Disclaimer: I don't own anything. The characters, setting, nothing. Scott Westerfeld does.
The night has been a blur of fakes smiles and men--young and old--kissing her hand. She was in the middle of a conversation with Thaddeus, her listening to him rattling of the excitements of his time on a hydrogen balloon, traveling through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was hard not to scoff at him, and to gloat about the wonders of the Leviathan. Deryn smiled sweetly at an attempted witty comment about hydrogen breathers. I would have much preferred the knife, she thought, wishing she could at least give him a hard one in the stomach.
When she couldn’t stand his company, she excused herself, going to find some wine. Dr. Barlow intercepted her. “Dalia, I couldn’t help but notice how much Mr. Welker is enjoying your conversation.”
“Aye--er--Yes, I believe he is. And that makes one of us.”
“The party is over in one hour. Please try to enjoy yourself,” and gather some useful intel while you’re at it, if you please. Deryn could imagine her saying.
Deryn took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. I can make it through an hour. It’ll be easy. And think of what Alek would say if you were a dummkopf and ruined your half of the job. She laughed hesitantly at the thought, turning back toward Thaddeus, only to find he wasn’t there. She searched the room for him with her eyes, and was startled when she felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Dalia?” she turned to find Thaddeus behind her, smiling.
“Oh, yes. My apologies for that, Thaddeus. Where were we?” She brandished the glass at him.
“Please, call me Tad. All of my friends do, and I should quite like you to be one of them. You are a very interesting woman, Dalia.”
“Is that so, Tad?” she batted her eyelashes at him, all the while thinking elaborate curses.
“Oh, yes. Most girlies haven’t the faintest idea of hydrogen ships. Knowing Ms. Barlow as you do, you seem to be more informed.”
“Dr. Barlow does enjoy sharing about her time on the--the, oh, one of the hydrogen breathing ships. They are fascinating things, aren’t they?”
“Yes,” he said carefully, “but machines are much more efficient. They move more quickly and have no need for food, just fuel.”
“Food is the fuel for a beastie,” you pile of clart. Aye, this one was definitely a Clanker. “And it can think for itself, sensing and avoiding danger even if the pilot doesn’t.”
He was eager for the challenge, “But machines are impervious to pain. They can continue to move until it is physically impossible, unlike the abominations, which will refuse commands and quit when they don’t want to do something.”
“Where exactly did you hear this, because I will personally have them know that beasties are truly loyal and will do anything they are--” she stopped. A girl would not argue like this. She was acting like a boy again, gradually moving forward towards her opponent, hands almost clenched into fists. “Told,” she finished, fixing a look of satisfaction on her face, like she thought she had just won an unlikely battle, and it was just a game. “Well, that was entertaining. You pose good points, Tad. Thank you for bringing a plausible argument.”
He was confused at the sudden change. “You--you’re welcome. Dalia. You, too, argue well. Some of my boys back home can’t do half as well.”
She raised an eyebrow--most boys would never quit without winning. They’re conversation continued, and soon enough Dr. Barlow had come to get her. Tad asked to see her again, and she said they could schedule something. As they stepped out into the cool air, their driver got out of the carriage and opened their door. It was not the same person as before, and now there was a top to the traveling cart to keep out the cold. Deryn settled down in her seat, the lady boffin across from her. “You did very well, Deryn. Better than I had expected.”
“Aye, I tried, Dr. Barlow,” she said, pleased.
They sat in silence for the majority of the ride home. She was suddenly dead tired, and thankfully the lady boffin didn’t try to make conversation, either. Deryn listened instead to the beastie’s footsteps, and the rumble of the wheels on the ground. The whistle of the wind. She watched the dust dance in the moonlight, settling on the darkened leather of the seats that matched the painted walls. She counted up to three hundred and down again. Twice. The ride hadn’t there surely hadn’t been as long as this? She thought back to then, how every ticking second seemed faster than the one before. Now they seemed slower for some strange, inexplicable reason.
Finally they drew to a halt. The boffin waited patiently, adjusting her bowler hat. Deryn tried to keep her eyes open. “Here you are, ladies,” the driver opened the door and gestured them elegantly out. She couldn’t help but notice the frost on his mustache. It must be barking cold out there, on his bench. They rushed inside, Deryn’s head down against the chill. Not even stopping to take off her coat, she hurried up to her room.
“Alek?” she peered into his open room, thinking maybe he was asleep already. “Alek?” Still no answer. “Dummkopf, you in there? Aye, of course you aren’t. Now I’ve got to find you before I can take off this barking dress.” She flung the coat and wig into her room and kicked off the shoes. He wouldn’t be on the roof, would he? It was unlikely. After glancing into every room in the hallway, she skipped down the steps and started looking down there. Dr. Barlow found her investigating the kitchens.
“What are you doing in here?” Deryn jumped.
“Looking for Alek, Ma’am. Have you seen him?”
“No, I have not. But I hardly think he would be snooping around in the kitchens.”
You’d be surprised, Deryn didn’t say.
“Why are you still wearing that?” the lady boffin and her loris were both eyeing her dress.
“Aye. I hadn’t gotten a chance to take it off.”
“Did it ever occur to you what a servant may think when he sees a boy wandering around in a skirt?”
Barking spiders! She hadn’t thought of that. What if someone had seen her? Oh, she was such a blithering idiot. “I’m going to go change then. Sorry.”
“See that you do. And please be quick about it.”
“Aye,” Deryn said, and took the shortest route to her room. She was glad to get back into trousers and a loose shirt. It made getting around much easier. Breathing, too. She quick scrubbed her face and smoothed out her hair a squick in the small mirror.
“I see you’re getting used to this girl thing,” his voice sounded pained. She caught a flash of red in the mirror right before she turned around. And cursed.
“What happened to you?” his left sleeve was red almost from the shoulder down, his hand streaked with blood.
He drew in a sharp breath, “Nothing that hasn’t happened before. I got shot.”
“But that was a barking air pistol! And it was a ricochet!”
“Oh, really? I hadn’t noticed, and it’s not as bad as all that. It stopped hurting about an hour and a half ago.”
“An--what? How long ago did this happen?”
“Two hours, maybe? I think the cold got to it.”
“Barking spiders, Alek! Just--take your shirt off, I need a better look at it,” he hesitated, so she started unbuttoning the vest for him. Then the shirt. The blood had frozen the sleeve to his skin, so she had to pry it off carefully. His skin was cold to the touch. “What happened to you?” she repeated and grabbed a clean shirt, dunking it in water. He barely flinched when she pressed it to his arm, cleaning off the blood. That was bad--the water was cold, she knew, from washing her face. She grabbed a blanket from her bed and draped it over his body, leaving only his arm exposed.
“Don’t like what you see?” he joked, but it was strained.
“No, I don’t like seeing you bleeding and half frozen! Now answer me!”
“Okay, Deryn,” his eyebrows were creased, in pain or confusion or thinking, she couldn’t tell, “I was searching the room, and someone came in, so I hid in the curtains. I waited until the lamps were out and the door was closed and when I came back out, he was there.”
“I don’t know. It was dark, and I could hardly think with a gun shoved at my chest. I knocked it out of his hand and I almost made it out of the window before he shot. I’m lucky he only caught my arm.
“The fall to the ground wasn’t fun. It twisted my ankle a bit. Made running to the trees and climbing one when they came looking--ow! God’s wounds, that hurt!”
She had begun to clean the shot wound itself, pressing the rewetted shirt on it. “Sorry. Go on.”
“I hid in the top of a tree for at least an hour. Then I walked here and climbed up the side of the building,” he flinched.
“You climbed up a tree and the house with a barking hole in your arm?”
“I suppose I did. It’s not really a hole, after all. More of a--ow--”
“You’ll need stitches. The bullet isn’t in your arm anymore. It must’ve gone straight through. Lucky it missed your bone. That would’ve been messy. And then you couldn’t have climbed anything.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Wait here. I’ll be back. I’ve got to tell the boffin and get a needle,” she said. When she got back, Dr. Barlow in tow, Alek was sitting in the same spot, grimacing.
“The feeling came back,” his words were short, clipped in pain. He watched her settle down next to him, eyes narrowed at the sharp sliver of metal in her hand.
“Well, then this won’t be pleasant,” she gritted her teeth, trying to sound unfazed. It probably didn’t work. Gingerly, she held his arm and lowered the needle towards it.
“You know how to do this, right?” Alek asked, shrinking away.
“Aye, I learned on the Leviathan.”
He still eyed her warily, but then nodded to her and closed his eyes. When it first pierced the skin he let out a few very unprincely curses, which Bovril echoed from his place on Deryn’s bed. She ignored them and continued.
“Will you stop that?” she demanded when he’d flinched or moaned for about the fifth time.
“You try having stitches put in your arm!”
“I have, and I didn’t make as much of a barking fuss as you.”
“Right,” he said, defeated. He’d been there when she’d crash landed the glider wings in Mexico, and she’d been discovered by the reporter Eddie Malone. The room was much quieter after that.
“There,” she looked down at her work, pleased. Dr. Barlow, who had been standing silently in the doorway, came over to inspect.
“Excellent work, Mr. Sharp. This would have been a tricky thing to explain to a doctor,” she turned to Alek, “I trust, then, that you were not successful, Aleksandar,” Deryn gaped at her, and Alek shook his head. “That complicates things. It is nothing but a setback, though. I expect we’ll be back on track soon enough. Do heal well, Aleksandar,” she said, and left the two of them alone.
“Barking insensitive, that was,” Deryn said in disbelief, wrapping his arm in the gauze cloth she’d brought with the needle. “Now let me see your foot.”
“No, she was right. I failed, Deryn,” he pulled on the laces of his shoe and let her wiggle it off his foot--she doubted he could have done it himself with one properly working arm--along with the sock. There was some bruising, and the ankle itself was swollen, but not much.
“The cold outside must have kept it down.”
“The swelling. All your time out there was like when you put ice on your eye after getting punched and it doesn’t swell.”
“I’m not even going to ask how you know that.”
“It happened to Jaspert several times.”
“That’s not what I expected you to say. Ouch! Why did you do that?”
She had poked his foot. “For fun,” she said. He glared at her, so she answered truthfully, “I was testing for feeling. Frostbite is a nasty thing.”
“You’re welcome, then,” when she gave him a question look, he continued, “For saving you from a frostbitten bum.”
“Aye, I believe you’ve been thanked for that enough. Your foot’s just twisted. Stay off it for a while and you’ll be fine.”
“Certainly, Doctor Sharp,” she rolled her eyes and looked for a good place to discard the bloody shirts. Alek’s was pretty well ruined, and Deryn wasn’t sure if the stains would come out of hers. She decided to leave it for the morning and draped them over the window sill. “Can I put a shirt on now?”
“Hmm... No. None of that for you. It’s your punishment for being a bum rag and getting shot.”
“It really wasn’t my--”
“Nope. Doctor’s orders. Now get to bed, you ninny, and I will see that you have my personal assistance to get to breakfast tomorrow morning.” She tossed the blanket back onto her bed and led him across the hall, supporting part of his weight, secretly delighting in the fact that he was completely shirtless.
Oh, yes. Shirtless Alek :) You're welcome, guys.