The crooked fingers of inlets stretched from the sea into the city of Vladivostok, slicing it into winding peninsulas toothed with piers. Hills rose up from the water’s edge, crisscrossed by avenues where mammothines trudged, bearing cargo from the ships scattered across the harbor.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Exiled.”
“Vladivostok,” Bovril answered from the windowsill, and Alek wondered where the beast had heard the city’s name.
Bovril rubbed its paw against the window glass, which was always fogging up here in the officers’ baths. The plumbing was integrated into the airbeast’s circulatory system, the air as warm and moist as a steam bath in Istanbul, an unpleasant reminder that the ship was a living thing. But at least the room was empty during the day. The officers were on duty, the crewmen not allowed to enter.
“A SHOWER TO CLEAR THE HEAD.”
Since finding out Deryn’s secret, Alek had steered clear of her and Newkirk. The rest of the crew had little time for him, so he’d taken to wandering the ship alone. It had been an education, seeing places where the middies’ duties rarely took them—the ship’s electrikal engines, the darkest reaches of the gut. But after two days of skimpy rations, Alek no longer had the energy to explore. Loneliness and hunger were natural allies, together carving an emptiness inside him.
“Middle of nowhere,” said the perspicacious loris.
Alek frowned. The beast had sounded almost sad.
“Do you miss her?” he asked.
Bovril was silent for a moment, staring down at the airship’s shadow slipping across the ground. Finally it said, “Exiled.”
Alek couldn’t argue. He was truly on the outside now, hiding from the crew, his own men, and especially Deryn. He had only Bovril for company.
But a fabricated beast was better than nothing, he supposed. And its company was much simpler than trying to untangle Deryn’s feelings for him. She of all people knew that he could never love a commoner.
Alek dimly recalled that the fangs of a tigeresque came from the life threads of some extinct creature. But surely no dinosaur had been armed with such teeth. Were they from some ancient great cat? For the hundredth time while wandering the ship alone, Alek wished that Deryn were here to provide the answer.
The door opened behind him, and he turned, half expecting to find her there, ready to deliver a biology lesson. But it was Count Volger.
“I am sorry to disturb you, Your Highness, but I need you.”
Alek turned back to the window. The man had betrayed him far worse than Deryn had. She, at least, had her reasons to lie.
“I have nothing to say to you.”
“I doubt that very much, but we haven’t time in any case. We must deal with Mr. Tesla before we land.”
“Deal with him?” Alek shook his head. “What do you mean?”
“He’s dangerous. Have you forgotten our discussion?”
Alek’s mind processed the words, and a chill cut through the warm air of the officers’ baths. In the last two days he’d forgotten to worry about Tesla and his city-destroying weapon, or Volger’s plan to stop him. The possibility of murdering the inventor had never seemed quite real, but the look on the wildcount’s face was deadly serious.
Bovril shifted nervously on the windowsill.
“So you’re on your way to kill a man, and thought you’d stop by and ask for help?”
“I didn’t want to involve you in this, Alek. But we have to know if Tesla is leaving the ship today. He has refused to meet with me, but he’ll talk to you.” Volger’s face showed a hint of a smile. “You
Alek only glared, though the man was right. In the navigation room Tesla had been excited to meet him—the famous prince. And an invitation to dinner had been slipped under Alek’s stateroom door yesterday morning. He had ignored it, of course.
“You want me to find out if he’s staying on board.”
“If you please, Prince.”
“And what if he’s about to leave? Will you and Klopp gut him on the gangplank?”
“Neither Klopp nor I will be anywhere near the spot. Nor shall you.”
“Gut him on the gangplank,” Bovril said gravely.
Alek swore. “Have you gone mad? If Bauer and Hoffman murder someone on this ship, the Darwinists will know who ordered it!”
“I may not have to order anything.” The wildcount gestured toward the door. “But it’s up to you to find out.”
“And you waited until
“Then Hoffman and Bauer will follow their orders. They’re already in place.”
Alek lifted Bovril from the windowsill and put the beast on his shoulder. He took a step toward the door, ready to find his men and tell them to stand down. But where were they lying in wait? And worse, what if they ignored his commands? Now that they were all back aboard the
Alek’s two days of sulking had made certain of that.
“Damn you, Volger. You shouldn’t concoct plans without me. And you shouldn’t keep secrets from me either!”
“Ah.” For a moment the man looked genuinely sorrowful. “That was regrettable. But I did warn you not to make friends with a commoner.”
“Yes, but you left out something rather
“Fragile?” Volger looked about. “I hadn’t thought so, but now I find you brooding in a bathroom. This doesn’t speak well of your sturdiness.”
“I haven’t been brooding! I’ve been exploring the ship.”
“Exploring? And what have you discovered, Your Serene Highness?”
Alek turned back to the window, feeling a fresh wave of emptiness in his gut.
“That I can’t trust anyone, and that no one has any faith in me. That my best friend was… a fiction.”
“Brooding,” Bovril said.
Count Volger was silent. Alek almost added that his suspicion was that Deryn Sharp was in love with him, but he didn’t want to see the scorn on Volger’s face.
“I’ve been a fool,” he finally said.
Volger shook his head. “But hardly a singular fool. That girl has tricked her officers and crewmates for months, and has been decorated in the line of duty. She even fooled me for some time. In her way, she’s quite impressive.”
“You admire her, Count?”
“As one does a bear riding a bicycle. One sees it so rarely.”
Alek shook his head. “And along with your admiration, you decided to blackmail her.”
“I needed her help to get off this ship. I thought I could prevent you from joining in that pointless revolution and getting yourself killed.” The annoyance in Volger’s voice faded a bit. “Of course, who knows? We may have need of her help again.”
“Are you saying I should stay friends with her?”
“Of course not. I’m saying that we can still blackmail her.”
“Get stuffed,” Alek said, and suddenly he had to get out of the steam and heat. He strode toward the door, halting with one hand tight around the knob. “I’m going to Tesla’s cabin. If he intends to disembark today, I shall call the ship’s marines to escort him off in safety.”
“It’s your right to betray us, of course.” Volger bowed. “We are at your disposal.”
“I won’t betray you aloud, Volger, but the captain might draw unfortunate conclusions. Unless you promise me right now that—”
“I can’t, Alek. Tesla’s claims may be madness, but it isn’t worth the risk. Two million of your people live in Vienna, and that’s probably only the first city on his list. You saw what his machine can do.”
Alek pulled the door open. He didn’t have time for this argument, and he couldn’t let a man be killed over some imaginary threat. He had to stop this now. But he found himself pausing to say one more thing.
“If you threaten Deryn Sharp again, Volger—in any way at all—I’m done with you.”
The man only bowed again, and Alek left, slamming the door behind him.
Mr. Tesla was still in his stateroom, but a leather suitcase lay on the bed. One of the Russians was packing while Tesla worked at the laboratory bench. The electrikal walking stick lay before him, partly disassembled.
Alek knocked on the open door. “Excuse me, Mr. Tesla?”
The man looked up with irritation on his face, then brightened. “Prince Aleksandar. You appear at last!”
Alek returned the bow. “I apologize for not answering your note. I’ve been indisposed.”
“No need, Prince,” Tesla said, then his eyes narrowed at Bovril. “So you really have become a Darwinist.”
“Oh, this beast? It’s… a perspicacious loris. ‘Perspicacious’ meaning ‘wise or canny.’”
“Get stuffed,” Bovril said, then giggled.
“And it insults people,” Tesla said. “How peculiar.”
Alek gave the creature a sharp look. “Bovril is usually more polite, as am I. It was an oversight not to join you last night. We have much to discuss.”
The man turned back to his walking stick, his long fingers twisting a coil of wire round and round. “Meals are a dismal affair on this ship, at any rate.”
“The food isn’t so bad when the galley has supplies.” Alek wondered why he was defending the
“Ah, that would explain the braised hare. The highlight of the evening.”
Alek raised an eyebrow. This man had eaten fresh meat while Alek had been chewing on old biscuits? Of course, if the Darwinists believed that Goliath worked, they’d happily feed Tesla caviar three times a day.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to share it with you. But now that the ship is resupplied, perhaps dinner tonight?”
Mr. Tesla’s face darkened. “I must return to New York as quickly as possible. At last I have the data to complete my work.”
“I see.” Alek took a slow breath, then looked at the Russian, who was folding a pair of trousers. “Might we have a moment alone, Mr. Tesla?”
Tesla waved a hand. “I have no secrets from Lieutenant Gareev.”
Alek frowned. Tesla had a Russian officer as his valet? No doubt one of the czar’s confidants, sent to keep an eye on the inventor.
Then Alek realized that he recognized Lieutenant Gareev. He was the man who’d interrupted Deryn’s burglary two nights before. And it was possible that he’d spotted the two of them carrying the metal detector in the cargo bay that night.
Alek switched from English to German. “Mr. Tesla, can this weapon of yours really stop the war?”
“Of course it can. I have always been able to see with absolute clarity how my inventions will operate, how every piece fits into another, even before I put the designs onto paper. Since this war began I have worked to extend this ability into the realm of politics. I am certain the Clanker Powers will yield to me, if only because they have no other choice.”
Alek nodded silently, struck again by the peculiar effect of listening to Tesla. Half of Alek rebelled at the wild claims; the other half was swept along by the man’s certainty. What if Count Volger had got it backward? If Goliath really worked, then Tesla could end the war in a few weeks. It would be
But then Alek recalled the forest of fallen trees and scattered bones, a nightmare landscape stretching in all directions. What if it took the destruction of a whole city to convince the Clanker Powers to surrender?
All Alek knew for certain was that he couldn’t see the future, and he didn’t want blood on his men’s hands today.
“Stop the war,” Bovril said quietly.
Tesla leaned in to inspect the loris. “What an odd beast.”
“Sir, if there’s any way you could stay aboard, I might be able to help you. I want peace too.”
The man shook his head. “My steamship leaves for Tokyo this afternoon, and I’m catching a Japanese airbeast for San Francisco in two days, then straight to New York by train. Missing a connection could cost me a week, and every day this war goes on, thousands die.”
“But you can’t leave yet!” Alek clenched his fists. “You need my help, sir. This is politics, not science. And my granduncle is the emperor of Austria-Hungary.”
“The same granduncle you just accused of murder in the newspapers? My dear prince, you and your family are hardly on the best of terms.” Tesla smiled gently as he said this, but Alek could hardly argue.
There was no other way, then. He reached for his command whistle and blew the notes to call a lizard. One popped from a message tube in seconds, but as Alek started to speak, his stomach twisted. He couldn’t betray his own men, and he could hardly ask for an armed escort without explanation.
Mr. Tesla glanced up at the lizard, raising an eyebrow.
“Straight to New York,” Bovril said.
Alek finally found the right words. “Captain Hobbes, Mr. Tesla and I need to see you at once. We have an important request. End message.”
The creature scampered away.
“A request?” Tesla asked.
The plan formed in Alek’s mind as he spoke. “Your mission is too important to waste time with steamships and trains. We should leave for New York immediately, and the