns out to be a sort of shower cubicle. The water is cold and Deryn tilts her head back to drink. Her clothes are taken to be incinerated and Dr. Barlow goes to find her something else to put on, which turns out to be a flannel nightgown. Deryn doesn't care because the boffin brings soup back with it, which Deryn gulps straight from the bowl.
"I'll expect you in my office in two days," Dr. Barlow tells her, and shows her out the door of the building.
It turns out they're on the grounds of the Zoo. Deryn trudges back to the Keeper's Lodge, ignoring curious glances at her nightgown and bare feet.
She still doesn't feel clean; she wants a hot bath and another meal and to lie down somewhere flat.
And then to find Alek.
She's had two days in the frog with nothing to do but think; she's tried not to dwell on things too much, but there wasn't much to distract her. It had been too close a call with Alek. She can't help but think that she would have done something faster, better, if she'd been being Mr. Sharp.
She almost didn't save him. She can't play the girl for him if it's going to put him at risk. Maybe for a mission, if she has to, but not if she has a choice about it.
Or maybe she's kidding herself and she couldn't have done any better, and she just wants an excuse to stay out of skirts. But she has to tell him that too. She can't let him think that someday she's going to pick out a ball gown and make a grand entrance down the stairs and into his arms. Even if it means they can only be friends, and not something more. That's what no secrets means.
She pushes open the door of the Keeper's Lodge; Alek is sitting in the front parlor. He looks tired, and strange - it takes her a moment to realize he's not wearing a dress any more.
He sees her and leaps to his feet.
"Deryn!" he says. "You're here! They wouldn't let me see you, Dr. Barlow just kept telling me you were fine - you're okay!"
Deryn blinks at him. "Bath," she blurts. She's going to talk to him, she just needs to get herself together first.
"... right, of course, yes," Alek says, "I'll run it for you, there are biscuits in the kitchen." He smiles at her and trots up the stairs.
Deryn shoves two biscuits into her mouth and follows him up. The tub is full and steaming hot and looks like heaven; Deryn shucks off the nightgown and only then hears the door click shut behind her.
She dunks herself and scrubs her hair until she can't feel a trace of lingering slime. She wraps herself in a big fluffy towel and only then realizes that all of her clothes are down the hall in her room. And the towel isn't that big.
The door opens and Alek sticks his head around it, hand over his eyes.
"Here," he says, stepping into the bathroom. His other hand is clutching a bundle of clothes. He turns to close the door behind him, and then holds out the stack of clothes with both hands, keeping his eyes closed and head turned to the side.
Undergarments are on the top; they're boys' drawers.
"You've probably never had proper valet service," Alek says, eyes still closed. "I'm not really practiced from this side. But I thought I could attempt it."
She steps into the drawers. Stockings are next, and under that, her midshipman's uniform, neatly folded.
She pulls on the clothes in silence, not sure what to say.
Her boots are at the bottom of the stack. Alek opens his eyes, sees that she's dressed, and drops to his knees in front of her, offering one of the boots. She slips in her foot and he laces it carefully, tying the knot with fierce concentration.
"I hated it when I saw you in that dress," he says quietly, holding out the other boot. "It was like you'd - spilled all your hydrogen, you seemed smaller. And sad."
He does up the laces, and then hesitates over the knot.
"I tried to tell myself it was still you, but... it just wasn't the same."
He ties the knot swiftly, but doesn't take his hands away from her ankle.
"It wasn't so bad for me, it was like being an archduke's son, just a different way to behave myself. I could live with that. But it's better to be free."
All this time, his head has been bent down; now he looks up at her. Deryn almost steps back from the intensity in his eyes.
"So you're... not expecting a ball gown," she says haltingly.
"We can dress up as girls if we have to - we can dress up as tigeresques - "
"Don't give the boffin any ideas," Deryn mutters.
" - but here, at home, no costumes. Zaven said that once, no disguises at home. He was a wise man."
"No secrets, no costumes," Deryn echoes. "You really don't mind - "
"That a girl is the best boy I know? Look, I admit I like... certain things" - he puts a daring hand on her hipbone - "But I like them on you."
Deryn can feel the grin splitting her face. She feels more buoyant than a Huxley, like only her clompy boots are holding her to the floor.
"Get up here, you daft prince," she mutters, and hauls him up by the elbows before he can. She leans down and kisses him, opening her mouth and claiming his lips like she'll never let him go.
"I love you," she says between kisses, "And we are never using you as bait again, do you hear me?"
"Sure we are," he says back into her mouth, capturing her lower lip in his teeth. "It worked brilliantly. Ought to be part of the standard repertoire."
She backs him up until he hits the wall with a startled "oof". "No, no, no," she says, bending to kiss his neck, and working her hands up under his shirt.
"Yes, yes, yes," Alek answers, tilting his head to give her better access. She slides a clompy boot in between his feet and his hips twitch towards hers.
"Mr. Sharp Mr. Sharp Mr. Sharp!" burbles a gleeful voice behind her.
Deryn takes a quick step back from Alek and turns to see Bovril sitting up in the now-open door. It's waving a green white and violet kerchief like a flag.
"Loris interruptus," Alek mutters.
Deryn bends and picks up the interloper. "C'mon," she says, "Food first, flat surface second."
Alek smiles and follows her.
"I can still treat you like a girl occasionally, right?" Alek asks her. She's pleasantly full of food, slumping lazily against his shoulder. She's inspecting one of his hands for new floor-scrubbing calluses; his other hand is playing with her hair.
"Dunno," she says, "What do you have in mind?"
"I've heard young ladies are easily swayed by the touch of lips," he says, raising one of her hands to his mouth. He presses his lips against the back of her hand and looks at her expectantly.
Deryn raises an eyebrow.
"No?" he says, after a moment.
"Maybe you're doing it wrong," she suggests. She reverses the grip of their hands and brings his up to her face, where she squints at it.
Then she grins and runs her nose down his index finger and pops the tip into her mouth.
Alek's eyes go wide as her lips close around his finger.
They go wider when she licks and very, very dark when she sucks. His other hand tightens in her hair.
By the time she releases his finger with a scrape of teeth, he's all pupils and flushed cheeks.
"There you go," she says cheerfully. "All in the technique, I suppose."
"Grk," Alek manages.
Deryn puts her lips against his ear. His hair tickles her nose. "I left the loris in the kitchen with the rest of the biscuits," she murmurs.
"... carry on, Mr. Sharp," Alek replies.