Her fingers rested on the typewriter’s keys and she stared at the blank page, flashes of memory cast like shadows on a wall. Around her, the newspaper staff had returned to their jobs reluctantly, dazed, some silent in shock, some still vocally and tearfully processing the tragedy. The presses lurched back to full speed for the evening edition. The usual hum and racket filled the room.
“It is with deep regret,” Amelia typed, “that the Metropol informs the public of the tragic and unexpected” - her fingers halted, her mind tripping on the word death, wondering if it was too harsh, if perhaps loss or demise or passing weren’t more appropriate, as though fixating on propriety and formality could make the announcement any less devastating to Merriday’s devotees. She personally had spent only an hour with him, but he had, in that brief time, felt compelled to speak honestly to a novice reporter about his experiences with the Argonauts, despite the possibility of the information becoming public. His candor was endearing. Amelia wondered if, considering the circumstances, he had some precognition of his fate.
She realized she had been staring at the page for several minutes, the sentence still hostage to the proper word for death. She settled for loss and moved on.
The details of the crash had arrived through the telegraph machine a few minutes after the original message concluded. This time, no one stood on tradition, and employees crushed against the machine to read until McGoffery began hauling and pushing them away with growled orders that no one would read anything if they didn’t get out of his way. He blocked the crowd from the end of clacking, clattering machine as the roll of paper spooled out. When the last line of text skipped past the output margin, McGoffery ripped the paper from the spool, growled at Amelia to follow him, and lurched to his office.
“You were supposed to write the report articles, so you should be the one to write the announcement,” he said, handing her the roll of paper. “You get to read it first. We’ll have to run an extra edition for this, so I’ll need your article in the next hour.”
Amelia looked at the roll of paper, not even the size of a standard sheet of typing paper, and sat on a nearby chair beside the door. It took a moment for the information to penetrate the fog of shock her mind experienced.
The Argo had been on a side expedition to the Gallopagos Archepelago when it was beset by sky pirates, who boarded the ship in flight. During the brief skirmish, a stray bullet had pierced the airship’s trademark crimson balloon, plunging the vessel into the sea miles from the nearest shore. When the Argo failed to return to the base camp, Argonaut authorities began the search, and discovered the wreckage of the ship along the western coast of the southern continent. No bodies were recovered. During that time, a band of sky pirates had contacted the Argonauts claiming responsibility for the destruction of the ship and the crew. They personally had seen to Merriday’s death. The Argonauts were preparing for Merriday’s funeral at their headquarters. He had no immediate family. The Amazon expedition was terminated indefinitely.
She read the report twice, just to make sure she understood. Questions riddled her mind, and she looked up at McGoffery, who attempted to appear busy with articles. He hadn’t adjusted the lens apparatus, so she knew he was merely pretending, waiting for her to finish. She wondered how many of Merriday’s expeditions McGoffery had read about in his tenure at the Metropol.
“Forgive me, but are the Argonauts prone to publicity stunts?” she asked, hoping the editor would give some sign of complicity in a larger Argonaut scheme.
McGoffery thought for a moment. “Here and there, but nothing like this. And they’ve always warned the press beforehand, so things don’t get out of hand.”
“And you’ve received no warning?” Amelia probed. “You would tell me if you had, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve not received warning of any imminent danger. The Amazon expedition was dangerous enough as it was. And yes, you would have been informed if it had been a stunt, and kept to absolute secrecy on pain of termination if you told a living soul.”
She handed the report to him. “Sky pirates,” she said.
McGoffery chuckled sardonically. “Of course it was.” He passed his eyes over the report for a moment as if to confirm, then rose to return to the newsroom floor. He stopped before opening the office door. “This is front page, you know.”
She attempted a smile, but only one side of her face complied.
The staff gathered around McGoffery’s office door. He pulled out the chair out of his office and stood on it so everyone could hear him.
As though anyone would have trouble hearing him, Amelia thought as she walked through the crowd toward the bank of typewriters to begin writing her first front page article.
It hadn’t occurred to her until that moment, but she hadn’t seen Mister Graves since the initial announcement came through. She expected him to pounce on her the moment she left the editor’s office, plaguing her with questions she couldn’t answer and details she didn’t have. She didn’t see him in the crowd listening to McGoffery’s booming voice, and his desk showed no indication that he was still in the room. She hated to admit it, knowing how much he admired Merriday, but his absence made her job easier, as he wouldn’t loom over her or pace behind her as she worked, questioning her talents, accusing her of infiltrating what should have been his rightful domain.
It is with deep regret that the Metropol must inform the public of the loss of celebrity Arganaut Franklin Thomas Merriday.
She sat back in her chair and stared at the line on the page, growing more anxious as the minutes passed without an additional sentence. She checked her pocket watch and realized she was late for the meeting with the florist. She cursed under her breath, imagining her sister Francine’s apoplexy when she didn’t arrive, and her monologue during and after the wedding. Amelia didn’t lift a finger to help with preparations. We had to manage every detail while she visited Ladies’ clubs and lived with university students. Male university students at that! Not eager to add to the growing list of faults and infractions her sister would inumerate, she replaced the page in the typewriter and clacked out an apology to Francine, including a concilatory phrase or two about her exquisite taste and judgment before giving her written permission to select the bouguet design with her blessing. She found a messenger boy on the floor and coerced him with the last of her spare change to deliver the message to the florist’s shop indicated on the front of the envelope and present it to no one but Mrs. Grimpson.
One dilemma allayed, Amelia growled in vexation and recommenced staring at the single sentence on the otherwise blank page. If Gavin had been there, she would have felt sorely tempted to give him the honor. He probably knew more about Merriday than she would ever learn. But as far as she could determine, Mister Graves had escaped, possibly to take the information to his father. But then, wouldn’t he have stayed to hear how his hero had perished? She shook her head to dismiss her wandering thoughts and reread the lonely sentence on the page.
It should have been a matter of going over Merriday’s notable exploits before giving the details of his demise. She had read obituaries for celebrated personages before, and few of them deviated from the standard format. But this was her first - perhaps her only - front page article, and she refused to conform to standard equations. She wanted to infuse it with the impressions she got from him during the interview.
Interview notes! she thought, her eyes widening in elation as she shot from her seat, the chair launching behind her on its creaky castors for a few feet. If anyone watched her in confusion, she didn’t notice. She found the small pile of papers containing the notes from her interview with Merriday at Pell’s gala and raced back to her seat, her eyes scanning the scribbled words as she whipped the rolling chair back to its rightful place and sat back down. Instead of writing the article line by line as she usually did, not moving on until the sentence was perfect in her head before she transferred it to the page, she clacked out phrases and ideas. Thirty minutes later, she pulled the finished product from the machine and raced to McGoffery’s office.
Once again, she stood in front of her editor as he fine picked the article from behind his bobbing lenses, marking here and there with a red pen. He looked up at her after several excruciating minutes and extended them with silent examination.
“Where did you get all of this information?” he asked.
“I had the good fortune of procuring an interview with Mister Merriday during the gala. I didn’t have room in the article for most of what we discussed, so I used it here. I kept the notes, you see.”
Quit babbling, she thought to herself, aware that excitement had hijacked her better sense and, it seemed, her mouth. Alacrity was an unbecoming trait.
“Before or after the cuff was destroyed?” he growled, this time with the hint of a smile. The corner of his exaggerated eye crinkled in the magnifying lens.
“After, unfortunately. But Colonel Pell arranged to replace the cuff, if I remember correctly.”
“He did. An improved model, actually.”
Amelia gestured a silent “there you have it.”
McGoffery looked back at the article and read in silence for another prolonged eternity.
“A couple of spelling errors, nothing we can’t fix in type-setting, but under the circumstances,” he drew the corners of his mouth into a frown of consideration, “this is an excellent article.” He tossed it in the type-setters’ box with his customary lack of aplomb.
Amelia gaped, dumbfounded.
“Finally struck dumb,” McGoffery muttered. “Now, I need you to write up the interview. Nothing fancy, no commentary. Thirty minutes.”
“Forty-five,” she replied. McGoffery pinned her with a sharp look. “I had to hand write the notes, you understand, and the last page or two are very nearly hieroglyphics because my hand was cramping so badly as I was trying to keep up. I may need a Rosetta Stone to translate them.”
“Forty-five then,” he said, dismissing her with a wave.
“You couldn’t leave for an hour to select flowers for you wedding?” Francine asked. “Velvet, dear heart, put the statue back where you found it. One mustn’t play with Grandmamma’s things.”
“Yes, Mamma,” Velvet Grimpson, aged 5, replied without the least sign of complying.
“I fear you have no inclination to participate, as long as Mamma and I see to the details. But, you have always been rather selfish.” Francine smoothed the fall of her gown for the dozenth time though she hadn’t moved enough to unsettle the fabric in any way. “One wonders if you would even marry at all if not for us.”
One wonders, Amelia thought, hiding a surreptitious eye roll behind the rim of her teacup.
“And you refuse to explain yourself more than ‘an unforeseeable emergency at the newspaper.’ The wedding is a week away! Any other bride-to-be would have surrendered herself entirely to preparations, but you always have been stubborn. It’s a mercy for Mamma that Margaret is so tractable.”
Meanwhile, little Velvet, the dear heart, was using the statue she wasn’t supposed to possess to make a marvelous ruckus on the legs of the table. Francine appeared oblivious to her child’s behavior, preferring instead to praise her darling toddler son for ambling along the edge of the table and reaching for the tray of tea things with grasping little paws. “Such a brilliant child, is he not?” she asked. The brilliant child had got his paws on the sugar spoon and proceeded to rap the table with it, resulting in peals of laughter that would have made a dog’s ears ring.
Unable to tolerate another moment of her tiny nephew’s percussive genius, Amelia replaced the sugar spoon with a soft cloth toy, pretending not to notice the cool, slimy moistness of the fabric. Her nephew shoved the cloth toy in his mouth for a few moments, then removed it, trailing a filament of drool attached to his lip.
“Dear Alabaster,” Francine cooed.
Velvet was out of Amelia’s range and continued to rattle the marble statue on the table legs.
“I’m sure Mamma would not appreciate marks on the furniture,” Amelia said, “or the statue.”
“You are hardly one to speak for what Mamma would appreciate,” Francine replied without moving. “She is in no condition to accommodate for your insensitivity. The least you could do is tell me what the great emergency was that prevented you from attending to your duties.”
“I’m so bored, Mamma,” Velvet whined, dropping the statue on the floor. “I want to go outside.”
Yes, do go play in the street, Amelia thought, then instantly chided herself for it. “The special run should be available in an hour or so,” she said to her sister. “Until then, I’ve been asked not to speak of it.”
“Where is Grandpapa?” Velvet interrupted. “He can take me to the park.”
“Grandpapa is in his study, dear heart, and mustn’t be bothered just now.”
“Aunt Amelia, will you take me to the park?”
“I’m afraid the rain hasn’t stopped yet,” Amelia replied. “You wouldn’t want to ruin your lovely frock, would you?”
Velvet’s sigh heaved her entire body.
“Perhaps tomorrow,” Amelia said, “when everything has properly dried.”
“Tomorrow we are scheduled for your final fitting,” Francine said. “And while the flowers didn’t require your immediate attention, your wedding gown does. You should tell your editor that you cannot be spared tomorrow under any circumstances.”
“I’ve nothing planned until after the fitting appointment.”
“And you wouldn’t have time for the park today, anyway, because the Brinkley’s are coming for dinner. You do intend to join us for dinner?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Alabaster, dear, one mustn’t chew on the furniture,” Francine said. As the culprit was on Amelia’s side of the sofa, Francine made no move to actually prevent the child from gnawing on the table’s edge. Amelia retrieved a well-chewed wooden toy horse from the floor and presented it to the child as compensation for detouring him from his initial target.
“Can I go to the fitting tomorrow, too, Mamma?” Velvet asked. “We’ve not been anywhere since we arrived, and you promised to take me on the trolley.”
“It’s hardly the place for a child, Velvet, dear. Perhaps your Aunt Amelia will take you on the trolley tomorrow afternoon.”
“I am engaged tomorrow afternoon,” Amelia reminded her sister. “I have two events to attend for the Metropol. I’m afraid I won’t return until after dinner.”
Little Velvet appeared on the verge of tears. “I never get to do anything,” she moped.
To prevent spending the last hour before dinner pulling her nephew off of nearly every surface in the room that could be put in his mouth or that made a racket when pounded with various objects, enduring her sister’s eternal condemnations, and listening to Dear Velvet’s pleas for entertainment or attention, Amelia feigned a headache and escaped to her room. To her credit, she did indeed lie down if only to revel in the silence.
The Brinkey’s final dinner visit before absconding to the country did little to soothe Amelia and Alexander’s nerves. After a brief interval of mild interest in Merriday’s death, followed by an equally desultory reception of Amelia’s front page debut, conversation revolved almost entirely on wedding plans and last minute considerations. A brief span between the soup and the fish gave moment for the adults to ask the necessary questions.
“Has Amelia surrendered her position at the newspaper yet?” Mrs. Brinkley asked Mrs. Stodge, though Amelia sat near enough for direct inquiry.
Mrs. Stodge shook her head, “Not yet. But she has quit the insufferable boarding house.”
Francine set her slightly skewed silverware in order. “I am still at a loss as to why she insists upon working when she has so many wedding details to see to. But she has always been that way, hasn’t she, Mamma?”
“I’ve not,” Amelia said, putting wine glass to table with more force than intended. All three women looked to her as though they had been directly slapped. She felt a warning nudge against her foot under the table, and looked up to find an equally warning expression from her fiancé.
“But of course you have,” Francine said. “You’ve had to be dragged and prodded to attend to anything. And you escape as soon as you are able, under the auspices of work. We all understand that you are less than amenable to the wedding, but you must understand that we know what is best for you. Someday you will see that, and you will thank us.”
Amelia sucked in a breath to reply, but Alexander’s warning nudge turned into a warning kick, and she changed her tack at the last moment. “Tomorrow is my last day at the paper.”
“How lucky!” Francine said. “Another day more, and we’ll have had to abduct you.”
“Francine,” Mr. Stodge warned, drawing an expression of shock and ire from his eldest daughter. To her credit, she backed down.
“I hear Miss Wemberly has made quite an interesting match,” Mrs. Brinkley announced brightly. “Have you heard of this yet?”
“I have not,” Mrs. Stodge declared.
“I have,” Amelia said. “Eloise Trewe told me about it recently. It seems Mister Godfrey Childes asked Miss Wemberly to dance three times at the Goddards’ ball. Quite shameful.” Amelia shook her head in mock disapproval. “Especially considering how he had been showing such promising attention to Miss Jane Duncan.”
“Miss Jane Duncan?” Mrs. Brinkley asked. “But she is only just debuted.”
“Indeed,” Amelia responded, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “But they had been seen having rather clandestine conversations before the debut. There was talk that they intended to make their engagement known as soon as Miss Duncan debuted, but the relationship crumbed almost immediately afterward. Mister Childes directed his attentions toward Miss Wemberly, and now Miss Jane Duncan has gone to visit relatives in another territory for a while.”
Mrs. Brinkley studied Amelia for a moment. “How were you able to speak to Miss Trewe? She has dedicated herself almost entirely to her wedding preparations.”
“Almost entirely,” Amelia said. “She attended an event I covered for the paper. She said she has little hope for Miss Wemberly regarding Mister Godfrey. And Miss Rosten has nothing but ill to stay about him. She is Miss Jane Duncan’s intimate friend, you see.”
Mrs. Brinkley and Mrs. Stodge shared a look.
“If the Rostens are at odds with the Godfreys,” Mrs. Brinkley began, gears churning behind her eyes.
“Dormand Rosten seemed perfectly amiable toward Mister Godfrey,” Mr. Stodge said.
“At the club, of course he would,” Mrs. Stodge said, “had he desired to hazard defenestration along with Mister Godfrey, perhaps, but that is unlikely.”
“And you said that Miss Duncan has left the city? Left the territory entirely?” Mrs. Brinkley asked.
“According to Miss Trewe, yes. For an unforeseeable amount of time.” Amelia sat back in her chair, glad of the distracting topic, but sick from spreading gossip.
“We will have to confirm this information, of course,” Mrs. Stodge said, absently tapping the table beside her plate. “But if it is true, then it will affect the next Season.”
“If Miss Duncan is indisposed for several months, we can only assume...” Mrs. Brinkley said.
Amelia cast a sidelong glance at Alexander, whose mingled expression defied immediate comprehension. She was certain, however, that no small part of the mixture included disappointment, and she would have to explain herself in time.
What Amelia had intended to be a short visit to the newspaper to finalize her last two articles turned into an hour-long farewell party. The whole of the newsroom staff attended, except for Mister Gavin Graves, a marked absence that Amelia couldn’t help but consider a personal slight. McGoffery said Gavin had been informed, but he said he had a prior engagement from which he could not excuse himself. Amelia rolled her eyes when she heard, but otherwise made no point of it. If the following month of travel meant anything, it was a month of not having to deal with Gavin’s constant criticism and vacillation. She had that much to look forward to. When she left the newspaper building for what could be the last time - certainly for a while - she felt her last piece of freedom drop away. The next morning, she and her family would drive out to the Brinkleys’ country estate. The following day, she would marry Alexander. And she could augur nothing but years of navigating drawing rooms for the foreseeable future.
She took a more circuitous route home on the trolley, watching the city glide by beside and below her. When her route reached the Kettery, she disembarked and strolled through the station, taking in the glittering glass and steel arches, the diffused light, the cascading arcs, the bustling crowds. Just for fun, she rode the elevator all the way to the top of the spire and watched the dirigibles. From her vantage point, the whole of the city spread around her, and the ocean surged in from the horizon. The manufacturing sector belched smoke from its forest of stacks. She walked around the enclosed terminal area until an attendant urged her to leave if she had no pressing business.
At last, after the sun had set and all of her excuses faded, she took the trolley home to Electo Park station and joined her parents’ preparations for the next day’s departure.
Idyll, the Brinkleys’ country estate, was considerably grander than Amelia had remembered. The road that wound through the grounds passed through an orchard and along a gorgeous spring-fed creek lined with willows. A trellis had been erected beside the willow copse in preparation for the wedding ceremony. Mrs. Brinkley was adamant about the location of the ceremony, as a marriage begun beside running water would survive the vagaries of time. Amelia hadn’t been aware of her mother-in-law-to-be’s more superstitious tendencies until the wedding preparations began. Every detail of the wedding’s location represented some attempt to sway the fates in Alexander and Amelia’s favor. Amelia almost expected a ritual ceremony complete with robes and candles, possibly blood offerings, to take place directly before the wedding breakfast, if not the night before.
Not far from the manor house, Alexander’s dirigible, the Mazarine, waited outside its hangar. Named for its brilliant blue balloon, the Mazarine would take Amelia and Alexander on their honeymoon along the coast. Amelia tried to imagine the Mazarine docking at the Kettery, she and Alexander disembarking for an evening of theatre or a ball during the Season. Or maybe just taking the occasional floatabout. Not over the open ocean, of course, she thought, imagining a band of sky pirates attacking them as had befallen Merriday’s Argo, sending it crashing into the waves. Perhaps she would discuss the direction of their honeymoon travel route with Alexander before they departed. She heard the mountains were lovely in the summer.
They spent the evening with all of the Brinkley family instead of only the adults. Even Francine’s riotous children joined, though neither Francine nor her husband showed the least effort to restrain them once the introductions and necessary praises had been observed. The children’s nanny remained on-hand to see to her charges’ needs. Amelia found herself sitting next to Alexander’s sister, Calliope, who was nearly the same age as Margaret, and who would begin planning for her debut after the wedding. Their portion of the drawing room, together with Alexander and Margaret, seemed entirely separate from that of the parents. Amelia, Margaret, and Calliope discussed the formalities and details of the debut, including the exact specifications of the presentation at court.
“The Regenta dismisses anyone who doesn’t curtsy low enough for her feathers to touch the floor,” Margaret said. Calliope’s eyes widened in horror.
Amelia hid her smile behind her glass of claret. “Unless the feathers on your head happen to be meters long, that is an impossibility. Don’t add to her fears.” She imagined the contortions a woman would have to perform in order to complete such a requirement. She had to hide another smile as attempt after attempt ended in catastrophe and possible concussion.
Margaret blushed, and Amelia had to admit that her sister did have just the perfect complexion for it. Margaret would have no trouble finding a replacement for Mister Goddard. If her short conversation with Miss Trewe, Mister Goddard’s latest source of adoration, contained any truth, Margaret had escaped a potentially heartrending situation for one so young. Mister Goddard, like many young men in the city, was a slave to his aspirations. Not even a sizable dowry could tempt him once Amelia’s dalliance with commonhood became known. Amelia tried to console herself with the knowledge that she had saved her sister from an ambitious man’s machinations, but she wondered if Margaret or Calliope or anyone in Society could escape unscathed. She herself certainly couldn’t.
“From what I have witnessed of you so far, Miss Calliope Brinkley, you will have no trouble whatsoever at your presentation. Only remember, speak only in formal language. I can personally attest that girls have been dismissed for using informal language. Particularly contractions.”
“I have been practicing,” Calliope said with a slight adjustment of her posture. “I shall not struggle to speak correctly if it can be avoided. I shall endeavor to persuade the Regenta that I speak only formally in all occasions.”
“Now, don’t let’s be irrational,” Amelia said.
Margaret feigned shock at Amelia’s informal contractions, and Calliope turned up her nose and flicked her fingers in mock dismissal. All three dissolved into stifled giggles, and even Alexander hid his smile.
“Ladies, this is hardly acceptable behavior,” he said. “Perhaps Miss Stodge has imbibed more than she ought tonight.” He moved Amelia’s wine glass out of her reach.
“You have no authority yet, Mister Brinkley. Kindly return my wine glass.” Amelia assumed a stern expression. When Alexander refused to comply, she reached across and took possession of his glass of whiskey and, with an impudent grin, drank half its contents in a gulp.
“That certainly is not courtly behavior,” Calliope said with a surreptitious glance at the established adults of the room. “Or proper manners for a soon-to-be married woman!”
“Soon-to-be, indeed,” Amelia said. “I have only scant few hours for rebelliousness and general debauchery before I become the staid hausfrau and gentle mistress of the manor. Mister Brinkley, on the other hand, shall continue in his ongoing efforts to...what are you going to do once we’re wed?”
“Prevent the mass anarchy you will inevitably incite wherever we go.”
“A noble cause, if futile.”
He shrugged and finished the wine in Amelia’s erstwhile glass.
“What are you four doing, pray?” Mrs. Brinkley asked from the vicinity of the fireplace.
“Preparing our sisters for the rigors of adulthood,” Alexander said.
Alexander’s mother almost returned her attention to Mrs. Stodge, but something caught her attention. “Miss Stodge, is that whiskey you are holding?”
Amelia felt her face flush, though whether from the whiskey or shame, she wasn’t certain. “Yes, madam.”
“Amelia!” Mrs. Stodge said, clattering her tea cup against its saucer.
Alexander took the glass back from her. “She was only holding it for me for the moment. No harm done.”
Mrs. Stodge glared at her daughter for a moment longer than Amelia could ignore. “Margaret, perhaps we can help Calliope with her debut preparations.” She patted the seat next to her.
Margaret and Calliope shot apologetic looks at Amelia and Alexander before joining the adults. Slightly abashed, Alexander took the opportunity to invite Amelia to a walk along the lighted paths in the garden, away from the reproachful gazes of their parents.
“Already becoming a bad influence on your sister,” Amelia said, her head feeling somewhat loose on her neck. “I really should learn to control myself.”
“You will be an excellent influence. Not a proper one maybe,” he finished off his drink, “but then, neither of us is proper in the strictest sense.”
“You can get away with it. Men are always allowed to wobble along the lines a bit. A flask in the coat pocket, a coarse word here and there amongst fellows, or a tawdry tale of conquest. Society thinks nothing of it. Whereas I work at a newspaper and live with university students and Society dismisses me as all but lost. Were some illicit romantic entanglement in my past to surface, my family would likely disown me.”
“No cause to worry, is there?” Alexander asked archly.
“With whom would I entangle myself? Kurt the titled proletariat rake?” Amelia rolled her eyes. “No, there isn’t. Should I return the favor and ask you the same question? Oh, no. Because while I would be castigated for life, you would be forgiven for being a man. As long as you don’t mention names.”
“That’s hardly fair, not to mention unkind.”
“But is it true?” Amelia’s mouth seemed to work before her mind had formed the thought, and the words escaped before she realized what she was saying.
“Without names? Yes, absolutely true. Even, in some circles, certain clubs, despite names. Or because of names, better still! Are you asking if I’ve taken lovers? Yes, I have. When we are married, I won’t prevent you from taking one if you choose because I’ll be of little use to you in that respect.” His voice had taken on a ragged edge of pain. “And you have already promised to permit me the same luxury. We are performing this little charade against our desires, but we don’t have to blame each other. You,” he put his hand on hers, “can’t hold your liquor. Or your tongue.”
Amelia narrowed her eyes at her friend. “Growing pains.”
“One night, I promise you, we will drink until we’re delirious, say everything we want to say, then pass out and forget it all.”
“And nurse terrific headaches the next morning. Perhaps we should be slightly drunk tomorrow?”
Alexander shook his head. “Absolutely not. We can’t be sure what you will say.”
Cinched, tied, and buttoned into her dress, she waited, pacing around her room, mindful of every step and movement, following a well-worn path from window with view of guests meandering toward the willow-lined stream, to mirror with view of starched and proper mannequin of herself complete with her mother’s inscrutable mask, to bedroom door to listen for the approach of her parents, the signal that all was in motion. They would board the carriage that would take them to the ceremony, and there she would devote herself to her oldest and dearest friend. Together they would bring about the happiness of their mothers and complete the farcical cycle they began as children.
But all had been in motion for some time. A constant, determined current that urged her year by year in its course. By the time she realized her danger, she had no purchase to pull herself free, no matter how she struggled. Now she felt the final downward pull and lost all interest in struggle. The current carried her under and away.
The smattering of guests that trailed across the lawn toward the willow creek slowly trickled to an end. The clatter of horse and carriage drew Amelia back to the window from where she gazed at the stranger in the mirror. Moments later, she heard Francine’s harried voice announcing the carriage’s arrival before bursting through the door carrying Amelia’s bouquet.
“Come along, now,” her sister urged, beckoning with the bouquet. “Alexander is already at the willows, per his mother’s instruction. The guests are seated. It’s getting rather warm already, we don’t want to keep the guests in the heat for too long. It’s impolite.”
Down halls and stairs out the front door to the carriage that transported Amelia and her parents to the willows in silence. At the last moment, Mrs. Stodge grasped her daughter’s hand and kissed it.
“You will find happiness,” she said. “I know you will.”
Her father exited the carriage first, then gently assisted her mother as she climbed down. Amelia remained inside. As the carriage pulled forward to bring her to the gazebo, she peeked between the slats of the carriage’s blinds to see what awaited her. The chairs, nearly a hundred in total, were filled and more people stood by. She recognized a few of her Society friends, as well as more than a few party crashers from the Metropol. She had explicitly invited Mr. McGoffery, and she was pleased to find he had, in fact, arrived, sitting at the end of the last row. She half expected him to wear the lens apparatus, and she felt a twinge of confusion at his normal, unmagnified features. She had also delivered an invitation to Miss Kelley at the boarding house, but she didn’t have time to search the crowd for her friend before the gazebo blocked her view.
Alexander offered his hand to assist her out of the carriage to the small gazebo. Panels of billowing fabric had been erected to prevent guests from viewing the couple before they emerged for the ceremony. Francine, Margaret, and Calliope flitted around Amelia unpinning the bustle of her dress to let out the train, fretting with the diadem and a few errant strands of hair. Francine handed her sister the bouquet she had been wielding before scrutinizing Alexander’s general appearance and adjusting the fold of his cravat an indiscernible bit. Finally, she nodded her satisfaction.
“You look lovely,” Margaret said.
I feel like a dog’s breakfast, Amelia thought, somewhat queasy. She gripped the stems of the bouquet so tightly that she could feel them crush beneath the braided and pinned ribbon holding them together. The blossoms quivered despite all her efforts to still her hands.
Alexander held her hand firmly. “Crush my fingers if you need to,” he whispered to her.
“You’re all kindness,” Amelia murmured, unable to alter her expression from what she knew mimicked her mother’s mask of composure. “But you may regret the offer in the end.”
“Breathe,” Francine said. “You look pale, and your complexion doesn’t support it.” She lightly pinched Amelia’s cheeks to bring color back, but frowned in dissatisfaction. “Those freckles. You spent too much time in the sun.”
“Leave her be, Francie,” Margaret said. “You’re not helping.”
“One more thing,” Francine said, her voice tinged with mock reproach. “We all need some tonic on our wedding day, but no one else should suspect that. Drink this quickly,” she handed her sister a glass of what looked like champagne, “then chew on this.”
Amelia did as directed, her mind in a state that precluded any other course of action. One drink made her ponder the plummeting quality of champagne.
“What is this?” she almost choked.
“A little concoction to settle your nerves and sustain you through the rest of the event,” Francine replied coyly.
“It tastes like patent medicine.” Amelia hesitated to take another mouthful, not sure if the mild floating sensation was altogether desirable in her current situation.
“You’re half correct,” Francine smiled. “Now finish the glass and chew the mint so no one will smell the medicine on your breath.”
Amelia chewed the sprig of mint, then closed her eyes, drew as much of a breath as the corset would allow, and forced her grip on the bouquet to relax.
The ceremony in its entirety, from the moment that Amelia and Alexander stepped from the gazebo, to the recitation of the ritual vows, the tying of the cords around their grasped hands, and the blessing, took no more than thirty minutes, though Amelia could remember little enough of it to believe it had actually occurred. The torture of the receiving line persisted for nearly two hours, on the other hand, and her face ached from the constant smile, though she found herself surprised by its sincerity. By the time the last of the queued guests congratulated the new couple, Amelia’s feet ached, her mouth was dry, and she desperately needed to hide somewhere remote and silent.
Francine offered her sister a glass of champagne. “If I may steal your bride from you for a moment,” she asked Alexander and guided Amelia away from the disbursing crowd. “Are you quite ready to escape yet? It’s a wonder to me that we still require the couple to greet every single guest as though their nerves aren’t quite overcome already.”
Amelia eyed the proffered glass warily.
“Only champagne this time,” Francine said. “Can’t have the bride completely sozzled. It’s just not done. The tonic seemed to work, though. You didn’t appear nearly as panic-stricken.”
“For a moment, I almost felt magnanimous,” Amelia quipped, taking a small sip, then a larger one once she was satisfied it wasn’t laudanum. “Then I remembered what was happening.”
“You performed admirably, and the trial is nearly over.”
Amelia marveled for a moment at her sister’s compliment and wondered if she hadn’t indulged in her tonic as well.
“Truthfully,” Francine said, “I didn’t expect you to go through with it. I fully anticipated finding your bed empty this morning save a letter begging for forgiveness. I was up all night worrying.”
Ah, Amelia thought, sleep deprivation. She must be half dead not to find fault with me in some respect. “All that anxiety for naught,” she said instead, waggling the fingers of her left hand. “I know when I’ve been bested.”
“It isn’t as bad as you think,” Francine said, “being married under these circumstances. It’s...a necessary formality. I don’t find Mr. Grimpson particularly attractive as a man, or as a human being for that matter.”
Amelia smiled, remembering her first impressions of Mr. Grimpson - words like vapid and narcissistic and useless sprang immediately to mind - and she wondered how her sister could tolerate such a creature. Perhaps her tonic played a bigger role in her life than she let on.
Francine continued. “But he holds a significant position in Society and in the city’s government. He is rarely home, and he cares little for the details of how our home is run, so I rarely have cause to speak with him for more than a few minutes. I know our marriage is a formality. I know he doesn’t spend all of his free time in his club. I know he finds solace in various locations. But I am comfortable, my children will never know want, and I dine in the highest circles. That is all I truly desire from a marriage. You, on the other hand, have the luxury of a husband who highly esteems you, who supports your desire for freedom, and as you care little for social aspirations, you have the liberty of doing whatever you want. As long as, at some point, you make an effort to fulfill the biological requirement of the union.”
Startled by her sister’s candor, Amelia remained silent, choosing instead to direct smiles at the guests who watched a married sister lovingly advise the bride.
“I shall endeavor to fulfill my obligations to the best of my ability,” Amelia responded. “And, I believe, Alexander intends likewise.”
“One would hope, but if circumstances warrant, one can find assistance rather easily.”
Her sister’s nonchalance worried her, but Amelia had no time to contemplate the impression, as Alexander begged his bride’s assistance with the cake, then the official expressions of gratitude to the guests for their attendance, and an insincere but required hope that the guests will continue to enjoy the celebration and music until the newlyweds were prepared to board the Mazarine.
“Now would be a lovely time,” Amelia whispered. “I think this corset has gotten tighter, if that’s even possible. And I’m beginning to resent people in general.”
Alexander chuckled beside her and put an arm around her waist.
Amelia leaned into the hug. “How are you fairing?”
“I haven’t quite reached the point of general resentment, but then again, I’m not laced into whalebone and several meters of cloth.”
“And you aren’t perched on your toes. And you can sit without an entourage and an act of Parliament. I don’t know which is worse - the train or the bustle.” She shifted from one throbbing foot to the other.
“The starvation,” he responded. “Neither of us ate much at the breakfast, and we’ve not had an opportunity since.”
“We have food on the Mazarine, I hope.”
“Plenty, and someone who knows how to prepare it without jeopardizing the vessel.”
“Little felicities,” Amelia sighed.
After what seemed an insufferable amount of time, perhaps another hour, all parties involved decided the moment had arrived for the new Mr. and Mrs. Brinkley to embark on their celebratory floatabout. Once more in the sheltered gazebo, Francine, Margaret, and Calliope helped Amelia out of her wedding gown and into the equally restrictive traveling suit. Then, a final toast, a chorus of cheers, and the newlyweds escaped into the cabin of the Mazarine accompanied by a hail of seeds.
“Well,” Amelia said, flouncing into a chair in the small library, “it may take time to get used to the roll and pitch, but I imagine it would act like the rocking of a cradle. I may sleep better tonight than I have in months.” The import of discussing sleeping arrangements, even facetiously, did not escape her. Her stomach twisted, and she wondered how they would broach the subject in earnest.
The comment seemed to miss Alexander, however, whose attention focused on a piece of telegraph paper he held.
“We’ll have to make a short detour,” he said absently. “I need to speak to the captain.”
“Detour where?” Amelia asked, following him into the narrow hallway.
“The Kettery,” he replied.
“Is everything alright?”
“As far as I know, yes. What can you make of this?” He handed Amelia the telegram.
Colonel Raymond Pell requests the honor of an urgent interview with Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Brinkley at their earliest convenience. Kettery Spire.
“Colonel Pell?” Amelia asked in disbelief. “When did you receive the telegram?”
“Just before we boarded. That article you wrote was about his gala, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied, cursing her skirts and her aching feet as she tried to keep up with her husband. “But one article hardly warrants a congratulatory interview interrupting our honeymoon.”
“Do you know of any other reason he would want to speak with us urgently?” Alexander briefly knocked on the door to the navigation cabin, then entered without waiting for reply from within.
Amelia hesitated at the threshold. “Am I...allowed in there?”
Alexander waved her in. “Of course. You can learn to fly it with me, if you like.”
She made no attempt to hide her excitement as she stepped into the cabin and gazed around. The whole of the rounded front portion of the cabin was made of glass from floor to ceiling and afforded a mesmerizing view of the landscape. All around, levers and dials and knobs glistened and winked in the glowing western daylight. Listening to Alexander’s conversation with the captain, she approached a panel, careful to clasp her hands behind her back like a child told to look but not touch. She couldn’t imagine knowing what each of the devices did or how to orchestrate them to maneuver the ship without causing some catastrophe. Her stomach lurched at the thought. It could also have been a reaction to the ship’s course adjustment toward the city and Kettery Spire.
Alexander introduced Amelia to Captain Fletcher, a man not much older than Alexander himself. He briefly explained some of the fundamentals of flying the dirigible, and encouraged Amelia to help him with a few minor corrections in response to wind fluctuations.
“You’re the reporter who interviewed Merriday, aren’t you?” Fletcher asked. “At Pell’s gala. And you wrote about his death.”
“Yes,” she replied, focusing intently on the wind-speed and direction monitors. She twitched a halfhearted smile. “I did.”
“He’s really dead? I mean, this isn’t some publicity stunt, is it?” Fletcher inquired.
“I’m afraid so. We were given no indication to believe otherwise.”
Fletcher shook his head. “Merriday was a legend. I mean, I started flying because of him. I wanted to be an Argonaut.”
Amelia’s smile returned, somewhat wistful. “I did, too, after the interview. My editor, Mr. McGoffery said I could possibly become a junior Historiographer. If Mr. Brinkley approves, of course.” She glanced over her shoulder at Alexander and winked.
“I have no objection,” he replied, feigning indifference.
“You can see the Spire in the distance,” Fletcher said, pointing at the glimmering structure. “We should arrive in approximately 30 minutes. You’re welcome to stay until we’re docked - this is your vessel, after all.”
Amelia had no desire to return to the confined quarters of the library when she could watch the landscape change, see the smaller communities spring up around the periphery, and pick out the fine lines of the sky trolley tracks that laced the city sky. The trolleys themselves glided like tiny water droplets along the lines, pale orange in the light of the setting sun.
“We have to skirt to the south,” Fletcher said. “We can’t float straight through in-city. People tend to complain.” He turned the massive brass and polished wood wheel, and Amelia’s stomach lurched again. She quickly forgot the sensation, though, when she saw the towers and spires of the university. She leaned over the balustrade at the edge of the glass floor to get a better look as they passed over the campus.
“There it is, I think,” she said, pointing at a roof. “That’s the boarding house where I lived.” She scanned the area for landmarks. “There’s Uni Station, so...yes. That’s it.” She wondered what Miss Kelley was reading. She hadn’t seen her friend at the wedding, and the disappointment stung more acutely than she anticipated. She would have to visit once the journey was over.
“Forgive my curiosity, but I thought you were Society,” Fletcher said. “Why were you living in a boarding house with uni students?”
Amelia groaned inwardly. “My parents were - are, really - less than enthusiastic about my journalistic aspirations. I chose to live in an environment that supported my choices.”
“How bluestocking of you,” Fletcher said.
“But now you are married and your bluestocking days are over.”
Alexander snickered. “Doubtful.”
“My darling husband should know; we have encouraged each other in our waywardnesses since childhood.”
After the university and the boarding house glided below, Amelia focused on the horizon again. The Kettery glittered and flashed from within and without. At least three dirigibles docked around the Spire.
“Kettery Spire, this is the Mazarine requesting a port,” Fletcher said into a radio bell. A tinny voice crackled from another, larger bell beside it. Amelia couldn’t understand a word, but the noises made sense to the captain, and after a complicated dance with levers and pulleys, the dirigible coasted in to a port. A few more levers and the Mazarine’s docking clamps locked in place.
The ship became suddenly and eerily still. Amelia was surprised at how quickly she acclimated to the ship’s movements.
“I don’t know how long this will take,” Amelia said to Fletcher. “I’ve no idea why he wants to see us so urgently in the first place.”
“We can stay docked all night if necessary. We probably don’t want to fly at night along the coast, anyway, with pirates around.” Fletcher leaned back in his grand leather captain’s chair. “We aren’t equipped for warfare.”
Colonel Pell awaited them inside the Spire’s glass terminal. Once the introductions, formalities, and felicitations concluded, the Colonel asked for a private interview with Amelia, wherein he began directly with his business.
“The weeks following Merriday’s death have uncovered some...complications...regarding his will. He may have informed you that he has no children, no immediate family. His legal will on file directed the entirety of his substantial estate to the Argonauts. It seems, however, that on the night of the gala, before he set off for the Amazon, he wrote an amended will, witnessed by his assistants, wherein the Merriday estate is bequeathed to...Miss Amelia Stodge.”
“Me? Impossible! Why would he do that?”
“Believe me, Mrs. Brinkley, we have asked the same question. We were hoping you could provide us with some understanding.”
Amelia attempted to still her spinning thoughts. “I’m afraid I have none to offer. The only interaction I had with Mr. Merriday was during the gala, when I interviewed him. I’d never met him before that night or had any form of communication with him before or after.”
“Forgive me for being quite blunt, but are you aware of any familial connection you may have with him?”
“Familial?” Amelia shook her head in amazement. “None, I can assure you. And to prevent you from becoming even more blunt, as I can imagine where your questions are leading, there was no improper relationship between Mr. Merriday and myself. If you need confirmation of that, you can inquire of Mister Gavin Graves. He was present during the interview. I’m assuming the two gentlemen assisting Mr. Merriday have perished with him?”
“You cannot but understand our suspicions,” Pell continued. “The circumstances surrounding the changing of the will, and Merriday’s untimely death soon after, suggest some form of conspiracy, though we can find no evidence to prove it.”
“You think that I had a part in Mr. Merriday’s death?” Amelia dug her nails into her palms as a distraction from her mounting indignation.
“We have, by necessity, considered and investigated all possible motives,” Pell said, his voice betraying his effort to maintain civility. “Circumstances and the reputation of the Argonauts warrant no less than total certainty in this matter.”
“Colonel,” Amelia began, wondering when the trials of the day would ever end, and making no attempt to soften the edge on her voice, “as I’m sure you are aware, I have had a rather trying day. If it would ease your mind, I will sign the whole of Merriday’s estate to the Argonauts, this very minute if the documents are prepared and to hand. I have no desire to become embroiled in some legal fracas. Indeed, I wonder that you found this matter to be so urgent as to interrupt my honeymoon to discuss it.”
“Again, I apologize for the intrusion. I would have waited until your return if circumstances allowed it. The matter of the estate is only a small part of the matter, however. Included in the will, there is a stipulation that, having named you as his heir, Merriday has passed his title to you as well. You are to take his place in the Argonauts.”
Amelia opened her mouth to speak, then closed it.
The Colonel smiled. “Am I to assume you would like to consider that proviso before you sign the estate back to us?”
She considered. “I should like to consult with my husband before I make that particular decision, if I may.”
“Of course,” the Colonel chuckled. “Only, if you would permit me one indulgence? This business has kept me in the air, literally, for weeks, and I have one more interview at my home tonight. If you and Mr. Brinkley would like to join me, we can discuss the whole matter in more detail there.”
“Why can this not wait until we have returned?”
“The first order of business for the Argonauts, once we have gathered the new team, is to find Merriday’s murderers and exact a modicum of satisfaction. As we have taken some time to sort out the legal ramifications of Merriday’s will, it is in our best interest to act with some haste from this point forward. There is a great deal of preparation involved.”
Amelia considered this information for a moment, then excused herself to confer with her husband.
She found Alexander pacing in the library of the Mazarine. The situation in which she found herself was so ludicrous that she had no idea how to explain it to her husband. Considering, however, the urgent nature, she decided to be as straightforward as possible.
“Merriday left his estate to me. All of it. Including his position in the Argonauts.”
Alexander watched her for several moments.
“Well, say something,” Amelia said. “I don’t know which way to turn.”
“You’re serious,” he said, sitting down. “I thought for a moment that you were joking.”
“No, I’m quite serious.”
“Why would he do that?”
“Believe me, I have no idea. The whole of our interaction occurred during the interview, and he demonstrated no particular interest in me at the time. I mean, aside from being perhaps a little more honest with his answers than I had anticipated. But nothing to suggest that he considered me anything at all, much less his heir!”
“What did you say to the Colonel?”
“I told him I needed to speak to you.” She began pacing the few steps across the library, rubbing her forehead. “I mean, I’m perfectly capable of making the decision for myself, but being an Argonaut would change everything, and I didn’t want to make that kind of decision for you.”
“It seems too important a decision to make immediately,” Alexander said. “But it seems you may have already made up your mind.”
She made a gesture of frustration. “I am far from settled. He asks that we join him at his manor tonight so we can discuss it.”
Alexander sighed and leaned his head against the back of the sofa. “Another detour. He understands that we’re just today married?”
“Yes, but we’re not exactly eager, are we?” She slumped on the sofa beside him.
“I suppose not, but we are exhausted. Can we at least sleep before accepting a massive change in our lives?”
“I will demand a night’s sleep before we discuss anything.” Amelia looked up at the ceiling, noticing for the first time that it was painted like the night sky, with the lines of the constellations drawn in gold paint. “Can you imagine what we would experience? We’ve never left the territory! We wouldn’t be trapped in the manor house navigating dinner parties and monitoring our Social status.”
“Or hiding from curious visitors on grand home tours,” Alexander said.
“Or learning flower arranging or needlework,” Amelia laughed.
Alexander sighed again. “We should probably tell Fletcher to burn the travel plans.”