The small airship came in without warning, a gorgeous rounded hull descending slightly too quick into the dock. I knew almost immediately that it was likely the fault of the elevators, watching as she tilted forward slightly like a lover, leading with her face, the windows like eyes staring straight at me, like she was coming back to me in particular. Like she knew how long I’d been waiting to meet someone like her and couldn’t wait for me to put my arms on her, in her.
She turned her nose up in time, just grazing the ends of the dock, scraping edges into her paint and moulding as she settled alongside the mooring mast. Boys from the service ran forward and immediately began to secure her with rope; others ran up to check the damage of the buffed edges, or simply to stare in awe, as transfixed by her as I was.
“Lots of work,” Lai noted, her hands working kinks from her back, her salt and pepper locs straggling in short bursts over her head. Her trousers had slipped low on her hips, a worrying sign that she was losing weight again, even as it helped her look boxy and angular, mannish. Passing for a man was paramount for us if we were to eat and keep ourselves off the streets, even if the deception did make us fodder for every passing constable who wanted to see our papers, determined to report us as runaway slaves for a coin or two from our supposed masters. Fortunately Lai and I had good papers, and when we hadn’t had those, we’d had the good sense to keep our heads down and keep to the harder edges of the docks where the constabulary rarely ventured.
My own trousers had grown loose over time as well, as our money went increasingly to opium tinctures and we had less to spend on food. It only dulled the pain, never took it away, and sometimes left behind a throbbing ache in my skull, but it was better than the white hot agony we’d been forced to live with for years before we’d managed to find steady employment. That I’d found my passion along with a means to see my pain controlled was simply a happy bonus.
I hurried forward, ignoring the ache that flared up burning hot in my palms as I scrubbed them clean of grease. It had been hours since my last dose and I yearned to take another already, but knew I could not, not if I wanted to work on the beauty before me. My hands would be too heavy.
She was even more captivating up close as I clambered up the ladder along her side, her shape more streamlined than the larger airships I’d worked on before. Her broad sides were hammered iron and curved round, her nose cone a dainty point, the whole of her worn smooth with time and care. We weren’t supposed to climb aboard any ship that docked, not unless our services were expressly requested and even then the crew would be determined by the chief mechanic on duty, but these weren’t thoughts I concerned myself with at that moment. At that moment I was in love, and more than anything else, I wanted to put my hand out and feel the soft burr of her as her engines wound low for the day.
“Be careful,” a voice snapped as I put my hand out to touch, harsh with an authority belied by the lilting northern accent it was delivered in.
I turned in surprise and there, waiting by the edge of the gondola, was definitely a woman, hip aggressively cocked and mouth pursed. In defiance of all convention, she wore soft brown breeches and a coat, a steel sword resting on her hip and two wooden stakes clasped on the outsides of her slim thighs.
I faltered briefly, somehow intensely aware of my own form beneath my clothes, though my breasts were bound whereas hers were clearly not, the soft folds of her shirt draped around them before being pulled and tucked into her waistband. I felt almost transfixed by her, the gentle beauty of her face and voice belied by the easy rest of her hand on the sword, the way her stance indicated her comfort and familiarity with everything surrounding her, from the sweet curves of the ship to the sharp tip of her sword.
Her green eyes tracked my hand, and I abruptly realized that there was still smudged grease on the heel from the caked edge of my shirt’s cuffs.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I murmured, pulling my hand away and wiping it against my work-stained clothes even as I continued to stare. “I just need to make sure everything on board is secure for the dockmaster,” I lied.
Either she was so used to people staring that it no longer registered or else she was simply in too much of a hurry to take me to task for it. As it was, she ignored my rudeness as I climbed aboard the gondola, doing my best to look trustworthy, in favour of asking abruptly, “Do you know where the Southwark hive resides and the quickest way to there?”
I’d been hovering at the start of a beautiful and familiar fantasy – the urge to stow away aboard an airship, to fly far from London and be free of all the endless smell and the drudgery, to live instead in the guts of a ship and keep her running. Buried somewhere in there was also the fantasy that came with the opium, the sense of lifting out of my own body and hovering above the pain that wracked the body I could only leave behind for short bursts. I imagined living aboard a ship would leave me forever with that same swooping feeling in my stomach that I got whenever I clambered aboard, whenever they let me shinny up the sides of an airship to check the pressure of the gas or sit, knees aching and thighs cramped, hammering out the dents in the propellers, something beyond love and approaching devotion that would see me free in a way the world could never allow me.
But now the fantasy broke and a chill ran through me. It had been barely four years since Nova disappeared for a month, abrupt and dizzying, like an arm wrenched from my already aching body, only to reappear after, utterly changed and sporting a new set of fangs and a small entourage, a hive queen in her own right with all the power that commanded. It should’ve been a relief and yet it wasn’t. She wasn’t like Lai and me anymore. Even before, she hadn’t understood the disease that made our hands shake and curl into claws, the aches that curved our backs on certain days, the shooting pains that were a regular background to our lives, there and felt but unacknowledged like a heart beating against a too tight chest, but now she could not even comprehend the structures of our body. Nor could she change us, nor would we let her try. We simply could not survive the process.
More than that, she was too utterly changed from the sister I thought I’d known, all her quiet airs and flounces, at once irritating and endearing were somehow still there but muted in this stranger who set up a home in Greenwich and rarely left it, sending her drones to fetch me, quiet men who were unfailingly polite but almost always stared at my messy locs and grease stained clothes as if I had somehow failed them by not appearing in silks and creams. If not for the papers she’d provided us with and the occasional hot meal, I felt I’d likely have given up all pretence of a relationship already. The fact that we had to be endlessly grateful for it all.
“What do you want with the vampires?” I blurted, and ignored the way the sight of those green eyes narrowing on my own made me thrill inside, like some part of me reveled in the attention.
“None of your business, boy,” she said, her accent still lilting so that the put down hardly registered. “Simply provide the information asked of you.”
I opened my mouth to refuse, determined not to part with a scrap of information until such time as she assured me exactly what she wanted with Nova, except a woman rounded the corner then on a man’s arm. She, at least, was dressed simply but formally in a walking dress, her voluptuous curves emphasised by the simplicity of the cut. Her dark hair tumbled artfully from beneath her bonnet. The man was far darker and his clothes seemed more worn, though they too would likely pass muster if needed for an audience with Nova. Say what you will but Nova’s interest rarely seemed to lie in clothes when blood, money, or valuable information was on offer.
“We have it,” the woman called out, waving what looked like a scrap of paper, likely covered with directions provided by one of the other workers. “Come on, Tev. Let’s go pay our respects.”
The woman – Tev – turned and made to follow them, and I had to scramble over the edge of the gondola to grab a hold of her sleeve.
“Wait,” I cried. “What do you want with the hive?” My hands scrabbled on her sleeve, my fingers refusing to find purchase or respond adequately as the tendons kept them claw-shaped.
Immediately Tev’s hand shot out to pin me against the curving side of the ship, the cool edges of it stealing heat from my body, as a low growl sounded from across the gondola, the man’s eyes flashing golden. Werewolf. Shit, a pack was involved. Whatever Nova had gotten herself mixed up in, the very fact that the packs were involved was a bad sign.
“Tev’s got it, Ovie,” I could hear the other woman say, and I swallowed hard against the hand that held my throat as I stared into Tev’s narrowed green eyes, the pursed bow of her mouth. Her other arm was braced across my chest and I knew she could feel the squashed curves of my breasts under the bindings as her brow wrinkled, comprehension and then calculation speeding across her face.
“You could say that,” Tev murmured, her grip on my throat relaxing before she pulled away completely. I immediately folded my arms protectively over my chest. I had my eyes closed to it all so I didn’t see her lean back in, could only imagine the long length of her and the way her muscles of her thighs would flex against the material of her breeches, the sharp edges of her nose and cheekbones as she whispered, “I know. So if you don’t want your secret to get out, you’ll stay out of our way. If you ask any more questions or tell anyone about this, then…”
She didn’t need to finish the sentence. I knew well what the consequences would be, not just for me but for Lai as well. Our access to food and medicine depended on this job. I would never place my hands in the guts of another airship, never feel the weight and power of her against me.
I was still shaking at the thought when they left, climbed silently down the ladder and disappeared into the evening shadows beginning to stretch out over the docks.
I don’t know how long I crouched in that gondola, panting in fear at the thought of all I’d achieved these last few years being ripped away from me, but when I came back to myself, anger mixing in sharply with the sour-flat taste of fear in my mouth, it was nearly dark and the gathering shadows meant the docks were busier than ever. Goods were exchanging hands, sailors and airmen called out greetings to each other, prostitutes called enticements or insults across the quay, and you could hear the fast clip of horse hooves and carriage wheels echoing, all of it amplified by the high ceiling of the gondola’s empty entryway where I crouched.
The anger helped me get my trembling legs under me, and I spent some time leaning against the rails as I worked aching fingers into the knotted and bunched muscles of my thighs, the burning tingle of blood rushing through them making me hiss out every other breath.
When I felt I could move, I limped to the nearest door and opened it, determined to find a way to assure Tev’s silence. Right now she knew my secret, and if I’d learned anything during Nova’s years as a hive queen, it was that information was a vulnerability our family could rarely afford. On the other hand, if I could find something of equal or greater value, then not only would Tev be forced to keep my secret, it was possible I could ask for something more. Perhaps the chance to finally be aboard an airship, like I’d always dreamed. A chance to travel and leave London behind with its dark narrow alleyways and Nova’s constant warnings pouring out of the mouths of a thousand interchangeable drones. The opportunity to feel the changes to an airship I’d worked on, to keep her running clear and smooth, and to know the smallest changes in her hums and whirrs, the clicks of her gaskets.
I felt like I would give anything for that.
Most of the doors swung open easily, and I wandered through a set of rooms filled with the familiar musky smell of wolf. Clothing lay tossed over the remarkably large bed, a mix of male and female undergarments, a bonnet and a hat perched on opposite sides of the hat stand. Clearly a shared area then for what was likely a married couple. I scrabbled quickly through the mostly empty drawers of the desk, and through the clothing in the small dresser and the trunk in what was clearly a dressing room, but none of them yielded anything of particular interest.
Moving quickly to the adjacent room, and with the setting sun leaving me just enough light to navigate by, I considered the bed here as well, this one roughly made into order, as well as the large desk and chair bolted to the floor and covered in maps and papers. A pair of smallish boots lay piled in the corner, and an umbrella stand beside it held a sword in its scabbard. A planter of pots sat on a windowsill, growing small bulbs of lavender and gardenia, a small heather bush mixed in amongst them.
The entire room smelled faintly like moss and meadowsweet, the same smell I’d had around me when Tev had pressed against me in warning earlier. Somehow smelling it again made something in me ache, the oddest feeling of having recognised a part of myself in this woman who also wore trousers instead of a dress, even if it wasn’t for the same reason, whose life was here, on an airship, and whose things surrounded me now. I couldn’t help but think of her long, lean body pressed against mine, awakening my flesh in a manner I hadn’t felt since Kugler, the pretty barmaid down by the quay, had given me my first kiss after a long night and too much ale, and who’d let me press my hand to her sweetly peaked breast even after she knew I wasn’t the boy I pretended to be.
This was not the same as Kugler and I had once been, nor could I say that my conscience was truly pricked, but something about being in this space made me feel like an intruder. Yet I knew already that if I was to find anything of worth and safeguard myself, then this would be where I was most likely to find it.
With this in mind I set about going through the papers on the desk, using a small knife from next to the inkwell to help me pry open the desk’s drawers when they were locked. Most of the letters didn’t make much sense and my own rudimentary ability to read was tested as I did my best to sound out the letters slowly and use them to form the words. One, its seal cracked, still discernibly had the figure of an octopus embedded into the wax, the words “kill Nova Quick” in it, words that I could recognize at first glance. I found myself staring down at the letter in shock, desperately trying to decode the words so they made more sense.
The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside jolted me into action. I hastily stuffed the letter into my pocket and slid the desk drawers shut before rushing to the small slatted wardrobe in the corner of the room and cramming myself inside amidst the few skirts and coats that hung there.
When the door opened, I pressed my face to the slats so I could see what was happening in the room. The sight of Tev entering with a lit lamp looking tired but essentially the same made panic and excitement curdle together in my belly. There was no way she’d managed to go up against Nova in her own hive and return looking quite as put together as when she’d left, even with a werewolf on her side, so clearly whatever she had planned hadn’t happened yet. I still had time.
As I watched, she put the lamp down carefully on a side table before sitting on the edge of the bed to pull off her boots, thunking them into the corner amidst the others already there. I could see her back flex as her arms came up to unbutton her shirt, the movement of them as she worked her way down her front. The sound of my own breathing grew loud in my ears and I could feel phantom twitches in the muscles of my arms, an ache prickling sharp points through my spine, but that all seemed far away from this moment.
“Tev,” came a woman’s voice at the door, the sound of it startling me as much as the knock. I blinked rapidly and focused on slowing my breath, and watched as a slow, warm smile spread across Tev’s features, anticipation lighting up her face, as she went to the door.
“Slip,” she said, throatier than before but still with that lovely northern lilt, and I saw her embrace the woman, kiss her before I shut my eyes and backed away from the slats.
It didn’t shock me that they’d kissed. After everything that Kugler and I had done together, kissing another woman was no longer a scandal for me. No, what shook me was the fact that they kissed so easily when it was so obvious that the woman – Slip, as Tev called her – shared rooms with a man aboard this very ship. A werewolf no less, who would no doubt be able to scent everything on this ship and know at once what they’d done. But they did it anyway. It was baffling.
More than that, there was something in me that shook at the fact that just the sound of this woman’s voice could have brought that look to Tev’s face, that sound to her voice. It wasn’t quite jealousy – it couldn’t be, not with what these people had planned for Nova – but it was… envy, perhaps. The thought of being wanted like that, by a woman like that.
“Tev,” I heard Slip say, impatience edging her voice, “not now. Ovie says someone’s been through our things. He can smell them in our room.”
He could smell me? Shit.
It took Ovie less than a minute in the room to discover my hiding place, and after my one real attempt at escape failed spectacularly, most of my wildly aimed fists and kicks simply bouncing off Ovie’s much larger bulk, I ended up tied to the only chair in Tev’s room.
Since the chair was bolted to the floor to prevent any shift during the airship’s movement, this meant that I was left facing out towards the window, with the desk with its various maps and papers spread out in front of me. Unfortunately, this meant that Tev and Slip were perched on the desk on either side of me, peering down into my face while Ovie growled menacingly at my back, periodically raising the hair on the back of my neck as he hit a particularly chilling register.
“Who are you?” Tev demanded. The letter I’d risked my safety to find lay crumpled on the desk in front of me, extracted during their hasty search of my person, along with my handkerchief, a wrench, and a screwdriver. She kept surveying my tools with worry before her eyes would skip back to the letter in question.
I glared at her, rage giving me strength even as the ropes cut into my sides, sharp stabs of pain flaring occasionally along the nerve endings in my arms. “I’m not some assassin sent to kill the Southwark hive queen,” I fired. There. Let her know that I knew what she was already. “You won’t manage it. I don’t know what sort of powerplay you’re planning but Nova’s too smart for you. She’ll gut you and your wolf and no amount of money they’ve offered you will be worth it.”
Slip’s brow wrinkled, her dark eyes confused. “We’re not here to kill the hive queen. You are.”
Wait, what? I shook my head furiously, locs flying abruptly around my face. “No one will believe that. If you plan to frame me for your attempt, I should warn you that you cannot succeed. Nova won’t believe it.”
Slip scowled. “Our attempt? Now you’re just being difficult. We’re trying to stop the attempt.”
She shot a quick look behind me and Ovie’s growl dropped to a pants-wettingly terrifying register, before she pointed to the note on the desk. “Tell us exactly what plans the Hypocras Club has for a vampire queen.”
For the first time I stumbled, confused by her sudden switch in topic. What in the world was the Hypocras Club and what had they to do with an attempt on Nova’s life?
Slip, mistaking my confusion for some form of willingness to reconsider, seemed to take stock of me once again. As I watched her reassess me, I could all but see the way she noted my dirty chipped fingernails and the grime in my hair, the ragged edges of my clothes and the tremble in my fingers that was harder to stop in the evenings. The look of quiet sympathy that seemed to fill her eyes was somehow more horrible than all the threats and growls that had come before.
But whatever she saw as she looked at me seemed to satisfy her; she changed tacks from threats to a more placatory tone. “Did they perhaps promise you money or your freedom? Or did they suggest they might apprentice you? Boy, you cannot know what fiends these so-called men of science truly are. Their horrific attempts to eradicate all supernatural beings are a perversion of the natural order. Would you ally yourself with murderers simply in the name of money? Or science?”
I hesitated, unsure if this was some sort of odd attempt to confuse me. It seemed like they believed me to be the assassin – which I knew was ridiculous since the letter had been hidden in Tev’s desk long before I climbed on board – but somehow they were trying to pin it on some Club now instead. “I’m not part of your Club,” I told her defiantly. “I saw the letter on your desk. I know it was you.” Then, sensing an advantage to be had, I pressed, “Nova will believe me if I tell her the truth.”
Slip opened her mouth to continue, but Tev held up a hand and she subsided immediately.
“You address the hive queen by her first name,” Tev said, her lovely vowels ringing with certainty. “You’ve done so repeatedly this entire time. Who are you to her? A drone? Are you hoping she’ll change you someday?”
I snorted automatically at the thought. Like Nova would ever drink from me. Her tastes were far more upmarket these days, as she never failed to remind me when she sent one of her drones to convey her regards or to drop off a small sum for our upkeep.
Tev nodded as if I’d confirmed something for her. “So not a drone. And not a boy either.” Slip’s eyebrows flew up at that piece of information and I scowled automatically in her direction, unwilling to be judged for my choices. “But someone close to the hive queen. Someone close enough to comfortably call her by her first name repeatedly.”
I felt a headache build in the back of my skull as Tev stared straight into my eyes, her soft voice washing over me. “I remember a rumour regarding the hive queen. They said she had a sister who passed unexpectedly, right around the time that she first swarmed. Everyone simply assumed she’d been killed, either by one of the other hives as a warning to the new queen, or by the new queen herself to ensure that no one could use her as a pawn. But –” she propped her socked foot on the corner of my chair, her toes tucked close under my thigh as she leaned in closer to me, her voice barely above a whisper – “what if her sister didn’t die at all? What if everyone just needed to be looking for a boy instead?”
The throb of the headache echoed back against my eyes, and I pursed my lips, refusing to either agree or deny. There were good reasons for why Nova and I never met in person any more, why she only rarely sent drones with the means to help us. Some of these reasons were to do with pride – mine and Lai’s – but as Tev had just rightly guessed, some of them had to do with survival.
“Hello, Miss Quick,” Tev murmured, her beautiful eyes glittering as if I’d confirmed it out loud for her anyway. “You’re just what we’ve been looking for.”
Everything came to a head after that. I wasn’t quite sure what to believe as they told me a rather far-fetched story of how they’d come to London to prevent what might be an assassination attempt on Nova’s life by the members of some sort of evil club of scientists.
“They’re from the Order of the Brass Octopus,” Ovie said, his voice floating out from behind me, somehow making the experience of this explanation even more surreal. “They’re basically scientists who have dedicated their lives to the process of invention. Most of the Order aren’t concerned with this – it’s just a small faction, members of what they’re calling the Hypocras Club – that want to test on or eradicate supernatural beings.”
I scoffed. “This isn’t even a good lie.”
Slip scowled at me for my comment, but Tev’s expression remained impassive, watching me for signs I was beginning to buy into their nonsense. I ignored the way her focus on me made my blood heat and raised my chin. It didn’t matter how much she’d seemed like me – trousers, kissing girls, just different – if she was going to hurt Nova.
“I’m a member of the Order as well,” Ovie continued, the soft sound of his footfalls echoing so I could hear him pace the room like a caged beast. “This airship is modified as part of my work. Those extra twists on the propellers for quicker turns? The way we haven’t had to take on more helium at this stop? These are all part of my work.”
And this actually explained so many of the questions sitting in the back of my mind. As lovely as this airship was, she was shaped differently than the ones I’d seen before. I’d assumed she was maybe a newer model, a jealous clench in the bottom of my belly to know that I’d likely never get to fly on her, something out of Europe where they said they were building bigger and faster airships every day. But this one was small, almost streamlined, her gondola tucked up closer to her tail than the previous versions I’d worked on. The fact that she was unique made me feel liquid with delight, the urge to explore her rising. I wanted to see every change, wanted to introduce myself to the ship and make myself so familiar with her, to her, that we would be inseparable.
“She’s lovely,” I told him, the sincerity in my voice coming through in a jealous croak. “I’ve never seen anything like her.”
I couldn’t see Ovie’s face but based on the expressions on Slip and Tev’s faces, he must’ve been pleased as well.
Slip coughed as if reluctant to interrupt, but then, after a look from Tev, picked up the train of the story again. “The note was found among the effects of a Mr. Pritchett, a new inductee to the Order from America,” she explained. “He’d contracted us to fly him to Southwark, only to refuse to come aboard once he discovered Ovie was a werewolf.”
Here she sneered, the slight clearly still smarting. Remembering the shared rooms, I flicked my eyes over to Tev to see if Slip’s defence of Ovie would raise any response only to see her still blandly observing me.
“Of course we packed his things immediately and returned them,” Slip continued, fists curled and colour high in her cheeks, her black eyes snapping. “But I mistook the note for one of Ovie’s own because of the seal so I failed to return it. And then once we’d opened it, well, here we are.”
She gestured at herself and Tev and then me in the chair in turn.
“So,” I paused and had to think it through. “You’re saying that this Mr. Pritchett wants Nova dead. But why? She probably has no idea who he even is if he’s been living in America.”
Tev finally answered then. “We don’t know. The members of the Hypocras Club seem to think that the supernatural needs to be exterminated. There’s always someone who feels like there are others who don’t belong in their world.” She made a point of not looking at me as she said the last part.
I felt oddly exposed at her words all the same, instantly aware of my locs and the colour of my skin, the way my breasts were bound beneath my shirt, the pain that speared through my limbs more frequently these days than before, even as I ignored it to work.
“Okay,” I choked out, something like humiliated anger burning in me. “Say I believe you. Say I help you. What’s in it for me?”
Slip startled, her pretty face going tight with confusion and annoyance. “We’re helping you save your sister.”
I shrugged. Nova was a hive queen. The chances of real danger to her weren’t likely. Besides, she more than anyone else would understand this now, the instinct for preservation above all. She’d left for months without a word. She would understand if I took the same risk. “You said it earlier; my bonds with Nova can only cause trouble for me.”
Slip threw her hands up in the air. “You would really let her die?!”
I shrugged again, ignoring the growing pain spreading from my shoulder to the nape of my neck with the movement. It had been too long since I’d had my last dose of medicine. “I think Nova knows how to take care of herself.”
“Not against these people!”
“Miss Quick,” Tev interrupted, throwing up a hand to forestall Slip’s next interjection. “What do you want in return for helping us?”
I bit my lip as I considered whether to explain what I wanted more than anything else. The chances of a shot like this coming along again while I was still able to move without too much pain, where I could really bond with an airship were so slim as to be nearly impossible. It was this then. All or nothing.
“I want to come aboard your airship as a crewmember. I want to work with Ovie.” I let my head drop back against the chair and stared up at the ship’s curved dome ceiling. “I want to help her run,” I whispered.
Ovie growled behind me and I could hear Slip sputtering, but I kept my eyes on that ceiling, feeling the slight sway of the airship’s movements under my feet. After travelling for a while I might not notice that again, or if they refused and I had to climb down that ladder and go back to the tiny room off the docks where Lai and I shared our cot, I might never feel this sway again. I savoured the moment as best as I could.
“All right,” Tev said finally. “If you help us, you can come with us for one trip during which Ovie will evaluate your work. If he thinks you’ll do, we can talk about you joining the crew more permanently then. If not, we’ll leave you wherever we call next. Agreed?”
The sense of joyous disbelief that grew in me as she spoke was almost too much to bear. I felt like I was flying apart, too overwhelmed to do much more than nod frantically as they finally untied me from the chair.
Tev held out her hand, somehow managing to convey absolute authority despite her tired eyes and her socked feet. “A deal?” she asked.
I laughed and took her hand. “A deal.”
It was decided then that we would leave in the evening the next day to try to warn Nova. Slip quickly filled me in on the fact that the crew’s attempt to gain an audience today had failed absolutely. They hadn’t even been allowed on the grounds of the estate. And despite all their attempts, none of the drones had been willing to carry a message to their queen. The only thing their talk of an assassination attempt had resulted in was their being barred by a large group of angry drones who hissed and flashed fang until the crew were forced to leave.
I did my best to look understanding and not laugh. Of course Nova wouldn’t have let strangers into her estate. And talking about an assassination attempt would have done the crew no favours with her mass of overprotective drones.
“I’ll go with you tomorrow,” I said, flexing and relaxing my fingers in an attempt to ease the cramping, ignoring the headache building behind my eyes. “Most of the drones know who I am so I should be able to get you in to see her.”
I didn’t mention that Nova would likely have us all thrown out a moment after we explained why we were there. There was something about turning into a vampire that seemed to have made it impossible for her to trust anyone she didn’t put her fangs into. Since none of us were likely to volunteer, the chances of us succeeding in getting her to listen to us were… tiny, at best.
“Also,” and I paused here, unsure of how well this would be received, “I think we’d better leave Ovie behind. No hive is going to allow a werewolf in to see their queen. Especially not if we’re bringing bad news as well.”
But Ovie just shrugged pragmatically. “I’ll stay behind and buff out those scrapes from our docking the other day,” he said.
Slip leaned into his side and took his hand, bussing him softly on the jaw. I nodded at them all and didn’t let my eyes linger on Tev like they wanted to. Instead I swung myself over the side of the gondola and started the slow climb down, careful to go slowly as my cramped, pained hands moved from rung to rung.
Lai was waiting for me when I finally made my way home, massaging her hands and shivering slightly in the night air. She’d left a small meal out for me which I ignored temporarily in favour of a dose of the opium tincture. The headache throbbing behind my eyes had increased its pounding and I felt vaguely like I was floating, half nauseous with the sensation.
Lai knew the symptoms well enough that she said nothing, just led me over to the cot and let me lay back, gave me a husk of dry bread to chew on slowly until the feeling faded slightly, the medicine working its magic to stop the trembling in my fingers, the feeling of weightlessness taking over again but this time without the urge to vomit.
Her cool hand came to rest on my brow and I sighed in relief, easing back more fully against the bedclothes.
“I’ve been contracted as an airship engineer,” I said, squinting my eyes open so I could see her expression. When she said nothing in response, I continued. “It’s the airship that came in today. They say they’ll try me out for a trip. If it works out, this could be my chance, Lai.”
I made no mention of the fact that this trial was contingent on my help with Nova. If Lai were to hear that others knew of our ties to Nova, she’d insist we leave immediately, would never let me join this crew with the mission they planned to undertake the next day.
It wasn’t as though I didn’t know the dangers. I wasn’t stupid enough to imagine that Nova’s enemies would be particularly kind to me or Lai if they ever discovered our existence. But protecting Nova’s secret had been the driving force behind our lives for so long, even as we built ourselves these new ones, that I was unwilling to have this part of my life defined by her as well. Whatever Nova was and whatever relation to her I was wouldn’t matter once I was in the air, running my hands along the insides of an airship, feeling its every shift for myself, the way the changes I made would show in her ease of movement. The airship would be the relation that mattered then, and I was willing to give up everything for that future.
Lai sighed deeply and I stuttered back from my thoughts to see her cross her arms heavily and lean back against the wall.
“Without me here, the money Nova sends will go further,” I offered as further enticement. I didn’t technically need my aunt’s approval, but it couldn’t hurt to have it.
She stared at me so long then that I flushed, chastised without a word spoken between us. “Alana,” she said, the regret in her voice setting off alarms all over my body, “airships are small. We can only hide as easily here because no one thinks to look too long at two men like us. On board, it will be different. What will you do when they find out that you’re a woman? What will they do when they find out you need medicine just to be able to work every day?”
I was shaking my head before she’d even finished speaking, my locs flying around my cheeks. “They know I’m a woman.” At Lai’s astonished look, I forged on. “They don’t care. Their crew has women on it. One of them even wears trousers. They don’t care what I am so long as I can work.” And so long as I took them to Nova. I ignored that to deal with the other issue. “The medicine is my own business. So long as I work, they have no right to complain.”
Lai looked exasperated. “You really think that’s going to work?”
I didn’t know how to explain that by the basics of the bargain I’d made, they had to give me a chance regardless of my misgivings. “Just… trust me,” I begged. “This is my chance. You know how much I’ve wanted this. Let me do this.” I screwed up my fists and closed my eyes to fight against the tears prickling against my lids.
I could hear Lai sigh before the cot dipped and her dry, chapped lips brushed against my forehead. “All right,” she said, sounding weary but resigned. “But know that it’s no failure to come home if it doesn’t work out.”
I let my breath out in one long gulp and turned to the side to cuddle into her, flinging my arms over her and ignoring the way it jarred my body. I needed to feel the slim bulk of her near me, the bones of her hips pushing into the skin of my thighs, the smell of her that was grease and iron like home. I knew already I wouldn’t be failing. And if I could help it, I wouldn’t be coming home.
The next day saw me scampering up the airship’s ladder and letting myself into the gondola after a perfunctory knock, only to come upon Slip and Ovie pressed up against each other. From their wet lips and flushed cheeks, it was obvious to everyone what I’d interrupted, and my cheeks blazed as I mumbled an apology and edged around them towards the front of the gondola where the steering apparatus would be located.
Sure enough, I found Tev there, staring at a map and checking various pressure gauges, the brass and steel of various switches and knobs gleaming in the light, clearly well cared for. She stood with her feet apart, her eyes looking out the windows across the vista as though she could already see the next place we would be going to and couldn’t wait to be on her way already.
The sight of her there, so assured and confident in her command of a ship I would soon help run, made my belly go liquid with want. But with that clutch of lust came the sharp pinch of jealousy, the memory of that kiss I’d heard between her and Slip. I don’t know precisely what made me say it, except that I was reeling from the sudden punch of feelings, the realisation that all going well, this life could be mine. I could be a part of this ship, could stop pretending I was a boy and simply wear trousers because I chose to. Could perhaps have someone look at me someday the way I saw Ovie and Tev look at Slip.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I asked, and then immediately wished I could take the words back as Tev turned to look at me, a question in those green eyes that made me bluster on. “Slip and Ovie? I mean, I saw… the other day in the wardrobe, I saw…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the sentence, embarrassment clogging my voice.
Tev turned to look at me more carefully, her stare somehow feeling like it catalogued everything, from my oversized, grubby clothes to the way my cheeks were flushed, the way I bit my lip in consternation for having spoken at all. I wasn’t sure what I’d expected – perhaps a sad tale of her abandonment for a man – but instead she just said, “No.”
She smiled at me and explained, as if to a child. “I love Slip. She loves me. She also loves Ovie and he loves her as well. I’m not competing for her affections. I already know I have them. So does he.”
I shook my head automatically. That’s not how it worked. Or at least, that wasn’t how it was supposed to work. “But two people…”
Tev sighed and stepped closer to me, close enough that I could smell her rich, green smell, could stare up into her beautiful face as she cupped my cheeks. “Imagine if I cared for you,” she murmured, and I felt my eyes widen in response, “and you knew already that I cared for Slip as well. Would it make my love of you any less worthwhile? Would it devalue any love you had for me to know that I cared for another alongside you?”
I struggled to think. Would it? Some part of me felt the jealous urge to insist that it would, that I should be the sole focus of this affection. And yet I wasn’t sure. I didn’t understand what Tev was trying to say.
Tev’s husky voice continued, her accent rounding the syllables. “Does it matter to you that the airship you want so badly to work on will always be Ovie’s as well? That whatever you do, you will always have to share her with us?”
“No,” I whispered. I didn’t mind sharing her, so long as some of her was mine. I just wanted to be with her.
“Now you understand,” Tev murmured, her thumb moving gently over my lip before she stepped away. “And you see why it doesn’t bother me.”
It felt suddenly like a bubble bursting, the pressed close feeling of only the two of us in the world shaking apart. “Oh,” I mumbled, and found myself unable to meet her eyes.
I heard a snort from behind me and whirled to find Slip leaning in the doorway, her eyes dancing as she watched me quickly step away from Tev.
“If you’re done now, I think we have a mission to accomplish,” she said, laughter tingeing her voice.
I nodded and then flushed again as Tev’s hand came down on my shoulder, warm even through the material of my shirt.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The carriage ride to Nova’s estate felt like an eternity as I sat next to Slip and opposite Tev. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to apologise to Slip, and yet there was no way in which to raise the topic without admitting not only to my having witnessed a kiss between them but that I’d then raised it as a concern with Tev.
Fortunately Slip seemed already all too aware, as she shot me knowing smiles in between wiggling her eyebrows at Tev, the awkwardness of it all slowly dispelled by the levity of Tev groaning, “Stop it, Slip. If you leer any more, your face will stick like that.”
“And you’d love it,” Slip laughed.
Tev rolled her eyes, and I flushed slightly, unsure if I was allowed to be a part of this camaraderie. I kept my eyes low instead, trying to focus on the scars on my hands, taking this chance to massage some of the kinks from them. When we eventually got back to the airship, I might have the chance to soak the soreness away in a bowl of warm water.
I’m not sure quite when it happened but I found myself at some point staring at Tev’s legs, the long sprawl of them resting such that every bump in the road knocked her knees against mine. Her thigh held its usual band with two stakes tucked into the material, and her hand rested lightly on the hilt of her sword, as if in habit.
I couldn’t help but think of earlier, my lip tingling with the memory of her thumb brushing against it, the feeling of our bodies standing so close to each other as she spoke to me. Was I imagining the growing attraction between us or had Tev perhaps made her interest known back then? Would she even be interested in someone like me? I couldn’t help but compare myself to Slip, who was dressed today in a simple but flattering dress in a deep blue that highlighted her voluptuous frame, her hair piled atop her head with wisps coming loose to frame her eyes and her high cheekbones. In contrast, I wore the same clothes I had on yesterday, with the addition of a cap with which to better conceal my features from anyone who might seek to connect me to Nova. We couldn’t be more different, and yet I could’ve sworn that Tev had felt something in that moment with me, something like what I’d felt as well.
“Stop worrying so much,” Slip murmured, startling me as her hand squeezed mine. “You’re not alone.”
I wasn’t sure if she meant that I wasn’t alone in my feelings or if she thought my fear was for this meeting with Nova, but either way I was appreciative of her kindness. I smiled and squeezed her hand in return, gratitude a lump in my throat.
All too soon we arrived at Nova’s estate and I had to lean out of the carriage window to speak to one of the drones there. I made sure to pull my hat to the side so he could only see part of my face even as I whispered, “Tell your queen Alana is here to see her. My friends and I bring an important message.”
He flashed me a quick fang and left to deliver the message, and I sat back down in the carriage to wait. “It might be a while,” I told Slip and Tev. “Nova likes to make a statement.”
Sure enough, it was nearly an hour before we were waved through, our coachman left outside the gates with a few coins and an order to wait while one of the drones swung himself up into the seat and drove us through to the main house. There a young maid greeted us and took Alana’s stakes and sword from her – “Our queen does not permit weapons in the house, you understand” – before ushering us through the house’s corridors and into a large parlour where Nova sat waiting for us.
“Alana,” she said, her voice resonating in that odd way that vampires had, her eyes raking over me quickly as if checking for herself that I was unharmed. “Why are you here? What is this message?”
“Nova,” I started to explain, but she cut me off, addressing Tev and Slip, her voice bleeding into a threatening growl. “If you planned to hurt her or use her against me, know now that it will be the last thing you will ever do.”
She waved a hand and two drones immediately materialised by my side and dragged me across the room towards Nova. Two more grabbed Tev and Slip and forced them to their knees.
I froze as I saw Nova rise, the anger turning her eyes red as her fangs descended more fully. “My sister is precious to me,” she hissed, “and I will not let her be used as a pawn.”
“Stop,” I called out, slapping at the drones’ hands and moving forward to grab Nova’s arm. “They’re not here to hurt you! They’re trying to save you!”
“Save me?!” Nova looked at me, startled, the red receding immediately from her eyes and her fangs abruptly hidden.
“There’s this order of scientists…” I did my best to explain what I understood of the plot, Tev and Slip interjecting when I frequently got the names wrong or had to stop to try and explain why I’d snuck on board their airship in the first place.
“What were you thinking?! Climbing aboard a random ship without any idea of who would be on it or what could happen if they caught you and thought you were some kind of thief!”
“That’s not your business, Nova! I’m telling you, they know that this Mr. Pritchett plans to kill you,” I said, exasperated.
“He can try,” Nova hissed, before abruptly waving the idea away. “But I’ve met no Mr. Pritchett, nor do I have any interest in meeting some random American scientist, so your point is moot.”
“He could be in disguise,” Tev interjected from where the drones still had her on her knees. “He could be posing as one of your drones to get close to you. The Hypocras Club is deadly. We have proof that they’ve attacked others, of the deaths they’ve caused.”
Nova stopped, looking contemplative.
“Nova,” I said urgently, “do you have any new drones? Anyone who approached you in the last week seeking to be changed in the future?”
Abruptly she turned to the door, alarm in her expression as the man manning the door dropped abruptly, a dart sticking out of his neck. The four other drones in the room that previously held Tev, Slip, and myself charged towards the door, only to fall back and collapse slowly as whoever it was shot darts into them. A tall, rather handsome man with sandy hair suddenly filled the space of the doorway, a pistol-like contraption held in the hand that surveyed the room.
“Nova,” I yelled in terror, dragging her down as much as I could behind the sofa.
“Yes,” boomed his voice from the doorway, “do come out, abomination! The poison agent won’t hurt for long, though I’ve yet to test its full effects on a hive queen.”
I shot a worried look at Nova, but fortunately she didn’t react to the taunt other than with wild anger filling her face. Her breathing was steady, her fangs fully descended as she flexed her fingernails like claws waiting to rip into this fool. But we couldn’t go anywhere so long as he was armed with those darts and blocking the only exit to the room.
Across the room I could see Tev and Slip sheltered behind one of the other sofas, having crawled there immediately once they’d been released. Tev mouthed, “distract him,” as she mimed herself getting ready to charge.
I swallowed the lump of terror in my throat and did my best to oblige. “Give it up, Mr. Pritchett,” I called, trying to keep his attention on me. “We’ve already passed your note on to the constabulary. You cannot escape this.”
He ignored my words completely as he walked toward the center of the room, firing a dart in our direction that missed me by a fraction. We hastily shuffled back to keep the sofa between him and ourselves. “Is that the sister? Tell me, are you a monster as well? Should I see the world rid of you too?” We could hear him barring the door.
Nova hissed angrily at the words. “I’ll kill you if you dare to even touch her.”
I could see Tev edging around the wall to come at Pritchett’s back as I carefully peeped around the edge of the sofa, and I shook with fear even as I kept going. “When the authorities come, you’ll be charged with murder and hanged. Stop now and perhaps some leniency might be possible.”
He laughed wildly as he turned further towards us. “Are you attempting to stall for time? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but the other drones have already been dealt with. Of course, I never intended it to occur in this manner – the monsters should suffer more for their sins – but I had to speed up my plans I began when I heard of your friends arriving at the gates yesterday. So, if anything, this is your fault.”
Nova made to stand then, and I shook my head and begged in a low voice. “He has poison specifically to kill you with him. You need to stay down.” Nova flashed her fangs at me but I refused to back down, my fingers digging into her forearms. “Please. Stay with me.”
Slip, seeing I was occupied containing Nova, took up the task of distracting Pritchett instead. “What about us, Mr. Pritchett? We are not monsters. Would you release us?”
His snort echoed but fortunately he didn’t turn towards her, missing Tev crawling towards his back. “The whore of a werewolf? I think not. Besides, when the police arrive, I believe they will understand that you and Captain Helix were part of a werewolf plot to kill the hive queen. How tragic that I am to be the only survivor left to tell the tale.”
His laughter was cut off midway as Tev launched herself at him, clasping a brass statuette she’d grabbed from one of the side-tables. We heard groans and thuds as the two of them struggled, a sound like Tev screaming as something broke. And just as I was struggling to my feet we all heard the deep resonant thunk of the metal impacting a skull and the wet gurgling sound of someone bleeding as they collapsed to the ground.
“Tev,” Slip yelled, her voice frantic, and I held my breath in fear until she called back, “I’m fine. He’s down,” her accent thick with exhaustion. “I think I may have killed him.”
“Oh, thank the stars,” I whispered, my body already beginning to tremble with reaction.
“Don’t worry,” Nova said, steel in her voice, even as she held me close, her arms rubbing my back as if to soothe even while her words sent chills through me. “If he isn’t dead already, he will soon wish he was.”
We’ll never know whether Mr. Pritchett was dead at that point or if Nova made good on her promise as we were immediately forced to leave, Nova hurrying us out the door.
“I need to call my drones back in,” she said. “No matter what that idiot said, he couldn’t have managed to incapacitate all of them. He wouldn’t even know how many there are.” Then, pausing to look at me, she brought a hand up to tenderly tuck a loc of my hair back behind my ear. “Thank you, Alana.”
“Be careful,” I whispered, choked up. “I won’t be around for a while to help.” I could see her begin to say something so I pushed ahead. “It’s doing what I love, Nova. I’ll be on an airship. I’ll be safe.” I didn’t need to say that she was part of what I needed to leave behind. She knew that already.
She nodded. “A letter. One at every stop, or I will find a way to bring you back to me.”
I nodded and we embraced. And it was the first time in years that I’d felt truly close to my sister, the first time since she left that I felt like I understood her. “Be careful,” she whispered into my hair, and I let the tears come.
And then suddenly it was like the air went out of me. I barely remember the carriage ride back to the airship, and I only have the faintest memories of Tev gently helping me to climb into her bed, a cool hand pressed against my cheek as I slipped into sleep.
What I do remember is waking sometime in the earliest hours of dawn, incredibly aware of how I was pressed close against Tev's chest, her arm enfolding me.
I remember feeling bold enough at last to reach up and kiss her, a small, chaste thing that changed as she woke and knew me, her lips stretching into a smile under mine.
I remember how all around us was the low thrum of the engines, like the ship’s heartbeat reverberating through me, welcoming me home.