Midsummer moon, p.37
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       Midsummer Moon, p.37

           Laura Kinsale
 

  "Too late, the man says. We ain't got time."

  Ransom flung himself up the stairs and into the window embrasure. “Peale,” he bellowed. “I'm sending her out. Do you hear me?"

  "Your Grace,” Mr. Peale's thin voice answered, “I'm afraid I have no more time for sentimentality. You may blame yourself—'twas you who called out these troops, was it not? It does put me in a difficult position."

  "Take her! Let her out!"

  "Nay. You have thirteen minutes, I'd estimate, Your Grace. They won't be in time for you, I fear."

  "Wait!” It was a howl. Ransom shoved backward. “That bastard. That bastard.” He started down the stairs to the barrier. Someone yelled from below, and there was a new smell in the air—a trace of smoke. From the spiral staircase came a curl of gray that increased to a billow. She could hear Ransom's grunts turn to coughs as he tugged at the settle.

  "Come up,” she cried. “They've set a fire. We can't get out that way!"

  There was no answer but coughs and scraping wood. Merlin held her breath and dove down the stairs. She groped with her eyes closed and found Ransom's convulsing shoulders. He resisted her for a moment, and then gave way to her pull on his arm, stumbling after her back up the stairs. She threw the door shut and barred it. Smoke swirled at the ceiling and dissipated, while more crept in the crevices around the door.

  Ransom choked and wiped his eyes, his breath rasping. “Rid of us—” he said hoarsely. “Wants to be sure."

  "We'll use the flying machine,” Merlin said.

  His face was a patchwork of black and white now. “Don't be ridiculous.” He began a quick circuit of the room, pulling back the musty tapestries, sweeping books from bookcases. “No more doors,” he said. “Just the stairway up."

  "Yes. The flying machine is up there."

  "Merlin—"

  "It will fly! You saw mine fly, and this one will, too!"

  He went to the window. “Maybe the powder won't blow."

  A crescendo of sound throbbed through the tower, rattling glass, and reverberating in Merlin's bones. Ransom grabbed the casement. “Jesus Christ,” he said.

  Merlin ran up behind him. Through the curtain of dust, she could see the empty courtyard—or rather, two-thirds of the empty courtyard. The other third was gone ... transformed into vacant space. A white scar marked the site where a huge chunk of the peninsula itself had fallen into the sea.

  Ransom coughed weakly. “Blew up the wrong spot. Stupid—"

  Another detonation rocked through the air. Merlin saw it this time; she felt the blast of wind and closed her eyes against the arching cascade of rock and dust. Stone missiles crashed against the tower and fell back in clatters of splintering sound.

  Another stark slash cut into the peninsula, carving out a gap closer to their tower than before.

  "It must be fused along that corridor in the cellars,” Merlin said. “There were four rooms full of kegs."

  "Four.” He took a deep breath. “How close is the nearest?"

  "Underneath us."

  Ransom cleared his throat. “Perhaps we'll try the flying machine."

  "Good.” Merlin clapped her hands. “Come on."

  She raced ahead of him up the stairs and out onto the flat-topped parapet. The Matilda was protected from the strong coastal winds by a sturdy shed, but in her time with Mr. Pemminey, he'd shown Merlin how to ready the machine for flight. She began tearing down the wooden cover, with Ransom helping to toss the boards aside.

  The machine sat perched at the top of the tower, overlooking a ruined gap in the crenellated wall. Merlin unfolded the wings by degrees, locking the joints that were exact replicas of her own into place.

  Ransom hovered near the center of the parapet. “Hurry up,” he said.

  "Oh, yes.” She checked a strut. “I'm hurrying.” She looked up at Mr. Pemminey's wind vane, and saw that the steady onshore breeze was adequately oriented—she wouldn't have to use his gearing mechanism to direct the take-off tracks to another angle. She leaned over the broken section of wall, looking down to check the lubrication on the tracks themselves.

  The steel furrows hung suspended over the water, polished and measured to a fine, smooth fit against the metal wheels that would move in a greased swoop down the sheer drop. The triple tracks descended the full height of the tower, curving up at the end.

  It was a close replica of the tracks she'd used with her skis at Mount Falcon, except Mr. Pemminey and his tower had gravity and height instead of horsepower to provide the initial momentum. It meant his machine could be heavier—had to be heavier—to stay on the tracks and gather speed and lift, and then meet the wind rushing up off the cliff face with forward velocity enough to soar.

  Merlin made a little hop of excitement. “It's ready. How much do you weigh?"

  Ransom licked his lips. “Oh, God, does it make a difference?"

  "There's a range. I'm eight and a half stone."

  "Fourteen,” Ransom said. “Maybe a little more."

  "How much more?"

  "I don't know.” His voice cracked a little. “Three pounds more,” he said quickly.

  "That's all right, then."

  She was about to give him instructions when Ransom yelled, “Get down!” A sheet of sound smashed into her ears, and rock dust cascaded in stinging pinpricks on her cheeks and ears. She coughed and sprang up, checking frantically over the taut canvas wing surface for any damage. It appeared whole.

  "God damn,” Ransom hissed. “We're on an island now."

  "What?” Merlin asked, distracted.

  "Is it ready? Hurry, for heaven's sake."

  "Here, get in. You put your feet here, on this bar, and lie on your stomach. Rest your chest in this netting. It's rather like a cradle, you see. Then buckle the straps."

  He moved over toward her. Merlin motioned, pointing out where to put his feet. He put his hand on a wing strut and stopped, looking down past the ruined wall at the slope of the metal tracks.

  Even beneath the smudges, she saw his face turn white.

  He jerked his hand off the strut and backed up. “I can't,” he said.

  Merlin blinked at him. “Why not?"

  "I just can't.” He was breathing harder. He shook his head. “You go on."

  "And leave you here?"

  He swallowed and shook his head again.

  "But I can't leave you here! Hurry, you have to get on. I'll do the straps for you."

  "No."

  "Don't you think it will fly?” she cried. “It will fly! You'll be blown up if you stay here! Get on!"

  His mouth curved in something not at all like a smile. “I'd rather be blown up."

  "Are you mad? We'll die here!"

  "You go.” He turned his head a little away from the view. “I can't, Merlin. I cannot."

  She marched up to him, and took his cheeks between her hands. “Are you afraid it won't work?” she yelled in his face.

  He made no answer. He was absolutely rigid. Beneath her fingers, she could feel a very faint quiver.

  "Now, you listen to me, Mr. Duke,” she shouted. “I designed this machine, and I went over every inch of it with Mr. Pemminey yesterday. It ... will ... fly! Do you hear me?"

  "Yes! Yes, damn it, fly the thing out of here.” He tore her hands away. He pushed her toward the machine. “You can do it."

  Merlin stared at him. She watched the way he glanced again toward the break in the wall and the tracks almost furtively, saw how his jaw grew taut and his hands clenched.

  He jerked his eyes back to the solid floor at his feet. “Go on,” he yelled.

  Merlin had never seen Ransom terrified before, had never even imagined it was possible. But he was beyond reason now. He admitted her machine would fly, he knew the tower was going to blow up, and yet he stood there, telling her to go by herself and leave him.

  She turned around, looking over her shoulder down the steep swoop of the tracks, at the sheer drop from the cliff and the sea below. She looked back at R
ansom. In a moment of blinding revelation, she knew exactly what vile, manipulative, bullying thing he would do, if he were in her place.

  "Ransom,” she said sharply.

  He slanted a look toward her, one that did not rise past her waist.

  "Do you love me?” she demanded.

  "Merlin.” Her name was a painful rasp in his throat. He looked down at his feet, gripping his sword handle until his knuckles turned white.

  "If you do,” she said coldly, “you'd better get on that machine ... because it won't fly with a smaller load than twenty stone. It will come off the track too soon, before there's enough velocity—it will just blow sideways and fall."

  "Oh, God,” he said with a groan.

  "You have to rescue me,” she added. “I need you."

  He lifted his eyes to hers. For a moment she thought he would realize her ploy, that he was still cleverer and stronger than she—strong enough to see the obvious thing: that there was a container filled with rocks right beside the machine, ready to be fitted into place so the apparatus could be flown by one person alone.

  He looked past her, at the machine and the top of the tracks. His jaw worked. With a sudden shudder, he moved, stepping close to the machine and shoving his boot onto the bar as she'd shown him.

  Merlin threw herself into the other webbed cradle, working at the straps. Ransom finished buckling and twisted his head. “Damn you, Wiz,” he said. “I'll see you in Hell if I die like this."

  "Pull!” she ordered, and looked toward him.

  He wrenched one eye open. “What?"

  "That lever there. I can't reach it. Pull it, and we'll go."

  He lifted his head. She heard him moan as he looked down at the track, but he put his hand around the lever. “Go!” she hissed. “Merlin—"

  Gunpowder detonated. Ransom's body jerked. In a shriek of metallic friction and thunder, the flying machine dropped. Merlin's insides made a wild, exultant swoop. The machine hit the curve with every wire taut to contain the energy of their take-off. With a powerful flex of canvas and steel, it burst into the open air.

  Chapter 24

  They were flying.

  Ransom had his eyes closed. The reason he knew they were flying was because he wasn't dead yet. He could hear the wind and feel the netting under his belly and taste the coppery tinge of terror in his mouth.

  "Look,” Merlin cried over the sound of wind thrumming through the wires. “There are the troops."

  Ransom didn't open his eyes. The flying machine rocked upward on a gust, leaving his stomach in his mouth.

  "And look ... Oh, no—” She sent the machine into a tilt. Ransom gritted his teeth. “Is that Mr. Peale? He's going to get away."

  Ransom felt his body grow heavy on one side, pressing into the netting. His sword handle dug into his ribs. He would have scrabbled for purchase, but his fingers were beyond his control. He opened his eyes and saw the wild angle of the earth beneath them. It was such an insane sight, that dizzy mass of green tilted up against the blue, that he decided to stop worrying. He was doomed. He thought he might as well make the most of the time he had left.

  He squinted against the wind. “Where?"

  The machine tilted the other way, and he realized the band of twisted white ribbon that seemed to rotate in front of him was the coastline, chalk cliffs rising and falling in a line down the shore. He managed to sort out land from sea in his mind.

  "In front of us,” Merlin called over the wind. “I'll go closer."

  The white ribbon grew larger with alarming rapidity. The cliff loomed up, still blowing a haze of pale dust from the last explosion. The peninsula was gone entirely, leaving a blazing scar in the light-colored cliff and a salt-and-pepper wreckage below. Then suddenly they were past the cliff and over the gray-green downs. Ransom stared and squinted at a splash of red in the landscape. He finally realized it was soldiers. The size of them made him feel ill.

  The flying machine was over and past the troops before he had time to think about it.

  "There,” Merlin cried. “See, by that square of rusty color. That must be a plowed field. Do you recognize him?"

  Ransom grunted. The dark speck in the distance with a small puff of white behind might conceivably be a horseman. The pale string that looped over hills and dales was obviously a road. “Never mind,” he shouted. “Put this thing on the ground."

  "I have to decide where!"

  "Decide!"

  "More troops,” she cried. “From the other way. Oh, but they won't catch Mr. Peale, I'm afraid. Not unless they cut off through the fields to go after him."

  "Merlin,” he groaned. “For the love of God, get us down!"

  "There,” she said, sending the machine into another sickening tilt. “We'll land there. I'll go over it once and make sure there aren't any bushes."

  The machine took a sudden dip. Ransom squeezed his eyes closed. Merlin kept up a running commentary on what she was doing. He opened his eyes once in the middle of it and found the ground very close, streaming past in a flood of mottled greens and grays. Suddenly the cliff edge flashed by and water was beneath them. The machine took a leap and a long, long tilt in the air, circling. When Merlin started yelling about how she'd never landed before and how difficult it might be on Mr. Pemminey's wheels, Ransom said his last prayers and quit listening. He buried his face in his sleeve.

  The first impact jolted his arm free. His chin cracked on the strut in front of him. They bounced into the air again, with wind and ground in a confusion around him, then hit once more, skidding up the hillside in a series of rebounds and rattling slides. The machine came to a stop with its front angled into the hill. Ransom's feet were higher than his head.

  He put his face in his arms. “God Almighty,” he muttered. “I will never sin again."

  By the time Merlin struggled out of the straps, Ransom was already free. He grabbed her waist and helped her stand.

  "See,” she said. “It worked! Did you like it?"

  He pushed her away—not roughly, but not very gently, either. “Oh, excessively.” He stepped away, making a great show of dusting off his pants. In a muffled, vicious voice, he added, “All that tilting was marvelous, but I thought the landing was by far the best part."

  He straightened up, looking beyond her. Merlin turned. From one side, the scarlet-coated troops from Eastbourne marched toward them, and from the other came a small cavalcade of horses, with militia in dark-blue uniforms farther behind. Ransom walked away from her, down the hill to meet them.

  Merlin looked at the flying machine. The canvas surface was fluttering dangerously in the breeze, trying to lift. “Ransom!” she shouted.

  He turned.

  "I need help—to hold it down!"

  He looked at her a moment, nodded, and went on. He met the mounted officer who cantered up, and they stood talking. After a moment, the officer gestured, and four men came running toward Merlin. She stationed them at the corners of the wings, and ran down the hill after Ransom.

  She reached him just in time to recognize Shelby in the lead of the group of approaching riders. Ransom was talking to the officer in his usual fashion—making suggestions which sounded like orders. The officer seemed happy to act on them, but Merlin paid little attention to the commands and regroupings of the military. She was busy being enveloped in hugs from Shelby and Jaqueline and Quin and Woodrow and even Blythe, who had come rattling up with Woodrow in a phaeton a little distance behind the others. The militia arrived, mixing with the other troops, and everything was a blur of shouts and color and nervous horses.

  "Miss Lambourne,” someone cried, and Merlin looked around to see Mr. Pemminey half-sliding, half-falling off of Ransom's gray gelding. He handed the reins to a soldier and trotted up to Merlin.

  "Your bandbox.” He shoved it into her hands and turned to gaze ecstatically toward the flying machine. “Tell me, tell me! How did it perform?"

  "Perfectly,” Merlin said. “I'm awfully sorry about your castle."

/>   Mr. Pemminey waved his arms. “Never mind that. Did the wheels work for landing? Did the steering gears function?"

  "Of course,” Merlin said. “The steering was excellent. I think the landing could use some refinement. There's no brake, you know.” She eased the lid off the bandbox and peeked inside. Her hedgehog blinked in the sudden light and rolled up. She put the bandbox in the phaeton, with Mr. Pemminey and Woodrow dogging her steps and asking questions with every breath. Finally they grew impatient, and ran off up the hill to look at the machine.

  The militia and troops had thinned, sent off in pursuit of Mr. Peale and his minions. Merlin saw Ransom rest his hand on his sword and look around. A silence fell in the remaining group when he walked up to his brother.

  Shelby straightened his shoulders, looking belligerent and uneasy and eager all at once. Ransom's white shirt and waistcoat stood out against his brother's dark green frock, making them a striking pair as they stood at the center of attention.

  "I ask your pardon,” Ransom said. “I've wronged you, Shelby. I'm sorry for it."

  Shelby looked at the ground, and back up at Ransom. Before he could speak, Jaqueline took his hand.

  "The duke is not alone,” she said in a clear, carrying voice. “I, too, ask your pardon. For all the times I should have stood with my husband, and not against him."

  "Your husband?” Shelby's words held a faint bitterness.

  "In my heart,” Jaqueline said. “Always."

  Shelby turned her hand over in his, looking down. “Do you mean that?"

  Jaqueline's proud figure seemed to wilt a little. Merlin thought she looked smaller suddenly, like a marble statue of a goddess relaxing into something softer, more human and vulnerable. She looked up at Shelby and nodded without speaking. He took her in his arms.

  Merlin tilted her head in curious interest, wondering if Shelby would kiss Jaqueline the way Ransom kissed her. But Shelby seemed to change his mind at the last moment. He lifted his face with a self-conscious cough, and loosened his hold a little.

  He looked at Ransom. “You know it was Peale, then?"

 

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