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Strange and ever after, p.3
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       Strange and Ever After, p.3

           Susan Dennard
 

  Footsteps sounded in the hall. I balked, and thrust the ivory fist back into my pocket. I would tell Oliver and the Spirit-Hunters about the fist eventually. But there was no need to tell them now—not when we would soon be in Marseille and dealing with Marcus. Whatever this strange artifact was, it could wait.

  Someone cleared his throat, and I found Joseph standing in the doorway, fingers on his bandages.

  I swung my legs off the bunk. “Yes?”

  Joseph’s hand dropped. “I came to offer you my condolences.” His voice was gravelly with exhaustion. “The loss of a mother is something no one should have to endure.”

  “Yet we all must at some point,” I said flatly.

  “True.” He sank into a bow. “Nonetheless, I am sorry, Eleanor. I feel . . .” He lifted, his forehead drawn tight. “I feel as if this is my fault. I could not see what Marcus was becoming all those years ago. I did not stop him until it was too late.”

  Marcus had been Joseph’s childhood friend. They’d both trained their magic with the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. Yet Marcus had turned to a darker power—to necromancy and sacrifice—and all the while, the Voodoo Queen and Joseph had remained oblivious.

  “That was years ago,” I murmured.

  “Yet guilt is the one wound time cannot heal.” Joseph’s fingers moved to a series of scars on his left cheek—gifts from Marcus. “Some days I catch myself missing his friendship. Such a mind—and a sense of humor too. We used to be inseparable. . . . But no one wants to believe their dearest friend is a murderer. Even when the facts are right before you.”

  Then Joseph surprised me—shocked me, really—for he heaved a sigh, and his posture slouched. For the first time since I had met him three months past, the Creole looked lost. And young.

  “I cannot believe he has Jie,” he said, shaking his head. “If you are right—if that hair clasp from Madame Marineaux was the amulet that compelled Jie to join Marcus—then it is one more thing I was too blind to see. One more person I foolishly trusted.”

  My chest tightened with a twinge of anger. Of hurt. And even a twinge of shame.

  “I trusted Madame Marineaux too,” I admitted. “None of us could have known what she really was, Joseph.”

  “No.” His eyes thinned thoughtfully. Then he glanced into the hall and toward the airship’s aft. Toward where Oliver had walked only minutes ago.

  He was thinking that I trusted Oliver. That I did not know what my demon really was . . . and he was right. I trusted Oliver with my life, yet I understood nothing of his desires or motivations. I knew none of my demon’s secrets.

  But I would not speak of that with Joseph. Instead, I shuffled across the room and rested my hand on the doorknob. “Do you know how to stop the compulsion spell on Jie?”

  He shrugged, another movement so out of character. “We must kill the necromancer who cast it. That is the only cure I have ever read.”

  “So we kill Marcus, then?”

  “Wi.”

  “Good.” My lips slid up. “I am glad we agree.”

  For a moment Joseph only watched me. Then a grin spread over his own lips. “I do not think we ever disagreed. Marcus died years ago, and it is time he returned to the realm in which he belongs.” Joseph rapped his knuckles against the door as if deciding this was a good note on which to end our talk . . . but then his eyebrows curved down. “Your friend Miss Wilcox,” he added, leveling me with a stare, “has been sitting in the galley since we departed Paris. I do not know what to do with her, but she must be dealt with before we reach Marseille in an hour.”

  “Miss . . . Wilcox,” I repeated. Even though speaking to her was the last thing I wanted to do, Joseph was right. Allison needed to be out of our way.

  Joseph shifted his weight. “I realize you are upset, Eleanor, but Miss Wilcox has traveled a great distance to see you. Bad tidings or no, do not dismiss such a gesture, non? We have few enough friends in this life, and even fewer true friends.”

  I stayed silent as he drifted into the cabin next door. He was right—yet again—and I knew he was. Nonetheless, the thought of speaking to Allison . . . of discussing Philadelphia or why Allison had come . . .

  It made my insides knot up.

  But with a steeling breath, I forced myself to enter the hall. Each of the doors save one was closed. The galley, I assumed, so I crept to it . . . then poked my head inside.

  On the right was a wall of cabinets, while against the left wall stood a squat, round table with stools tucked below it. The fourth stool was beside the porthole, and Allison Wilcox sat stiffly upon it.

  I gave a low cough, slinking inside. “Allison . . .” I hesitated, for what should I say? At last, though, I managed a pathetic “Would you like something to eat?”

  She did not look away from the porthole. “You,” she said coolly, “are the first person to acknowledge my presence since we left Paris four hours ago. Everyone else pretends I do not exist.”

  “I am . . . sorry?” The apology came out as a question, and to cover the clear lack of pity in my tone, I hurried to the nearest cabinet and swung the door wide. Inside was jug upon jug of water. I moved to the next cabinet, which was filled with lumpy sacks of apples. I withdrew a bruised, red fruit, but when I turned to offer it to Allison, I found her still staring out the window.

  “Two weeks, I traveled,” she said. “Over the ocean and through France, but for what?” She swiveled toward me. “So that you could abandon me immediately.”

  I wet my lips as guilt—always the guilt—wriggled into my lungs. “I did not ask you to board this airship, Allison. Nor did I ask you to cross an ocean.”

  “Oh?” Her eyebrows shot up. “So should I have written a letter about your mother’s death? Your maid—Mary or Marie or whatever her name is—intended to do just that. But I know from personal experience that death is not the sort of news one should drop upon another person.”

  My fingers tightened around the apple. “Is that a comment on my own behavior, Allison? When I told you Elijah killed Clarence, are you implying that I dropped that news on you?”

  “Of course you did!” She shoved to her feet. “You left Philadelphia only moments later—”

  “Because I was being hunted.”

  “I realize! But all the same, I wanted to do what you wouldn’t do for me. Besides, I have nothing left for me in Philadelphia, Eleanor! I thought if I came to France, I could join you. In your travels. We could . . .” She wet her lips, and her shoulders sank. As quickly as her temper had grown, it now deflated. “I thought we could . . . mourn together, Eleanor.”

  “But what of your mother? You should stay with her.” For you never know when she might be gone.

  Allison shook her head. “Mother’s only interest now is in marrying me off.” She leaned expectantly toward me, knowing I related to her predicament.

  “I understand you don’t want to get married,” I admitted, “but the fact is that it makes no difference in the end. You cannot stay with us, Allison. You must return to Philadelphia. There’s no place for you here.”

  “No place for me here,” she said sharply. “Of course there isn’t. You are Eleanor Fitt. You do not want me now, just as you never wanted my company before.”

  “That has nothing to do with it.” I opened my hands, inwardly ordering my temper to stay cool. “The Spirit-Hunters and I almost lost our lives fighting a demon in Paris, Allison. Now we go to Marseille to fight her master. It is not safe.”

  Allison wilted back slightly. “A . . . demon? But I thought you were fleeing that necromancer. What happened to him?”

  “Marcus,” I said softly. I spun around and shuffled to the table to set down the apple. But then my hands felt too empty. I plucked it back up again and stared at the speckled peel. “The necromancer who died . . . and then returned to life. His name is Marcus.”

  “And he is the one who now possesses Elijah’s body,” Allison whispered.

  I nodded. “And he was the reason the Spirit-
Hunters were in Paris. It was his demon we fought. She was sacrificing people to help Marcus build a spell—a compulsion spell that we believe he used to kidnap Jie.”

  Allison’s breath caught. “The Chinese boy?”

  “Chinese girl,” I corrected, looking back to Allison’s face. “Marcus and Jie boarded a train bound for Marseille, so now we intend to ambush him there. And we intend to kill him.”

  “But what if that is precisely what he wants?” Allison gestured south, toward Marseille. “Perhaps he kidnapped Jie just to lure you in.”

  I blinked, surprised Allison would jump to that conclusion so quickly. Of course Joseph, Daniel, and I had thought of that—but we were also intimately familiar with Marcus’s tricks by now. Allison was not. . . .

  Yet her cleverness had always managed to catch me off guard in the past—even after she had proven it time and time again.

  “Marcus might be luring us,” I finally acknowledged. “We did consider that, but since we have this balloon, we can travel much faster than any train. We intend to reach Marseille first and ambush him.”

  “Yet why is he even going to Marseille?” she pressed. “Why kidnap your friend only to carry her south?”

  “He seeks a basilica in the city. One that might have information leading to the . . .” I hesitated. Allison did not need to know of the Black Pullet—a mythical creature of immortality and wealth my brother had once sought. Nor did she need to know of the Old Man in the Pyramids, who was said to be the only person who knew how to summon the Black Pullet.

  And she certainly didn’t need to know we had traveled all this way on mere guesses that the crypt in Marseille’s Notre-Dame de la Garde would have answers leading us to the Old Man.

  So at last I simply said, “He seeks a basilica with information leading to more power. Black magic,” I added with a lift of my eyebrows. “So you must see how dangerous it will be, Allison, and why you cannot join us.”

  “But then where the blazes will I go? I am on this airship—Mr. Boyer allowed me to board—so I am bound for Marseille no matter what.”

  “Perhaps you can find a hotel when we arrive. Or a restaurant.”

  “Oh, so I shall go have lunch? While I wait for you to fight Marcus to the death?”

  “Yes.” I laughed drily. “That is exactly what you must do.”

  For several moments she was silent. Her lips pursed, her gaze darted around the room, and I thought the argument was blessedly over. But then she tipped her head to one side. “So Jie Chen is a girl . . . who dresses like a boy. For safety?”

  I nodded, and Allison settled a disapproving stare on my trousers. “Is that why you do it? Or is your purse so empty you cannot afford a gown? You may borrow one of mine, you know. I have several in my luggage.” She motioned to the rear of the balloon.

  I scowled as shamed heat rushed through me. It infuriated me that Allison could still humiliate me over my family’s poverty.

  “My clothes,” I said through gritted teeth, “have nothing to do with money. I cannot outrun the Dead in skirts and flounce.”

  “Oh?” She clicked her tongue. “And whose clothes are these? Clearly they are not your own since the sleeves and pants are far too long.”

  More heat scorched up my face. I had nothing to be ashamed of, yet my body reacted as if I did. As if Allison’s opinion still mattered. But I forced myself to say in my smoothest tone, “These are Daniel’s clothes.”

  “Ah.” Her eyes widened melodramatically. “Your beau. The ex-convict you have chosen as your suitor. Or”—she jabbed a finger in the air—“is that other fellow your beau? They were both so very desperate to get into your cabin just now. And we all know how men fall at your feet for no apparent reason.”

  My jaw went slack. I knew she blamed me, at least partially, for her older brother’s death. If Clarence had not been courting me, he might never have walked into Elijah’s trap . . . and he might never have died.

  But I had never loved Clarence, and Clarence had never loved me. He had courted me to make our mothers happy and to bribe me. His family had criminal connections; I knew about them; he had not wanted me to blab.

  Yet Allison knew none of this. All she saw was someone who had chosen a ruffian over her older brother.

  Yes, she blamed me for Clarence’s death . . . and I supposed, deep down, I did too.

  Still, no matter how much I understood her feelings—and perhaps even appreciated all she’d recently done for me—I could no longer keep the edge off my words. “His name is Oliver, and he is not my beau.”

  “Oliver what?” she demanded.

  I flung my gaze around the room for inspiration. I could hardly say that Oliver was a demon—and especially not that he was my demon. My eyes landed on the apple still clutched in my fingers. “McIntosh,” I said gruffly. Then more firmly. “His name is Oliver McIntosh, and he is nothing more than a good friend.”

  “Oh?” Allison pushed out her chin. “Then why have I never seen him before? I know no McIntosh families in Philadelphia.”

  I squeezed the apple until my fingernails cut through the flesh. Until juice trickled out. “I met Oliver on my way to France. He helped me out of several dire situations.” I left it at that.

  “And now he is a part of your team?” Allison pretended to examine her gloves. “Mr. McIntosh helped you, and now he gets to stay with you?”

  “Something like that.”

  A smug pucker settled on her lips.

  “No, Allison.” I shook my head frantically. “That does not mean you can join me too.”

  “Why not? After Marseille, then I can become a part of this little team as well.”

  “No.” I set the apple on the table and wiped my hands on my pants. “You do not even like us. You do not know what we do. If you want a change, then visit Rome. Or London. But do not pester the Spirit-Hunters.”

  She planted a hand on her hip. “I was under the impression that Mr. Boyer was the leader.”

  “Allison, you cannot join us. When we reach Marseille, you will separate from us, and that is the end of this discussion.” Her mouth opened to argue, so I powered on. “You have no reason to be here! I did not ask you to come to Paris! I did not ask you to tell me of my mother’s death. And I most certainly did not ask you to board this airship. I. Do. Not want you here. What is so hard for you to understand about that?”

  My final words rang out, echoing above the airship’s creak. Allison’s face paled. For several long breaths she simply stared at me. Then her eyelids lowered icily, and she said, “Of course you do not want my company—just as I suspected all along. Forgive me, Eleanor, for hoping otherwise.” Her chin tipped up, and she whirled around to return to her stool.

  And my mouth bounced open. I had not intended to say that—at least not so cruelly. Yes, I wanted her to go away, but I had been better raised than this. My manners had failed me, and even if she was a girl I had grown up loathing, I appreciated what she had done.

  But it was too late to withdraw my words. Allison was seated once more, her gaze latched on to the grassy patchworks outside and her posture unyielding.

  I turned and dragged my feet to the door . . . then into the hall. And as I returned to my cabin, Oliver’s words shrieked in my mind, over and over again.

  You will push everyone away. Just like he did, you will lose us all.

  CHAPTER THREE

  I was shaking by the time I reached my cabin. I had lost my hard-earned balance, and though I squeezed the ivory fist in a death grip, it did not soothe me.

  I didn’t want to push everyone away. I wanted to be alone, yes, but not forever. It isn’t your fault, I told myself. It is Oliver who pushes your friends away. Yet Joseph was still my friend—and Daniel had regained his regard for me once more.

  Shoving the fist into my pocket, I marched from my room to the pilothouse. I would prove this was Oliver’s doing and not my own.

  But I paused in the pilothouse doorway, blinded by the onslaught of light a
nd squinting as I waited for my eyes to adjust. Daniel stood at the steering wheel, its multiple spokes reaching up to his chest. At his right were two brass handles, waist high and fastened to some unseen mechanism below the floor. At his left were two more levers, and as my vision finally cleared, I watched him shift both levers forward and then spin the steering wheel sharply right.

  The balloon swayed slightly and then shifted its course, heading south . . . and revealing the dark-blue waters of the Mediterranean.

  For half a breath I simply stared—finally feeling a sense of wonder twine through me. I was seeing the Mediterranean. From above. I was flying.

  “For every beauty,” I murmured beneath my breath, “there is an eye somewhere to see it.”

  Daniel stiffened . . . and then turned very slowly toward me. Clack, clack, clack. He extended a worn, dented spyglass. Then thwump! He snapped it shut. “How are you?” His voice was rough, as if he hadn’t spoken in hours.

  “All right,” I lied. He nodded, but I could tell from the flick of his eyebrows that he didn’t believe me.

  I moved fully into the room and craned my neck to examine the view outside. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. Such blue waters and craggy cliffs. A few scrubby plants eked out an existence in the dry landscape, and though there were still farms, the patches of green were localized and small. Most of this Provençal world was one of dusty hills, dustier roads, and bleached-out houses—and no wonder, with such a hot, bright sun.

  And it was doubly hot and bright in the pilothouse thanks to all the windows. A sheen of sweat covered Daniel’s forehead.

  I shifted my gaze to the back of the room, to where charts and maps covered two low tables. Above, hanging on hooks, were white satchels with leather straps.

  “What are those?” I asked, pointing at the packs.

  Daniel made an apologetic smile. “It’s a bit late now—I should’ve told you about ’em before we left Paris, but then . . . you know. . . .” He trailed off, clearly wishing to avoid mention of Mama’s death.

 
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