Alexander fell asleep on the sofa in the sitting room of the Mazarine. Amelia slept in the surprisingly opulent bed. They met each other only a few hours after retiring, bleary-eyed and wondering if the events of the previous day had even occurred. Except that they were on the airship docked at Colonel Pell’s manor outside of the city, and Fletcher had addressed them as Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley.
“So it’s true, then,” Amelia said with a sigh.
“No cold feet, now, my dear,” Alexander admonished. “We have the first true test of our acting skills before us.”
“As though the past several years haven’t been a perpetual charade,” Amelia retorted. “We’ve managed to convince the whole city of our fond devotion to each other. I fail to see how meeting Colonel and Lady Pell will prove a test of our abilities.”
“They would expect a certain...” Alexander waved his hand in a circle, searching for the turn of phrase.
Amelia glared at her husband and tucked a parasol under her arm. “I should hope not. But if you want me to gaze longingly at you and suggest a quiet stroll through the wilderness, I will. For your sake.”
Alexander shrugged into his jacket. “We should muss your hair and leave a stray twig or two to complete the effect.”
Glare melted into shock and barely restrained hilarity. “Bravo.” Amelia shook her head and smirked.
“Shall we?” Alexander offered his arm.
“Frankly, I see no reason to alter our already established methods,” Amelia said as they stepped down from the cabin onto terra firma. She squinted up at the sunlight, one hand shading her eyes. The manor grounds looked very different in the daylight, but she could see three people sitting on the veranda not far away. Brass glinted in the sunlight from a pair of goggles on a tophat. “Is that Gavin Graves?”
“Your friend at the Metropol? Why would he be here?” Alexander asked.
“Hardly a friend,” she mumbled. A heavy sensation settled in Amelia’s gut. “He expects to be Merriday’s replacement.”
“Excellent, then. Offer your blessing to Mister Graves, relinquish your place in the Argonauts, and we get on with our lives.”
“I’m afraid it might not be that simple,” Amelia replied.
Colonel and Lady Pell sat on the veranda with Mister Graves, watching a rather rambunctious, lanky puppy gambol about the lawn with a knotted rope toy. He flipped the toy in the air, nipped at it with his uncoordinated jaws, and in general moved with all the grace of an inebriated giraffe.
Lady Pell rose to meet her guests with considerably more alacrity than she had shown Amelia at the gala.
“Quite an intriguing hound you have,” Alexander said when they had gained the veranda.
“A Great Dane,” Lady Pell said with a shake of her head, “and not much older than 5 months.”
“Will he ever grow into those paws?” Amelia asked with a chuckle.
“Eventually, perhaps. I have my doubts.”
“Nonsense,”Colonel Pell said with a slight lift of his chin. “A noble and stalwart breed.”
The dog lay on his back, torqued sideways, his tongue lolling from his maw, tail whipping between his splayed back legs.
“Indeed.” Lady Pell passed a glance from Gavin to the Brinkleys, one elegant eyebrow crooked in skepticism.
Gavin offered his congratulations to the newlyweds with only a hint of the usual gallantry that he usually bestowed. “You’re a tad far from the coastline, aren’t you?”
Amelia glanced at Colonel Pell, who resolutely fixed his attention on his frolicking dog. No help from him, then.
Lady Pell, clearly the more conscientious of the pair, spoke up in her husband’s silence. “With the danger of pirates on the coastline, we felt perhaps it would be safer for them to venture into the mountains instead.”
“Surely there are pirates in the mountains as well,” Gavin said.
“Undoubtedly,” Amelia interpolated. “But if one is to face imminent death, it would be better to face it on land than at sea.”
“We might as well come to business, then,” the colonel said, cutting the conversation before it became too heated. “We have a matter to discuss, and it does no good to linger on pleasantries.”
This announcement shocked everyone, though Gavin appeared more pleased than shocked by the abruptness. He settled back in his chair with an air of triumph that set Amelia’s nerves on edge.
“As you all are well aware,” Pell began, “Franklin Merriday left us rather suddenly, and for some time, we in the Argonauts have deliberated about the future of the Club. You see, we are at a juncture. On one hand, the cherished and enduring traditions of the Argonauts, our proud history, and our widespread influence on world events. The other hand...” Pell hesitated, seemed to gather his resolve. “The other hand, we have the wishes of our dear comrad. Now, we have considered the circumstances from as many angles as possible, and have come to realize that we have reached an impasse. Should we proceed from the momentum of our past, we will dishonor Merriday. Should we honor Merriday’s wishes, we will likely see the end of the Argonauts as we know it.”
Amelia watched Gavin’s face as Pell progressed through his speech. Though she had been told of her place in the grand scheme, she began to wonder if Gavin was left in the dark. He looked positively uncomfortable, his face taking on a sickly pallor.
He has no idea why we’re really here, Amelia thought.
“Merriday was always an unconventional man. That was the cornerstone of his talent. And anyone familiar with the internal environment of the Argonauts Society would know that he had come to resent certain fixtures and traditions.” He hesitated again, watched his dog.
“Everyone here is familiar with the circumstances, I’m afraid, except for you, Mister Graves.”
“Circumstances, sir?” Gavin asked, his eyes fixed on Amelia.
“Merriday’s will, you see, names Miss – I’m sorry, Mrs. Brinkley – as his Argonaut heir.”
The pallor turned to stone. He sat forward in his chair, leaned his forearms on the table. “How long have you known this?” he asked Amelia.
“Only last night,” she replied, shaking her head.
“Then pirates on the coastline had nothing to do with your convenient presence today.” He looked at Lady Pell, who held his gaze, lifted her chin.
He looked back at Amelia. “And you’re here to accept, is that it?”
“I’m not certain,” Amelia said, fidgeting with a button on her glove. I can hardly be certain. I only learned about it a few hours ago.”
“I’ve been waiting for this chance for years. Years.” He jabbed a finger on the table.
“Perhaps we should allow the colonel to continue,” Alexander said. “What did the Argonauts conclude?”
“We could not dishonor our friend by dishonoring his last wishes, no matter how inexplicable,” the colonel said.
“Was he in his right mind? Surely he couldn’t have been in his right mind!” Gavin said. “He talked with Miss – Mrs. Brinkley for an hour or more, and determined that she holds the qualifications to lead expeditions?”
“On that we agree,” Amelia said. “I’m as astonished by the choice as you are. Perhaps less baffled, but certainly as astonished.”
“Less baffled? Then you suspected? Did you convince him?” An expression of clarity. “Did you offer yourself to him?”
Pell stood then, glowering down at his young raging guest. Amelia rose as well, fixing Gavin to his seat with her eyes. “With you sleeping off your rampant inebriation not five feet away?”
“Mister Graves,” the colonel said through gritted teeth, “perhaps our decision is clearer than we anticipated.”
Gavin glared at Amelia. “Fine.” He snatched his hat from the table and pretended to honor his hosts with a curt bow.
Amelia felt a soothing hand on her back. “Sit, darling,” Alexander said.
She sat, unclenched her fists against the arms of the chair.
No one seemed eager to fill the silence.
“I suppose,” Amelia began quietly, “that I can hardly refuse now, can I?”
“We have left the matter in your hands, Mrs. Brinkley,” Lady Pell said. The colonel still stood beside her, visibly shaken. Lady Pell took his hand gently, and he seemed to come back to the present. He sat.
“On the way here, I determined to tell Mister Graves that he could have the position if he wanted it. I’m hardly one to lead expeditions, as he said. Is there another in line who can take his place? Perhaps he only needs time to cool off.”
“He broke a cardinal rule, Mrs. Brinkley,” Lady Pell said. “An Argonaut never questions a lady’s honor.”
“We may not venture into Society as you represent it, Mrs. Brinkley, but we have standards equal to yours. We must, if we should meet regents and emperors. Mister Graves has demonstrated twice in our presence that he cannot control his temper.”
“Imagine what would happen if he were to lash out so at a prospective sponsor,” Lady Pell said, “or a regent. The Terra already finds colonials backward and brutish; we would rather not prove them right.”
Amelia remembered a heavily intoxicated Gavin punching the elderly gentleman at the gala. She wondered again what prompted the attack.
“But wouldn’t someone with more...” Amelia searched for the correct word, but it eluded her. “Talent, maybe? Experience? I’d never been on an airship until last night! Surely someone else would better meet your qualifications.”
“Forgive my bluntness, but yes, we would prefer to employ someone with more stellar credentials – any credentials, really,” Colonel Pell said. “But our candidate has turned out to be less acceptable than we hoped.”
“So you prefer to train someone from the ground up?” Amelia asked.
“Navigation, weapons, self-defense, those skills come with practice and training. No one can teach a person to have a quick mind and an adventurous spirit,” Pell replied. “Those comes from the marrow.”
“Mister Graves has both, and then some,” Amelia said.
“He doesn’t know how to interact with persons of rank,” Pell said. “You do.”
Amelia and Alexander shared a look. Her husband made no move to influence her decision, and she knew he wouldn’t, even if she asked.
“I suppose asking for more time to consider is out of the question,” she said.
“We await your leisure, of course,” Pell said, running a thumb along the edge of his tea saucer.
That’s a first.
She sighed, looked again at Alexander. “Well, then, Darling, I suppose we should take a short walk.”