Authors: Clay Griffith,Susan Griffith
She gasped. It had never occurred to her that all the geomancy practice with Mamoru was altering her. She was turning into a reservoir of pain for Gareth.
In her training, Adele had experienced the sublime and the miraculous, a powerful sense of nurturing unlike anything she had ever known, comparable to vaguely held memories of her mother's arms. Her journeys were sometimes confusing or frightening, but she always returned invigorated, almost vibrating with life, as if her skin didn't just enclose her body, but rather was touched by everything she could imagine.
Now, in one succinct instant, the void between her and Gareth yawned inseparably wide. Again, it hit home that they were different species. There was nothing they shared. What nurtured one, killed the other.
Her heart fell.
Gareth said, “I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you. It obviously means so much to you. When you go home and become empress, I will return to the north. You will be free to become what you should.”
“I don't want to continue if it's driving you away.”
“We will stay in contact.”
“No!” Adele shouted. “We won't part again like this. I will find a way. If I have to suspend my studies, I will.”
“No, Adele. Don't stop—”
“I'll do what I wish. My days of being told what to do are finished. If I want to give up my studies, I will. Or I'll only practice when you are away in the north. But you will not disappear again.” She lifted a stern hand, bristling with conviction, cutting off any retort from him. “I don't care what you think. I don't care what anyone thinks. I don't care if I turn into a feeble old woman and you're still young. I will have you with me! Is that clear?”
“Yes.” He regarded her. Every day she became more empress than young woman. He drew a haggard smile. She was too magnificent to deny.
“Good.” Adele nodded curtly, her anger swiftly subsiding with relief that he agreed. “You know, this noble, anguished hero routine of yours goes only so far. Now, we are departing on
in two days. I'll suspend my meditation and exercises so hopefully you can bear to be in my presence by then. It may be a moot point because the Equatorian army could destroy us before we enter Alexandrian air.”
“Do they know you are coming?”
“They will. I'm cabling the sublime Kelvin Pasha to inform him of our arrival time. We have a few other contacts who will ensure that the city is aware.”
“Princess Adele and the Greyfriar return.”
HE PREVAILING NORTHERLIES
off the Mediterranean forced
to take valuable time tacking repeatedly as she approached Alexandria from the south. Captain Hariri crossed the quarterdeck to Adele and Greyfriar. “Three Equatorian frigates moving to intercept.”
“Where?” Adele studied the skies around her with a spyglass. The air was crowded with vessels of both commerce and war, but she couldn't discern any immediate threat.
The captain pointed at three ships out of the scores filling the sky, at varying distances and directions.
“Can we avoid them?” Greyfriar asked, his scarf blowing in the wind. He moved vigorously with no trace of weakness. All his burns were healed.
“Not all of them. And even if I could, there will be others. Even hidebound imperial captains can manage to rule the air over Alexandria through sheer numbers. They'll have us hemmed in before we can reach Pharos One.”
“Good thing we're not going to Pharos One,” Adele said.
Hariri glanced questioningly at the princess. Greyfriar had been with her too long to show surprise.
She faced the captain. “I should like to put down on the north shore of Lake Mareotis, if you can.”
“There are no mooring towers in the Limehouse district, ma'am.”
“Yes, I know. I won't need to stay long. We'll be going over the side on drop lines. Can you do it?”
The captain shrugged. “I can.”
“Excellent. Thank you. We are ready when you are.”
Hariri returned to the binnacle to plot a course and issue orders for a ground-anchored stop in an inhabited area. Adele stood at the rail, watching the yellow desert intermingle with the blue-white sparkling Nile delta and then blur into the grey, sprawling city of Alexandria. Through the haze, she could see the dim silhouette of Victoria Palace on the coast. Her breath sharpened at the sight of so many familiar old places. But they seemed different to her, almost mysterious, as if she were a visitor unsure of her reception in this strange city. This was a different home from the one she had left. No matter what happened today, this city, that palace, would never be what they had been to her as a young girl. Those days were gone forever.
Greyfriar said, “Would you care to share your plans? Why set down so far from your palace?”
“I intend to walk.”
“Walk? Across Alexandria?”
“Yes. I should like the people to know that their princess has returned.”
“Your Lord Kelvin will find that quite antagonistic.”
“Oh, that ship has sailed long ago. I can't trust the army. I don't trust the lords. But I do trust the people.”
“The people are a touchy weapon. They're powerful, sure, but likely to go off at the wrong time.”
“I've got little else. I spent time among them, and I realize that they love me. Or at least they love the idea of me. Plus, I've brought my secret weapon.”
“Yes.” Adele smiled and patted his chest. “One thing I know is that the people love a happy ending. And we're going to give them one.” Enough time had passed since Adele last trained that her touch no longer caused him pain. That simple fact sang in her heart.
“So dangerous, Adele.”
“All hands brace for descent!” the bosun shouted, and a claxon rang across the ship.
Adele assumed a wide stance and grasped the rail. “I'd say in twenty-four hours you will either be the consort of Empress Adele the First, or we'll all be dead.”
“Both have their challenges,” Greyfriar replied wryly.
She laughed over the roar of venting buoyants overhead as poor, repaired
fell rapidly. The wooden hull creaked with the strain, and boards shuddered. The dusty air rushed upward, and shining Lake Mareotis appeared. As they plunged, they drifted north, and the buildings of Alexandria rose into view. Captain Hariri grinned with excitement and shouted a command; chemical pumps pushed buoyant back into certain bags, and
slowed its descent. The yards and deck were full of scrambling men securing sail and sending drop lines and anchors over the side.
“Your Highness,” Hariri shouted as chaos flowed around him. “We can moor temporarily to a building if necessary. How long do you need us here?”
“Not long, I should think.” Adele already saw Colonel Anhalt leading his men up from the companionway onto the deck. Their tramping feet filled her with excitement, but she beamed at the sight of Anhalt and troopers in their red jackets with blue trousers and white helmets. They were the White Guard once again.
Colonel Anhalt came to attention before Adele and saluted. His cool façade couldn't hide the pride he felt commanding his White Guard. “Ready to proceed, Your Highness.”
“Carry on, Colonel. Form ranks below and await my orders.”
“As you will.” He spun sharply and bellowed, “Over the side! Form square and hold!” The colonel seized a drop lever with a gloved hand and swung over without hesitation.
From the corner of her eye, Adele saw Mamoru crossing the deck. The wind whipped his green silk robe, and he clutched the cutlass thrust inside the obi around his waist. He bowed to her, then glanced over the side with an uncertain tremor.
“Hm,” he said. “Quite high.”
“You should stay with the ship,” Adele said. “If this goes badly, there's no reason for you to be injured by it. You can return to Java and teach.”
The samurai shook his head. “There is no one else to teach. I shall stay with you. I know what you hope to do, but I remind you, there are many secret paths into the palace.”
“Secrecy doesn't accomplish my goals. The Empire must witness me take power. Have you ever used a drop line from an airship?”
“Of course not. I'm not insane.” Mamoru held up his hands, which were wrapped in thick oilcloth. “But I can learn as well as teach. Wish me luck.” He took hold of a thick cable and climbed over the rail. With one more furtive gaze at the street far below, he took a deep breath and started down.
Adele held up her hand to the quarterdeck. “Captain! I thank you and your crew. Once I'm away, make for the rendezvous point and await my orders.”
Hariri touched head, mouth, and heart, and many of the crew joined his salute with shouts of “Good luck!” or
The grinning young telegrapher called out his well wishes in broken Swahili.
Adele dropped her cloak to reveal her new clothes designed for her return home. The best Katangan tailors had provided her with a long, heavy silk skirt of shimmering pearl, and a short jacket of light violet, all designed to draw the eye whether she was standing near the scarletcoated White Guard or the grey shades of Greyfriar. Simple and functional, but elegant—the image that Adele wanted to portray.
The princess looked over the side. Mamoru was nearly down, and several guardsmen held his line taut. The redcoats had formed a square on the street, and a crowd was gathering, watching the soldiers, pointing up at the ship. From her vantage point Adele could see lines of people meandering in their direction through the narrow streets.
Alexandria was a small town masquerading as a metropolis. Word still spread rapidly through the districts. Adele and Anhalt had used all their contacts to alert the city that the princess was returning. They had picked this very day, giving themselves time for delay on the route from Katanga. They'd actually made such good time they spent several days circling in the desert so they could meet their prophesied arrival, allowing the news to expand throughout the streets. Hopefully the city was primed for her appearance, and this strange airship disgorging imperial soldiers, which surely some recognized were dressed in the colors of Adele's household guard, would light a wildfire of rumor.
As she placed a foot on the rail, Greyfriar said, “Adele, please. If I may.” He took a line in one hand and reached out the other to her. “If you wish to make a real entrance.”
The princess eagerly looped her arms around his shoulders. He swung madly over the side into the open air, and she laughed. He lightened his frame so that he was virtually gliding down, one hand holding the cable and one arm tight around Adele's waist. His cloak cracked like a whip in the wind.
“Not too fast,” Adele shouted into his ear as she clutched her skirt with her free hand, wondering about the wisdom of a dress on an air drop. “Let them see us.”
Greyfriar tightened his grip on the line and slowed their descent. He spun slowly so that all gathered below could witness the glorious appearing. Even the White Guard stared while Anhalt and Mamoru seized her cable and held it firm. Thousands of faces peered up from the street. Hundreds more showed at every window and doorway. Even rooftops swelled with people.
Finally—after a long, wind-blasted, fifty-foot drop—Greyfriar's boots touched firm earth. Adele stepped to the cobblestones as cool and calm as if she were descending from a carriage of state. The crowd exploded in a frenzy of adoration, screaming her name.
Adele glided away from Greyfriar with a long, lingering touch and moved toward the crowd despite Colonel Anhalt's expression of dismay. The Gurkha followed several steps behind, signaling with his hands for the White Guard to stand ready. The princess paused just yards from the tide of exultant people. Resting her hand on the hilt of her dagger, she surveyed the crowd. Then her hand rose, and they began to quiet, even shushing others around them. The hush moved like a wave through the mob until finally the street was eerily silent.
Adele called out boldly, “Will you follow me?”
The crowd erupted again in a blast that shook the buildings. Adele threw up her arms, knowing there would be no silence again. “Then follow me!” she shouted as she started into the body of the mob, carried by her own power. Anhalt rushed his men up to surround her and protect her from rough, loving hands.
Greyfriar vaulted over locals and soldiers to reach her side, but he remained a few feet behind her; this was her moment. She was controlling this herd in a way he couldn't conceive. She exuded authority and power. He had sensed it in her long ago, but here it was played large.
The giant, living wave surged north through the city. Streams of people engorged the dark alleys and streets, and great torrents of them rolled up the tree-lined avenues, flowing around benches, fences, and lampposts. Trams stopped in their tracks along with wagons, cabs, and omnibuses frozen by the flow of humanity.
Adele felt her people around her in a way she never had. Men, women, and children. Brown, black, white. Arab. African. European. Asian. Rich, poor, working class. The Empire was afoot, chanting her name, growing in size and voice with each block. She sensed both their uncertainty and their desire. They so badly wanted to believe that the mere presence of the head of the Royal House would ensure the safety of the city from further vampire attacks. Adele was the force to make it happen. All their hopes and fears were poured into the young princess. Only she had the power to make it real. This was a day when life would change and all their woes would vanish. And they were playing their part, propelling the young princess to her place as their savior. The White Guard maintained a protective square, but the crowd closest to Adele had assumed the role of escorts too. They felt as if they were part of her entourage and worked jealously to keep the princess's path clear.
As the crowd passed the Soma, the crossroads of the city, every window was filled with people. Flags waved high overhead along with handkerchiefs or towels or sheets—anything people could use to express their joy and excitement.
The horde plunged north into the Turkish Quarter, where the wide avenues vanished into the alleys and warrens of Old Alexandria. Then the mob snaked out of the Turkish Quarter and streamed into the Imperial Quarter, where Victoria Palace waited. The crowd began to fill Victoria Square and pile up against the wall that protected the palace grounds.
Finally, Adele approached the palace for the first time since she had fled her home. Her father was no longer there and her brother was likely secluded in some windowless chamber surrounded by soldiers. Surly men patrolled the wall and crouched on the corner posts, where machine guns were now mounted. Warships overhead cast their dreadful shadows. Her beautiful home had become an armed camp.
Adele's guard muscled its way through the mob until the main gate of the palace walls towered above her. Inside that ornate iron barrier, which was closed and locked, waited a line of grim-faced Home Guard, their rifles clutched against their chests. Citizens swarmed to the outside of the gate, screaming at the soldiers to open it for the princess, all the while chanting, “Adele! Adele!”
A thin, lanky Home Guard officer peered out of the iron rails. He was a handsome young man with a stern face, olive skin, and Persian features. He seemed too young to be a general. He gave Adele a curt nod before turning his worried eyes to the earthquake of humanity around her.
“This mob,” he said in a low voice, “is a public menace. It must disperse.”
“Are you General Eskandari?”
“I am, Your Highne—ma'am.”
“May I enter my home?”