Very Short Note: Credit for this one must be laid at the feet of EllieStone. :)
Sophie is, as ever, the life of the party, charming both the crusty old boffins and the reedy new ones. Not bad for a wee lassie less than two years old.
Deryn keeps a weather eye on her daughter from across the room, where she's been trapped into conversation with a pack of boffins. Sophie shows no signs of growing tired – she's waving at everyone, calling "Hallo!" in her high, breathy child's voice, giggling and being bashful in turns – but the Clanker clock in the hall says she ought to be.
Bedtime. More dangerous than war, some nights.
Alek's aware of the time; he's checked his pocket watch twice in the last few minutes. However, an honorary director of the Zoological Society can't walk away from Lord Rothschild, even to put a child to bed. Blisters, his baronship hardly ever comes to anyone's parties, and he never sticks around to chat.
Deryn has a debate with herself for a few moments, wanting to interrupt but not wanting to interrupt. But – sod it all. This party's been trial enough, from the planning stages to the unwelcome, uninvited guest who'd bullied his way inside earlier. No need to end it with a screaming child.
She gives her excuses to the boffins, who've already forgot she was there by the time she's two steps away, and threads her way through the crowd to Alek and their daughter. Their house is large enough by Cambridgeshire standards, palatial by London ones, but having the Society over still makes for a crush.
Lord Rothschild looks up as she approaches, smiles at her, then nods to Alek and slips away.
"What was that?" she asks Alek.
Amusement plays at the corners of his mouth. In a black jacket and tie, he looks quite princely indeed – an image somehow not spoiled by the child hanging off his shoulder and giggling. "He wanted my opinion on the politics at work in Cameroon."
Sophie chooses that moment to lunge for Deryn, arms outstretched. Deryn catches her up and manages to settle her on one hip, ignoring the damage it does to her dress. "Silly lass," she says. "You were fine with your da."
Sophie giggles. "Mama, Küsse! Mama!"
Deryn obediently drops a smattering of kisses on Sophie's soft brown curls and returns her attention to Alek. "Cameroon? He's sending an expedition, then?"
Lord Rosthschild isn't a boffin himself – he's done bits of this and that, but mostly he's filthy barking rich. He funds all sorts of Society expeditions, usually to Africa, usually to interesting places. Such as Cameroon, a German colony that's lately been making a bit of a fuss about independence.
"Dr. Barlow believes it would be quite… productive." Alek's smile becomes rueful. "Somewhat against my better judgment, I recommended a good airship captain."
She grins at him. Captaining an airship with a baby aboard isn't the greatest experience in the world, but it's by no means the worst. She takes Sophie aloft with her all the time, after all. Her wee lassie thinks the first lieutenant is her nanny and that the cargo hold makes a fine playground. For a trip to Africa, Alek would be aboard as well - easy.
And it's been ages since Dr. Barlow called on Artemis Imperial Shipping to do some discreet skulking overseas, ferrying boffins, equipment, and Darwinist diplomacy.
Though it can't be seen from the inside of the house, she glances in the direction of their airfield. Inside the hangar their primary airbeast is drowsing safe from the winter cold, and the freshly-delivered egg is sweltering in its incubation room.
"Brilliant," she says, joggling her daughter. "The new beastie ought to be full-grown by then – we'll take it on its maiden voyage, aye, poppet? Catch some giraffes for his baronship."
Sophie presses her hands to her mouth, eyes bright as she gasps, "Giraffes!"
It sounds like Giwaffes. The L's and R's are a squick tricky, yet.
"I wanna giwaffes," Sophie adds, bouncing.
Alek briefly consults his pocket watch. "Perhaps tomorrow, Schätzen. Just now, it's past time for bed."
"No," Sophie says, with no accent at all; it's her favorite word. The happy mood disappears in an instant, replaced by a black scowl. Her feet in their wee shoes swing madly, kicking Deryn in the side. "I no sweeping!"
Alek pries the clutching fingers from Deryn's dress and takes Sophie back. Deryn helps him along. The kicks don't hurt, but they're landing perilously close to Sophie's brother or sister, who – like the new airbeast – still has a fair bit of incubating left to do.
Her daft prince has turned into quite a protective da.
"A quick exit, love," she says to Alek, who grimaces in agreement, his hands full of unhappy child.
He sets off for the nearest door, and Deryn presses after him. They're almost there when a most unwelcome interruption steps squarely into their path, bulldog face leading the way.
Deryn swallows a curse. The Right Honorable sodding Winston Churchill, currently Chancellor of the Exchequer and permanently on the outs with the director of the London Zoological Society, Dr. Nora Darwin Barlow.
Well, if Sophie is going to pitch a tantrum, Deryn can't imagine a better target. Who would hold it against her?
"Good evening," Churchill says, trying for joviality.
"Good evening, sir," Alek says politely. He inclines his head instead of offering a hand to shake. Sophie squirms around, trying to slither out of his grasp, making it look less obviously like a slight. "I wasn't aware that you were to be in attendance tonight."
He's not supposed to be. Next time, Deryn's posting a guard at the front door.
"I didn't see you in the receiving line, either," Alek continues in that same polite tone, merciless and precise as a fencer. He gets a firm hold on Sophie, who resigns herself to sucking her thumb and scowling again.
Churchill laughs. Still jovial; now a trifle forced. "Decided to come at the last moment, Mr. Hohenberg. I haven't been well enough acquainted with the Society."
That's what comes of vexing the lady boffin, Deryn doesn't say.
"A capital party, Mrs. Hohenberg," Churchill says to her, lifting his wine glass. "You've quite outdone yourself."
"Aye, thanks. I'll pass your compliments to our housekeeper. Mrs. Pritchard," Deryn adds, as though that's the part needing clarification. "She had the planning of it, since I was busy with this one. And with captaining my airship."
Churchill smiles at Sophie. It isn't forced at all, though Deryn thinks there's a tinge of sadness to it. "I have some experience with the former. They are rather time-consuming at that, eh? And what is your name, my dear miss?"
Sophie buries her face against Alek's jacket lapel.
"This is Sophie," Alek says. He earns a patent-leather shoe to the stomach for his trouble. "It's, ah, past her bedtime."
"About two years old, I should think?" When Deryn nods, Churchill says, "My youngest, Mary, is just that age."
Blisters, next he'll be inviting them over for tea. She eyes him suspiciously. He knows they're in close with Dr. Barlow; he knows he sodding well isn't. He's after something.
"Well, I shan't keep you any longer," Churchill says. "Pleasure to meet you at last, Mr. Hohenberg, Mrs. Hohenberg. Goodnight, Miss Sophie."
Sophie had been peeking at him, but now whips around and presses her face to her da's chest again.
"Say goodnight, Schätzen," Alek says, giving her a small jiggle.
Sophie kicks a few times, turns to face the Right Honorable Winston Churchill, removes her thumb from her mouth with an audible pop, and says, "Bwoody bastard!"
Alek cuts a look at Deryn that she elects not to acknowledge.
Meanwhile, Churchill barks a laugh, drawing curious glances from the boffins chatting nearby. He seems surprised rather than offended. In fact, he seems genuinely amused, as he laughs again. "Am I indeed!"
Having got such a good reaction, Sophie repeats herself, now loud enough to make conversations around them freeze.
Alek gives Deryn another look, this one more demanding.
"Sorry for that," she says to Churchill, though she isn't. She glances at Alek and clears her throat. "My fault, I reckon."
"Not to worry, Mrs. Hohenberg," Churchill says, still amused. "I've been called worse by my dearest allies."
And much worse by his enemies.
Sophie is beaming, triumphant. "Goodnight," she declares, then giggles into her hands.
"And with that," Alek says, "I believe we shall retreat. It was a pleasure, sir."
He steps around Churchill and continues on. Sophie stretches across his shoulder, waving her chubby wee hands, calling, "Goodnight!" over and over again between spates of giggles.
Deryn blows out a breath.
"Charming girl," Churchill says, sipping at his wine instead of watching them depart.
It's true enough, but… She lifts an eyebrow. "What are you after, then?"
The bulldog face creases into a satisfied expression. "However successful you are in business, madam, may I assure you that you'll never have a place in politics – you're far too quick to the point."
"Aye, I have to be quick." She lays a hand on the curve of her belly. "In another five minutes I'll be running for the loo. You can't charm your way to Dr. Barlow's good graces through us."
"Nor would I try. Far too obvious," he adds, in case she had any questions about his morals. "I have a different motive in coming here tonight as an uninvited guest. One that does not include your excellent wine. And one that shall be discussed in greater detail at some later point, when your husband is not… preoccupied."
Faintly, over the sound of chatting boffins and the sodding expensive string quartet Mrs. Pritchard insisted they had to hire, Deryn hears Sophie wailing. Or maybe she only imagines it. Either way, she wishes she had a glass of champagne.
"Mm," she says. "Sophie was dead right about you, wasn't she?"
"Indisputably," Winston Churchill says, saluting her with the wine glass. He disappears into the crowd again, leaving Deryn momentarily alone.
Only momentarily, however, as Dr. Barlow sweeps up almost as soon as he's gone.
"Insufferable oaf," she says, handing Deryn a glass of something that isn't champagne. "He asked for an audience, didn't he?"
"Aye. Alek and me both."
"Grant it. Agree to whatever favor he asks of you as well, provided it's not in conflict with the Society's goals. It would be excessively useful to have eyes and ears close to him," the lady boffin explains, sipping at her drink. "That is, if you are not opposed to playing double agents."
"I don't reckon he'll spill his secrets to us," Deryn says. "He's not a perfect ninny."
Dr. Barlow smiles. "Perhaps not a perfect one."
"All warfare is based on deception," the loris on her shoulder pipes up, looking quite self-important. "Secret weapons are extremely useful."
Bovril, by its own choice, is in the kitchen, working through an enormous platter of fruit. Deryn wrinkles up her nose at the lady boffin's loris, which sticks its nose in the air and sniffs haughtily. She tosses back her drink in one gulp and gives the empty glass to a passing servant (also expensive, also insisted upon), and tells the lady boffin, "I'll fetch Bovril before we have any meetings, then."
"Excellent. Oh, and Mrs. Hohenberg – I believe your daughter just told the Duke of Bedford to 'sod off'," Dr. Barlow says, one eyebrow raised and an infinitesimal smirk on her face.
Deryn puts her hands on her hips, imagining Alek's reaction to that.
"Bollocks," she says.
Absurdly Long Note: Lord Rothschild (the 2nd Baron, Walter) made significant contributions to zoology despite not being, you know, an actual scientist. He was apparently very shy and had a speech impediment (and two mistresses (not at the same time)), but is infamous for once hitching up some zebras and taking them for a little jaunt to Buckingham Palace. Cool dude. Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford, saved the Père David's deer from extinction by establishing a herd at his estate.
Cambridgeshire is predominantly flat – perfect for airfields! The RAF used it heavily during WWII. German Kamerun (modern Cameroon) was given to Britain and France in 1919, but since WWI ended differently in the Leviathan-verse, I'm assuming that didn't happen.
Churchill, now, was kicked out of the Admiralty during WWI, but got back into the political limelight in 1924 when he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. His first move was to return the pound sterling to the pre-war gold standard, which immediately torpedoed the economy. Well done, sir! His current reputation as a great leader didn't come about until after WWII, when he was, against all apparent odds, a great leader.
I tried to write him as a jerk, but he wasn't having it – he kept reminding me that his 4th child, Marigold, had passed away in 1921, at only 3 years of age. Also, the guy was hilarious. Like this classic: "He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." Ha!
Finally, the word "playground" dates to 1780.