Alice looked through the spyglass.
She loved starry nights.
Not only they helped her find her way in the sea, but stargazing also proved to be a comforting pastime after a hard day of sailing towards Peking.
The days were filled with crazed winds and the relentless sunbeams, but nights were usually peaceful.
"I found it." She smiled and drew a line in the sky with her finger. The main deck was silent. The only sound came from the waves crashing against the hull and the keel. "Tien Hwang Ta ti."
"My chinese still needs practice."
"It's Polaris, James."
"Right." He repeated the constellation's name in both languages as he wrote it down. "It took us more time than I expected. I was starting to think it was impossible."
"James, you know how I feel about that-"
"Word, yes I know. " James made one last annotation in the chart and looked at her. He was grinning. "But the face you make when you hear it is priceless."
Alice put the spyglass away from her eye. Her face was stern, and her voice free of all amiability.
"That's no way to talk to your Captain, Harcourt."
James' smile banished in a heartbeat. He lowered his head and vowed.
"Forgive me, ma'am." He looked like a nervous cabin boy in his first travel.
It was Alice's turn to laugh.
"You always fall for it." She tapped James in the shoulder with the spyglass. "That truly is priceless."
James pretended to be offended and folded his arms.
"This sort of treatment is what causes mutiny." His voice was overly dramatic. "It's not a threat, just a courteous reminder."
"I'd better write it down in my log, then. Your advices are always sensible and timely, James." Alice said, walking towards the entrance of her cabin.
"Are they?" James asked with genuine disbelief. If there had been a sun instead of a moon in the sky, Alice would have seen how his cheeks flushed.
"Of course. You aren't my first mate for nothing." Alice said as she opened her cabin's door.
Her mother was sitting next to the table. She was reading a book, waiting for dinner to be served. Her face softened at the sight of her child.
"Goodnight, Alice." She then looked at the shy figure standing behind her daughter. It didn't matter he was half covered in darkness, Helen knew who he was. "James. I assume tonight's lesson went well."
James laughed nervously and coughed.
"I…" he sighed and gave a little shrug.
"I had to help him find Polaris. He spent half an hour looking for it." Alice explained.
"The motionless star? The most basic constellation for sailors?" Helen frowned.
James rubbed his forehead and wished the sea would swallow him that instant.
"Good thing he is a fast learner. And he draws charts like an artist." Added Alice. She glanced over her shoulder and gave James a reassuring look.
James answered only with a nod.
Three sailors emerged from the ships' kitchen. They saluted Alice, Helen and James, placed the trays with the dinner on the table and went back to where they came from.
"Finally. Come Alice, you need eat healthy if you wish to keep your strength." Exclaimed Helen as she put the book aside.
"You could at least call me 'captain' so you don't make me feel like a child, mother." Alice rolled her eyes.
"Don't be ridiculous, Alice. Care to join us, James?"
Helen's invitation came as a surprise to both the captain and the first mate. They looked at each other, neither sure of what to say.
"Well, I did promise the crew I would have dinner and sing a couple of shanties with them at the mess deck tonight." Said James with great respect.
"Actually, that sounds like great fun." Said Alice with determination. "Don't mind if I join you."
"You are the captain; do as you please." Said James.
"Your wisdom is showing once again, first mate."
"It's my honor, ma'am."
Helen interrupted their conversation and insisted once more. This time, James knew better than to contradict the captain's mother and entered the cabin.
He sat down in front of Helen, who was already offering him generous slice of salted pork.
Alice felt the sudden desire to join them. A dinner of three would not be as entertaining as a night of games and songs with the rest of the crew, but to Alice, it wasn't less appealing either.
"Make sure to take us safely to Peking, Tom. " Alice exclaimed to her second mate at the helm.
"Of course, captain!"
Putting her trust in the hands of the loyal sailor, she finally joined her mother and James.
They talked of trivial things and told occasional jokes while enjoying the somewhat insipid but generous food. Helen couldn't tell if it was Alice or James who spoke the most .
When it was time for dessert, James proposed to have some tea instead of the planned bread with cheese. Alice and Helen agreed to the idea, though Helen found nighttime a weird time for tea .
The three finished dinner with a hot cup of Congou black tea.
Its toasty flavor brought old memories back to Alice. She allowed herself to get lost in them.
She probably would have wandered amidst her visions forever if it hadn't been for James.
"Are you alright, Alice?" He asked, trying to hide his concern behind an overly courtly facade.
"What?" Alice felt as if she had crashed back into reality after a long fall. She was spilling tea on her vest and pants. Fortunately, the tea was lukewarm by then. "Oh… I'm sorry; I guess I'm more tired than I thought."
"Understandable." Said James, feeling twinge of shame for his inconsideration. He finished the rest of his tea in one gulp and stood up. "Thank you for the invitation, Miss Kingsleigh. Good night."
"Are you sure you don't want to stay a little longer?"
"I appreciate the thought, but it's getting late and I must supervise the cargo inspection tomorrow." James showed his respect with a little vow of his head. He then looked at Alice and gestured as if he was doffing his hat. "Ma'am."
Alice nodded in response.
He left the cabin and closed the door without making much noise.
Helen stared at the entrance for while. She sighed and told her daughter James was right: it was best to call it a day and go to bed.
To her surprise, Alice needn't much convincing.
After the three same sailors from before had taken away the dirty dishes, the two women put on their gowns, blew the candles out and laid down on their separate mattress.
Alice didn't say a word the whole time.
"Goodnight, my child."
Still no answer.
Helen didn't insist and closed her eyes.
She soon fell asleep.
Alice was still awake. Her eyes were fixed on the stars.
Some of their light pierced through the cabin's window and reached her bed.
In an attempt to fall asleep, she began to name the few constellations she could see.
There were times, like that night, when sleeping was more of a chore than an enjoyable necessity. It was not because her dreams were plagued by nightmares.
They were full of absence.
In the palace of dreams we shall meet.
'But we don't, Tarrant.' Her thoughts were not free of bitterness. 'We don't.'
Sleep came to her after she looked at Polaris one last time.
She had a dream.
But it was no different than the other dreams she'd had ever since the end of her adventure through the looking glass months ago.
It was empty.