“Was that storm last night your doing?”
“Jeannie, did you ever hear of knocking?”
“Fine, knock-knock. Now answer the question, Pros-”
“Answer the question, Rodney.”
“Uh, any particular reason that you think it might have been?”
“Prossie, you are such a rotten liar! Don’t you think for a minute that you’re fooling me! Or that I didn’t see the ship that went down in that storm or that I don’t know that ships usually have human passengers and crew, who are now undoubtedly drowned!”
Rodney reminded himself that using his cloak of invisibility to escape his baby sister’s tirade would not only be undignified – it was also unlikely to be successful. For one thing, John would probably find it quite amusing to help Jeannie track him down.
“Would it help if I told you that nobody drowned?” he offered.
Jeannie narrowed her eyes. “This is one of your plans, isn’t it? What’s going on, Prossie?
“Jeannie, I can’t tell you everything right now, it’s...”
“Don’t you dare say ‘classified.’ You’re the only one who classifies things on this island and we both know it. And if you could raise a storm to sink that ship, you could have raised a wind to bring it ashore here instead. I’m 23 years old, Prossy. Maybe just once I’d like to see another human face besides yours. And you, you’re not getting any younger either. Sure, you’ve got John to pal around with, but don’t you sometimes feel you’re missing something? I know I do.”
“Jeannie, you have absolutely no idea what other humans are like. Look, what do you remember about how we came to this island?”
“Damn little, considering that I was three years old!”
“Then it’s time for you to hear the story. Have a seat – oh, sorry, you’ll have to move some books out of the way. Do you want something hot to drink?”
“Are you drinking that ground-up bean drink again? You drink too much of that. It makes you jittery.”
“Did John put you up to saying that? Every time I send him out to get more, he complains about having to go all the way to Arabia.”
“You ask a lot of that spirit, Prossy – and I’ve never heard you say ‘please’, either.”
Privately, Rodney thought it was just as well that Jeannie had never been around for the occasions on which he said “please” to John – or those on which John said it to him.
“Do you want to hear this story or not, Jeannie? Okay, then. I’ve told you before that your mother – Dad’s second wife – died when you were born and Dad died soon after. What I didn’t tell you was that they were the Duke and Duchess of Milan. Dad remarried while I was at university in Padua...”
“Astrophysics. It’s not my fault that the astronomy and astrology departments were combined and that physics was being taught by the natural philosophy department. I ended up having to get two doctorates just to cover what’s basically one field of study, and then I was working on a third in mechanical wizardry when Dad died. ‘Broken heart’ was the official story but considering what happened later on, I’ve always wondered if someone didn’t pour poison in his ear while he was sleeping. I had to come home and get sworn in as Duke, but since I was underage Dad’s brother Tony took over on the day-to-day work of running the dukedom, which meant I could keep up on my research. Really, who wants to deal with a bunch of whining courtiers when they could be winning arguments with Galileo instead?”
“Someone who wants to keep their job as Duke?” Jeannie suggested sweetly. Rodney felt himself flush and cursed his fair skin.
“Yes. Well. By the time I came of age, Uncle Tony had gotten used to having things under his own control. He’d also gotten to be pretty good buddies with the King of Naples, who’s a moron if I ever met one. You and I had both been kept out of the public eye. It was easy for Tony to get rid of us – I think the story was that I’d abdicated and you’d died of a fever – and take the title of Duke for himself, especially after Naples promised he’d make it worth Tony’s while.”
“So Uncle Tony sent us here?”
“Actually, I think the original plan was to have us exiled to far northern Muscovy. I’m not sure why that fell through. But instead, Tony had us loaded onto a rotten carcass of a boat – it was so bad the very rats instinctively had quit it – and put out to sea. He was probably hoping we’d drown, and I’m not sure why we didn’t. As it was, the only reason we survived is that one of my former professors, Dr. Gonzalo, managed to sneak food, water, supplies and my books into the boat along with us.”
“Which goes to show that not all humans are evil!”
“No, just most of them! Jeannie, I’m not paranoid, I’m cautious.”
“Yeah, and Steve’s not a monster, he just had a deprived childhood. You still haven’t told me why you raised the storm.”
“Naples’ daughter Claribel just got married in Tunis. Uncle Tony attended the wedding, along with the king and the king’s heir. The ship that you saw sink...”
“They were all on it, weren’t they? Oh, Prossy, after twenty years do you really think revenge is going to do any good?”
“I don’t want revenge, I want redress and restitution. And yes, I’ve got a plan, but for it to work you’re going to have to let it unfold in its own time. Jeannie, I’ve raised you since the age of three. I’ve seen to it that you have an education that would amaze most of the scholars in Europe. Can you trust me on this?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Uh, not really?”
“Didn’t think so. Oh, hi, John. Come on in, I’m just leaving.” And Jeannie swept out of the lab in a flurry of skirts.
“Someone’s in a mood,” John drawled.
“Yes, and for once it’s not you.”
Rodney sighed. “Jeannie’s getting impatient. She’s a beautiful and brilliant young woman who’s spent the last twenty years of her life trapped on a desert island with her much older brother, a spirit of the air and a monster.”
“You say that like twenty years is a lot.”
“It is for a human. For you – perhaps not so much.” Rodney considered his companion fondly. John indeed looked much the same as the day Rodney had met him, except of course for the minor detail that John was no longer imprisoned in a cloven pine tree. Rodney could still remember the first words they’d exchanged:
“That looks incredibly painful, a torment to lay upon the damned!”
“Nah, I’m fine.”
Once Rodney had split the pine open and let John free, there had been introductions:
“Dr. Rodney McKay, PhD, PhD, rightful Duke of Milan.”
“You’re from Milan and your name is Rodney?”
“Well, it’s really P. Rodney McKay, but I don’t use my first name. Speaking of names, I’m going to call you Ariel, okay?”
“Uh, no. Not okay. You’re not naming anything on this island.”
“Who’s going to stop me?”
“No one. It’ll just be a waste of your time. We all already have names and won’t answer to anything else.”
“Fine, be like that. If that’s the case, then your name is...?”
“And you were imprisoned in a pine tree because...?”
John muttered something about disobeying orders.
Two decades later, Rodney still didn’t have the complete story on the pine tree and John still had the same long, lean body and the same changeable eyes. His dark hair still looked as if it was trying to fly on its own even when John was on the ground. He still wore the same outfit, i.e., one black wristband. Rodney had discovered fairly soon after meeting John that the black feathers around his loins didn’t come off. “They just grow that way,” was John’s completely inadequate explanation, “Like my hair.”
Rodney himself had changed somewhat more than John over the years. He’d been a gangly 21-year-old back then, his adult height and breadth of shoulder still sitting awkwardly on him. The golden curls of his childhood had darkened to brown but had not yet started to recede. Now he looked more... solid. Living on a desert island had kept him pretty fit, but the fact was that John and Steve did the heavy lifting while Rodney spent most of his time on his own research.
Come to think of it, this was pretty much the same behaviour pattern that had landed him and Jeannie on the island in the first place. Was there something he should be learning from that?
“Now who’s moody?” murmured John, stepping closer and drawing Rodney to him. Rodney went willingly, tucking his head against the John’s shoulder. “Don’t you wanna hear how it went on the Daedalus?”
Rodney chuckled. “Go ahead. Tell me.”
“You should have seen me fly, Rodney. The guys on the ship never knew what hit them.” John’s voice was low and fiercely happy. “I was flaming, and moving so fast it looked as if I was in several places at once.”
“Which is physically impossible.”
“I’m a spirit – the laws of physics don’t apply to me.”
“The laws of physics as we currently understand them don’t apply to you. Considering that we’ve barely made it into the 17th century...”
“Hey, who’s telling this story, you or me?”
“Neither of us, if you keep kneading my ass like that.”
“Does that mean stop?” teased John.
“It means hurry up and finish the story so we can get on to other things.”
“Okay, then. Everyone you wanted is safe on the island, scattered around in groups with the king’s son on his own. The ship’s safely tucked away in a harbor with the sailors all fast asleep. The rest of the fleet’s heading back for Naples, everyone aboard convinced that they saw the Daedalus sink. That’s it. Now, other things?”
“Mmmm, yes... Wait, what’s that noise? Jeannie, is that... Steve, get out of here!”
“You’re always hungry! It’s not my fault we don’t have the right kind of food for you!”
“If you were really that great a wizard or physics scholar or whatever, you’d’ve found something by now!” Steve growled.
“There’s a difference between being a wizard and being a voodoo practitioner!” Rodney retorted. He had to lean around John to do it. “John, stop being so over-protective!”
“Yeah, Johnny-boy, fly away and let the thief speak for himself. You stole my island, thief! My mother was a Queen...”
“Of what, I’d like to know?”
“...And she left this island to me and you stole it and made me a slave!”
“I treated you damn well until you tried to feed on my sister!”
“Tried and almost succeeded!”
“Tried and failed, and if you try it a second time I will kill you with my brain. Get out of here! Now! Go gather wood or something, we always need more wood. One of these days I’ve got to invent a better power source.”
Steve slunk out, still muttering to himself.
“Well,” said John after a moment, “That was a mood-killer.”
“Probably just as well,” said Rodney glumly. “We’ve got work to do.”
“Okay, we’ve introduced Jeannie to the King of Naples’ son...”
“And given them a chance to get to know each other...”
“Meanwhile convincing the King of Naples – Al? Not Albert, Albert’s someone else...”
“How about we just call him Al, buddy?”
“Convincing Al, my Uncle Tony and just about everyone with them that this son has been killed...”
“As punishment because they not only kicked Jeannie and me out of Milan, they also sent us out to sea to drown. By the way, you make a really convincing harpy.”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“Then we arranged Jeannie’s and Caliban’s...”
“Whosever’s wedding – do you think he’s smart enough for her? My original plan was for her to marry Al’s first-born son – Fred? Something like that – but he was killed in a duel, some mess he got into in Verona. Caleb’s the second-born. Before he became the heir, he was studying to teach English, can you imagine? How he’s going to cope with Jeannie and the throne of Naples, I have no idea.”
“Bit late to worry about that now, buddy. Unless you want to tell the goddesses of marriage and fertility that dragging them down here for the wedding was all a big mistake?”
“Maybe not. Hey, speaking of goddesses, what was going on between you and that alien goddess in the corner?”
“Uh, what alien goddess?”
“Don’t you ‘what alien goddess’ me! I saw the two of you sneaking off while Juno and Ceres were droning through the ceremony. There was something glowy going on.”
“Oh, that wasn’t a goddess, that was my cousin.”
“Yeah, we’re related. Distantly, anyway. It’s ancient history. She was just saying hello.”
“Right, I bet she was. Glowy is ancient for hello.”
“Hey, Rodney, c’mon...”
“And what did she mean about coming out to see her sometime? I heard that!”
“With the hands! You’re just trying to change... Oh. Okay, go right ahead and keep changing the subject.”
“Actually, could you, uh, change the subject just a bit harder? Yes, yeah, like... Wait, what’s that noise?”
“Well, you told me to have the king and your uncle and their friends meet us here.”
“I didn’t mean right when we were about to...” Rodney sighed. “Never mind, what’s their ETA?”
“About five minutes. Actually, Rodney, Al’s pretty broken up about his son.”
“Since when are you a judge of human feelings, spirit?”
“Since pretty much never, seeing as how I’m not human myself. But I think that if I were... I’d feel sorry for him.”
“You know, John,” said Rodney thoughtfully, “I think that’s the closest I’ve ever heard you come to talking about your feelings. Even in the conditional tense.”
John rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably under Rodney’s gaze.
“Okay, let’s get this over with. Bring Al and the gang here. No, wait. Make sure Jeannie and Caleb are decent. Then bring Jeannie’s new father-in-law and his friends here.”
“Prossy? Oh, here you are. Come on, the Daedalus is waiting to take us back to Naples. Everyone’s ready to go aboard, why are you still... Prossy? Your staff’s still in one piece.”
“Uh, yes, well, I’m working on that, Jeannie.”
“How long does it take to break a staff and drown a book or three? Anyone would think you were having – you’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“What if I am?”
“Prossy, you’ve got everything you hoped for. Uncle Tony’s confessed and agreed to give you the dukedom back, King Al’s apologized and agreed to let me marry Caleb...”
“More like I’ve agreed to let Caleb marry you! I still don’t think he’s smart enough for you, Jeannie. I mean, if he’s not smart enough to realize that you only accused him of cheating at chess to distract him from the fact that you were cheating, and did John teach you how to do that because I know I didn’t, which makes me wonder if that’s how John manages to beat me at chess...”
“Prossy? It’s not all about big brains. I hope you figure that out some day. But right now, you have a ship to catch. After everything you’ve gone through to get your dukedom back...”
“The dukedom I lost in the first place because maybe I’m not cut out to be a duke. Ruling minions is a pain in the ass, Jeannie.”
“So what are you going to do instead? Stay here with your books and equations? Prossy, there’s more to life than physics and magic. You need other people around you. Other human people. You’re not John, you know.”
Rodney stared at her.
“I mean, it’s all well enough for him to be going on about how merrily he’s going to be living now that he doesn’t have to put up with you anymore.”
“You’re... right. You’re completely right, that’s all he was doing, putting up with me. Jeannie, you go along, tell the rest of them I’ll be out in a moment.”
“Or I could wait here for you?”
“Just – just go, okay?”
“Okay, Prossy,” Jeannie replied gently. “Don’t be too long.” Rodney watched her go.
“You’re both wrong.”
“Hey, what did I tell you about sneaking up on me!”
“It’s hard to avoid, Rodney. Spirit of the air and all that. Uh, you’re still both wrong.”
“Putting up with you. I never did.” John was doing the neck-rubbing thing again.
“Come with us,” Rodney blurted.
“Buddy, I can’t...”
“Yes, you can! Just get on the ship. Or if you don’t like sea travel, you can meet us when we dock in Naples.”
“Rodney, I can only leave the island for short periods.”
“I’ve been bound to this island ever since it rose from the depths of the sea. Any time I leave it, it – it calls me back. I can go to Arabia for your beans and stuff like that, but I can’t be away for long.”
“And you were going to tell me this, when?”
“It never mattered before.” John shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. I just came to say good-bye.” With his hands on Rodney’s shoulders, John leaned forward to place a kiss on Rodney’s lips, brief and chaste compared to the others they’d shared. Then John pulled away.
“So long, Rodney.” And John vanished.
“Oh, no. No, you don’t,” muttered Rodney, searching for paper, pen and an inkpot.
The Daedalus sailed with the tide. She carried, among others, the new Duke of Milan.
Or more properly, the duke consort, since he held the title by marriage to the new duchess. The King of Naples eyed his daughter-in-law cautiously, already suspecting that she was going to be less of a pushover than her uncle had been.
Al was still adjusting the turn of events precipitated when Jeannie’s brother had rushed out of his lab demanding witnesses for his signature on the abdication papers. The fellow – his sanity clearly affected by two decades of life on a desert island – had then hustled them aboard, “Chop, chop!” And if Al wasn’t mistaken, the offshore wind that hastened their departure had pretty much sprung up out of nowhere.
The king was distracted from his thoughts when his jester and his butler staggered by in company with another guy, all three of them still hungover. Al frowned, trying to place the third guy. One of the sailors, maybe? Except he looked too seasick to be a sailor – definitely green around the gills.
Rodney stood on the beach, watching the Daedalus’ sails vanish over the horizon.
“I always figured,” said a voice behind him, “that after all the humans left, it would just be Steve and me and the other spirits.”
“Wrong, wrong, wrong! Steve shipped out with his new friends. I gave Jeannie some tips on keeping him in line, she can handle it. Of course, that means instead of putting up with him, you’ll have to put up with...”
“I already told you...”
“Fine, have it your way. Since you weren’t putting up with me before, do you think you could continue not putting up with me?”
John stared at Rodney, then started laughing. He had a truly horrible laugh – Rodney had heard him use it as part of his harpy routine.
“I didn’t see this coming,” John admitted.
“Yes, well, I thought we’d agreed that you don’t know much about human feelings,” said Rodney smugly, putting an arm around John’s waist to tug him closer.
“So I guess this means I’ll still be going to Arabia to get you beans?”
“Uh, yes? And also maybe running some correspondence back and forth between here and Padua? And Prague?”
John frowned. “Not that it’s a problem, but what’s in Prague?”
“There’s a couple of people doing interesting work there – Kepler and another guy, Zlinky? Zenka? Something like that.”
“Okaaay, so what are you going to offer me to make all these errands worth my while?” John murmured into Rodney’s hair.
“I’m a genius, I’m sure I’ll think of something,” said Rodney. He kissed John’s throat and let his hands shift lower.
“So we’re good?” breathed John.
“We’re good. All’s well that ends well.”