And the spirits are ruthless with the paths they choose
- from "Destiny Rules" by Fleetwood Mac
Deryn's never been much for church – or even religion at all – but at this moment, she's pure dead certain that someone up there is having a laugh at her.
Just a few hours ago, she was wishing to be useful. Now she's got the Emperor of Austria-Hungary himself asking her to help save his kingdom.
And she's going to have to say no.
Not because it's a Clanker country; she's not against all Clankers, just the ones that had a habit of shooting at her. Not because she nearly kissed him; she's rather of a mind to get back to that, in fact. And it's certainly not because she isn't up to the challenge. She knows she could win a war for Alek, the same way she knew she could be the Leviathan's best middy. She practically won the Great War for Britain, really.
No. She'll have to turn him down, go back to London, and continue to be a waste of hydrogen because she won the war for Britain.
Deryn takes a mighty gulp of coffee, trying to burn her mouth or drown herself. Either one will do.
Alek leans forward, green eyes ablaze with his grand idea. "I can't give you command of the Luftfahrtruppen, of course. It would be an insult to General Uzelac. But I would rather have you acting as – as my unofficial advisor, I suppose, in any event."
He gestures with his hands while he talks. A walker pilot's hands. Always busy.
She catches herself wondering what those clever fingers would feel like, running through her hair.
And it's dawning on him that she hasn't said anything yet. He clears his throat and adds, more hesitant, "If you need to consult your brother – or your, ah, father –"
"My da died years ago," she says, her mouth finally coming unstuck. "And I reckon Jaspert's given up trying to mind me."
The hope on his face is difficult to look at, so she stares at what's left of her coffee. How does she get into these situations?
"So you will…?"
She tells herself to stop being a spineless ninny and look him in the eye. "I'd like to, but I think it might be a wee bit scandalous, aye?"
It takes a heartbeat, but understanding dawns. She can tell by the way the pink flush spreads from the tips of his ears.
"Scandalous," he says. He sounds faintly strangled, as he had right before she nearly sodding kissed him.
If she thinks too much about that… "Aye," she says, loud, to drown out what's rattling around her attic. "Too much egg on the Admiralty's face."
He takes a rather deep breath and picks up his coffee, then sets the cup down again almost immediately. His face settles into an impassive mask – a royal mask, the sort that stares out from coins and banknotes. "Of course," he says, his voice also royally neutral. "It would be quite a scandal to have a disgraced former officer of the British Air Service serving as a military advisor to Austria-Hungary."
She nods and takes another drink.
Something sparks in Alek's - Emperor Aleksandar's eyes. Something very much like a dare. "There is of course no other reason."
Even sitting across the cabin from each other, they're almost too close. Her muscles twitch, trying to get her to stand up and go kiss him.
She could do it. It'd be a matter of a few steps: over to the sofa, bend down, grasp that royal tie and tug him upwards…
Somehow she keeps her face straight. "None at all, Your Majesty."
"Well," he says, still with that royal blankness, "you are to be commended, Miss Sharp, for keeping Britain and Austria's best interests foremost in your mind."
Now she has to smirk. "I'm pure dead patriotic, Your Majesty."
He laughs, taking them both by surprise - and as lovely a sound as it is, it does sod all for her state of mind.
At that moment, there's a brisk rap on the cabin door, which opens without more than a cursory pause.
"Ah, Your Majesty," Captain Wells says. He's one of those fellows whose eyes are hard but whose hearts are soft, despite everything life's tossed at them. A good man, in other words, and quite grandfatherly with his white hair. "How are you faring, sir? Is there anything you require?"
Deryn quickly attempts death by coffee again. At least that way she'll have a reason for her red face.
"Nothing, thank you," Alek says. Most of the blue-bloods Deryn's met would have left off the nicety, but it sounds easy and unaffected from him. Somehow he's pulled his banknote mask back on in mere seconds.
The captain nods. "We've clear skies across the Channel, Your Majesty, but I'm afraid there will be a spot of bad weather waiting for us in Calais."
"Will you be able to land?"
There's no uncertainty in the captain's bearing: "Yes, sir."
Alek nods, looking tired again. "Please have a seat, Captain - unless you must return to the bridge?"
"The Bacchante has an excellent crew, sir," the captain says as he takes a seat. "I can be spared."
"Yes, even your temporary officers are most helpful," Alek says with a glance at Deryn. A smile lifts the corners of his eyes, though it doesn't touch his mouth.
"Miss Sharp," the captain says.
"Captain Wells," Deryn says. Then, while she's thinking of it (even though it's no longer entirely true), she adds, "Thank you again, sir. For letting me sneak aboard."
Judging by the icy and affronted reactions of the officers, it hadn't been a popular decision. She wonders, now, if his keen eyes saw through her motives. Blisters, she hopes not; she wants him to go on thinking her a war hero, not some mooning twit of a girl.
The captain gives her an amused look. "My nephew would have me keel-hauled if I hadn't. Holds you in the highest regard, you know."
For some reason that makes everything sit a little easier. "Oh, aye? I haven't seen him since I left the Service."
"He's gone into the family business. All wrong for it, of course. Ought to have stayed aloft."
Newkirk was rubbish at being aloft, too, but Deryn doesn't say it. Instead she says, "Coffee, sir?"
"And freshen His Majesty's cup as well," the captain says, and because he's a captain and Deryn is an airman, off she goes.
In the galley, she spends a minute with her arms crossed, slouched against the wee counter, scowling at the floor, telling herself that it's only because she's tired that everything's in such a muddle.
There's no future in wanting an emperor.
But she does.
She wants to save his empire, she wants to find out what that electrical crackle feels like at closer range, she wants to find more things that make him laugh. And she can't.
Sod it all.
She makes a fresh cup of coffee for Emperor Aleksandar and one for Captain Wells, and obediently fetches them back to the cabin, where the captain is spinning a war story and Alek is politely listening.
"Here you are, Your Majesty," Deryn says, giving it over. Their fingers brush as he takes the cup. It puts shivers down her spine.
His ears go faintly pink, but his "Thank you" is a royal blank.
The captain thanks her as well, then invites her to sit and tell a few war stories of her own. Alek heard the best of them at the party, but of course Wells urges to her to tell the ones featuring his nephew.
So Deryn finds herself sitting between a decorated captain and an emperor, in a luxury cabin on the king's own airship, recounting the two times she saved Eugene Newkirk's helpless bum.
She likes telling Alek stories. He watches her as though she's the only person in the room – he did that last night, too – as if the yackum and blether she's spouting is worthy of his whole focus.
Emperor Aleksandar. Bollocks.
After she's done, they talk a bit about the ship's engines and those of the Clanker airship coming to retrieve him in Calais. Or rather Captain Wells and Alek talk. Deryn mainly listens, trying to fix this scene in her memory: the sunlight slanting in, the creases in Alek's trousers, the glint of bright copper in his hair when the sun touches it.
She wishes she had her sketchbook.
Sooner than she'd like, one of the disapproving officers raps on the cabin door and says, "Approaching Calais, Captain."
"Ah," the captain says, rising. "I'm afraid I must return to the bridge, Your Majesty. It was a pleasure."
"It was indeed," Alek says, rising as well, and shaking the captain's hand after the older man bows. "I trust we shall continue this conversation on the ground."
"Of course, sir. Miss Sharp, if you would make certain that His Majesty's bodyguard is ready…"
"Aye sir," she says, though she's starting to feel like the bloody maid. With that, the captain leaves, and she's alone again with Alek.
"Not the expedition I'd reckoned on this morning," she says, clearing her throat, trying to make light of things, "but I hope it wasn't too awful."
The sadness is back. For a moment it seems to swallow him whole, but then the ship changes its heading slightly and sunlight washes over him, sending the shadows away.
"I only regret that you won't be accompanying me further," he says, smiling ruefully.
She matches the rueful smile with one of her own. "Aye, me too."
"I can't help but think… we might have done great things together," he says. Then he frowns. "Does that sound mad?"
"Not a squick," she says. "Best make our goodbyes now, Your Majesty."
She puts out her hand; he hesitates for a moment, then shakes it. His grip is firm, and there are calluses that she didn't expect.
"The offer stands, Lieutenant Sharp," he says quietly, and with such gravity that before she knows she means to do it, she leans forward and brushes her lips across his.
It lights a bright coil in her guts and sends electricity crawling over her skin. She draws back quickly, but not before she hears his small, sharp inhalation.
"Aye," she says. "I know."
Heart thudding, she goes to wake his bodyguard.
Landing is dead boring when she's not topside. Deryn hangs back, watching the captain and Alek disembark into the dull grey rain of the private airfield. There's a hangar with a waiting room of sorts tacked on to the side; not the proper passenger terminal of a commercial airfield, but likely something a fair sight better than the dank, dingy sheds she'd found herself in for most of the war.
The bodyguard - Ackerman - hunches his shoulders against the rain and trudges after his emperor, head swiveling around. There's nothing to see but the unhappy ground crew securing mooring lines.
Deryn imagines she'll be wearing the same sour expression when she rings the bell at Jaspert's flat.
So will Jaspert, probably.
I could do it, she thinks, crossing her arms over her chest, watching Alek reach the hangar. I could save Austria-Hungary. I'd be bloody brilliant at it, too.
A disapproving officer pushes past her with a dark look; Deryn gives him one of Mr. Rigby's best glares in return, and the bum-rag's expression falters. His steps are a bit more hasty after that.
She could do it. She would be brilliant at it. And if she happened to find time for a wee bit more kissing along the way… why not?
She frowns harder. And what's stopping her? Fear of what people will say?
When have you ever let that keep you from anything, you great ninny? she thinks. Barking spiders, she's getting old if she doesn't go after this only because people will disapprove.
Her decision's made.
Deryn walks briskly down the gangway and jogs through the rain towards the hangar, though it's not until she hears a Clanker shout and the distinctive cough of a compressed-air pistol that she begins to sodding run.
Notes: General Emil Uzelac was made commander of Austria-Hungary's Imperial and Royal Aviation Troops in 1912. In real life, he switched over to the Royal Yugoslav Air Force in 1919 before retiring in 1923.
As a prince, King George V served as a midshipman aboard the HMS Bacchante. (He also got a super awesome dragon tattoo in Japan.)
Also - hi, everyone! Been awhile! *waves*