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Adèle Blanc-Sec and the Icy Waters of the North Atlantic

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On the 14th of April, 1912, a large ship glides through the ocean. The name on its side is emblazoned in white letters for all to read. The ship is too large to seem graceful, yet graceful it seems, with the fatalistic calm of a creature that knows its place in history.

Not calm, or knowing of their place in history, are the people aboard the R.M.S. Titanic.

*                                                                                                                                  

James Ryan laughs awkwardly at a joke from the band leader, looking around the first class dining room, where the Captain is hosting a dinner. He is only a shade more comfortable with the room than the first day he stepped into it. He is twenty-eight years old, and almost outsized by the tuba he holds. Most days, he is too shy to speak much. This is not a trait that speaks to the adventurous spirit that would send a poor man across the Atlantic from his native Ireland for little pay. But he is excited, in spite of his shyness, and when he is distracted from the crowd he lights up with it. He did not sign onto the R.M.S. Titanic for the pay. He signed on, instead, for the chance to finally make it across the Atlantic -- a distance too far across to swim no matter how his heart wished to. Across the Atlantic lies America... and a little north, Newfoundland, where his fiancée waits for him with her family. New York City will only be a small stop on his way.

He dreams, glowing, until sharply reminded that he needs to do his job.

*

High above the first class dining room, a man stands in a room surrounded by windowed walls, but chilled anyway. His breath comes out in great clouds, as he alternates between taking measurements with his devices and raising his binoculars to look along the lighted path in front of the ship.

He is on watch for icebergs.

*

In the dining room, a very unnoticeable man with a very unnoticeable face is sitting very politely and unnoticeably in a corner of the first class dining room. His name: Jean Martin. Equally unnoticeable as his presence and his face and his choice of seat is the fact that he is keeping an eye on the room for the much-anticipated presence of famed author and honored guest of the captain at this dinner, Mademoiselle Adèle Blanc-Sec. Unfortunately for Jean Martin, and the captain, and the other guests, Mlle. Adèle is very noticeably not present.

*

One thing you should know about Mademoiselle Adèle Blanc-Sec, if you wish to truly understand her: no matter her original intentions, she does not understand how to take a vacation.

A serving maid moves along the hall, grey hair tucked messily into her cap. She’s perhaps fifty, and unremarkable beyond her single-mindedness as she pushes her cart. She walks at a fast clip, passing the few guests lagging in the halls of First Class lodging on their way to dinner.

She stops in front of a room, and begins sorting through the cart at a glacial speed. Once all of the passengers have left the hallway, she immediately speeds up, pulling out a master key and attempting to open the door.

The key sticks. “You will open,” she tells the door in fervent French, pushing at it. “Or you will be very, very unhappy when I get a fire axe.”

The door opens. She pats her hand against the warm grain of it on her way in.

The room belongs to Jean Martin, a man who Adèle is relatively certain does not know she recognized him on the deck of the ship five days ago. He is overly secure in his social invisibility. She had decided not to act at the time, aware that he likely intended to kill her but equally aware that she knew three different martial arts and merely had to not wander too close to any railings while he was in her sight. The first thing she did on recognizing him was to have a private conversation with the Captain. It would not do to shoot the Captain’s most honored guest, and the lunches she’d had as the Captain’s companion made her far more recognizable to the passengers if she were to be in trouble. Or if she were not in trouble -- but why would any young woman seeking social invisibility not pack a disguise? Or several, as the case may be.

However, this afternoon as he drank his tea the dreary man had marks on his cuffs that spoke of chemistry, and Adèle could not fight off a poison. She had to know what weapons he had at his disposal. So: an itchy wig, and carefully added wrinkles, solidly ignored now as she searches through the apparently innocent room.

Except that it is not so innocent at all – in one of the drawers, there is an old leather box. Adèle looks up, and around the room, before turning to lean against the desk. She has no time to see what is in an old leather box, but she has not gotten where she is without developing a nose for treasure. She opens it: inside is a bag. She sighs, setting the box down and picking up the bag, heavy for its size. She grabs the bag by the base, and roughly shakes it out with one hand, letting the object inside fall onto her other hand.

The object starts cold, her hand dropping as she catches it, fingers gripping around the round edges. But as it heats from the warmth of her hand, it seems to slowly become more visible – not a light from inside the medallion, but as if her eyes are becoming attuned to it. There is a stylized wave, and words inscribed along the inner border in a language Adèle does not know. But she knows the medallion: The Brooksfield Medal, originally found in Ireland, but taken by Adam Brooksfield to the British Museum at the beginning of the previous century. There had been rumors for many years that it had been stolen, since it had not been on public display for almost 15 years, only months after a 10-year-old Adèle Blanc-Sec had gazed at it through a glass case, distracted from her game of Tag by its burnished bronze.

There’s a noise outside. Guests returning. Adèle tucks the medallion quickly into her sleeve, and returns to her cart, keeping her head down as she pushes the cart out of the room. Unfortunately, as she leaves, she passes the man himself – Jean Martin. He walks into his room, and immediately comes back out, having noticed its state of being much less organized than before.

“Madam!”

Adèle begins walking faster, trotting with her cart.

“Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec!”

Adèle glances over her shoulder – a mistake, as it confirms Jean Martin’s suspicions. His face purples, and he starts to run.

Adèle shoves the cart back in his direction, and takes off.

Her skirts are heavy things, designed to add bulk to her frame, and she lifts them to run down the hall. Thankfully, she is also wearing her most practical shoes. She gets outside before Martin, and tells a startled man to hold the door for her. He does, and she promptly tears off her wig, drops her underskirts, fetches out the medallion, and secures it around her neck. Partway through this process, she notices that Martin has stopped shaking the door.

“My thanks,” she tells the young man, who’s staring at her. “You might want to open that once I’m around the corner. He’ll come back with a gun.”

He nods, and she rolls her eyes to heaven, pulling the cap back down over her ears and taking off for the corner, lungs full of ice.

When she reaches the far railing, she leans over to see where the lifeboats are. A lifeboat, as she once learned in the Mediterranean ocean, does not need to be detached from a ship to save one’s life. The canvas covering them makes a wonderful camouflage.

But there are no lifeboats here. Adèle huffs in surprise then continues further down the railing to look again. There are some lifeboats, but very far away. Adèle glances behind her, where the sounds of Martin emanate, then heads down the deck that has grown slippery with ice. She shrugs, and with one steady hand on the railing begins to run.

She slips near the lifeboats, but clings enough to her railing to hold on, pulling herself willfully up. She climbs, carefully, over the railing, positions herself over a boat, and—is caught.

“I would not do that, Blanc-Sec,” Martin says, hand grasping the back of her dress, then reaching forward and grabbing hold of the medallion. She cranes her neck to look at him, as he pockets his gun, and considers her options.

As she considers, he lets her dress go – she falls forward, gasping, as the necklace tries to hold her up by her throat. She grasps backwards for the railing, but it is too far away, so instead she considers the boat in front of her. She can reach it, when he cuts the medallion loose.

But he doesn’t cut the medallion loose. He raises one foot and kicks her solidly in the back, snapping the leather thong and sending her tumbling down the side of the ship. Her hands go out to the boats, but all that hits them are her feet as they go flying past. Then – into the ocean, and the shock of the cold so intense it registers nearly as heat knocks her unconscious.

High above this scene, the lookout is watching the forward sea through his binoculars. He does not see the famed author Adèle Blanc-Sec, the Captain’s prize guest, disappear into the waters of the North Atlantic.

Jean Martin does see her, as she tumbles all the way down. He sighs, and slips the medallion into his inner jacket pocket. Then he leaves, to finish dinner.

The dining room is no more disturbed by his entry than by his leaving, and the tuba player plays as he apologizes for his late arrival.

While Jean Martin finishes his soup course, however, Adèle Blanc-Sec wakes up.

Adèle wakes up in a boat, naked and covered in a warm wrap, and is briefly dreamily confused. Had she freed a lifeboat? She turns her head, to see a woman under the warm skin as well, and blinks at her. The woman is Adèle’s age, perhaps, or a little younger -- with large, dark eyes.

Something moves against their feet, and Adèle looks up to see a seal, grey with age. It says something, feminine voice fluting in a language Adèle thinks might be Gaelic, but she doesn’t know.

“Mother is wondering your name,” the woman next to her says. Adèle can see her clothes are folded in a pile, but the water in them has frozen solid. “We have a dress you may wear, later. If you wish to return to this ship.”

The ship they are keeping up with, the boat being dragged by more seals so it remains alongside it.

The mother says something, and the girl adds: “Though the ship is set to sink.”

“Adèle Blanc-Sec,” she murmurs. “You are... selkies?”

The girl says something to her mother, who shifts into human form, sitting cross-legged with her skin pulled around her. She says something, and smiles at Adèle. It is not an entirely nice smile. Adèle cannot resist smiling back. “You are not wrong,” the girl says. “My name is Colleen. My fiancé sent me your book, about the Ice Monsters.”

“Did you like it?” Adèle asks, straightening slightly, careful to keep the skin around her.

Colleen moves with her, easily, moving closer so they sit leg to leg. “Oh, yes, I did,” she says. “I’m in charge of our library. My James – my fiancé – he is on this boat,” she says. “That is why we came here, when Mother heard it was to sink.”

“Can he not swim?”

“His skin is in his travel case,” Colleen says, “and he plays with the band.”

“And why is it to sink?” Adèle rubs slightly against her neck, considering the medallion that had hung there not long ago. She could guess – but she does not like guessing, when others know the answer.

Colleen is quiet, and her mother is quiet.

“Mademoiselle Adèle,” her mother says, eventually, in careful French: “have you seen our treasure?”

“They call it the Brooksfield Medal,” Colleen adds, “but it is ours – and no ship can hold it, not when it wants so much to meet the sea.”

Adèle nods. “Then, yes: I can find it for you. If that is what you want?"

Colleen smiles, brightly. "Yes, yes, if you would. Then the ship needn't sink at all."

*

Adèle waits by the door of the ship bar for Jean Martin to exit. She glances at the ship clock five times in two minutes, and swears off patience. With a few quick movements, she enters, shoulders past a man entreating her that it is gentlemen’s night, finds Martin, and punches him in the face.

“You are not a very good assassin,” she says to him, and she gathers the medal from inside his jacket pocket. When she stands, the men who’d gathered close around them hastily back up, and she nods to them before leaving.

Her stride is long, and purposeful – all focus, as she drives herself like a rocket for the crew’s quarters. Down a flight of stairs, and along a narrow hallway, she raps hard against a door. A man opens it, and she scans her eyes over him, then looks to one of his roommates.

“James Ryan?”

The small man glances up, startled, and his brow furrows as he recognizes her. “Miss Blanc-Sec?”

Adèle waves this off. “Colleen’s mother sent me.” Ryan’s eyebrows start to rise. “She wants you to grab your suit, and anything you need, and follow me onto deck.”

Ryan hesitates, looking at his band-mates, and to his travel case.

“Now, Mr. Ryan.”

The man grabs his case, and hurriedly follows her out. Once they are in the corridor, she gives him the medal.

“Is this --?”

“I think you understand why I want you both off of this ship as quickly as possible. Yes?”

He nods, and nods again, pulling a leather sling from his satchel, handing the satchel unthinkingly to Adèle. She grabs it, and he uses both hands to quickly secure the sling around the medal. His movements are practiced, but careful – then he secures the sling with two loops to his upper arm. “Do they have a boat?”

“Yes,” she says, and he sighs with some relief. Not many objects can be carried beneath a selkie-skin, apparently.

When they get to the railing, Adèle puts two fingers in her mouth and whistles. Seals surface, and bring the boat alongside them, where Adèle has already secured a rope. Colleen is holding onto the other end, hair haloed in the ice-dust that’s gathered in it. Adèle can imagine she’s impatient to get back to seal-form with blubber to protect against the wind.

They send his bag down, to secure the line, then James Ryan climbs carefully over the railing. Adèle salutes him, and hurries back towards the indoors.

“Miss Adèle!” Ryan calls, at the same time as a shot rings out. Adèle ducks, feet sliding on the ice. The shot’s missed, but not by much. She looks up to see Martin reloading.

Shit!” she exclaims, pulling herself to her feet. Martin has noticed Ryan, and his gun is wavering between them, not certain which of them to shoot first. James is staring at her, panicked, so it is Adèle who makes the decision for all of them.

She rushes Ryan, arms open. “Into my arms!” she shouts, and jumps, carrying him over the railing with her as two bullets whiz through the space where they’d been.

Adèle Blanc-Sec knew it would pay off to have befriended the Captain. Jean Martin was immediately taken into custody, and when Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec was fished from the ocean with a surprising amount of ease, the Captain traded quarters with her out of apology.

So she spent the rest of her trip with a terrible cold, but it was a terrible cold that she suffered in luxury, for the Titanic despite its expectations failed to sink.

And thankfully, she had friends in New York.

A week later, Adèle is trying to compose a letter to her sister from a coffee shop in New York City. She is on her third handkerchief of the afternoon, this one belonging to the handsome waiter who was very gracious to her, but it is wearing out.

Someone sits opposite her with a new mug of tea, fortified with brandy, and a new handkerchief besides. She looks up, and for the first time in a week, smiles.

“Paddobodses,” she acknowledges, stuffed to the brim.

Patmosis laughs, quietly delighted, and she scowls at him while bringing the tea close to her heart, and closing her eyes.

“My dear Mademoiselle Blanc-Sec,” says the nuclear physicist. “His most serene royal majesty seeks your advice.”

“Eh?” she asks, and clears her nose.

“He has heard there are pyramids in Peru, which you may have some knowledge of.”

Adèle considers this, and considers her current state. His face is very polite, and very hard to read. “Can his physicianth cure a colduh?”

“You may get kissed,” Patmosis warns.

Adèle shrugs, with all the fatalism of any long-term cold sufferer.

“Sohb prices are worth the payment.”

And so Adèle Blanc-Sec became the tour guide to the Americas for the entire royal party of Ramses II, and found the source material for enough books to keep her publishers somewhat happy.