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The Flying Empire

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London, 1882

Had they known the degree to which she was going to discombobulate their comfortable, if frequently dangerous, lives before her first visit to 221B Baker Street N.W., Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson might have made better, or strictly speaking some, preparation for Victoria King’s arrival. As it was, they were in their customary state of semi-habile—Holmes unshaven in his strange patchwork mohair dressing gown, Watson in his trousers, braces, undershirt and bowler hat, Disraeli lying on the hearth rug in a fully conscious state. The doctor was engrossed in a medical journal, while the detective had the Times in front of him; their landlady had just served tea, having reassured Holmes, as was to become almost a ritual in future years, that it was not poisoned. Not, however, that anyone would have thought less of Mrs. Hudson for having been tempted to that course of action; Sherlock Holmes, it was generally agreed by those who had cause to know, could try the patience of a saint.

Saint or no, the lady in question always acted with alacrity when callers came for either of her two gentleman lodgers, understanding as she did that callers generally meant income, and that income generally transformed itself into rent monies. So when a lady of quality in a green dress presented herself and inquired as to whether she could speak with the consulting detective, Mrs. Hudson climbed the stairs again directly.

“By all means, Nanny, send her in,” Holmes said airily, not looking up from his newspaper. In another man, his constitutional inability to conduct a conversation while actually looking at the other person involved in it might have been suspicious; for the detective, it was not especially notable. Mrs. Hudson heaved a sigh in the relative privacy of the hall and showed the lady upstairs.

She was not, Watson saw immediately, particularly pretty, though her emerald gown and sable wrap were well within the vanguard of current fashions and her brown hair was dressed flatteringly, if in a rather simple style. Both men noted immediately a peculiarity in her stride that neither could quite articulate; she had a trick of standing, too, that made her seem taller than her five feet five inches.

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I presume,” she said without preamble, advancing far enough into the supremely cluttered room to be able to stand near the fireplace, but evidently deciding that approaching any further through the debris was unworthy of the potential risk to life and limb. “And Dr. John Watson, as well, I see.”

She had a soprano voice, and she enunciated her words with the clarity of someone versed in public speaking. Now that she had come closer, Watson could see her clear dark eyes. Like the doctor’s, her complexion had a certain pale bronze shade to it, a permanent tan. But he had acquired his serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces, which of course was impossible for a woman.

“I am afraid you have the advantage of us, madam,” said Holmes smoothly; Holmes could be perfectly charming when he liked, or more precisely when he could be bothered.

“My name is Ca—Victoria King,” she said, stumbling slightly over the words. “Victoria Carlotta King.”

It was an unusual name—Watson could not recollect having met another woman named ‘Victoria’—but otherwise unremarkable. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, I’m sure,” said Holmes. “And for what purpose did you seek me out, my dear?”

“I have it on good authority,” said Victoria King, “that you and Dr. Watson, together, are the most dangerous men in London.”

Watson stared, and even Holmes raised an eyebrow in a fashion that Watson was learning to recognize as a sign of mild surprise. “Miss King, whomever told you such a thing?” he asked. “I assure you, we are both—“

“You are about to tell me, obscure, or humble, or some other prevarication,” King interrupted, meeting his gaze directly. If she found his dark stare disturbing, as many people seemed to, she gave no sign, and Holmes could not very well look away. “Spare me, I beg you, Mr. Holmes. In light of the fact that I wish to engage your services, it would behove you not to protest too much.”

Watson looked on in more or less open amusement as Holmes blinked several times, clearly taken significantly aback by this woman. Eventually the detective recovered enough to say smoothly, “Quite. In that case, Miss King, may I enquire as to the nature of the matter in which you wish to engage me?”

“You may,” King said gravely, “but I cannot answer that question. I wish to place you on retainer, Mr. Holmes. What do you say to £250?”

Holmes blinked some more. “In toto, Miss King?”

She smiled thinly, brown eyes sharp as a scalpel’s edge and just as bright, and Watson had the disquieting sense that the ground beneath him and Holmes was crumbling away even as they stood upon it. “Per annum, Mr. Holmes.”

For a long moment there was no sound in the sitting room save Disraeli shifting on the tiger-skin rug. Watson very carefully did not look at Holmes. £250 was a modest annual salary; it was an unequivocal financial cushion that they could put to great use. That Victoria King could name such a sum without batting an eye suggested that she had significantly greater resources than were apparent from her appearance. For the first time, Watson wondered whether she might be somehow connected to the aristocracy.

In his scrupling not to look at Holmes, he looked closer at King, and it was then that he noticed the little design embroidered in emerald thread on her gloves. It was the sort of thing that might easily be mistaken for a fanciful trifle, but Watson had seen it before, on the battlefield in Afghanistan.

For an instant he was back there, or almost; Baker Street and central Asia superimposed themselves on each other in his vision, fighting for dominance, but Watson had learned what to do. He fixed his attention on his surroundings, turning towards Holmes and concentrating fully on the detective, who remained thrillingly animated even in repose. Should he look at King, he was quite certain she would observe his pallor, and it was clear now that she was counting on false pretences in this encounter.

“For £250 per annum, Miss King, I am afraid I must insist that I have some notion of what it is I shall be called upon to do,” Holmes was saying with an aplomb that would have been admirable on another man and was for him merely customary. Unshaven, with bruised knuckles and wearing a dirty shirt—one of Watson’s dirty shirts, in point of fact—beneath his dressing gown, the detective still managed to radiate his faith in his own rectitude. Watson loved him for that, among many other reasons.

“The Queen is dying, Mr. Holmes,” King said quietly, and Watson looked to Holmes at the non sequitur. The detective’s dark eyes met his for a moment, long enough to convey his own lack of insight, and then they both glanced back at their visitor. “Many things will change when the Prince of Wales inherits the throne, not least of which are several concerns which affect me materially. I wish to retain your services in the event that I shall be forced to defend what is mine.”

“Against the Prince of Wales?” Holmes asked, in a bland tone of voice that Watson knew to read as utter disbelief.

“Against everyone, Mr. Holmes,” King replied. “Against anyone.”

The fire popped while Holmes considered his answer. “Keep your money, Miss King,” he said at last, looking up at the ceiling. “I am afraid that I cannot accept cases on speculation, nor allow myself to be kept on retainer. Out of consideration for the needs of other clients I may take on, you understand.”

King deliberately turned her head to gaze at the royal cipher, CR, expertly etched into the wall with bullet holes. “I believe I do, Mr. Holmes,” she said after a long moment, and Watson realized that his hand was going for the revolver he did not have within reach. He stilled the motion instantly, but he knew that Holmes had marked it, and he would wager that King had too.

“Well,” she said, more naturally, “I thank you for your time nonetheless, Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson, and I shall leave this”—she held up a folded cheque in one gloved hand—“here in case you should reconsider.” King leaned forward and placed the cheque against some of the bric-a-brac on the mantelpiece. “And so I bid you good day.”

“Good day, Miss King,” Holmes said, studying the wall or something else not readily apparent. He made no move to rise as etiquette dictated, and Watson was unwilling to show up his friend so blatantly, so they both remained where they were while King showed herself out.

Directly she had left Watson stood and crossed to the fireplace, plucking the cheque off the mantel. He swallowed involuntarily when he saw the amount; £250, as she had said, made out to Mr. Sherlock Holmes in a clear, bold hand. It was, he saw, drawn on the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Holmes, meanwhile, had thrown himself out of his chair and was craning his neck to stare out the window, evidently watching to determine which way King went. “Well?” said Watson, looking over at him.

“She had a carriage waiting,” the detective replied, still angling his head. “It departed southwards, which does not reveal much.” He took a step back from the window, though his hands were still on the sill. “How much is that cheque, mother hen?” he asked, and when Watson told him he actually looked surprised.

“Did you think she was bluffing?” Watson asked, picking his way through the clutter to the window.

“Not about the payment, specifically,” Holmes answered, plucking the cheque out of Watson’s hand and holding it up to the light. “But unquestionably about something. Did you note the design on her gloves? And the peculiarity of her posture?”

“I did indeed,” Watson said, and then he was unable to keep the grin off his face any longer. He crossed his arms and leaned back against the window frame, and when Holmes glanced at him he felt his grin widen.

“What on earth is so amusing?” the detective asked, and raised an eyebrow when Watson chuckled.

“Oh, nothing, old cock.”

“Watson, you are a man of many talents, but I am very much afraid that lying shall never be one of them,” said Holmes. “What are you laughing at?”

“Holmes, would you care to make a little wager?” Watson asked breezily, by way of reply.

“A wager?” Holmes frowned. “What sort of wager?”

“A slight flutter, really,” said Watson, “nothing serious.”

The detective glanced at him, and Watson saw the corners of his moth quirk in a little grin of his own. “Name your terms, Doctor,” said Holmes seriously.

“They are quite simple. I believe that I know the answer to the riddle of Miss Victoria King—who she is, I mean, and why she bears that design on her gloves and walks in that peculiar fashion. The wager is that you will not be able to deduce the solution within, oh, a week.”

Holmes’s black eyebrows had climbed nearly into his dishevelled hair during the doctor’s little speech. “A week,” he repeated thoughtfully. “Those are uncommonly generous terms, old boy. And what shall the stakes be?”

Watson had given less thought to that question than to the idea of the bet, but his eyes fell on the cheque still in Holmes’s hand and he immediately knew the answer. “The loser,” he said, “shall treat the winner to supper at the Royal. And,” he added, “to an evening’s entertainment of his choice.”

Holmes smiled crookedly, and Watson knew his flatmate had taken his meaning; had they not been standing directly in the window, he very probably would have given in to the temptation posed by Holmes’s unshaven jaw and kissed him. As it was, they grinned at each other for a moment longer before Holmes said, “Watson, I am wounded. Clearly you undervalue my deductive abilities if you think that I cannot unravel the mystery posed by Miss King within a week’s time.”

“On the contrary, I assure you, old cock,” said Watson. “But the solution is quite extraordinary.”

“Hmm.” Holmes eyed him. “How am I to know that you did know the solution in advance?”

“You think I’d cheat?” Watson asked.

“Given the stakes, any man might be tempted to, ah, bend the rules,” Holmes said loftily, and Watson rolled his eyes.

“Oh, have it your way,” he said. “In the interests of fair play, I shall write the answer on this page in my notebook”—he held up the slim brown volume in question—“right now. And in return you, Holmes, must promise not to steal my notebook, or to read it.”

“I should never stoop so low,” said Holmes. “Really, Watson, you act as though I needed anything more than my intellect, a little spirit gum, and occasionally your assistance to solve a case. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Watson hid his smile. “Well, we shall see.”

“So we shall,” Holmes agreed, and stepped away from the window at last. “And on that note, I believe I am going out. Tell Mrs. Hudson not to hold dinner, won’t you?”

“Of course,” said Watson to his back; the sitting room door shut on Holmes’s gesture of acknowledgement. Letting his smile breach his face, the doctor reclaimed his chair and his friend’s discarded copy of the Times. It had been several weeks since Holmes’s last case, and Watson had privately begun to be concerned about the onset of one of the detective’s despondent sloughs. For that reason alone he would have been grateful to Miss Victoria King, despite his healthy foreboding at the import of her visit. He hoped it would take Holmes at least several days to figure out her circumstances, for all their sakes.

Involuntarily, the doctor glanced out the window, to the little slice of grey sky he could behold through it. But after a moment Watson very firmly put the thought from his mind. London was a long way from any battlefield, and the regulations in question were exceedingly strict.

 

Watson saw little of his friend for the next few days, but the chaos of Baker Street took on a more focused edge than its usual inchoate mayhem, and as a betting man the doctor would have laid money that the detective was well on his way to solving the mystery of Victoria King, one way or another. In the meantime Watson took himself off to his club, which he had joined not long after he’d begun lodging with Holmes in a desperate attempt to retain a connection, however tenuous, to the sort of existence in which ex-Army surgeons did not find themselves chasing through the alleys of London after footpads, thieves and murderers three or four nights out of seven. In his characteristically perverse fashion, Watson had quickly begun to find his fellow members deeply boring. Next to Holmes, everyone else just seemed dull: ink drawings juxtaposed with an oil painting.

The passage of a week found Watson ensconced in their sitting room, jotting down notes on Holmes’s last case—enciphered, of course, always enciphered; he’d become a minor cryptology expert in an astoundingly short time—in his current notebook while Mrs. Hudson’s luncheon, lovingly or at least assiduously prepared, cooled on the table in front of him. It was half past two already, with no sign of the detective, but Watson kept his temper firmly in check. Holmes would make his entrance eventually.

Sure enough, after another twenty minutes the door flew open with a bang and Holmes burst into the room, his face bearing a peculiar amalgamation of expressions. Watson was learning, slowly, to interpret his friend; he could recognize at least the unmistakable air of satisfaction Holmes wore like a cape when he had arrived at a solution to a particularly thorny problem. But it was tempered by something much less familiar: surprise? Unease? Something not quite comfortable, certainly.

Watson finished his last few words and closed his notebook, putting the cork back in his ink-bottle and laying down his pen. “Well, Holmes,” he said, “I take it you have won our wager.”

Holmes dropped into the chair across from him, shucking his dark coat and tossing it onto one of the armchairs. Evidently he had been caught in the rain after all. He said nothing for a long moment, merely sat back in the chair staring at the table.

“Holmes, have some tea,” Watson urged, removing the cosy from the pot and pouring them both cups of the steaming brown liquid. If anything it had sat too long, but there was sugar.

The detective appeared to take no notice of the cup that the doctor placed at his elbow. “Watson,” he said at last, coming back at last from whatever altitude to which he had ascended, and focusing on his friend with that same unnerving concentration Watson experienced too seldom, “may I inquire, how did you first learn of this?”

Watson reminded himself that Holmes could not know about what he was asking—oh, almost certainly Holmes guessed, but he could not know for certain. So he ignored his first instinct in favour of his second and replied, as calmly as he could, “I treated a cloud jane on the field in Afghanistan. Our airships were delayed, you know, in advance of Maiwand; that is why the Afghans routed us so abominably. But in the earlier battles the Aery were invaluable.”

Holmes took that with the imperturbability that made the detective one of the few people to whom Watson would speak of the war, though the doctor did not volunteer recollections unprompted. Watson had learned quickly that almost no one wanted to hear about his experiences, and had stopped trying to explain them; his flatmate, by contrast, was genuinely interested, and offered sympathy without pity. 

After a moment, Holmes took a sip of his tea, and frowned into it. “Your usage of ‘cloud jane,’ my dear Watson, implies that the Aery’s…peculiarity…is well-known in military circles.”

“It is an open secret,” Watson said after a moment, “at least among the officers of the Army. I imagine that in Aery towns, such as Edinburgh, that fact is rather more open than secret, despite the regulations concerning secrecy among the aviators themselves.”

“I cannot quite believe,” Holmes admitted, “than an entire branch of Her Majesty’s military is entirely composed of women.”

Put baldly, it did seem rather incredible, but Watson no longer found it strange; he had seen enough strange and horrible things made real in the war that his threshold of disbelief was now somewhere in the upper atmosphere. The things he put up with from Holmes on a daily basis without a word of complaint or even a batting of an eye were ample proof of that. “Well,” he remarked dryly, “I am told that the surgeons are men.”

Holmes actually laughed. “I am almost surprised to find myself unsurprised. You observed the insignia on King’s gloves, I presume?”

“So did you,” Watson countered; “I merely already knew what it meant.”

“In a word: that Victoria King is a captain in Her Majesty’s Aery.”

“Congratulations,” Watson told him, a half-smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. He opened the notebook again and flipped back a few pages, to the place where he had written in plaintext Victoria King is an officer in the Aery under the date, October 12, 1882. This he passed to Holmes, who glanced over it and handed it back, looking slightly bored. “Our reservation at the Royal is for eight o’clock, by the bye.”

But Holmes shook his head, the motion unwontedly violent and graceless. “No, my dear Watson, it is you who have won,” he said; “I must forfeit, on account of outside assistance.”

Watson stared at Holmes, honestly shocked for the first time in months. “Outside assistance?” he repeated. “But, Holmes—from whom?”

The detective saw the expression on his physician’s face and laughed, putting a hand to his face and bending his head. “Oh, Watson,” he said when his hilarity had subsided somewhat. “Did I never tell you that I have a brother?”

“A brother?” said Watson, knowing that he sounded dumbfounded rather than tolerantly amused; they were falling out of their normal sphere into a new course, and he could not help but blame King for it, however irrationally. “No, Holmes, you certainly did not. May I ask—what is his name? Where does he live?” Even now, after more than a year of living together and nearly half that much time of total intimacy, he could not quite bring himself to say, What is he like?

But Holmes, of course, heard the question despite Watson’s tactful reticence. “My brother Mycroft,” he said, pouring himself more tea, “makes his home here in London, rather near his place of employment—which is Whitehall. He will not tell me precisely what he does in the government, but I am assured that he does it. Knowing Mycroft, he is probably the lynchpin of the system.”

“I see,” said Watson. “Do you—see your brother often?” It was a fascinating idea to him, not only to have a sibling but to live close enough to that person as to be able to visit with them whenever one pleased. The doctor’s family were all dead, all but one of them on other continents.

“Until this week I had not seen Mycroft since I was sixteen,” said Holmes. “Watson—you must understand, he is like me, only rather more so. Society does not agree with him.”

“Even yours?” Watson asked bluntly.

“Perhaps especially mine, in some ways. It is not that we are estranged; quite the contrary. It is just that Mycroft is devoted to order—“

“And you are not particularly well noted as a champion of the same,” Watson finished, interrupting.

Holmes smiled at him. “Precisely. But to own the truth, I hit a wall in the case of Captain King two days ago: I had one set of informants saying that she is exceedingly well-connected, particularly so given her lack of a title, and another saying that she is a servant of the Crown. I went to Mycroft in the hope that he could bridge the chasm in my deductions; Mycroft knows everything.”

“Everything?” Watson asked teasingly.

“Everything, my dear doctor.”

Even the nature of our partnership? Watson wondered, but did not ask; he could not quite think of a way in which the essential meaning, Does your brother know that you are a practicing sodomite? did not shine through rather too clearly. Holmes preferred subterfuge.

“Mycroft sends his regards, incidentally,” Holmes said next, answering that particular question.

“And please give him mine in return,” Watson responded automatically, his attention sliding away from the conversation; thoughts of what he and Holmes did together habitually quickly gave rise to thoughts of what he and Holmes could be doing at that instant.

The detective grinned at him knowingly and reached for the plate of sandwiches. “So I shall,” he said; “perhaps the two of you shall even meet one day. I admit the idea is not without a certain attraction.”

Watson raised an eyebrow, steadfastly disregarding the sight of Holmes not only eating but enjoying his meal, which only occurred when the detective was paying some attention to it. “In the meantime, shall we split the bill for our dinner tonight, then?”

 “By all means,” the detective said, swallowing, and Watson reached out to brush crumbs from Holmes’s collar, the other man’s eyes dark on him in the waning afternoon light. They held their money jointly anyway. 

“Will you cash King’s cheque?” Watson asked, letting his hand rest across the ridge of Holmes’s collarbone, fingertips brushing his trapzeius.

Holmes glanced very briefly at Watson’s hand and then back at the doctor himself, eyes very slightly dilated. “Do you think we can afford not to?” he asked bluntly, and took another bite of the sandwich.

“No,” Watson admitted. “And I think she knew it.”

“I concur with your deduction, Watson,” said Holmes; “we’ll make a consulting investigator of you yet.”

“No, thank you, Holmes; I am content with medicine. It is not quite so different, you know.”

“I do, because you have told me.” Holmes set the sandwich back on his plate half-eaten. It was a constant wonder to Watson how the man could lead the life he did on so little nourishment, and he was unhappily certain that cocaine made up the deficit. The doctor knew, distantly, that he meant to break his friend of that particular habit eventually, but he had barely let himself consider his own determination consciously heretofore. He would need every ounce of ingenuity he possessed not only to do so but to do so without Holmes realizing, and he knew that he was not yet up to the task. He had been a different man, before he had gone to war, and he was only beginning to solidify his grasp of his new limits, and capacities.

He realized abruptly that Holmes was watching him, his scrutiny frank but not unkind. “Afghanistan?” the detective asked, and because the other man was not wholly wrong, Watson nodded.

Holmes leaned forward and kissed him, mustard still tingling on his lips and tongue. Watson put his other hand on Holmes’s shoulder and pulled the detective still closer, bold in his certainty that Holmes had locked the sitting room door behind him.

After a moment Holmes pulled back, studying him briefly. Watson bore it patiently, but did not relinquish his grip on the detective. “I take it you have no objections to an early start on the evening’s entertainments, then,” said Holmes, and Watson chuckled.

“None whatsoever, Holmes.”

“Good.” Holmes kissed him again, clearly trying to set a slightly slower pace than their usual wont, and Watson let him take the lead; he was as content to follow Holmes in this, for the time being, as he was in every other sphere.

It was only when they were lying on the sitting room floor, half out of their clothing on the tigerskin rug, that Holmes voiced the question which Watson knew immediately had been bedevilling him for a good twenty minutes. “Did she live, your cloud jane?” the detective asked, speaking very nearly into the skin of Watson’s flank. He looked up at Watson just as he said it, and the doctor sighed, glancing into the low fire in the grate rather than meet Holmes’s eyes.

“She was badly wounded even before she fell from her airship,” he answered, his writer’s brain telling him that the colour of the coals was the same as the sun that day when he knew perfectly well that was not the case. “I did what I could for her, but she was loath to remain on the ground. She vanished from the tent while I was drawing her a surette of morphine; I never saw her again.”

“Mm.” Holmes bent his head back to the skin of Watson’s stomach with renewed interest, but stopped when Watson reached down and put a hand to the angle of his jaw, bringing his head up.

“Do you have enough data now?” he asked, smiling to make clear his good humour, and Holmes grinned back up at him.

“One can never have too much data, Watson,” he said archly, voice regaining that smooth tone Watson both loved and loathed, depending on his mood; today he found it reassuring. “But I have sufficient data concerning the Aery, I think, for now. At the moment I am far more concerned with data about you, my dear doctor. If you would be so obliging as to kiss me again, I might be able—“

As ever, Watson did as he was asked, and more; he kissed Holmes until he could feel the calculation falling out of him, until Holmes forgot all pretence of deductions and only kissed him back.